A book cover showing the back of a woman in a dress with the title One to Watch

Kate Stayman-London ’05 is a novelist, screenwriter and political strategist. She was lead digital writer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and has written for public figures ranging from Barack Obama and Malala Yousafzai to Anna Wintour and Cher. An English major at Amherst, she received a screenwriting M.F.A. from the University of Southern California. Stayman-London brings this diversity of experience to her debut novel, One to Watch, published in July by The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House. She lives in Los Angeles.

You’ve written screenplays and TV pilots and are a highly sought-after political campaign writer. Now you’ve written your first novel, about a plus-size fashion blogger who ends up on a Bachelorette-style reality TV show. How did you land there?

In 2015–16 I was working for Hillary Clinton. That, by the way, is how I got to do a little writing for Anna Wintour, whose office provided my favorite feedback I’ve ever received on any piece of writing: “She hates it. She has no notes.” It had always been my plan to come back to Los Angeles after the election and resume screenwriting and fiction writing. I had intended to write a Bridget-Jones-on-the-campaign-trail romantic comedy drawing on my experience. But I was too depressed after the results of the 2016 election—it was too raw and too soon to write about the campaign.

A portrait of woman in a black coat with a blue scarf
So, in early 2017, I turned to one of my favorite escapist pastimes: watching The Bachelor, Nick Viall’s season. During the season finale, I was sitting on my couch, and it hit me like a bolt of thunder: What would it look like to have a plus-size woman as The Bachelorette? There’s no one on the show above size 4, basically ever. The idea felt fun and exciting, and the more I dug into it, the more I wanted to keep digging. That night, I stayed up until 1 or 2 a.m. writing a little overview of what the book could look like. I sent it to my literary agent the next morning and wrote the first chapter that Saturday. We took out a proposal two months later. Random House bought it in a pre-empt, and the rest is history.

Genres are used to devalue the contributions of women and people of color: men can write a book about their experiences and it’s a universal novel, but when women do it, it’s “women’s fiction.” What made you decide to write a book that falls very squarely within the genre of women’s fiction—and therefore comes loaded with assumptions about quality, audience and reach?

I’m a woman who’s interested in writing about women’s experiences for women readers. That makes it inevitable that whatever I write is going to be labeled as women’s fiction. Instead of getting angry about that, I think about how I can use it to subvert popular culture—which I think most of the best genre writing aims to do. I think about Black Panther, this action movie with giant explosions that said incredibly subversive things about race and power. The way that romantic comedy has been used to comment on women’s roles in society, on rules and power, on deeply ingrained gender dynamics—I’m thinking about Jane Austen and Nora Ephron—that fascinates me. I love romantic comedy. So the idea of working within that genre to say something subversive was exciting to me.

How did your formal training in screenwriting inform your book?

In screenwriting you want the structure to be as simple as possible. One of my mantras is a quote from Stephen Sondheim, who is of course not a screenwriter but a musical theater writer. The quote is, “All in the service of clarity, without which nothing else matters.” It doesn’t matter how wonderful your story is; if the audience doesn’t understand it, you won’t be able to move them. The protagonist in my book—her name is Bea—is going on a dating reality show with 25 men competing to be her husband, but she absolutely refuses to fall in love. Having that simple premise provides an emotional arc. Once I have that arc in place, I can have five or six romantic plotlines, as well as tweets, podcast transcripts and Slack channels. What screenwriting drove into me is to have that most basic part of the story laid out so that you have something to build on.

One to Watch has many different scenarios, twists and turns. But it doesn’t feel like a jam-packed novel; it feels like a very clear arc.

It took about four drafts to get to that arc. I had to force myself to examine whether every scene was building toward the next shift in the arc. If it’s not, why is it even there? With screenwriting, every page is money. It represents hours of filming, time and pay. So you’re trying to tell the story with as few pages and as few lines of dialogue as possible. You need rigorous discipline.

I can think of many acclaimed books that would have benefited from discipline, structural and otherwise. I want to switch gears to your work on political campaigns and progressive causes. Did those experiences inform this book?

A portrait of a woman in a short-sleeved dress looking up the sky
Absolutely! The idea of writing about a woman who stars on a reality television show drew on my experience working for Hillary Clinton, of feeling like suddenly a lot of strangers were looking at me and interested in my life in a way they never had been before. I remember one night a friend texted me, “You’re on Stephen Colbert!” And I was like, “I’m not on Stephen Colbert. I’m at home taking a sleeping pill, trying to get four hours of sleep.” Some of us had dressed up as Hillary for Halloween for a post on the campaign blog. I was one of them, and a photo of me was on Colbert. Another day, a photographer from Time was in the office, and I wasn’t paying attention. A photo of me at my desk looking haggard and unhappy ended up in Time. That photo is still, I’m very sad to say, on my grandmother’s fridge. I wanted to imbue those experiences—the notion that everyone is staring at you—into Bea’s journey. I also wanted my commitment to social justice, to diversity and inclusion, to dismantling systems of oppression—I wanted that ideology to inform Bea’s story and the way that I wrote about it.

Your book takes on fatphobia. How does that issue relate to other work you’ve done?

One thread of my work around feminism is ownership of women’s bodies. Look at reproductive justice and access to health care, at the murders of Black women, including Black trans women, at sexual assault and #MeToo, at revenge porn and the rights of sex workers: there is a large, intersecting system that tries to control women’s bodies. Fatphobia ties into that system. The idea that being thin is the most important thing you can be defines the lives of many women. I wanted to write about an issue that is deeply impactful for a lot of women—but to do it in a way that had joy and escapism.

Another system that your book subverts is fashion. What’s your relationship with fashion, and how do you see it fitting into the broader issue of claiming your own body?

I’ve loved fashion ever since I was an early teen. The dress that opened my mind was a chartreuse John Galliano for Christian Dior dress that Nicole Kidman wore to the Oscars in 1997. It was such an interesting, fabulous, weird, over-the-top dress, and it was on the cover of People. It’s only recently that you’ve gotten to see fashion like that on bodies that aren’t thin and white. If you want to present yourself as chic, or playful, or colorful, or sexy, fashion can be a wonderful means of self-expression. But not for fat women, because you don’t have access to the clothes. Think about all of the fashion houses that only make up to a size 10 or 12, when two-thirds of American women are wearing size 14 and above. These fashion houses are so fatphobic that they would rather cut out two-thirds of their market than make clothes that fit fat women. It’s so ridiculous to me.

In writing this book, I was thinking about the fashion montages in movies like Pretty Woman and The Devil Wears Prada, where we see a woman suddenly have access to an incredible designer closet. I wanted to create that kind of fashion fantasy explicitly for a plus-size woman. If you read about a garment that Bea is wearing in One to Watch, that designer in real life makes clothes that go up to at least a size 20 and often larger. I wanted to celebrate designers that are more inclusive.

There are many ways in which fashion is breaking apart stereotypes. I’ve been working on a research paper about finance, investing and LGBTQI issues, and fashion is one of the sectors at the forefront of moving beyond gender binaries and reaching a wider market of people who are gender-nonconforming—or who are just done with gender stereotypes that don’t resonate with our lives and experiences.

It’s no coincidence. Brands that are size-inclusive also tend to have more diversity in their models. Those are the brands that have nonbinary and trans models, models with differing abilities, and models of varying backgrounds and races. These issues all intersect with one another, and the notion of inclusivity cuts across a lot of different spaces.

A group of young people greeting Hillary Clinton
Stayman-London was lead digital writer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

I texted you excitedly 15 pages into reading your book, because you had already mentioned my favorite wine, Savennières, and Barbara Stanwyck, who may be my favorite actress of all time. Why is Barbara Stanwyck in your book?

Some pieces of my book are unfamiliar to younger readers, and others are unfamiliar to older readers. I talk about stan culture in the book, and my stepmom was like, “What is a stan?” I explained that it comes from an Eminem song about a fan named Stan who becomes a violent stalker. She thought I meant M&Ms, the candies. When I was writing, I was throwing in references to old movies, because I love old movies, and my editor asked, “Can we cut them?” But they were important to me. So we turned up the dial by making a love for old movies an essential part of Bea’s character.

Your Barbara Stanwyck question is relevant to your fashion question. So much of fashion is about how we convey power as women. The notion of power dressing historically has been about adopting masculine traits in the way you dress. And I reject that notion. Expressing power through femininity is something that I try to do in my own life, as I sit here with bright pink lipstick and turquoise hair. For me, Barbara Stanwyck is the emblem of feminine, powerful presence. She doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of femininity for her power, and she doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of power for her femininity. So much of Bea’s journey is about femininity and power. Having Barbara Stanwyck as Bea’s role model—she was the only one.

You started writing plays at Amherst. What was your experience as an English major, and how did it inform your writing?

The playwriting classes I took with Connie Congdon changed my life. Playwriting is an aural medium. The way Connie talked about how to write a play is that you listen to what your characters say and transcribe it. The dialogue that I write—in a book or a screenplay, or if I’m writing tweets for a politician—is always informed by that training. I wrote a one-act for Connie’s “Playwriting 1” class, embarrassingly titled Love with a Jersey Girl. I’m from New Jersey. It was about a mother and daughter experiencing intimate partner violence in their respective relationships and the ways in which they got angry at each other rather than connecting over the shared experience. It was a workshop class, so two people would perform the play, and then we’d sit there for half an hour critiquing it. I thought, “Wow! I could do this for the rest of my life.” For my thesis, I wrote a play that dramatized the gay rights movement in Buenos Aires, which was the first city in Latin America to legalize same-sex civil unions. Connie was one of my thesis advisers, and Professor Javier Corrales from political science was the other. Politics and the arts are the two things that I love most, and Amherst is a place where an English major can write a play about gay rights in Buenos Aires, and a world-famous playwright and a Latin American politics expert will help you do it. I can’t imagine any place setting me up for success more than Amherst did.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

When I was thinking about giving up my career in politics to go to graduate school for screenwriting, my stepmother, who is an actress, said, “Don’t do this if you can do anything else with your life. But if you can’t do anything else with your life, then you have to do this.” If you can’t be anything but an artist, then, congrats, that’s what you are. Toni Morrison said that if there’s a book you want to read but no one has written it yet, then you must write it. And Jordan Peele says to write your favorite movie that you’ve never seen. So my advice is to write the story that won’t leave you alone, that you can’t get out of your head. And I feel unbelievably grateful to have written something that made me joyful, and now to see readers feeling that joy is just the greatest. So find the joy. That’s the best advice that I can give.

Tia Subramanian ’05 is a writer and editor who works on gender and other social justice issues, currently at the nonprofit think tank Criterion Institute. She moonlights as a sommelier (at, creating in-person and virtual educational wine tastings, classes and webinars. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Photographs by Amanda Friedman.

This article is adapted from an interview for the Amherst Reads book club.