When some people hear that Nicole Richie has written a novel — her second, by the way — their knee-jerk assumption is usually, “Well, it’s probably awful.” Not so fast! Priceless isn’t what you think. Sure, it’s about the rise and fall and rise again of a skinny white rich lady. But in many ways, it’s also a recession parable. It’s the story of Charlotte Williams, a skinny white rich lady who loses everything — much like you or somebody you know, even if you’re not skinny, white or formerly rich. Does Charlotte whine about her sudden lack of dependable income? Well sure. But then she does the responsible thing and moves down to New Orleans, “a place of wild music and wild women and all that jazz.” She rooms with her former nanny, the completely unstereotypical Miss Millie Pearl, and within a few days becomes BFFs with a sassy lesbian, gets a job at a local restaurant, and becomes the lead singer for a blues band on the verge of mainstream success. Charlotte is an inspiration to anyone who’s ever found themselves penniless and alone, wondering “Is being beautiful and having a smoky Norah Jones-esque voice enough to get me out of this mess?” Priceless answers that crisis of faith with a resounding “You go, girl!”
Richie’s novel isn’t just about personal redemption. It’s also about how one person really can make a difference. Or more specifically, how Katrina-rattled New Orleans is just waiting to be inspired by a girl who weighs as much as a bag of Funyuns. “It was an amazing moment,” Richie writes of her heroine’s singing debut at a New Orleans nightclub, “with hundreds of people all listening intently, smiling, swaying to the blues, and watching this tiny white girl lay into the song as if she’d been born to it.” Why do the poor, huddled masses find so much happiness in a woman who, like Richie herself, has collarbones that are visible through a sweater? As the smokin’ hot jazz pianist she’ll eventually have sex with in an alley reminds Charlotte, her plight is symbolic of the misfortune suffered by the good people of post-Katrina New Orleans. “They lost everything; you lost everything,” her future lover tells her, apparently without laughing.
Though it’s temptingly easy to eviscerate Richie for her latest literary effort, it often seems like she’s in on the joke. I can’t prove this, it’s just a gut feeling. Maybe it’s the staggering number of times she uses the word “bitch”, which any responsible copyeditor would have cut at least in half. (Life is a bitch! Don’t you think, you skinny bitch? You won’t have sex with your boyfriend in a restaurant bathroom? What a bitch! OMG, your best friend just called you a bitch on CNN! And now some bitch that got embezzled by your daddy called you a bitch as she’s breaking your nose. Well, it’s not as bad as your stalker, who sends you five consecutive texts that just read: ‘Bitch. Bitch. Bitch. Bitch. Bitch.’ Don’t worry, it’ll all work out in the end, when you discover your inner bitch.) Maybe it’s the constant name-checking of famous designers (Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Armani, Marc Jacobs, Chanel, Louboutins, Eres, Tiffany’s, Ungaro, Laura Ashley, La Perla, Aubade, Givenchy, Pucci, and Zandra Rhodes, to name just a few), which happens way too often to be accidental. And for somebody who has gotten so much tabloid ink for being dangerously skinny, her fictional doppelgänger is curiously proud of her skeletal frame. Take this possibly ironic passage:
“It’s hard to really sing the blues and mean it if the wort thing that ever happened to you was Barneys running out of size two.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I’m a zero.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“A size zero, you idiot.”
I called the soon-to-be Mrs. Joel Madden to talk about her novel, and despite my admittedly low expectations, she was funny and quick on her feet. By page 18 of Priceless somebody has already uttered the all-too-familiar Surreal Life catchphrase “That was hot,” but in real-world conversation, Richie speaks like an adult with a healthy sense of humor and a grasp of the Queen’s English, or at least somebody who hasn’t recently sipped on a cocktail while trying to sweet-talk a traffic cop. So suck on that, haters!
Eric Spitznagel: If you don’t mind, I’m going to judge Priceless solely by the cover. Am I correct in thinking this is a novel about a woman who’s just taken a shower and is now playing the piano?
Nicole Richie: Yes, that’s exactly what it is. I’m so glad that you made such a great assessment.
Are you at your most productive post-shower?
Absolutely, yes. I tend to operate at my best when I’m in a towel.
Is that really you on the cover? Your shoulders look so… non-boney.
No, that’s not me at all. The photographer and I came up with a few ideas, and it was very important for me not to show the girl’s face. I really wanted the story and the idea of her talent to speak for itself. It really had nothing to do with who she is or what she looks like. It’s about a woman leaving everything she knows and moving to New Orleans. It’s her talent that gets her to where she’s going, and it has nothing to do with her family or her money or anything like that.
And also, she’s very, very clean.
Yes, that’s exactly it. I wanted readers to know that she bathes often, and she has amazing back muscles. Because that’s the most important thing in life.
Let’s say someone’s at a bookstore, and they’ve got Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in one hand and Priceless in another. Which one do they buy?
Well, if you want to be educated, you get Priceless.
Snap! Somewhere Franzen is going, “Oh no you di’int!”
[Laughs.] Oh it’s on.
But seriously, you and Franzen have a lot in common. You’ve both written books with one word titles. You’re both New York Times best-selling authors. And you both had BFFs who betrayed them.
Well, Franzen lost David Foster Wallace to suicide, and you lost Paris Hilton to, uh, craziness.
With you and Franzen’s career being almost indistinguishable, what makes your book a more satisfying read?
I would say that Priceless really just takes you to another world. It allows you to let your imagination run free.
Freedom’s got a scene where a guy searches his poop for a wedding ring. How scatological does your book get?
Are you kidding me? That’s so funny. I have the exact same storyline in my book. Almost word for word. Specifically involving a wedding ring.
Franzen’s got Oprah on his side. Who’s plugging for Priceless?
Nobody yet, but maybe I should call O-Dogg and see if she’ll back me up as well.
You call Oprah “O-Dogg”?
Oh yeah, we’re besties. We’ve made each other friendship bracelets.
Your first book, The Truth About Diamonds, was reportedly semi-autobiographical. Isn’t that just a fancy way of saying “please don’t sue me for libel”?
No, it was totally a fiction story. As a writer, of course you write from your own experiences. So, you know, you can take what you want from that. But with Priceless, it was more about examining this thing that every young girl goes through.
Which part? Having a Bernie Madoff dad? Going to New Orleans to escape the paparazzi?
It’s more a general idea of a girl’s journey, where she finds her own space in the world and finds her voice. When you’re living in a big city, there are so many struggles and challenges just to make your presence known and be an individual. So I took that idea and turned it into a fiction story.
You’ve claimed that you didn’t have a ghostwriter. Is that true?
I’m not going to lie. I did get help from my cat Gypsy. She’s very smart. Actually, her full name is Gypsy Rose Lee, but her author’s name is just Gypsy. That’s what she goes by.
I thought your cat’s name was Tabitha Jones Madden.
We have two cats. One is named Gypsy Rose Lee, and the other is Tabitha Jones Madden.
Your cats have middle and last names? You do realize that you’ve taken it to a new level of crazy, right?
[Laughs.] I am aware of that, yes. And I’m fine with it.
You’re also aware that these cats aren’t technically related to you?
They are related! My cats are members of our family.
But not really. Please tell me that when you die, you’re not bequeathing your fortune to your cats like Leona Helmsley.
When I go, they’re definitely going to get all the cat food that I have in my house.
Not a trust fund?
You don’t even know how much my cat food is worth. I buy it in bulk at Costco, so it’s worth a lot. Also, just for the record, we don’t call Tabitha by her full name anymore. I saw her from behind, when she was taking a drink of water from the pool, and as she bent over I saw two little surprises between her legs.
A scrotumy surprise?
Right, right. I was mortified, because I had named her Tabitha and now I found out that she was indeed a he. I really loved the name Tabby, and my kids know her as Tabby now, so I can’t just change her name. So we started calling her Tabby Jean the Drag Queen.
A lot of celebrities get book deals just because they’re famous and not because they have any writing talent whatsoever. Is it wrong for the rest of us to be resentful and angry?
Everyone has the right to their own opinion. It actually makes me feel better when people say to me, “Oh I didn’t believe in you at first, but you really surprised me.” That actually feels good. Challenge me all you want. I love a challenge, and I hope that eventually my work will speak for itself.
Do you consider Snooki a literary contemporary?
I think she’s going to take over the world. Everybody has been really underestimating her. But she has so many ideas in that bouffant of hers.
You think that’s where her brain is? In her bouffant?
[Laughs.] It could be, yeah.
So she could be like that super-smart alien with the huge cranium in that old episode of The Outer Limits? “Your ignorance makes me ill and angry.”
Who knows? You don’t know what’s going on in that poof. She could be hiding a world of genius writing.
It’s just… I don’t know. Why does she even want to be a writer? You don’t see Jonathan Safran Foer saying, “Hey bitches, I’m coming out with a new fashion line!” Or Zadie Smith saying, “I just caught gonorrhea from The Situation!” Stick with what you do best, right?
You know what I’d like to see? Snooki is so captivating on television, I think it’d be great if she did a video of herself reading her book. That’s what people want to see. You could read the book if you want, or just watch a video of her reading it to you. That would be really fun.
I’d like to see a video of her actually writing the book.
[Laughs.] Don’t count her out. When this book gets published, I think she’s really going to surprise everyone.
Here’s a sentence from your first novel: “Chloe was sitting on her ass in a funky puddle, the perfect metaphor for the pond of loser juice she’d been swimming upstream in ever since drugs had won her over.” I have so many questions about this.
That was me last night. I literally do that at least once a year.
What exactly is “loser juice”?
Loser juice could be many things. It’s any sort of liquid that comes out of a loser’s body. Pee, poop, sweat, anything coming out of your hair, anything at all.
So it’s not a metaphor?
No, it’s literal. It’s real juice.
Are there ways of preventing this from happening? A deodorant or antiperspirant for loser juice?
No, it’s either in you or it’s not. There’s just no denying it.
How do you tell the difference between normal bodily secretions and full-on loser juice?
Loser juice has a slight yellowish color.
I’m sure I had other questions, but I have no idea how to segue from loser juice. What do you say we just end it here?
[Laughs.] It’s probably for the best.
* * *
Addendum: The Wit & Wisdom of Nicole Richie, Author
Still undecided on whether to pick up a copy of Priceless? Here are a few of our favorite quotables, destined to become Bartlett classics….
On Minimum Wage Employment
“It was interesting to see how long a manicure lasted in a busy restaurant kitchen.”
On the Difficulty of Having Sexual Relations with Government Agents
“There are lots of reasons it would be a terrible idea for us to sleep together. I’m investigating your father’s crime, for one.”
On Unappreciated Fashion
“She had nearly a thousand dollars’ worth of French silk underwear on, but no one would see that.”
On the Bright Side of Paparazzi Photographers Catching You By Surprise
“She looked terrible: furious, scared, but still hot as hell.”
“People are fuckwits”
On the Proper Amount of Makeup to Apply for a Police Interrogation
“Full… but not slutty.”
On the Life-Saving Properties of Couture
“What if you’d been wearing something less incredible? You could be dead!”
On the Irony of Being Apprehended by Sexually Frustrated SEC Agents
“You’re spoiling all my fun, Agent Scarsford. And she didn’t even fuck you.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)