Here a scammer, there a scammer. It seems like everywhere you look these days there’s yet another salacious true crime grift tale to be told. From February’s mind-boggling The Tinder Swindler, to Netflix’s equally bananas Bad Vegan, for better or worse, scammers have stolen (quite literally) the spotlight.
Ironically, Susan Rigetti’s un-put-downable Cover Story was written pre-scammer madness. But the debut novel from former engineer-turned-Uber-whistleblower (oh, we’ll get to that) meets our current moment and satisfies our scammer sweet tooth so much, we just had to make it our Fodor’s Book Club pick for May.
The novel begins in the fast-paced, high-stakes world of fashion magazines, an intro not unlike the opening scene of The Devil Wears Prada, where we meet the eager, green Lora Ricci, an Elle intern hoping to parlay her experience at the magazine into her aspiring dreams of becoming a writer. There she meets Cat Wolff, a socialite/writer/rich girl who appears to have it all. Cat quickly becomes Lora’s mentor, and that’s where things start to get a bit messy.
Lora is equally entranced and bewildered by Cat’s lavish lifestyle, and is soon roped into becoming her ghostwriter–where she eventually realizes all is not what it seems.
And speaking of fakes, you might recognize Susan from another infamous scammer tale—she was the Uber whistleblower. At just 25, her explosive, powerful, and courageous story revealed the toxic, sexist, retaliation-driven environment at Uber. She shook up the tech community, which eventually led to the ousting of then-CEO Travis Kalanick.
So, how’d she make the jump from tech to novel writing? Find out more in our (mostly spoiler-free) interview below.
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Fodor’s: Do the characters in Cover Story take inspiration from anyone you know? Does a part of you relate to Lora as a young woman from a small city trying to make it into a fast-paced world?
Susan Rigetti: The characters are completely fictional. I struggled in early drafts to make them feel like real people, and one of the things I ended up doing that helped me breathe more life into Lora’s character was trying to remember what my own concerns and worries and frustrations were when I was Lora’s age. I even went back to my own journal entries from many years ago and tried to find phrases, concerns, and words I could pull from my own early-twenties self and put into Lora’s diary.
If Cover Story is ever adapted, who would you wish to play the roles of Lora and Cat?
My list of dream cast members is so long!
[Editors Note: Susan is played by Eva Victor on Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.]
Speaking of film, while reading this book, I felt like I could envision this world so clearly and vividly. You’ve also written a screenplay–did that experience help you write Cover Story?
I really wanted the locations and the whole world of the story to feel like characters in the book, so I put a lot of work into that. My screenwriting experience definitely helped with that, because it helped me think very clearly about what each location looked like, how the characters interacted with the locations, and how to describe the locations. By the time I turned in my final draft of the book, I could describe every location down to the most minute details–for example, I could tell you exactly where the light switches and electrical outlets were in every room.
Can you tell us a little bit about your research methods?
The novel covers so many different industries and themes and locations, and I had to do quite a bit of research. The pandemic made some of the research a bit tricky. For example, I had originally planned to go and spend time in person at the Plaza Hotel, but in the early days of the pandemic, that wasn’t possible. So, instead, I did a ton of virtual tours, and got to know every inch of the hotel and the various suites and, eventually, Cat’s suite, through videos and virtual tours.
Why did you decide to write this novel in the format of written correspondences? Was it easier to write this way, or did it make the process harder? How do you think this book will fare as an audiobook?
I knew the plot and had figured out the twists and turns before I wrote the book, so I knew I had to write it in a format that worked for the plot. I’ve always loved epistolary novels (Where’d You Go, Bernadette is one of my favorite books of all time), so I immediately knew I wanted to write it in this way.
The format was so much fun, and it also presented unique challenges. When writing the entries, I wanted readers to feel like they were sifting through evidence. I also wanted to let readers construct a narrative about what was going on, but I had to be careful not to give away the twists and turns while still making them obvious in the text. It was quite the balancing act!
Due to the format, the audiobook was going to be tricky, but [audiobook narrator] Carlotta Brentan did an absolutely amazing job.
From engineering to writing, your journey has been an (inspirational!) roller-coaster. How do you feel about leaving behind a career in engineering and picking up the pen?
After I blew the whistle on Uber, I knew I wouldn’t ever be able to work as an engineer again, so I decided I was going to follow the dream I’d always had since I was a little girl and become a writer. I love writing, and I’m so incredibly lucky that I get to spend my days living my dream!
Victims of scams are often blamed for not being smart enough to prevent them from happening. But it’s not as simple as it seems—as we read in this book. Do you want people to show empathy to those who have been duped, which is happening in so many ways these days?
Absolutely. One of the things I’ve learned from researching and writing this book is the degree to which con artists and scammers abuse trust–the trust we have in institutions, the trust we have in our fellow humans, and the like. And one of the things I wanted to demonstrate to readers in this book is that sometimes we’re so busy blaming other people for being duped that we don’t realize we’re actually the ones being duped.
So often, scammers get away without any punishment, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. Do you think the books/shows/movies on swindlers and scammers are glorifying it?
I don’t think so. Let’s say that by “glorifying,” we mean that the ultimate thesis or argument of a particular book or show or movie is that this (scamming/swindling/conning) is how we ought to live, or is how we should treat other people, or something along those lines. I believe there are very few books or movies or shows that are actually making that argument–I can’t even think of one that does off the top of my head. And I don’t think that the mere existence of scammer shows or books or movies means that we’re encouraging or glorifying the behavior as a society.
Somehow, we’ve all become obsessed with scams, from The Tinder Swindler to Bad Vegan to The Dropout–this book feels right on time. What do you think it is about us culturally that is making us so drawn to these stories?
It’s funny because I first wrote this book two and a half years ago, and I had no idea of all the scammer-related things that would come out this year. There’s a whole scammer genre right now! I love it.
I think that scammers and con artists and people who are the victims of cons and scams are just really fascinating, both in fiction and in real life. These stories make for good character studies, and they are full of conflict and emotion and high stakes, which are the necessary ingredients for really great drama.
I’ve always been simultaneously fascinated by and terrified of con artists–one of my favorite books and movies of all time is Catch Me If You Can. I’m very much a rule-follower and I can’t imagine being the kind of person who would knowingly and willingly not only break laws and rules but also manipulate them. And so when I come across a scammer story, I’m immediately curious about what kind of person does those things–I want to know their motivations, I want to know how they are justifying it to themselves.