Last year, television writer Jessica Queller published Pretty Is What Changes (Spiegel & Grau), a nonfiction account of her testing positive for the BRCA-1 gene mutation, which gave her an 87% chance of getting breast cancer before age 50 and a 44% chance of ovarian cancer in her lifetime. She took the test when she was 31, after losing her mother to ovarian cancer at the age of 58. (Her mother had also battled breast cancer.) The book chronicles Queller’s decision to get a prophylactic double mastectomy at age 35, and her struggle to find a partner and have a baby before having her cancer-prone ovaries removed.
"They're gorgeous sorority girls in their early twenties and thirties all having the surgery and going pole-dancing to talk about mastectomies."
What a difference a year makes. In the time since, Queller quit her coveted job as a writer/producer for Gossip Girl to focus on getting pregnant. She became a major presence on the lecture circuit and developed a fan base of women who faced similar, heart-wrenching choices as hers. And now, if Queller were to write another chapter, it would be a happy one: She’s three months pregnant and just kicked off her paperback tour. In her first interview since finding out she’s expecting, she tells The Daily Beast about choosing her sperm donor, the Gossip Girl writers’ room, and influencing sorority girls to have their own mastectomies.
Your book got a lot of attention, but didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. How do you gauge its impact?
I get incredible heartfelt letters. One woman sent me a message on Facebook after hearing me on NPR. She had just recovered from lymphoma and was 35, a Harvard grad. Like me, she had a lot of great boyfriends who didn’t work out and it occurred to her for the first time that she could do it on her own. She went to the sperm bank and is now 18 weeks pregnant. That blew me away. I had to write back and say I’m finally pregnant, too.
Tell me about the bump!
I’m 14 weeks pregnant, by sperm donor 131, or something like that. It took me nine months to get pregnant, nine tries. For six months, I was choosing someone who was brilliant at science and math, the parts of the brain I don’t have, to try to compensate. It wasn’t working. Then I went for someone more like someone I would date: a liberal, artistic, tall, handsome, and kind. He was the winner. He’s an open donor—that means he’s open to being contacted when the child is 18. Ninety-five percent of donors are closed. I didn’t choose him for that reason, but I’m grateful for it.
Would you suggest surgery for any woman who has the breast-cancer gene?
It’s intensely personal and you have to really soul-search to make sure it’s right. I didn’t want to gamble with cancer.
What was it like working on the best television show ever?
I worked on Gossip Girl from Season 1, Episode 1, and I loved the show. It was my favorite show I’ve ever worked on.
Did you know from the start it would become a phenomenon?
When I had the job offer, I had a strong feeling it would be a hit, but I never could have imagined the phenomenon. I knew it was a great pilot. As much as I loved the show, TV writing is an incredibly stressful job. I tried to get pregnant for a year while working and it wasn’t happening. There was no medical explanation except for stress. I was 39. I had been trying to get pregnant since I was 37. I never did I.V.F., which is really expensive, but I was just about to when I got pregnant. No woman thinks she will have trouble getting pregnant. Your whole young adult life, you try not to get pregnant and assume it will just happen when you’re ready. I was stunned when it didn’t.
Was it hard to leave such a successful show?
It was a difficult decision to give notice at Gossip Girl. I went to my boss [Stephanie Savage] and explained my window for having a child. I had to have my ovaries removed at age 40. I needed to eliminate stress and focus all my energy on my health and fertility to give it a chance. Two weeks after [I left the show], I got pregnant.
How is the writer’s room stressful?
The intensity of talking and sharing your own stories in a writer’s room for eight to 10 hours a day is indescribable. It’s exciting and fun and exhausting. Writing a 56-page episode in five days is like having final exams in college. You stay up all night and drink coffee round the clock. You have 24 hours to write an outline, and that’s killer. It’s just as difficult as writing the script.
Is there a magic hour when you do your best work?
I do best on deadline, when it pours out of me unconsciously and I don’t have the luxury to obsess.
Are you moving back to New York City?
I think so. I grew up there and went to Riverdale, which is very similar to Gossip Girl. There’s another writer on the show, Josh Safran. He went to Horace Mann. We were the resident New York experts.
What’s your plan for work?
I’m looking for freelance work from home, so I can be with the baby so I don’t have to leave her with a nanny and go to an office all day.
Have you always been this proactive about your life?
My college roommate calls me a reluctant alpha. I’m kind of lazy and would rather be curled up in bed reading a book, but when life gives me no choice, I am capable of being very alpha. When I made this decision [to have the double mastectomy] five years ago, it was considered incredibly avant-garde, especially for a young single woman. Now it’s changed dramatically, and there’s a huge movement all over the country. I hear from them all the time, like BeBrightPink. They’re gorgeous sorority girls in their early twenties and thirties all having the surgery and going pole-dancing to talk about mastectomies.
Are you dating anyone?
Not as of about a month ago. It’s hard to date and be a pregnant woman.
Are you going to write another book?
Possibly. But not any time soon. I don’t have the end of this next chapter yet.
Deborah Schoeneman has been a columnist for The New York Observer, New York magazine, and Condé Nast Portfolio and served as editor in chief of Hampton Style magazine. Deborah's the author of the novel 4% Famous and moved to Los Angeles last year to break into Hollywood writing and learn how to surf.