The telephone rang.
If it’s good news, there’s going to be a lot of people on the call, Dave had told me. Bad news, it’ll just be one person from the studio, the executive in charge of the project. I lifted the phone to my ear, feeling like the air had gained weight and my arm was moving through something with the consistency of tar. My heartbeat hammered in my ears. My jeans and T-shirt felt too small, the sunshine in my bedroom stabbed at my eyes, and the atmosphere felt thin, as if I was working harder than I normally did to pull oxygen into my lungs. Please, God, I thought—me, the girl who hadn’t been in a synagogue since my grandma and I had left Massachusetts, who’d barely remembered to fast last Yom Kippur. But still. I was a woman who’d lost her parents, who’d survived a dozen surgeries and emerged with metal implants in my jaw, the right side of my face sunken and scarred, and an eye that drooped. In my twenty-eight years, I hadn’t gotten much. I deserved this.
“Hold for Lisa Stark, please!” came Lisa’s assistant’s singsong. My breath rushed out of me. Lisa was my executive at the studio. If she was the only one on the call, then this was the end of the road: the pass, the thanks-but-no-thanks. The no. I pushed my hair—lank, brown, unwashed for the last three days—behind my ears and sat on my bed. I would keep my dignity intact. I would not cry until the call was over.
I had told myself to expect bad news; told myself, a thousand times, that the numbers were not in my favor. Each year, the network ordered hundreds of potential new programs, giving writers the thumbs-up and the money to go off and write a pilot script. Of those hundreds of scripts, anywhere from two to three dozen would actually be filmed, and of those, only a handful—maybe four, maybe six, maybe as many as ten—would get ordered to series. My sitcom, The Next Best Thing, loosely based on my own life with my grandmother, had made the first cut three months ago. I’d quit my job as an assistant at Two Daves Productions in order to work full-time on the script, progressing through the steps from a single-sentence pitch—a college graduate who’s been laid off and her grandmother who’s been dumped move to an upscale assisted-living facility in Miami, where the girl tries to make it as a chef and the grandmother tries to live without a boyfriend—to a paragraph-long pilot summary, then a beat sheet detailing each scene, then a twelve-page outline, and, finally, a forty-page script.
For months I’d been writing, holed up in my bedroom, or carrying my computer to a neighborhood coffee shop, where I was surrounded by my more attractive peers, the ones who carried on long, loud telephone conversations in which they used the words my agent as often as possible, and did everything but prop tip cups and WRITER AT WORK signs in front of their laptops. I wrote draft after draft, turning each one over to the studio that had funded my efforts and to the network that would, I hoped, eventually air them. I considered each round of notes; I cut and edited, rewrote and rewrote again. I pored over books for expectant parents to give my characters just the right names, and spent days in the kitchens of local restaurants so I could nail the details of my heroine’s job.
Two weeks ago I’d delivered the absolutely, positively final final draft. I’d brushed my lips against every single one of the pages, kissing each one lightly before I slid the script into the hole-puncher, then slipped the brass brads through the holes and pushed them shut. To celebrate, I’d taken Grandma out to lunch at the Ivy, at her insistence. My grandmother, a petite and stylish woman of a certain age, was a great fan of the tabloids. Any restaurant where the paparazzi were a regular presence on the sidewalk was a place she wanted to be.
When we walked up to the stand, the maître d’ looked at me—in a plain black cotton shift dress and five-year-old zippered leather boots, with my laptop tucked under my arm—and gave a small but discernible shrug. My grandmother stepped toward him, smiling. If I dressed to maximize comfort and minimize attention, in shades of black and gray and blue, with a single necklace and sensible shoes, my grandmother had style enough for the both of us. That day she wore a black-and-white linen dress with a black patent-leather belt and black canvas espadrilles with bows that tied at her ankles. Her necklace was made of vintage Bakelite beads in poppy red, and she had a matching red patent-leather clutch in her hand and a red silk flower tucked behind one ear.
“How are you today?” she asked.
“Fine.” The host’s eyes lingered on her face as he tried to figure out if she was someone he should know, a screen star of yesteryear or one of the Real Housewives’ mothers. “This is my granddaughter,” said Grandma, and gave me a brisk poke in the small of my back. I stumbled obediently toward the podium with a can-you-believe-her look on my face, wishing I’d worn a necklace or a flower, or had thought to carry a pretty purse, or to have purchased one in the first place. “Ruthie is a writer.” The man behind the podium could barely suppress his wince. Writer, of course, was not the magic word that would cause him to usher us to the finest table in the restaurant and send over a bottle of free Champagne. Maybe writing for TV was a big deal elsewhere in America. In Hollywood, it meant less than nothing. Television writers were as common as cat dirt, and anyone with a working laptop and a version of Final Draft on her hard drive could claim to be one. You could almost see the word nobodies in a balloon floating above the man’s neatly barbered head as he led us to a table so far in the back it was practically in the kitchen. “Ladies,” he said.
Grandma paused and rested her hand on the man’s forearm. She tilted her face up toward his, batted her eyelashes, and gave him her gentle smile. “Would it be possible for us to have a booth? Or a table with a little more light?” Even at her age—seventy-six, although she’d have shot me if I’d said it out loud—her skin was still smooth, her eyes still bright, face vivid with rouge and lipstick, eyeliner and curling false lashes. Her waist was still slim, and her teeth were all her own. “We’re celebrating.”
He smiled back—it is, I have learned over the years, almost impossible to resist my grandma’s smile—and led us to a booth halfway between the open front porch lined with white umbrellas, where the stars would pose and preen for the cameras, and the dim back room, where the nobodies were sequestered. We shared pasta and a chopped salad, had a glass of wine apiece, and split tiramisu for dessert. As we ate, Grandma told me stories from the set of OR, the medical drama where she’d been working as an extra that week. “The kids they bring in,” she complained, running the edge of her spoon along the ridge of whipped cream that topped the tiramisu. “They’re out partying all night, so by the time they get in their gurneys, they’re exhausted. One of the ADs has to run around set five minutes before every take just making sure they’re not sleeping.”
“Tough gig,” I said. Grandma herself was spending eight hours a day sitting in the fake OR’s fake waiting room. Every day, from ten in the morning until six o’clock at night, with union-mandated breaks for lunch and snacks, she’d get paid to do what she might have done for free on a normal day—sit in an uncomfortable plastic chair with a tote bag of knitting in her lap, looking somewhere between bored and worried as she waited for her name to be called.
“You have to respect them,” she said, nibbling at the strawberry that sat on the side of the dessert plate. “Finding a way to get paid for sleeping. That’s initiative.”
“Nice work if you can get it,” I said, and flagged down our waiter, and paid the bill. Then Grandma had gone back to the Radford lot in the Valley, a neighborhood ten miles away from and ten degrees hotter than Hollywood, where a number of television shows and movies were shot, and I drove back to Hancock Park, a pretty neighborhood with spacious sidewalks and green lawns, to our apartment in a Spanish-style building called the Moroccan, to wait.
The network had started picking up its comedies a week after our lunch. I’d spent my days with my phone in my hand, from the moment I opened my eyes to the moment I closed them. I would perch the phone on the edge of the sink while I showered or brushed my teeth, and sleep with it plugged in underneath my pillow. My thumb was permanently hovering over the keypad, hitting “Refresh” on Deadline Hollywood and L.A. Confidential and all of the websites that covered the industry. I’d quit going to the gym after I realized how much I was annoying my fellow swimmers by pausing at the end of each lap to check my phone, which I’d stowed in a waterproof plastic Ziploc bag and left by the deep end. I was too nervous to sit through a meal, but I was snacking constantly, eating bags of pretzels and dehydrated carrot chips and Pirate’s Booty and sunflower seeds that I didn’t really want, and ignoring my boyfriend Gary’s phone calls, because there was, we’d learned, nothing he could say or do that would possibly calm me down.
Now here was my news, I thought, waiting for Lisa to get on the line, and the news wasn’t good. Oh, well. At least I’d be disappointed in private. After I’d made the mistake of telling Grandma that I should be hearing something this week, she’d announced her intention of giving me my space. “You don’t need an old woman breathing down your neck,” she’d said, all the while hovering within five feet of my person, dressed in her at-home attire of lounging pajamas or a brilliantly embroidered silk robe, her slippered feet noiseless on the wooden floors as she found one task after another to keep her busy, and nearby. So far she’d polished the silver, rearranged the china, emptied, scrubbed, bleached, and refilled the kitchen cupboards and the refrigerator, and regrouted the powder-room tile. That morning while we drank the smoothies she’d made of pineapple and mango and Greek yogurt, she’d announced her plans to rent a steamer and replace the dining-room wallpaper, even though I’d begged her to leave that job to the professionals.
“Nu?” she’d ask casually, just once every night, as she served dinner to me and Maurice, her gentleman caller. As usual, her nerves were made manifest in the reemergence of her Boston accent and in her cooking. On Friday, when the first wave of pickups was announced, she’d prepared a standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, potatoes au gratin, and homemade horseradish sauce. On Saturday, she’d served a breast of veal stuffed with cornbread and sausage and studded with garlic and rosemary, and on Sunday, she’d produced an entire Thanksgiving dinner, complete with two kinds of potatoes and a turkey she’d brined in the hot tub (our down-the-hall neighbors, devoted fitness buffs, had howled when they’d gone up to the roof for a little post-hike relaxation and found, instead of clear water, a fragrant brew of bay leaves and garlic cloves and juniper berries, with a kosher turkey bobbing merrily in the middle).
I would pick at my food, then excuse myself, telling Grandma and Maurice that I needed to work, closing my bedroom door behind me. Of course, I wasn’t working. I was staring at my phone, trying to will it to ring, and when I wasn’t doing that, I was dialing the first nine of the ten numbers that would have connected me with Dave, the only person I really wanted to talk to.
“Ruth?” The voice on the other end of the line startled me so badly that I gave a little squeak. The assistant, who had probably grown accustomed to the quirks of neurotic writers, pretended not to notice. “I have Lisa on the line. Please hold for Tariq, and Lloyd and Joan from the network.” I got to my feet, my heart lifting as quickly as it had sunk. The network. Oh God oh God oh God. The network doesn’t call unless it’s a pickup, Dave had said. They give the bad news to the agent, not the writer, and probably you’ll read it online before someone has the decency to tell you to your face that your show is dead. But maybe Dave was wrong. It had been years since his own show was green-lit, years since he’d had to sit in breathless, chest-pounding agony, waiting for the call, this call.
Voices came back on the line, one after another, ringing like bells.
“I have Tariq,” said Tariq’s assistant.
“Holding for Joan,” said Joan’s.
“Ruth?” asked Lisa. “Still there?”
“I’m here.” My voice was faint and quivery. I stood up, clenching my fists, my jaw, my abdominal muscles, trying to keep from shaking.
“Please hold,” said a new voice, male and brusque and impatient, “for Chauncey McLaughlin.”
I reeled back toward the bed. It felt like Christmas morning, New Year’s Eve, a birthday cake blazing with candles, a man down on one knee with a diamond ring in his hand. Joan was ABS’s head of comedy, and Chauncey McLaughlin (rumor was, he’d been born Chaim Melmann, then changed it to Charles, then gone full WASP with Chauncey) was the president of the network, a man I’d glimpsed once at a holiday party and had spoken with precisely never. Chauncey McLaughlin was the man who ultimately decided which of the pilots would get shot and, of those, which would make it onto the air in the fall and which would die quietly in the springtime.
“Who’ve I got?” he asked in a booming voice. Names were reeled off—Tariq, Lisa, Lloyd, Joan. “And Ruth, of course.”
“Hi,” I managed.
“Chauncey McLaughlin. I don’t want to keep you waiting. We’re going to go ahead and shoot The Next Best Thing.”
I closed my eyes. My legs went watery with relief. “Thank you,” I said. With the phone still pressed to my ear, I got up and unlocked the bedroom door to find my grandmother standing there. Evidently she’d given up even pretending that she wasn’t waiting for the call. I flashed her a thumbs-up. She sprang into the air and actually clicked her heels together, a feat she couldn’t have managed before her hip replacement two years before. Then she held my face in both of her hands. I could feel her hand on my left cheek and felt, as usual, nothing on my scarred right side as she kissed me, first on one cheek, then the other, before stowing her cell phone in her brassiere (“God’s pocket,” she called it) and hurrying off to the kitchen, undoubtedly to start giving her hundred closest friends and relations the news. A moment later, Maurice appeared in the living-room doorway, dressed for golf, with his tanned hands clasped over his head. He stood on his tiptoes to kiss me—Maurice, while not technically a little person, is a long way from tall, and a good six inches shorter than I am—then turned back down the hallway. Maurice had two sons, no daughters, and even though he’d never said so, my sense was that he liked having a young lady in his life. He’d pull out my chair, hold doors open for me, ask me if my boyfriend was treating me well, and say that if he wasn’t, he, Maurice, would be happy to talk to him about it.
As congratulations spilled over the line, from Lisa and Tariq and Chauncey, I found myself wishing not for my boyfriend, Gary, but for Dave. Dave, one of the Two Daves, was my boss and my mentor, the one who’d helped me craft the concept for The Next Best Thing, who’d overseen each revision of the script and assured me that I had just as good a shot at writing my own show as any other writer in Hollywood, even if I’d never been a staff writer, even if I was only twenty-eight. Dave’s promise to serve as my co-executive producer had gotten me the meeting with Joan, and Dave’s involvement, I was sure, had gotten the network to take a chance on an unknown quantity. A Hollywood veteran who’d co-created and run a successful sitcom for the past five years, Dave would know what to do next. And Gary. I’d have to call Gary and let him know.
“Ruth?” Chauncey’s voice was deep and warm, the sound of your favorite uncle who’d come for the holidays with fancy barrettes and foil-wrapped chocolate kisses and the latest Babysitters Club book. “Did we lose you?”
“No, I’m still here. I’m just a little overwhelmed. I . . . oh, God, I don’t even know what to say except thank you.”
“And that the show will be brilliant,” Lisa quickly added.
“We’re counting on it,” said Tariq. I could hear, or thought I could, the edge of desperation in his voice. Last year, Tariq had shepherded five pilots through the development process. The network had green-lit only one of them, a trippy hourlong dramedy set in an alternate universe where the dinosaurs were not extinct. The network had lavished millions of dollars on the sets and had cast a big-name former movie star as the lead. Even with all that, the show had lasted for exactly three episodes. Dave had told me, and the commentators on Deadline had confirmed, that if Tariq failed to improve his game, he’d be looking for a new job by the fall.
“Thank you,” I said again. “Thank you all so much for believing in me.”
“Of course,” said Chauncey casually, “we might need you to make some changes. Nothing drastic, just a little rewriting.”
“Oh my God. Of course. Absolutely. Whatever you need.” I’d thought the script was perfect when I turned it in, but obviously I’d be willing to tweak or cut or change it in whatever way the network deemed necessary to get it on the air.
There was another round of congratulations, and Chauncey said, “Got more calls, kiddo,” and, just like that, the call was over, and I sank onto my bed, clutching my telephone in one sweaty hand. I’d survived the first round of cuts. I would get to hire a cast, find my star, build the sets, shoot my pilot show. Instead of competing against dozens of scripts, I was up against maybe twenty-four . . . and even if The Next Best Thing never made it on the air, I’d have a lovely souvenir, a DVD of my dream made real.
I got to my feet, the same person I’d been ten minutes ago: average height and average weight (which made me practically obese in Hollywood), with thick, shoulder-length hair that could be coaxed to hang, sleek and glossy, when I spent the time or money to have it straightened. I had brown eyes, my grandma’s full pink lips, features that might have been almost pretty before the accident, broad shoulders and curvy hips, a solid torso thanks to years of swimming, and olive skin that tanned easily and stayed that way, even in what passed for winter out here. Except for the scars, which my clothes covered, and my face, which my clothes did not, I was normal—even, from certain angles, pretty. It was a problem. Sometimes, people would react to me after they’d seen me from behind or from my good side. Hey, baby, lookin’ good! construction workers would shout when I was walking with my gym bag over my shoulder and a baseball cap’s brim shadowing my face . . . or, if I was meeting my grandmother at a restaurant, a man would approach from my left side at the bar and start chatting me up. I’d take care of things as quickly as I could, pulling off my hat, pulling back my hair. I would show them the truth, who I really was. The catcalls would stop abruptly, and the man at the bar would suck in his breath, then scowl as if it were my fault, as if I was somehow playing a joke on him. Once, a homeless man had asked me for change, ignoring my muttered “sorry” and chasing me down Sunset until I’d turned. His eyes had gotten big as he’d taken in my face. Then he’d pulled a dollar out of his pocket. And handed it to me.
I started to punch the button that would connect me to Gary. Then I stopped. Should I tell Dave first? I certainly could, now that I’d gotten the Call. He’d want to know. Maybe he’d even want to celebrate. Or maybe I should sneak out of the house, head to the airport, and buy myself a ticket to Hawaii, where he was vacationing, to tell him in person. I knew where he liked to stay, which flights he would have taken, his favorite restaurants on every island. Whether I’d be a good showrunner remained to be seen, but I had been an excellent assistant. The hard part would be getting past Grandma. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” she’d say, and point out that I had already had my heart broken once by a Hollywood writer and that I should endeavor to make new and interesting mistakes rather than repeating the ones I’d made before.
She was right, I thought, and picked up the phone and called Gary. “Good news?” he asked, and I bounced on the bed, smiling as I said, “The best.”
The Next Best Thing
Set against the fascinating backdrop of Los Angeles show business culture, with an insider’s ear for writer’s room showdowns and an eye for bad backstage behavior and set politics, Jennifer Weiner’s new novel is a rollicking ride on the Hollywood roller coaster, a heartfelt story about what it’s like for a young woman to love, and lose, in the land where dreams come true.
Molly Weiner Interviews Jennifer Weiner
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Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What is the significance of swimming in The Next Best Thing? Why do you think it is such a cathartic activity for Ruth?
2. How does Ruth use humor to her advantage? What purpose does it serve her? What did you think about her involvement with Hellsmouth?
3. Throughout the novel, Ruth finds herself in situations where either she is disappointed by people involved in The Next Best Thing, or she knows she will be disappointing others. How does she handle these moments, and should she have handled any of them differently? What does Ruth mean when she says, “I could do it all as long as I felt like my toughness was in the service of something important; that I was protecting the essential heart of my story” (290)?
4. How does the novel depict male-female dynamics in Hollywood? For those people in positions of power, is their gender shown to be part of their success? Do you think that the outcome of The Next Best Thing would have been any see more