We asked Magdalen “How did you come up with the idea for The Cost of Happiness?” Here is her reply:
In this case, that question translates to: Did you know you were writing a Cinderella story? And the answer to that is an extraordinary “no.” In fact, I didn’t see how much of the Cinderella plot and characters I’d used until the book was all done.
Look, I can’t explain it either. It’s just the truth.
Okay, so here’s how I did come up with the idea. It started with two facts. First, I had a paralegal, Debbie, when I worked for Dechert, Price & Rhoads (now just “Dechert”). Debbie was brilliant, quick, efficient, and ultra-reliable. Nonetheless, she had a windowless office. That’s the hierarchy of a modern-day law firm. The more the firm can charge its clients for your time, the more windows you get.
Second, when I was in law school, I had a moot court judge, an Assistant US Attorney like Dan, who was cute and nice to me. (He was married, older than Dan, and not my type. But I can honestly say he was very sweet to me—even though I wasn’t anywhere near as smart or good at moot court as Meghan is.)
Take those two facts, add a couple others like the junior partner at Dechert who’d been an AUSA before joining the firm, and the scam—a real one I read about on the Internet—and you have the basic set-up for Meghan and Dan’s relationship: Ace law student loses her place in school, needs a job, works as a paralegal for a man who isn’t already familiar with law firm “rules.” I wanted all that because I wanted the Black Moment to be Meghan’s loss of Dan and her job and her apartment and even the tenuous sense she had that she’d make it through all the other things she’d lost. It’s why The Cost of Happiness is “the angsty one.”
“Okay, but you have a fairy godmother and nasty stepsister types and even her mother is evil…”
All true, but all added as necessary for the book. I needed Meghan to have a friend because otherwise she was clearly friendless, and we don’t trust women who have no friends at all. Kassie is drawn a tiny bit from the lovely blonde who lived downstairs from me. (Meghan has the apartment I lived in during law school, but I don’t believe I was ever in the apartment I gave Kassie.) Kassie has the job that another neighbor of mine had—working in a high-end boutique in Liberty Plaza. Well, if Kassie worked in retail, she must know about clothes, so when Meghan needs a dress…who else to ask? Just like that—a fairy godmother is born.
As for Darlene (Meghan’s supervisor) and Vicky, a mid-level associate, they’re just caricatures. I won’t say who Vicky is inspired by (someone completely different in appearance, that’s for sure), but Darlene is a total figment of my imagination. (The coordinator of paralegals at Dechert when I worked there was a lovely woman named Lisa, as I recall.)
Even the Fergusson Formal is based a bit on real life. Dechert had a “prom” for its lawyers. I got to attend once. I found a black velvet gown in my size—as improbable as finding a vintage silk tulle frock in the Bryn Mawr charity shop. Maybe even less probable, as Kassie is a WAY better shopper than I am.
What amuses me about the clear and present Cinderella theme is that the characters recognized it before I did. Dan and Meghan joke about how Kassie is the “fairy godmother.” Meghan refers to there being no fairy tale ending when she leaves the Formal. And Dan does his level best to be Prince Charming…only to discover that it’s not quite enough.
At the end of Cinderella, the Prince has to find Cinderella so that he can slip the shoe on her foot. Dan does all that (metaphorically speaking) and more, but in my version of Cinderella, Meghan has to see how she can afford to be happy. And that was the ending I’d planned all along.