Nora Zelevansky was a Claremont college student in 1995 when she attended a toga party, but her outfit revealed a definite New York state of mind.
"I had this platinum blond bleached hair, knee-high high-heeled boots and a really short minidress," recalled the author of "Semi-Charmed Life," who grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Guests at the West Coast gathering gave off a far different vibe.
"Everybody was in John Lennon glasses and had beards and were wearing Birkenstocks. I looked at them and they looked at me, and it was like, 'Who's the alien?' " said Ms. Zelevansky, who speaks at 6 p.m. Thursday in Carnegie Museum of Art's theater in Oakland. Her remarks and reading are part of the Writers LIVE! series.
California offered other culture shocks, too, the author recalled during a recent telephone interview.
"I met people who told me they'd never met Jews before," Ms. Zelevanksy said.
One college acquaintance told her that, "Before she met me, she never thought that people actually wore the clothing that's shown in fashion magazines. I was 17 years old. I was hardly wearing super high fashion clothing. I wasn't walking around in Prada."
Art, beauty, food and fashion all figured into Ms. Zelevansky's stimulating upbringing. Her mother, Lynn Zelevansky, is the Henry J. Heinz II director of Carnegie Museum of Art and her father, Paul, is an artist and writer.
The character of Beatrice Bernstein, the heroine of "Semi-Charmed Life," will remind some readers of Bridget Jones or Liz Lemon.
"I relate to this feeling of appearing clumsier and less together than maybe the world sees you. That's something I love in a comedic heroine. They're tripping through life but you're rooting for them," Ms. Zelevansky said.
Beatrice agrees to be a ghost blogger for Veruca Pfeffernoose, a Manhattan socialite. The job offers Beatrice a much-needed escape from a bug-ridden basement apartment, a chance to live in the socialite's luxurious digs, wear high-fashion clothes and eat food delivered regularly from Zabar's delicatessen. Beatrice also attends late-night parties and spends hours on the red carpet in her employer's shadow.
Ms. Zelevansky, who has written about beauty and fashion for Elle, Self magazine and Style.com, drew on all those experiences for her first novel, which she began writing in November 2009 during National Novel Writing Month. She committed herself to writing 1,700 words a day for a month.
"That's a process that you can do on your own or you can enroll on their website," she said, adding that she loves the worlds of beauty and fashion but also tries to have a sense of humor about them.
"I was almost a ghost blogger for a socialite. That was definitely something that contributed to the concept" of "Semi-Charmed Life," which was published this month in paperback by St. Martin's Press.
As a fashion writer, she's traveled to Rio on assignment, interviewed lavender and orchid farmers for a story about scents and chronicled lesser-known, new designers.
"I came up writing for Daily Candy. That was always their thing," Ms. Zelevansky said, referring to a website devoted to fashion, food and fun.
Ms. Zelevansky has written about a new T-shirt company in Los Angeles called Cotton Citizen.
"The founder's family has been in the denim dyeing industry for a long time. Now they are using these denim techniques to dye T-shirts," she said.
She's also interviewed Brit and Kara Smith, American sisters who created Elkin, a line of clothing based on literary genres and indie music.
Ms. Zelevansky has always loved fashion and made her own Halloween costumes. For one trick-or-treat outing, she dressed as a playing card.
For another Halloween, her parents dressed her and her sister, Claudia, as Peter Pan and Tinker Bell.
"We made our own wings. It was definitely a creative household. When my mother was quite young, she used to make her own clothes."
Life on the Upper West Side was like being immersed in a rich ethnic stew. Ms. Zelevansky's social circle included children of celebrities, children of first-generation immigrants and people from a variety of backgrounds, including Haitians, Jamaicans, Jews, Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Albanians.
Now 34, the author lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope with her husband, Andrew Weiner, a filmmaker.
"Brooklyn is beautiful," she said, adding that she loves its tree-lined streets, brownstones and the markets and restaurants in nearby Prospect Park.
"It feels like the entire Upper West Side has moved to Brooklyn."
Marylynne Pitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1648.