So it’s not a total shocker that one of those book-loving, purl-stitching feminists, a legal scholar and advocate named Jennifer Taub, has found herself collaborating on a literary pursuit with two of the most famous women to take on Donald Trump — who also happen to be knitting enthusiasts. That would be the former president’s niece, Mary L. Trump, who in 2020 wrote a bestselling tell-all about him, and E. Jean Carroll, the advice columnist who in May won a sexual abuse and defamation case against him.
The three women, who got to know each other through a Zoom knitting group at the height of the pandemic, are now spinning a different kind of yarn together: a romance novel called “The Italian Lesson.” Trump is the writer, Taub her editor, and Carroll her adviser and number-one fan. “I mean, to meet Mary is to love Mary,” Carroll gushed during a recent Zoom interview with the others. “She is a GAS! Just a gas. And then you add Jen to that, and there’s a lot of merriment.”
Since June, the trio has been publishing “The Italian Lesson” in serialized installments on their Substack, Backstory Serial. The story follows the adventures of Anastasia, an American expat living in a fictional Tuscan village who falls in love with a sexy vineyard owner with “thick, wavy black hair,” blue eyes, and a heart of oro.
For $60 a year or $6 a month, subscribers get access to ongoing installments, plus commenting privileges and special features, including recipes for Italian dishes and drinks as well as “knit-alongs” inspired by its setting. (Trump noted that “The Italian Lesson” is the first of what they hope will be many fiction projects to come: “All three of us have ideas for new novels.”)
“I think people like community around what they’re reading,” said Taub, as she worked her knitting needles on “Anastasia’s Favorite Scarf” (actually a design by Purl Soho called the Mistake Rib Scarf).
Readers are “overwhelmingly female,” said Trump. Among them are a lot of knitters, including outspoken grandmothers, self-identified Smithies, a retired psychotherapist, a recent first-time Ohio poll worker, and a former US attorney for the Northern District of Alabama: Joyce Vance.
“I love the idea of friends writing smart romance fiction,” Vance wrote to the Globe in a text. In addition to knitting Anastasia’s scarf, she was so “taken” with a recipe for Marocchino that she ended up buying glass coffee cups to make it in. But what really keeps her coming back is the serialized romance, she said, noting that “there’s a little of Mary in everyone in the story.”
In Italy, Anastasia joins a knitting group with five other women — art imitating life, you could say. Taub, Trump, and Carroll met via Twitter but really became friends through their knitting circle. Initially, they joked about writing a Hallmark movie together — any excuse to keep in touch. Twitter (now X) stopped being an option when Elon Musk took over, said Taub. “I think everyone does feel a little bit of a loss with what Elon has done to destroy the community over there.”
Eventually, they came up with the idea of collaborating on a romance novel written by Trump, a clinical psychologist who has long enjoyed writing fiction. There was just one wrinkle. “I’ve never read a romance novel in my life,” Trump said.
That’s where Carroll comes in. She’s something of an expert, having read her fair share of bodice rippers in her younger years. “I ate it up because I was trying to figure out, what are the rules in life? How do you catch a man?” she said. “You want to know how to catch a man? Read a romance novel . . . they tell you what to do and what not to do. I like anything with rules.”
Today, romance is a booming industry; it was the leading growth category for US print books last year, according to the market research company NPD Group. (The goal is to find a traditional publisher and option “The Italian Lesson,” Trump said. “So I’m talking to ‘my people’ about that.”) While the Substack format is relatively new, there’s a long history of collaboration and serialization in the genre, said Jayashree Kamblé, a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College at the City University of New York who studies mass-market romance novels. There’s also “a long tradition of romance writers who are trying to hold up values of female rights, greater inclusion, and equity” and even “a Venn diagram of romance readers who are avid knitters,” she added.
In other words, “The Italian Lesson” isn’t exactly turning the genre on its head. “Of course it has to take place in a hill town in Tuscany,” said Trump (who loves Tuscany), “and there has to be a café, and she has to meet this handsome stranger, and it’s love at first sight, or whatever.”
But other rules are meant to be broken. In this love story, Anastasia asks Matteo out on a date, and she pays for dinner. Though she has a troubled past, she’s no damsel in distress — she buys a café and joins the Women’s Business Owners Association, befriending the bosses of the local bakery, bookstore, and yarn shop.
Matteo, God bless him, can’t seem to speak highly enough about his female vineyard manager or Anastasia’s entrepreneurial girlfriends. The character “wrote himself,” Trump said, “but it ended up being extraordinarily important that this man . . . is a feminist; that he respects women in a way that most men, it seems, don’t; and he also respects the privacy of Anastasia’s friendships with women.”
As editor, Taub looks for technical problems and helps with plot points.
“I’m the cheerleader,” said Carroll, who plays the spicy, seasoned veteran to Trump’s slightly mortified romance-novel rookie.
“Mary Trump is going to surprise you. Mary Trump is going to cause your eyebrows to roll up to your hairline and go all the way back because Mary Trump is going to be writing some sex scenes,” Carroll cooed as Trump cringed. “Not hideously, but in the Mary Trump style, which will be delicious and fascinating. . . . So it’ll be very interesting when she gets down to it. I’m just promising you.”
“Well, I’m not,” said Trump.
“E. Jean’s role, I consider her like the first reader, because she’s so steeped in the tradition of romance,” Trump added. “If what I’m doing works for E. Jean, then I feel really good about what I’m doing.”
But not everything “works for E. Jean,” who doesn’t hold back, Trump said: “One of my favorite comments was ‘Mary Trump, this sentence is beneath you!’ ”
For the most part, their Substack is a “politics-free zone,” but in between knitting and nattering about shawls and baby blankets, commenters occasionally offer words of solidarity. Earlier this month, after a judge dismissed Donald Trump’s counterclaim against Carroll and found that her rape claim is “substantially true,” one commenter posted, “we’re all cheering for you, Ms E Jean Carroll!”
In a followup interview, Mary Trump said she and her collaborators don’t interact with political comments, “but we’re not going to silence people.”
“I don’t consider supporting E. Jean political,” she noted. “She’s been extraordinarily brave. She’s been put through more than most people should ever have to withstand, and she’s emerged triumphant. She deserves all the support people want to give her.”
The project and the friendships it has fostered have been a vital means of connection for Trump, who says she has PTSD-related social anxiety that was “induced by the election results of 2016” and exacerbated by COVID-19 isolation. “I’ve been in lockdown since November 2016,” she said. “So it’s been a little harder for me to transition back to a normal life than others.”
Still, not everyone has been supportive of her current diversion. Trump said that some people in her orbit have “tried really hard to keep me in a particular lane” without being able to define exactly what that lane is. “I don’t have one, and I think that’s freeing in some ways.” Her last book was 2021′s “The Reckoning: Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal.”
“I’m going to do anything I can, at this point, to keep myself engaged creatively with things that don’t wound my soul,” she said.
So she has created a gentler world for Anastasia, where comfort comes in the form of female friendship, or a skein of soft alpaca yarn, or a slice of olive oil cake, or a glass of Marocchino, or a tabby cat named Principessa as much as (and maybe even more than) it does in the arms of a lover.
“Satisfaction for women is everywhere around us. Everywhere around us. I’m telling you,” Carroll said.
That’s really the whole point, “why romance novels are, I hate to say, ‘important,’ ” she continued. “It’s about the romance of life.”
It’s also about showing readers that there are “other alternatives — there’s no one thing” and that “you don’t have to wait to be saved,” said Trump, who is more interested in “broadening our perspectives about what’s meaningful.”
“But there will be a happy ending,” Taub cut in. “She’s not going to [bleep] with that.”