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“The Underwriting” caught our attention both for its sexy, corporate thriller plot and innovative method of distribution. As an e-series, the novel will be released in 12 installments, giving readers access to a new episode every week, which they can read for free on Wednesdays or at a later date for purchase. Akin to online video series like Creative Live, the project’s distribution method is designed to make the novel more accessible and interactive for the modern reader. Mirroring its distribution style, the storyline of “The Underwriting” focus on the changing ways in which we connect and communicate within the growing nexus of sex and technology. It is this focus on innovative methods of design, delivery, and technology in relationship to sex and sexuality that is at the core of Minna Life. We are thrilled to be one of the sponsors of this project and can’t wait to start reading.
The author, Michelle Miller, took some time to answer our questions, touching on plot choices, the e-series method, and how she connects with the characters of The Underwriting.
1. What made you choose to create a serialized e-series as opposed to a more traditional book?
For me, art is as much about the experience of a work as the work itself. The Underwriting is all about the lives of urban professionals in their 20s and 30s, living in a busy, tech and social media-heavy world. To put that story into a 300-page novel that readers experienced in a single medium setting, alone, didn’t feel authentic to the work or the world I wanted to convey. It’s nothing at all against traditional publishing – my books are my very favorite possessions – I just felt that to be true to this story, it had to be delivered in a new and different way.
As for the E-Series model, I tried to create what I wish I’d had when I was working in the corporate world. I sat 16 hours a day behind a computer screen, a lot of which was spent killing time reading blogs: the last thing I wanted to do when I got home from work was sit by myself and read a book, even though I really missed reading fiction (and was embarrassed that I read about one book a year). I thought by delivering shorter, smart-but-not-too-heavy segments of a continuous story online readers could get their fiction fix during the work day. By making them a weekly event, I hoped it also gave something to look forward to and encouraged people to read it at the same time and discuss – like a modern day book club in the Analyst Pod.
2. What inspired the storyline?
I’ve worked both in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, and I found the relationship between the two communities really interesting: both are full of ambitious, over-achieving people who confront the temptations that come with power – greed, excess, inflated self-importance – but do it in very different ways, and each coast has an absolute superiority complex over the other. I didn’t feel like anyone had ever really captured that dynamic, or delved into the fact that Wall Street is not as sexy and conniving as most stories make it out to be, and Silicon Valley not nearly so pure and well-intentioned. I also felt there was a gap in representation of the Gen Y/Millennial context – I wanted to capture the viewpoint of what it’s like to be a 20- or 30-something in the modern world, where the financial crisis has blockaded the planned path, where peers become billionaires overnight, where relationships happen later in life and often via technology, and where juice cleanses, 100 hour work weeks, drunken one-night stands, and 2,000 Facebook friend communities aren’t anything unusual.
The Underwriting follows the events of a NY Investment Bank underwriting the IPO of a Silicon Valley-based dating app company, via the perspectives of six 25-32 year old characters involved in the deal, so it really gave me the chance to delve into all those matters, hopefully in an entertaining way!
3. Do you think there are parallels between your approach to creating The Underwriting (a new perspective on books) and some of the changes in lifestyle norms and cultural mores embodied by your characters?
I hope so!! Every business decision in this project was made according to what I think is representative of the world I was trying to create artistically. It’s funded with VC investors; it’s delivered through a “disruptive” model; it’s online and mobile; it relies heavily on social media marketing; all my partners came from within my social network.
I hope the result is that, when people look at the project from a business perspective, they have a sense of optimism about the new world order. I think it’s very easy to have an apocalyptic attitude about the direction society is headed, but I think that’s a very myopic view. As much as the story calls attention to the underbelly of modern urban life, I think the project as a whole draws notice to what’s possible within it and the fact that we do – today, right now, as 20- and 30-year olds – have an unprecedented ability to create different and better business, systems, and cultural norms.
The Underwriting’s brand partners were critical to expressing this view: I exclusively picked companies that I think represent the best of this generation’s potential. All our partners have founders who saw problems within existing industries; rather than getting cynical about things, they looked for viable solutions and created thoughtful business models that place real value on treating consumers and employees well. That, to me, is the innovation that really matters, and the legacy the incoming generation of business leaders has the capacity to create.
4. Do you identify with any of the characters in particular?
I honestly identify with all the characters in The Underwriting. As despicable as some of their actions are, I understand why they behave the way they do, and genuinely feel for their internal conflicts. It was really important to me to have and convey equal empathy for each of them. And it wasn’t at all easy. As a single, 29-year-old woman, I could easily understand and forgive Tara’s bad habits. Nick, on the other hand….I literally spent three days walking around London working out my relationship with him – trying to understand what led him to his actions, and putting myself again and again and again in his shoes until I finally, genuinely, understood and cared for him. When you spend so much time with your characters, they really do become the family members you don’t necessarily like but would do anything for. On a personal level, I think that’s the most rewarding thing as a writer: to have an excuse – an obligation – to see the world through others’ eyes and experience what it’s like to understand and appreciate differences.
5. What made you want to work with Minna Life on this project?
When one of my d.school professors told me about Minna in 2010, I was immediately taken by the concept. Even as a generally-willing-to-talk-about-anything person, “Sex toys” was a category that made me squeamish, and I loved that Minna was part of the trend to make it less so. I did some freelance work for the company over the summer, and felt first-hand the tension between public naysayers who called the industry crass and the behind-the-scenes focus groups that confessed how much products like Ola improved their health, their sense of well-being, and their relationships. Minna, to me, isn’t just creating better products, they’re helping to reduce that tension and clean up an industry that’s become unnecessarily polarized. And they do it by ignoring the noise and staying flawlessly focused on their user: What does she want (a non-intimidating experience); what does she need (body-safe materials); what does she desire (the best possible technology); what would she have if she could have everything (a product she could use with her partner). Their products speak for themselves, and are exactly the kind of innovation I wanted to represent in The Underwriting: user-focused companies that see beyond the status quo to create better products, cleaner businesses, and less frustrated industries.
About Michelle: A native of Asheville, North Carolina, Michelle Miller started writing fiction during her second year in business school, and remains forever indebted to the Stanford freshmen who let her crash their seminars. Prior to this project, Michelle worked in the Palo Alto and Greenwich offices of JP Morgan’s Private Bank, and as a management consultant in New York and Europe. During her corporate career, Michelle wrote anonymously, including the Young Adult series Social Code & The Next Big Thing by Sadie Hayes, and various essays scattered around the Internet. She holds a B.A. and M.B.A. from Stanford University, and currently lives in Manhattan.