Former Cosmopolitan EIC Kate White on Writing Bestselling Mysteries and ‘Picking a Lane’

'Lunch' with a prolific writer enjoying her successful second career

The scene at Michael's
Michael's.

Over the course of the many years I’ve been chronicling the fate and fortunes of the famous and infamous regulars at Michael’s, few people have left an impression on me the way Kate White did.

When I first met Kate–where else?–in this very dining room, she was the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan who, in addition to being one of Hearst’s star editors, happened to also be writing bestselling books on the side. I came to know her as one of the Wednesday Michael’s regulars I could always count on to light up the room with her fun Table One lunches, often attended attended by high profile-guests celebrating the publication of one of their books or one by White herself.

Unlike many peers who have risen to the top of the masthead, Kate never put shilling for her personal brand ahead of the title she represented. She was, dare I say, nice.  I once introduced her to my then five-year-old daughter during Fashion Week and several months later, when I saw her on a Wednesday at Michael’s, she had brought along some girlie hair accessories and a cute mirror for me to pass on. “I saw them and thought of her,” she said at the time. That kind of nice.

Kate White, Diane Clehane

I hadn’t seen much of Kate since she left Cosmo in 2013 to write full-time and work the lecture circuit (more on that later), so I was thrilled to meet her back at Michael’s today to talk about her latest book, The Secrets You Keep, which just came out last week from Harper.

By the looks of things, I wasn’t the only one that was happy about Kate’s return to 55th and Fifth. There were plenty of air-kisses exchanged as she made her way through the dining room to greet old pals David Zinczenko, Leonard Lauder and Barbara Taylor Bradford. Cosmo’s current EIC, Michele Promaulayko, who was lunching with Lauder, came over for a quick catch-up after the cosmetics mogul departed. The two women traded too many compliments to count before Michele told me, “Kate taught me everything I know” then added with a laugh, “Kate makes you feel like an underachiever, no matter what you do.”

It’s easy to see why. Kate is a New York Times bestselling author of eleven works of fiction: six Bailey Weggins mysteries and five psychological thrillers. Her books are published in 13 countries around the world. Her 12th book–the next Bailey Weggins mystery, Even If It Kills Her–will be out this October.

She is also the author of several very popular and bestselling career books, including I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: How to Ask for the Money, Snag the Promotion and Create the Career You Deserve and Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead But Gutsy Girls Do. Next March, 22 years after it was first published, Kate is coming out with an updated version of Gutsy Girls. “I want it to be a handbook–something you can stick in your purse,” she told me. I need a nap just typing this.

Harper

Clever Kate, who wanted to write mysteries ever since she read her first Nancy Drew book, wasn’t about to let her corporate success get in the way of her dreams of becoming a writer. She was EIC of Redbook when her then-boss Cathie Black called her upstairs and told her she was taking over the reigns of Cosmo. “I never saw it coming,” she said between bites of her dayboat scallops. “Then I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m never going to be able to fit in writing my mystery.’”

But four months later, she figured out a way. During the workweek, Kate wrote one hour a day from 7:45 am until 8:45 am at her office before her staff arrived (“They never got there until 9:30”) and on the weekends before her two children, Hayley and Hunter, got up. She somehow managed to leave her office every day by 5:30 p.m. so she could have dinner with her kids and then wrote every night for two hours after they went to bed. “Even if we’d go to the theater, I’d stay up and write when we got home,” she recalled. On the weekends, she wrote every day. “I was super disciplined.” I’ll say–she managed to crank out eight (!) books during her fourteen years at Cosmo.

Not satisfied with just a top editor title, writing books “was my Plan B,” explained Kate. “I was always afraid of getting fired. I saw [Glamour editor in chief] Ruth Whitney unceremoniously dumped. I needed to protect myself.” As much as Kate loved her job at Hearst (“You couldn’t ask to work for a better company”), she knew she was “an outdoor cat.” The way she saw it, “For the most part I gave good corporate citizen, but I love my freedom.”

She told me she used to look forward to  those trips out to Los Angeles for the magazine to meet with various publicists about celebrity covers. She always tried to slip in some time just strolling around Beverly Hills. “That gave me a sense of what it would be like to be my own boss and I loved it.”

Even though she works from home now, Kate looked every inch “the Cosmo gal” today in her signature leopard print top, black pencil skirt and sky high YSL booties. She fit right in with the camera-ready crowd, so I had to ask if she missed the glitz and glamour of occupying the top job at a high-profile title. “I loved Ellen Levine and Cathie Black. When David [Carey] arrived, it was a blessing. I knew I was leaving at the top of my game and I had three years to savor every moment. I feel so lucky to have been part of a brand at its height. But that was then, this is now.”

Today, she starts her day watching Morning Joe and writes for four to five hours in the morning, devoting most afternoons to interviews and research. She still writes seven days a week. She and her husband Brad Holbrook spend the winter at their home in Uruguay and the rest of the year in New York City.

Grand Central Publishing

When I asked Kate what words of wisdom she has for fledgling authors, it was no surprise that she had plenty of advice. “You have to figure out your writer’s cocktail,” she explained. “What time of day works for you, the best surface for you to write on and how long you can go.” When she first started out, Kate wrote for just fifteen minutes a day for six months, working her way up to her current schedule of four to five hours. When she’s writing non-fiction, she prefers to write while watching Law & Order, but while writing her novels she needs “complete silence” or, sometimes, a bit of opera in the background.

The most important thing writers need to do is “pick a lane,” she enthused. “You have to go big–big within your lane.” Kate has clearly found hers writing mysteries. “Women–both older and younger women–love mysteries. Gen X and Gen Y women have the same instinct. The love CSI and Gone Girl by the fabulous Gillian Flynn. They don’t want ‘cozies.'” Which means forget those musty Agatha Christie-type whodunits.

White also advises going for the big shock–something readers won’t see coming. One magazine writer who once worked for Kate and took her boss’ advice to heart is Jessica Knoll, author of The Luckiest Girl Alive. It’s one of my favorite books of 2016. Reese Witherspoon has optioned the movie rights and Jessica is writing the screenplay. Jessica, who thanks Kate in her bestselling tome’s acknowledgments, recently sent re-shared with Kate an email White had sent to Knoll when the latter was just starting to write books, telling her young charge “to go big.”

Kate suggested there are two types of writers: “plotters” and “pantsers,” a.k.a. those who write by the seat of their pants. “I wouldn’t want to be one of those just because of the name!” She’s a plotter–mapping out four chapters at a time. “I know who did it, how and why, but a lot of magic can still happen.” Kate also keeps a spiral notebook where she writes down questions to herself because, as she explained it, “If you put it out there in the universe, somehow an answer presents itself.”

Don’t fall in love with your own idea without knowing whether it’s a subject or genre that’s going to sell, Kate counseled (“If that’s the case, you can always self-publish”). If you’re truly interested in being a successful author. “You have to look at what’s selling,” she said. “I do a lot of research. You have to look at everything.” And, she cautioned, don’t be fooled by social media. “‘Likes’ don’t translate into sales but you need to be in . Facebook is good for authors and Instagram is good for posting pictures of the book. Twitter not so much.”

In case you thought Kate was wasting her spare time on Facebook, think again. She’s also got a jam-packed schedule of speaking engagements. “Writing is such a solitary activity, so this is a nice balance.” Next week, she’s speaking at the Women’s Food Forum in Orlando. Future engagement include The Coca Cola Women’s Conference in August and she giving a “career talk” in Kiev next year. Yes, really.

Of all the things Kate told me over our very lively lunch, one thing she said really stuck with me. “You can’t just ask what you want from the world, you have to ask what the world wants from you.” Evidently, the world expected quite a lot from Kate and I’d say she’s more than delivered.

Here’s today’s rundown:

1. Birthday girl Fern Mallis feted by pals Mickey Ateyeh and designer-turned-designer-baker Charlotte Neuville

2. Long time no see! David Zinczenko with, we’re told, some bankers. Hmmm

3. Producer Terry Allen Kramer and George Hamilton

4. Leonard Lauder with Cosmo editor Michele Promaulayko

5. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina and Andy Bergman

6. Kathie Lee Gifford, Rikki Klieman, Eva Mohr and Barbara Taylor Bradford

7. Judy Licht

8. Cece Cord and Carolyne Roehm

11. David Rhodes

12. Jack Myers

14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew

15. Marlo Thomas

17. Discovery ID’s Henry Schleiff; Act Two: George Gurley

18. Jonathan Estreich

20. Christy Ferrer

21. CBS News’ Peter Van Sant

23. Piere Levai

24. Tom Goodman

26. Kate White and yours truly

Faces in the crowd: Kira Semler and Vi Huse celebrating the arrival of spring with a champagne lunch at the bar. Cheers!

[Diane Clehane posts reports from Michael’s restaurant every Wednesday. She can be reached via email at lunch@adweek.com.]