How The Real Housewives of New Jersey Helped Me Write a Novel
The show contains some of the purest expressions of maternal love that I have ever witnessed
I knew that the chances of publishing a book as an unknown, forty-something, stay-at-home mother with no writing experience were a million to one. So in case I never got another shot at it, I made sure that I did two things with my novel, When I Ran Away.
First, I dedicated it to my kids, so that they wouldn’t hate me when they grew up and found out that it’s about how hard it is to love your children based on my personal experience of raising them. And second, I wrote the Real Housewives into the story.
I knew that if anyone was going to understand my character, Gigi — a mother with post-natal depression, lost in grief, drinking alone in a dirty hotel room after abandoning her husband and children — it was, of course, not going to be the Housewives themselves. Empathy is not one of their strengths as a group. Rather, I knew it was the Housewives fans, like me, who would get a story about loneliness, love, and the therapeutic power of watching middle-aged women dressed head to toe in Gucci or Fendi or Louis Vuitton yell at each other while drinking champagne or tequila or Fireball shots at a fashion show or Moulin Rouge costume party or launch of one of their books or wig lines or boutiques.
Those who dismiss the Housewives as truly low-brow, garbage television, are right. That’s exactly what it is. But once you get involved with The Women, as executive producer Andy Cohen always calls them on the reunion shows, the Real Housewives become much more than that. I love them with a love that isn’t the same as I have for my real-life friends but is very close to it. And I wrote them into my novel as a token of my gratitude for their presence at a bleak time in my life.
In 2013, I was at home with baby and toddler, both delivered through terrifying emergency C-sections which left me depressed and traumatized. An American living in London, my family and friends were thousands of miles and several times zones away. I stepped away from my profession as a lawyer because the births of my sons left me too fragile to work the way I once had.
Shaken by motherhood and unsure of who I was without the career I had spent my life working for, I plowed through the manual labor of mothering small children, day after day, numb and drained. At night, I rocked, changed, pumped, and fed as I scanned mindlessly through the channels, unable to think about the future beyond the next click of the remote.
And then one night, the Housewives appeared on my screen. Suddenly, The Women were filling my living room in the middle of the night with their tears, hilarity, and drama, expensive but questionable fashion, tiny, aging dogs, and ever-youthful faces. (And lots of champagne and urine, depending on the situation.)
Through the screen, they confided in me, about the most difficult moments of their lives, the way an old friend would. They let me see them at their lowest: drunk, tear-stained, and betrayed. And their highest: also drunk, but jubilant, and successful. I watched them get divorced, and birth babies, and plan their daughters’ weddings, and mourn for lost loved ones. I desperately needed a friend, and here were so many: in Atlanta, in my beloved New York City, and even in Beverly Hills.
In the U.K. at that time, we were always a couple of seasons behind and sometimes only half a season would air, or episodes were skipped. It was hard to find The Women regularly. But that’s when I discovered the fan podcasts, and I would listen, riveted, to recounts of the shows I hadn’t yet seen. I thought this was how it must have felt to listen to radio plays in the 1930s, if foul-mouthed, Botoxed, Dior-clad, reality-stars turned QVC saleswomen hurling drinks at each other at family barbecues had been de rigueur back then.
Years later, when I started writing and my character, Gigi, needed company on the day she ran away from her family, I knew that only Teresa Giudice, Melissa Gorga, and their gang of bejeweled, orange frenemies from the cast of the Real Housewives of New Jersey could comfort her. Being from Staten Island, I hold the Jersey girls closest to my heart for their immaculate nails, Greco-Roman themed home décor, trips “down the shore,” and their immigrant grandparents, always cooking in the background, who remind me so much of the people I grew up with, minus the money and the mansions.
I spent hours painstakingly transcribing seasons five and six which documented Teresa’s journey to hell and back, being convicted of bankruptcy fraud along with her husband and serving time in federal prison. I chose those seasons not for their salaciousness or drama, but because when writing Gigi — a mother caught in a downward spiral — I found Teresa’s story to be a powerful statement on motherhood. When Teresa comes home from prison to her crying daughters, like a scarred but victorious gladiator in her leather peplum top and skinny jeans, they cling to each other and cry very real tears. And I cried every time I rewound it to get the wording right.
For many people, the Real Housewives represent the lowest of the low brow, the trashiest reality TV there is. But that scene is one of the purest, most vulnerable expressions of maternal love that I have ever witnessed, and so I made sure to enshrine it as part of Gigi’s evolution as a mother in my story.
Maybe the Housewives, and the fans who love them, are not so low-brow after all. So what if I find joy in watching grown women throw cakes or broken wine glasses or cheese platters at each other while balancing on Louboutins? My book was long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize this year. I was interviewed on NPR about When I Ran Away. And those are some pretty high brows.
I am so honored that the smart, distinguished people behind those organizations took my book and my love of the Housewives seriously and recognized their relevance and what they mean to people. I am so grateful that Teresa and I made it across the brows, from low to high, together. Like so many other moments in my life, I couldn’t have gotten there without my friends, my Housewives. (My actual friends were wonderful too, but you know what I mean.)
Ilona Bannister is a dual-qualified U.S. attorney and U.K. solicitor. She practiced U.K. immigration law before taking a break to raise her sons. Her experience as a lawyer working closely with families in difficult situations, as well as her life as an American expat in her adopted country, have made her a keen observer of people and the struggles of outsiders.
Ilona is a native New Yorker married to an Englishman and raising two young sons in London. In her free time, Ilona enjoys running, usually away from her children.
Her first novel, When I Ran Away, was developed on Faber Academy’s Work in Progress course.