You’re daydreaming while sitting in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway and you’re suddenly struck with (literally) a novel idea: What if you took the saucy, single-girl-on-the-prowl attitude of the HBO hit comedy “Sex and the City” and merged it with the 1980s children’s book fad, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series?
Seems like a good idea, you think. A really good idea. So what do you do?
Do you figure, nah, it’s stupid — and besides, with your busy social life, you don’t really have time to write a silly book? (If so, then stop reading right here.)
Or do you pick up the phone and call your sister, a screenwriter, and tell her you’ve cooked up a brilliant idea that’s guaranteed to sell? (If so, keep reading.)
Well, if you’re Lilla Zuckerman, who herself was stuck on the 405 about two years ago, you’d jump on your cell phone and call your sister Nora, a screenwriter.
“It was a real light-bulb moment” Lilla, 28, said of her gridlocked inspiration. “I had never written anything in my life. I called Nora and said, ‘I have an idea, and I think its going to make us rich.’”
“Screenwriting teaches you to love the idea,” said Nora, 27. “I instantly knew it was a great idea.”
And so the “Miss Adventure” series was born — a sassy, sexy series in which, at the end of each short chapter, the reader is left with a dilemma: Hop into the car with that guy you just met? Or, to quote the Zuckermans’ delicate prose, avoid becoming “the chick that once got boned in the van”?
The first installment, “Tangle in Tijuana” (Fireside Books, 2003), finds the main character — you — on your way to Mexico with your best friend, Lani. The book is a wild ride: In your 24 hours in Mexico, a series of plot twists and turns could find you rich from a mythic tequila recipe you’ve discovered or — should you choose the less fortunate paths — stuck in a fetid public toilet or with your kidneys stolen.
Researching that book, said the California natives, was a blast — although they did not, the sisters claim, journey south of the border for a weekend of debauchery. “What we did do was eat tacos and suck back margaritas and think about all the funny urban legends we’ve heard about Mexico,” Lilla said. “We came up with this huge list of every funny cliché and wild thing that would happen in 24 hours.”
The “Miss Adventure” books are guaranteed to be a wilder ride than those accustomed to the retro “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, Nora said. “I think when we were younger, we felt cheated,” she said. “At times you’d turn a corner and a rock would hit you and you’d die. It felt like a waste.”
The second “Miss Adventure” book, “Beauty Queen Blowout” — out next week — features you, Miss Vermont, as you make your way through the Miss Liberty Pageant in Reno, Nev. It’s a bit more, uh, sophisticated than “Tangle,” with plot twists slightly more coherent and “you,” while still brassy, use the “f” word a little less liberally.
“Our main character girl, we made her the dark-horse beauty pageant contestant,” Nora said. “We wanted someone who wasn’t a lifer, someone who would look at the pageant world with new eyes and skepticism.”
“Beauty Queen Blowout” features 38 endings, some of which find you escorted by security out of the hotel-casino, others find you drugging your competitors and — frustratingly to some — only three endings in which you take home the crown.
“It’s not easy to win. We wanted as many choices as possible,” Nora said, adding, “Much like life.”
Life has been good for the sisters, who grew up on the posh Palos Verdes peninsula, just outside of Los Angeles, in a family of five children raised by Ken, a land developer, and Peggy, a small business owner.
“Growing up, our parents exposed us to Judaism as family tradition, history,” Lilla said. “They always made it open to us — if you want to make this an important part of your life, we’ll support you, and if you don’t find it compelling now, maybe in 10, 15 years you will.”
The sisters — though very different — have always been close. “Nora has always been—even when she was 13 — going on 35,” said Lilla, the bubblier of the two. “She’s got a solid head on her shoulders and was always a step ahead of everyone else, not only maturity-wise, but sophistication. She knew all the cool bands before they played on K-Rock, always knew the next big thing. She makes herself invaluable to everyone in her life.”
“Awww,” said Nora.
“Lilla is organized, driven in a good way and hilarious,” Nora said. “Growing up, Lilla loved being center stage, but in a levelheaded way. I have to talk to her everyday, otherwise — withdrawal. She leads a fabulous life, but she’s totally responsible and capable. She’s a fantastical bigger sister — if I didn’t have Lilla to look up to, I don’t know what I’d do.”
“Awww,” said Lilla.
While “Miss Adventure” hasn’t quite made the Zuckermans “rich” — yet — it has opened numerous doors for them. Nora is still writing screenplays, still going to “a ton” of meetings. “But now I can walk in with a book with my name on it, and for some reason that’s more impressive to people,” she said.
As for Lilla — who has tried on a variety of careers from acting to real estate to, most recently, working on a golf course — she said she’s finally found one that fits: journalism. “After ‘Tangle in Tijuana’ was published, I thought: You know what? I can just do this,” she said. She now writes a singles column for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles as well as spa and restaurant reviews for travel books.
Perhaps most remarkably, they are currently in the process of transforming “Miss Adventure” into a television series. The Zuckermans are currently pitching television networks with their ideas for a “Miss Adventure” sitcom.
We “took the spirit of the book — these young, fearless, sexy, brazen women — and put it in a sitcom format,” Lilla said. “It’s not going to be an interactive show where the audience can participate… but it’s going to be a goofy ‘Sex and the City,’ without all the sadness of being almost 40.”
“Everyone’s looking for the next ‘Sex’ and the next ‘Friends,’” Nora said. “I hope we get to make our show so then we’ll have something to watch.”
As for future “Miss Adventure” installments, the Zuckermans have been kicking around dozens of wacky ideas, with settings ranging from a high school reunion to New York Fashion Week to even a mafia wedding.
“Nora and I have long been champs of Las Vegas,” said Lilla. “We’re looking forward to taking a research trip there soon.”