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Diana Peterfreund knows that the new initiates into secret societies used to be listed in the New York Times. She also has friends who list their memberships in secret societies on their résumés. But, when asked if she is a member of such a society, Peterfreund doesn’t confirm or deny. Puckishly, she asks: “What do you think?”
Peterfreund, a 28-year-old Silver Spring resident, is the author of the Secret Society Girl series. After four years of submitting manuscripts to various agents—all the while holding gigs as a food critic, a FEMA worker, and a romance-novel cover model—her debut novel, the eponymous first in the SSG series, was published in 2006 by Bantam Dell. The series follows protagonist Amy Haskel at Eli University (a thinly veiled Yale simulacrum, Peterfreund’s alma mater), as she navigates a typical college experience—complete with exams and ex-boyfriends—while maintaining a membership in the secret society, Rose and Grave (inspired by Yale’s Skull and Bones). The second installment in the four-novel series, Under the Rose, was released in late June.
Though the drama in the Secret Society Girl novels often comes from the mystery inherent in being a member of such an organization, Peterfreund—who admits she draws her knowledge of those societies from friends who were members and other research—notes that the average secret society is much less exciting than most people might think. “It’s basically just like any other club on campus,” she says, adding that misconceptions are largely due to media and Hollywood sensationalism. One reason she began writing the series was to dispel notions of secret society members as cutthroat, sinister autocrats.
“Both John Kerry and George W. Bush were Skull and Bones members, and in the last presidential election, you would actually see stuff on CNN and FOX, talking about it as if it were an issue—as if Skull and Bones were making a play to rule the world. It amazed me.”
While Peterfreund’s novels are often placed in the chick-lit category, she has no qualms with the label. “Maybe if [chick-lit] was called something more dignified, people would have more positive ideas about it,” she says. “I personally think that chick-lit is a story about a young woman’s journey, a bildungsroman kind of thing, and therefore can take so many different paths.”
As a literature major, Peterfreund is well-versed in the classics, and she says the head-butting, supposed or actual, between fans and authors of genre and literary fiction is silly. “It’s an unnecessary war,” says Peterfreund. “I knew people in school who read Sophocles all day and then at night would read a Harlequin romance. It’s not an either-or proposition.”
Peterfreund is currently working on the third installment of the Secret Society Girl series and has plans to write a young-adult book about killer unicorns. If that last bit of subject material sounds like something that could further solidify her status as a chick-lit author, she isn’t particularly concerned. “When a story lives on for a hundred years, that’s when we look at something and say, well this is really important to the canon of literature,” she says. “Dickens didn’t think he was writing something for the ages.”