Cover Story

Like a clever jigsaw puzzle, Susan Rigetti’s new novel, Cover Story, about a world-class con artist gives you a lot of pieces. It takes a while for them to start fitting together, allowing the picture to emerge, and it doesn’t snap completely into focus until the end.

The story is told mainly through the diary entries of New York University drop-out Lora Ricci as she embarks on one of her life goals—becoming the editor of an important fashion magazine. Her other goal is to be a famous writer, and she plans to work hard at both. She’s taking the first step, having secured a summer internship at the fashionista watering-hole, Elle. Lora’s diary entries are written in the sort of breathless, pep-talky style totally appropriate to who she is, enthusiastic but inexperienced.

The book leads off not with the diary, but with a short memorandum to the file from Agent Jenée Parker in the FBI’s New York field office. It was written in response to a tip from an editor at Elle suggesting that one of the magazine’s employees isn’t who she claims to be. Cat Wolff makes an instant impression on everyone, especially Lora.

Why does someone with Cat’s connections and sophistication—even criminal tendencies—need to cultivate an unsophisticated, if well-meaning, young woman like Lora? There’s no question that Cat has some scheme in mind in which Lora will get the short end of the stick, but what is it? And how badly will she be hurt?

You’re also privy to Cat’s multiple exchanges with credit card companies, banks where she’s seeking loans, and venture capitalists she’s trying to entice to fund a fashion project. Most immediately pesky are the hand-written notes from the Plaza’s front desk—at first nicely, then firmly— requesting payment of her massive bill. You worry that Lora may somehow be stuck with that bill. Cat may look as serene as a duck floating on a pond, but all the while, her feet are paddling furiously out of sight, as the FBI closes in.

It’s certainly something of a relief when Lora finally starts waking up and realizes Cat may not be quite what Lora thinks she is. And that she may not have Lora’s best interests at heart.

This is a quick read and highly entertaining, and I suspect the scope of Cat’s scam will take your breath away. It sure did mine!

California-based author Susan (Fowler) Rigetti was the technology op-ed editor at The New York Times, and worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley—good background for Cat, who boldly harnesses the deceptive potential of the Internet. She came to whistleblower fame (Person of the Year for TIME and the Financial Times; numerous magazine covers) writing about her experience as a Uber software engineer. The unaddressed sexual harassment, along with management’s chaos-inducing sexism and political oneupsmanship became notorious, leading to serious reexamination of tech industry culture and practices.

Unconventional Content in Your Fiction

Award-winning Australian author Sophie Masson provided her thoughts for writers about using unconventional content in a recent Writer Unboxed column. Masson is an internationally published author of more than 70 books. Unconventional content includes “newspaper articles, extracts from books, diary entries, audio transcripts, records of phone calls, email chains, text messages, social media posts,” and the like to enhance and extend a story.

Such content can be a succinct way to sum up a situation, convey factual information, or provide another perspective without having to delve into lengthy exposition. (The worst example of this I’ve seen was a description of the merits of a particular weapon reduced to bullet points.)

Susan Rigetti’s exciting new novel Cover Story consists entirely of these scraps. Much of it is a diary kept by the main character, Lora, Ricci, in which she reveals her personal take on her situation much more candidly than dialog likely would. Like a troublesome Greek chorus, messages between an FBI agent and prosecutor, interspersed among the diary entries, make clear that not everyone sees the situation as Lora does. Messages, emails, and other scraps of information also serve to build the fictional edifice.

As Masson points out, such unconventional content “allow authors to create a richly-textured story-world with many varied strands to its narrative tapestry.” The most familiar form of this is the epistolary novel. You probably know that Jane Austen liked the epistolary form and that Pride and Prejudice was originally written that way. Letters (remember them?) play a large part in that story, even after she converted it to a more conventional narrative.

Masson says these different forms shouldn’t be introduced arbitrarily. They need a real reason to be there;  to “really belong in your story.” I’ve written four short stories featuring Brianna Yamato, a rookie reporter at the Sweetwater, Texas, Register. Each story ends with the newspaper article that results from her digging. It’s fun writing those stories in newspaper style, and in them, each clue Brianna followed is slotted in place so that the whole picture of events emerges. There’s a sound reason for the newspaper story to be there; that’s her job.

Masson ends with some advice: do your research to make the unconventional content sound appropriate to its era and style, whether an 18th century newspaper story or 21st century texts; similarly, read aloud any audio transcripts or social media posts to check their voice; use these pieces strategically and fairly sparingly, unless the story consists solely of them, like Cover Story, or another example Masson provides, the crime novel The Twyford Code, by Janice Hallett.