A Conversation With Jamie Shupak, Traffic Reporter and Novelist
by Jen Doll
New Yorkers may know Jamie Shupak best as the traffic reporter on beloved local news channel NY1, but getting up at 3 a.m. (and being done with the traffic part of her workday by the afternoon) has its benefits, at least to someone with the boundless energy of Shupak. In her time at NY1 she’s also written a dating column for Complex magazine, chronicled her cooking adventures on her blog, TV Dinner, and written an e-book, out now, loosely based on her own life, with leeway for dramatization, of course. Transit Girl >tells the story of NYNN traffic reporter Guiliana Layne, who’s happily engaged to be married to her college sweetheart, J.R., until she finds out that he’s cheating on her with his assistant, and everything goes off the rails. (Think mortifying viral videos, a faux Gawker named Banter, tequila-fueled dating mishaps and adventures, a dognapping, and at least one night in jail.)
Shupak, who’s now engaged to former New York Times reporter Brian Stelter, is used to being in the public eye, though this is her first book. She does not hold back in putting it out there, sex scenes included. I talked to her about how the book came about, what it feels like to fictionalize real events — there really was a cheating former fiancé — and how she copes with the inevitable criticism.
How did you approach fictionalizing your life? Was that difficult?
When I first wrote it, it was so much more true to life. Editors who read it who didn’t even know me said it needed to be fictionalized even more, because a novel needs so much more drama and excitement.
How did the book come about?
When The New York Times profiled me, in October 2011 — it was right after that. I’d been writing my column for a while. Kate Lee at the time was working at ICM, and right after the profile she called me and we met. She was like, You need to write a book. The next week I started writing.
Had you been thinking about writing a novel prior to that?
When I first was single again [after the breakup that sets the book’s plot in motion], every morning I’d come into work and gchat with a friend who lives in Maryland. I was going on multiple dates a week and trying to keep them all straight. It was all so new to me, so exciting and really funny and interesting, and he’s the one who first said, “You should write a book.” I called my [TV] agent and was like, How do I write a book? He was like, you’re not a writer, so if you want to write a book, you need to write elsewhere to practice, get your name out there as a writer. The Complex column sort of fell into my lap. The EIC started tweeting at me. That part of the book is sort of based in fact, though I never met him in a bar or anything.
They were like, What are you into, what do you do? I said, “I went on four dates this week,” and they were like, OK, you’re going to be our new dating columnist. That just sort of happened. It wasn’t with the mindset of “I’m going to write a book after this.” I never ever thought I was going to write a book.
Some scenes are completely over-the-top and hilarious (like when Guiliana jumps on the back of a policeman to prevent him from taking her dog away). How did you free yourself to write that way?
I sort of wrote everything down as it happened, and then we changed and dramatized certain parts, and even added totally fake characters. Jess is my best friend, and she’s never had a boyfriend in her life, that’s who Gemma is based on. Kate, I think, was like, “Gemma needs a boyfriend.” As I made up characters from scratch, I got more into the idea of fictionalizing and dramatizing things. I don’t think I’ll ever write a second novel, but if I did, I would be more likely create an entire new universe.
Were you worried about people who are the basis of characters, like Brian, being hurt or offended by what you’d written?
I cared about Brian, I didn’t want it to hurt him on any level. You don’t know how people react to people’s pasts. I think he was really happy to learn about my past through it, though. I’d told him everything from A to Z already, but it started a lot of conversations about family and trust and loyalty. I think it opened doors to a deeper part of my psyche, almost. It was fun to fictionalize our life together, and to even be honest about the first time I saw him and saw he was bald, and now that’s one of my favorite things about him. With those kinds of fun jabs, he laughed and was entertained. I let him pick his character name. He has always loved the name Ben. He tells everyone, “I’m happy I’m the happy ending of the book.”
As for any random guy, those characters are so fictionalized you wouldn’t be able to pick them out. And they were all dating me when I was writing a dating column, anyway. With all the names and situations changed, I just wanted to have fun with it. Some of it is what you wish it could have been and what you thought about. With fiction, you can make it as crazy as you want.
You’re on TV every day, but were you at all fearful about sharing parts of your life with the world in this way?
Not for the book. An article in The New York Post was the very first press I had in which it came out that I was single and had been cheated on by my boyfriend, who I was engaged to. That was the only time I was super scared and hesitant about putting my story out there. I was like, it’s private, I don’t harbor any hatred or bad feelings, I never wanted to bash him in the press. But as soon as it came out I was flooded with notes saying “Thank you for telling your story”; “I see you smiling on TV, but now I know you’re just a human being and shit happens to you”; “I feel like I can move on with my life because you’ve moved on with your life.” After that positive wave I didn’t really hesitate. People are either entertained by it or helped by it. There will be people who hate on me, but those are people who are going to hate on anyone for anything.
Like a lot of us, you get a share of people saying trolly things. How do you deal with that?
I try to just let hate roll off, knowing that the majority of people I surround myself with and hang out with and actually love and trust, who are in my life and support me, are so happy for me. There are definitely times when I see tweets or comments, and it gets to me for a second. I’m a human. People are like, “Shut up and do the traffic, we don’t care about your life.” It makes it easy on Twitter if I see someone’s entire feed is antagonizing, I think, you’re just a miserable bitch of a person. I would love and encourage actual constructive criticism of the book. But anything that has generic hatred, I mean, I see people who subtweet me, and I try my best to just laugh it off knowing that whenever you put anything out into the world and have any kind of success, that’s just going to happen.
And, I mean, it’s not like I’m all Miss Tinkerbell Goody Two-Shoes. But for me, I don’t spew the negativity, so I try to stay away from it. There’s a time and place. I have friends and family and a fiancé to bitch to if I need to bitch. Whenever I see anything of hate, I think, if this person met me, we would probably be friends. And on some level, you just have to know that if they’re talking about you and spending time on you, it’s because you put something out into the world that’s worth it.
Do you read the comments?
I don’t. That never does anything good for me. I stay away from that stuff.
Would your character, Guiliana Layne, read the comments?
In the beginning she might not realize that all that is out there. Part of what I love about her, what I didn’t know about myself at the time, is that you don’t even know about all the stuff that goes on. I love how naive she is to all of that. I feel like she would definitely read the comments. And I hope because she’s feisty and doesn’t always understand what happens as a result of her actions that she might write a column about it. Some of the times I wish I could have done that.
Do you see her as, more like, an id?
I think she’s just learning and figuring it out.
Do you feel the book is accurate in its depiction of dating in New York City? Is this what it’s really like?
It’s all based in fact at the base level of the story. Each individual is based in reality and exaggerated and fantasized from there. New York, it can be a big game. Dating is a game, of so many things: Numbers and how many dates you go on and how many guys you meet. And figuring yourself out while also figuring out the culture and how all those things exist together. There were times when I was like, I’m dating three different guys right now, would I be better off really trying to date one person? There’s no answer, it’s just a matter of timing and numbers and where you’re at in life, and what your job schedule is like. All those things come into play. I think the book is pretty realistic about how a lot things happen, and how texting and tweeting plays into dating in such a big way. I could have gotten deeper into that, but at the time I wasn’t aware of how much digging you can do on a person!
So … you have a lot of sex scenes in this book! I personally find the idea of writing sex scenes terrifying. What was it like to write them?
[Laughing] Oh my God. There was not nearly as much sex in it when I first wrote the book. A top publisher at a top house in the city was like, “You need more sex in this book, do not hesitate, I want more sex, I want more curse words, I want all of that.” She was like, get nitty-gritty with it, and I was like, I don’t even now how to! Honestly, Brian helped me with some of it. The sex scenes were the hardest part to write. Especially after reading 50 Shades, I didn’t want it to be cheesy like that. I wanted it to be as realistic as possible, but I wanted it to be better or more fantasized than regular sex. I mean, I never rode around Manhattan in a car [and had sex]! The sex scenes have made me the most nervous, about how people would react, and how my bosses at NY1 would react. But how can you tell a story about a single twentysomething girl and not have sex in it?
How have your parents reacted? Did they read it?
When my dad read it I was like, “It’s fiction Dad, it’s fiction.” It’s sort of the overarching joke in the family now. My little brother read it and was like, “Shit got real.” Part of writing the, like, wild hot sex scenes, I also wanted there to be an awkward kiss and an awkward sex scene. All of that exists. How do you recover from that, how does a relationship recover from that? That is even more interesting to me.
And your NY1 bosses?
They only have said good things. If they’ve thought anything bad about it, they haven’t told me.
How about [NY1 anchor] Pat Kiernan?
Oh my God, he’s so good to me, he’s such a supporter. He loves the idea that he’s fictionalized as this popular, cool anchorman.
If people could take one thing away from the book, what would it be?
I would love — and this is so not how I normally talk or am or exist — but I would love for girls to realize that they don’t have to settle. I didn’t even realize I was settling when I was settling. People are in relationships for a long time and don’t want to leave for one reason or another, a lot of times because they’re scared. I would love for a girl to read this and be like, I should leave him and find someone better who will treat me right. It’s so cliche, but it’s so true. That’s why I thank the real-life [ex-fiancé] J.R. and Courtney at the end. If it wasn’t for them, I probably would have stayed. It was because of their actions that everything happened.
That story is true?
Yes. They are still together, they’re engaged.
I didn’t know whether the dog part was true. Did you really have a dog?
The dognapping part is not true, but J.R. and I did have a dog, that was important for me to include. The dog was really the lingering sad thing in my life for a while. Not only do I think people can relate [to a dog-separation after a breakup], but it helps people to understand how crushing a split it was. It was important for me to show that that relationship was a family, there was another “person” involved. In real life he wanted me to keep the dog, but I knew I’d never be able to fully move on in life if I kept her. Brian and I are going to get a dog one day.
You said you don’t think a second book is in the works?
I think it will all depend on if I have another story to tell.
Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.