Nell Scovell: From Leaning In to Writing About It
Photo by Ryan Orange
Since Lean In was published in March 2013, it has become both a best-selling book and a movement 385,000 Facebook fans strong. Author Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, is now a household name. But another name behind Lean In is not as ubiquitous: Nell Scovell.
Sandberg's co-author, Scovell is an accomplished professional herself, with enviable credits in journalism, television and speechwriting (including jokes for President Barack Obama). A gig writing speeches for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg led her to Sandberg.
"Helping her with speeches felt like an obvious extension of what I'd been doing, which is writing dialogue," she says. But book writing? "[Sandberg] said, 'I'm not going to do this without you.' And I openly said, 'Uh, Sheryl, I've never written a book before.' And she said, 'Neither have I!'?" Scovell recounts. They both laughed, then both leaned in.
A native of Boston, Scovell, 53, grew up in the late 1960s, an exciting time for the Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox. She remained a loyal (and local) fan when she attended Harvard, and she began her professional writing journey as a sportswriter for The Boston Globe, where she honed her sarcasm, swearing and coffee guzzling. (Though today, in her cozy Santa Monica kitchen, it's all polite sipping.) Scovell subsequently wrote for satirical magazine Spy, then Vanity Fair, where her editor suggested she take a swing at television. A sample script landed her in the Newhart writers room and shortly thereafter, as the only woman in the writers room at Late Night With David Letterman.
Today, Scovell appears to be the only person who has written for animation (The Simpsons), sitcoms (Coach, Murphy Brown), dramas (Monk, NCIS), long-form (aka TV movies) and late-night variety (Letterman). She created and executive produced the ABC sitcom Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and she directs, most recently an episode of MTV's Awkward.
In Lean In, "One of the chapters that I identified with particularly was make your career a jungle gym, not a ladder," Scovell says. "It wasn't always my choice. There were shows where I got to a certain level, and I was told that the star would not let a woman be the executive producer." Scovell says this with the subtle cadence of a punch line, as if it should've been a joke, though it wasn't. "And so that meant I had to go to another show."
But she gives herself some credit, too: "After Sabrina I had my second kid, and that's when I decided to move into hourlong because the hours were better." She also lived by Lean In tenet "Make your partner a real partner": Her architect husband stayed home with their son while she ran Sabrina.
Scovell made an ideal collaborator for Sandberg. "The timing was kind of perfect, because I had just spoken out about being a woman on a late-night staff," Scovell says. "And we were both women who had been successful in our careers who were still questioning the status quo."
After coffee, Scovell is headed back to her home office, where she's currently developing an animated series and writing the movie version of Lean In.
"Movies can get at emotions that it's harder to get at in books," she says. "It's the old 'Show rather than tell.'?" In other words, it's exactly how Nell Scovell has lived her leaned-in life.
One of the fascinating Angelenos featured in L.A. Weekly's People 2014 issue. Check out our entire People 2014 issue.
Get the Theater
Your weekly guide to local culture with calendar listings and theater, dance, and comedy reviews.