Devil's in the Follow-Up



LAST Sunday, Lauren Weisberger, fresh off a 6 a.m. flight from Toronto, where she had been promoting her new novel at the International Festival of Authors, had brunch at the Mercer Kitchen with three of her friends. The festival, she told them, was packed with young authors and had involved some ''committed drinking.''

  ''It sounds like a mixer,'' said Kyle White, who is Ms. Weisberger's colorist.

''It was,'' Ms. Weisberger said.

  ''I don't understand why you didn't hook up,'' he said.

  ''Kyle,'' she said, laughing, ''I didn't. No lack of cute authors, that's for sure.''

  Somehow ''literary fiction'' came up. This is a subject Ms. Weisberger keeps at a distance. ''I'm trying to get myself psyched up for the 1,400-page Vikram Seth novel,'' she said. ''I'm not there yet.''

  People love to hate Lauren Weisberger. She is blond, 5-foot-8, and at 28 has managed to turn her first job out of college -- an 11-month stint as Anna Wintour's assistant at Vogue -- into about $4 million in book and movie deals. Ms. Weisberger's first novel, ''The Devil Wears Prada,'' which is being made into a movie starring Meryl Streep, has sold more than 1.2 million copies, and her second novel, ''Everyone Worth Knowing,'' made its debut at No. 10 on The New York Times best-seller list.

  ''It's a fairy tale come true, ain't it?'' said David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, which published her second book last month. ''And she's got great legs. What more can you ask for?''

  For Ms. Weisberger, it's a fairy tale that depends in some part on her never quite getting the gold ring, or if she does, never being able to actually wear it. It's important to her to keep her outsider's vantage despite the fact that she is more and more of an insider. The heroines of her novels are outsiders who are beautiful and witty enough to gain entry into exclusive and seemingly glamorous cliques -- and sane enough to leave them. If there is an art here (and she is the first to admit she is not trying to write ''War and Peace''), it is the ability to write knowingly about a shallow yet glamorous world while appealing to a slightly provincial point of view.

  Ms. Weisberger isn't writing primarily for the chic Manhattan young women who populate, as she once did, the editing ranks of fashion and celebrity magazines. The people who have made her books best sellers are outsiders who long for access, people for whom New York City is sexy but vaguely sinister.

  ''At Vogue I did feel like an outsider,'' she said. ''It's very much how I feel all the time.''

  ''I know it's ironic in light of the fact that these books have done well,'' she added.

  ''The Devil Wears Prada'' took off, at least partly, because it was seen as a dishy novel about one of the most famous women in fashion, Ms. Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue. The second book doesn't have that gossipy draw, and it remains to be seen whether Ms. Weisberger's name alone is enough to begin a collection of novels. ''Everyone Worth Knowing'' revolves around 27-year-old Bette Robinson, who quits her dreary banking job to work for a trendy public relations firm. She almost loses her soul to black American Express cards and a gay playboy, but wises up in time to find true love with a boy from her hometown.

  A review in The New York Times Book Review described it as ''fatuous, clunky.'' USA Today called it ''lackluster imitation,'' and Entertainment Weekly said it was ''ho-hum rehash.''

  Ms. Weisberger, who said she used to read reviews obsessively, no longer does. ''You can't sustain that,'' she said. ''I mean, I'd be a wreck. I'm hard enough on myself.''

  No one has bought film rights to ''Everyone Worth Knowing,'' and Doubleday, which paid $250,000 for ''The Devil Wears Prada,'' did not buy Ms. Weisberger's second book. Simon & Schuster paid more than $1 million for ''Everyone Worth Knowing'' and another $1 million-plus for a third novel, sight unseen. ''Everyone Worth Knowing'' fell off the Times list after two weeks, but Mr. Rosenthal said he feels good about his investment. He said sales ''are ahead of where we thought we would be right now.''

  The narrative arc of her books is not unlike the story Ms. Weisberger would like to tell about herself. In person, she looks leaner and more sophisticated than she does in photos. And even as she disparages ordering liquor by name and the peculiar use of the pronoun in ''Who are you wearing?'' she knows exactly what and how to answer: ''Grey Goose martini'' and ''Seven jeans.''

  She wasn't born to big-city chic. The daughter of a schoolteacher and a department-store-president-turned-mortgage-broker, Ms. Weisberger lived in a small town outside Scranton, Pa., until she was 11, when her parents divorced and she and her younger sister, Dana, moved to Allentown, Pa., with their mother.

  As a child, she says, she was a compulsive reader. She had read the entire young adult section of her local library by the time she was 8, and quickly moved on to books by writers like Judith Krantz and Danielle Steel. ''I was drawn to all the glittery books,'' Ms. Weisberger said during an interview at a coffee shop on the Upper East Side where she wrote parts of ''The Devil Wears Prada.'' Rona Jaffe's ''Best of Everything'' was tucked in her black Kooba bag. (''Do you think it looks like a diaper bag?'' she asked.)

  At her public high school, Ms. Weisberger played varsity tennis and was in the Key Club and Students Against Drunk Driving. ''We went to football games every weekend and drank beer in the woods,'' she said. ''We wore sweat pants, literally, to school every day.''

  She graduated with a 4.0 and went on to study English at Cornell, where she found a contingent of New York City students who had gone to the same prep schools and the same summer camps. ''It was really intimidating,'' she said. ''They all seemed to me very sophisticated, some of them a little bit jaded already at 18. I think I was enamored with all of it. Sort of wide-eyed and na?ve.''

  Her English teachers from Cornell remember her as diligent, an astute literary critic and a good student who handled criticism well. ''Lauren is very smart,'' said Lydia Fakundiny, who taught Ms. Weisberger nonfiction. ''I don't know if she has any interest in writing what people call serious literary fiction. I think she's capable of doing it.'' She was not, added Ms. Fakundiny, among the best writers in class, none of whom have published books.

  By graduation, Ms. Weisberger knew she wanted to write or edit; the question was how. She sent her r?sum?, which she mocked up to look like a magazine, to Cond? Nast Publications. Within days, she landed a job as Ms. Wintour's assistant.

  After Richard David Story, who was features editor at Vogue, left his post there to edit Departures magazine, Ms. Weisberger followed. She was 23. He assigned her a few short pieces, and then suggested she take a writing workshop with his friend Charles Salzberg.

  ''The Devil Wears Prada'' was born in Mr. Salzberg's advanced nonfiction class. ''The first essay she brought in was called 'The Devil Wears Prada,' '' Mr. Salzberg recalled. ''She kept writing these pieces. I thought they were so good. I kept saying to her, this could be a book very easily. Lauren kept saying, who would want to read this?''

  Eventually, she called Deborah Schneider, an agent she met through Departures, and told her she was at work on a book she thought might be commercial. ''I called her back the next day and said, 'Yes, honey, this is commercial,' '' Ms. Schneider said. Ms. Weisberger had three and a half months to turn about 100 pages of nonfiction into a novel.

  What drives her? ''Fear,'' said Marysue Rucci, her editor at Simon & Schuster. ''She's such a good girl. She's the prototypical overachiever.''

  Ms. Weisberger says she writes the kind of novels she does because she thinks they are fun. ''I don't know why writing literature is seen as a loftier goal than writing books that people really can read on a beach or a plane,'' she said. ''I love trying to capture that realistic-sounding dialogue. I love trying to write about the different things I'm actually going through and that my friends are going through.''

  Life has changed for Ms. Weisberger, but she insists that she has not. There is now the occasional dinner party with James Carville or benefit with Carole Radziwill (but not, so far, anything at all with Ms. Wintour). Half her life, she says, still revolves around takeout, movies and dinner with friends, often at Piadina, Alta or Bette. She's dating, she says, but ''no one special right now.''

  Not unlike her protagonist in ''Everyone Worth Knowing,'' Ms. Weisberger has lately been forced to navigate the rapids of public life. She will not talk about the money she has made, except to say that she lives a ''completely normal-for-New-York life,'' and she keeps her closest friends to herself. ''One of the things that is hugely important to me, but increasingly more difficult, is a separation of private life and book life,'' she said. ''My closest and oldest friends in the world are girlfriends from high school and Cornell who are doing totally different things.''

  She says her biggest splurge -- aside from her white Maltese, Mitzy -- is taxicabs. She rents a one-bedroom apartment near Union Square and a studio apartment in Santa Monica. Her writing desk is a card table with a faulty leg. ''Lauren is very self-critical,'' Mr. Story said. ''I think she lives every day of her life thinking everything will be taken away from her.''

  Ms. Weisberger agrees that she's her own harshest critic but says her fear is mostly of failure. ''There are a lot of harsh critics out there,'' she said. ''There is nothing they can say I haven't thought of already.''

  Though she may be from a small town in Pennsylvania, with her feet on the ground, she also counts among her friends the guy who does her eyebrows and her hair colorist. Last March, the girl who never goes out was a host of a party sponsored by the publicity firm Harrison & Shriftman at the newly restored Argyle Hotel in Los Angeles. These days, it is on the movie set of ''The Devil Wears Prada'' where Ms. Weisberger most resembles her heroines -- breathless, charmingly out of place and yet, somehow, at the very center of things.

  Last week, on location in SoHo, Ms. Streep, who plays the editor of a fashion magazine, slid into a Mercedes, a Donna Karan trench coat and Versace pants draped on her frame. She delivered a few terse orders to a ponytailed assistant (Anne Hathaway, in the role of the book's protagonist), whose Chanel dress showcased a pair of fine knees. Five tall girls (Ms. Streep's strikingly perfect editorial minions), their hair bouncing and high heels clacking, flounced across the cobblestones.

  ''They all just look like legs to me,'' said Nicole Rivera, 24, an assistant to the producer Wendy Finerman. She was clutching two BlackBerries, a notebook and a pen. ''I feel like a troll.''

  ''It's really easy to feel that way right here, right now,'' Ms. Weisberger said. ''There's a lot of legs.''

  Is this what Ms. Weisberger had in mind when she dreamed up the ''The Devil Wears Prada''?

  ''Yes. Just. Like. That,'' she said. After the shoot, Ms. Hathaway came over and gave her a hug.