Vol. 110 (2021)

Five Questions for Novelist Emily Layden



Emily Layden is a graduate of Stanford University and has taught at several girls' schools across the country. Her debut novel, All Girls, delves into the lives of teenage girls attending a fictional New England all-girls boarding school and has been called, "A striking debut" by Good Housekeeping and "Sharp, engrossing" by Town & Country. Over the past nine years, columns by her have appeared in the New York TimesMarie ClaireThe Billfold and Runner's World.


Stay Thirsty Magazine was pleased to visit with Emily Layden for these Five Questions because there is little doubt that she has a big future in front of her.


STAY THIRSTY: In your debut novel, All Girls, you write a coming-of-age story about teenage girls at an elite all-girls boarding school in Connecticut. How did the idea for this book come about and what feedback did you receive during its creation? What advantages did your experiences as a teacher lend to the project?


EMILY LAYDEN: When I sat down to write this book, I really wanted to do two things: First, I wanted to write something that took really seriously the experience of teenage girlhood, in all its depth and capacity; and second, I wanted to do that through the lens of an all-girls school. I spent most of my twenties teaching at various boarding and independent day schools throughout the US, the majority of them all-girls’—and while I loved teaching generally, most of all I loved working with young women, who gave me daily lessons in the empathy and optimism of teenage girlhood. I wanted to try to give them credit for their wisdom and big-heartedness while also capturing what I perceived to be the particular paradox of the girls’ school experience: what it’s like to come of age in a place that promises you the world … when that world still isn’t yours for the taking. 


STAY THIRSTY: You dedicate your book to young women who "deserve to have their experiences seen more fully." Did you accomplish your purpose and how do you feel young women will respond?


EMILY LAYDEN: While I certainly hope that the book resonates, I can only evaluate the work for myself. And about that I can say this: I was once a teenage girl, and there are many ways that this book is an endeavor in self-compassion. Finding and granting empathy to our younger selves is a worthy and sustaining cause, and I am glad to have made something that was an exercise in exactly that effort.



STAY THIRSTY: You organized your novel into eleven sections from "Here" to "Commencement" that follow the march of a high school timeline. What key moments in the story best represent your theme of young women finding their place in the world?


EMILY LAYDEN: While the novel is organized around the events of a school year—from the routine (like orientation and prom) to the more prep school specific like “Fall Fest” and the junior year Humanities trip—it is also organized (crucially) around character. From the outset this book was designed as a polyphony: a new character anchors each section, and her unique burdens and perspectives inform her capacity to process both the custom at hand and the scandal at large. Each girl’s personal history matters—in terms of her ability to make sense of the accusation, the bureaucracy that shrouds it, and the implications it has for her own health and safety. The girls struggle with mental illness; with the contours of their sexuality; with trauma, racism, and classism. But they are also united by the manner in which they flounder after and insist upon the very fact of their personhood. I’m aware that I’m dodging your question, but it’s hard to pull a single image from something that is intentionally kaleidoscopic!

Emily Layden

STAY THIRSTY: How do you think young women without the advantages of an elite education come-of-age today?


EMILY LAYDEN: In so many ways, teenage girls drive our discourse and shape our culture—they tell us what’s cool, what to wear, what music to listen—but are rarely given credit for their full personhood. I think that for many young women to come of age is to realize that their bodies and tastes will be commodified while their voices are silenced, and their experiences trivialized.


In this way I’m casting “coming of age” as a particular loss of innocence—the understanding (and I think I’m paraphrasing Joan Didion here) that doors will not always open for you. Obviously when we distill it in this way girls who are not white or not wealthy are likely to have this experience sooner in their lives, and—in many cases—in harsher ways.



STAY THIRSTY: Does the boarding school experience give young women a true or a false sense of empowerment? In today's COVID-19 world, where ambition and drive are often interrupted by the realities of a pandemic, where can young women draw inspiration?


EMILY LAYDEN: I think it’s really interesting that you’ve coupled empowerment and inspiration in this question, because ordinarily I would consider them two entirely discrete things—the latter intrinsic, the external more extrinsic. But perhaps in this time of uncertainty, the ability to turn inward—to ourselves—to meet our needs is exactly the answer. Self-trust is a powerful thing, and I think a lot of (to use the question’s word) drive can be found in the knowledge that you already have inside you whatever you might need—the discipline to make art, the wisdom to enact change, the grit to accomplish hard things.




Emily Layden     


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.