For her work on Grey’s Anatomy, Krista Vernoff and her fellow writers won the 2006 Writer’s Guild Award for New Series and received a 2006 and 2007 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series. Krista was also nominated for an individual Emmy for Dramatic Writing for her episode of Grey’s entitled “Into You Like a Train.”
Prior to her work writing and Executive Producing Grey’s Anatomy, Krista Vernoff wrote and produced shows as varied as the WB's Charmed, Fox's Wonderfalls and Time of Your Life and NBC's Law and Order. Krista holds a BFA from Boston University’s College of Fine Arts and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband Kevin Maynard and their wonderful daughter, Cosette.
As head writer, you have a great deal of power in giving these characters their voice and shaping the way they are presented to your audience. Do you sometimes laugh at your role in launching ‘McDreamy' and ‘McSteamy' into the fantasies of all your female viewers?
Yes. It’s a strange and giddy feeling to pitch a thing in the writer’s room and then see it on National TV a few weeks later. I love it. I’m this girl who grew up barefoot on Venice Beach, on welfare. I went to high school in a small town in upstate New York.I had no pedigree, no relationships in this industry. So yeah, I have been known to sit and marvel at what has happened to my life that I get to put stuff on TV and people watch it and people invest in it and people care. It’s like the “Seriously” thing. My best friend Peter and I started using “Seriously” to mean just about anything we wanted it to mean. And I brought that into the room, not as a pitch, just as a part of my personality. And it annoyed the crap out of Shonda at first — she was like, don’t you know any other words?? And then the next thing I knew, it was all over the show. It was like I infected the writing staff. It was contagious. And then it was on T shirts and mugs and at one point, on a McDonald’s billboard. So yeah, that’s weird. And awesome.
We have had a great deal of commentary on our site about Bailey's struggles with working motherhood and think her character is fascinating to watch — and worthy of tremendous empathy and admiration. How have your personal struggles shaped her character's development?
Hmm. Well, I don’t know. Our room is full of working moms — there’s me and there’s Shonda and Joan Rater and Debora Cahn and we all talk a lot about what it is to be a working mom. And those conversations surely inform the writing. But I wouldn’t say Bailey is modeled specifically after any of us. Bailey is just Bailey and the character sort of talks to us and it’s our job to try to write down what she says as fast as we can. Bailey is a force to be reckoned with for sure. I feel really blessed when I watch her struggle that I don’t work in a corporate environment. Coco visits me at work all the time. She comes into the writer’s room and colors on our dry erase boards while we work. She runs around the office, eating M and M’s and offering them to everyone. She’s like the office mascot. Believe me, I know how lucky I am that Shonda has created such a woman-friendly, mom-friendly work place. I am grateful every day. And I agree with you that Bailey is a character who deserves tremendous empathy and compassion.
Is there any one character in particular you love writing lines for and working on character development with? Which character do you relate to the most?
I LOVE to write Bailey because she speaks in what Shonda has dubbed “arias.” There’s a musicality to her rhythms, almost like she’s a preacher. When she gets going in my head, my fingers just have to try to keep up. But the character I most relate to is Izzie. I relate to her optimism and to her enthusiasm and to the size of her feelings. She moves through the world heart-first. It can be a beautiful thing sometimes, and sometimes, when you’re all heart all the time, you can get pretty crushed, pretty easily. I relate to that and I like to write it and see where it goes.
I was sorry to read about your father's passing in 2001. You have talked about his death and how you created somewhat of a parallel subtext into the "Six Days, Part II" episode with the death of the character, Mr. O'Malley. Generally speaking, how much of the show's content comes from your own personal life experiences?
Thank you. Both parts of “Six Days” were pretty heavily autobiographical and that was an intense experience, writing those episodes and being on the set when they were shot. Most of our stuff is inspired by our lives in subtler ways, but generally it’s not quite that literal. But yeah, a huge part of this job is sitting in the writers’ room, over sharing like crazy. ‘Cause that’s where the really good stuff comes from. Thank God we have an AMAZING staff of writers, so Shonda and I have a lot of help. Our writers are really really good at bringing their whole selves into the job, into the writer’s room and onto the page.
You're an author, playwright, executive producer, head writer, director - you clearly wear many different hats and are used to juggling lots of projects. How have you used that talent as a mom? What is the hardest thing to manage in your daily life?
Thanks. I’m not really a director. I dabbled in directing theater a long while ago but I far prefer writing. I find it FAR less stressful. So . . . to answer your question . . . how have I used my talent as a mom? I guess I would say this: In my work, a lot of improvisation is necessary. As a writer, you’re always improvising. As a producer, you have to solve problems on the fly. As a mom, I find that I’m at my best when I’m improvising too. I have to be willing to let our day take a different shape than the one I may have planned. Sometimes, Coco doesn’t want to get dressed and go to music class. And sometimes, it’s my job as her mom to get her out the door anyway. But sometimes, it’s my job as her mom to relax, and let go of my plan, and let her dance naked around the living room, and to join her, if that’s what she really wants. (*Generally, I will not join her in the naked part — but the dancing, hell yes.)
Your recent book, The Game On! Diet , was spawned from your desire to lose your pregnancy weight and your lack of desire to follow a traditional diet. Now that you've lost the weight, are you still on the diet and keeping track of your points? Who are you competing with?
I still play the game all the time. I usually take a few weeks off between games — the longest I’ve gone without a game in the last two years is about 7 weeks. Sometimes I only play for a week or two. But it basically works like this for me: I weigh myself at least once a week. If I get on the scale and my weight has gone up 3 or 4 lbs, I call a friend and say “Game On.” Usually that friend is my co-author Az Ferguson. We are both fiercely competitive but also really supportive of each other, so one-on-one games work nicely there. Sometimes I challenge my husband — like, ‘Okay, Game On. One week. At the end, whoever wins has to give the other a foot rub every night for 20 minutes for a week.” It’s so much better — SO MUCH BETTER — so much more fun than dieting. So my answer is, I am never dieting. Never. I hate dieting. But I am often playing the game.
The whole premise of the book is based on competition, but for women who are struggling to lose weight themselves, do they need to find a group to go through the book with or can they still use the book to help lose weight by themselves?
Oh. Oh dude, I’m totally about to go on a rant. Okay, ready? My thing is this: I have trouble with that sentence, “for women who are struggling to lose weight themselves . . .” Because why do we want to struggle? What is our attachment to struggling? Cause here’s a book that’s saying, “You don’t have to struggle any more. It can actually be fun. It can be a game. It can be a freaking group sport!” and I can’t tell you how many people, how many women, ask that question you just asked. “Yeah, but can I do it on my own?” And my thing is, “How well has going it on your own worked for you so far?” Because the thing about wanting to go it alone? That’s usually about shame. We are encouraged by our culture to be ashamed of our bodies, of our weight, and therefore feel we need to hide our desire to get healthy, as if openly acknowledging a desire to get healthier is openly acknowledging our shame. I don’t mean to try to be anyone’s shrink — okay, yeah, I do — but I don’t have a license so . . . I’ll just say, how well has going it alone worked for ANY OF US so far??? Let’s pull it out of the closet. Let’s freaking talk about it. And let’s tackle it TOGETHER. And let’s have as much FUN as we can while we do it. When we do, we struggle less. For me, it’s like . . . you know when you really need to cry? But you don’t or can’t and so you’re just all stressed and bitchy all day. And then a friend calls and casually asks how you are and you BURST INTO TEARS? And you have a good cry and then you feel better and you’re just generally nicer to be around. I think this is like that. It HELPS to be witnessed. It helps to be seen and heard. And if it helps with our emotional lives, why shouldn’t it help in our journey toward physical wellness? I’m here to tell you that it does. It does help. At least for me – it really, really helps. So that’s the insanely long answer. The short answer is, yeah, there’s a ton of good health information stuffed into this book and I hope everyone reads it, even if they don’t think they want to play on a team (cause I’ll totally convince them by the end of the book to play).
How long did it take you to lose your baby weight? What encouragement and advice do you have for women who are struggling to keep up with becoming a new mom and at the same time trying to fit back into those pre-pregnancy jeans?
Hmmm. Well, I gained 50 lbs while I was pregnant. I lost 26 of them when the baby was born with all the water weight (those freakin’ night sweats are CRAZY!) Then, in the next 6 weeks, I lost one lb. ONE. That’s when I called my friend (and co-author) Az Ferguson and asked for some advice. He came over and taught me how to do High Intensity Interval Training on the stationary bike. He also taught me how to eat 5 small balanced meals a day instead of three huge unbalanced meals. I was very grateful for the advice — I just didn’t really take it. Because I really was way more into hanging with my little Coco than getting on the bike. And because I hate dieting and it felt like dieting. So I did what he said, very occasionally, and in the next 12 weeks I lost 4 lbs. So now, it’s Fall, Coco’s 6 months old, and I’m still over 200 lbs. (Keep in mind that when I got pregnant, I was 20 lbs heavier than I’d ever been.) And then, Az came over for a games night at my house. And that was pretty much the beginning of everything. He clocked my competitiveness and he knew exactly how to motivate me. He emailed me and several friends, challenging us to a fitness game. It was the same exact plan he’d given me before only now I actually did it. And it was SO FUN I didn’t even resent it. And over the next 9 weeks, I lost 15 lbs — which brought me back to very close to my pre-pregnancy weight. So…to actually answer your question…I was back to my pre-pregnancy weight about 9 months after Coco was born. And three months after that, I was 20 lbs lighter than my pre-pregnancy weight, and that’s where I’ve stayed for the last year and a half. And my advice to new moms, without seeming totally self-promoting, is to play this game. And I feel like I can say that because I didn’t invent the game. That was Az’s little slice of genius. But it totally changed my life — and I’m THRILLED that I get to share that with other new moms. Because diets suck. And when you have a new baby, the last thing you want to do is anything that sucks. But the game is fun. So fun. My advice also? Try to be a little kinder to yourself whenever you can. You gained that weight growing an amazing little person. Don’t celebrate that little person then turn around and beat up on the body that grew her. Be kind and gentle with yourself and when you decide to lose the weight, know that you can and you will.
Even though you're behind-the-scenes of the show and not on camera, do you still feel the pressure that Hollywood is notorious for regarding weight and personal appearance?
No. Not really. If I did, I wouldn’t wear sweats to work every day. But I did used to be an actress and I felt that pressure then (even though I wasn’t living in Hollywood at the time.) And now that I have a book out and have had to appear on live national television? I feel a little bit of that craziness coming back. Cause the camera really does add weight. A lot of weight. Which is among the many reasons why so many actresses go so bonkers on their bodies. So, y’know, I give myself a lot of talkings to. I remind myself that I am a woman of value in the world and that I have a right to take up however much space I choose to. And I remind myself that this pressure all women feel to try and shrink? That’s part of the patriarchy, trying to keep us down. We need to reclaim that mental energy if we want our lights to shine. So my thing is, get fit cause you feel better when you’re fit. Don’t get fit cause someone’s telling you you’re not hot enough the way you are (even if you’re the one telling you that.) “Don’t say it to yourself if you wouldn’t say it to your daughter” is my new motto. Cause I love that kid — and she’s learning from me every minute of every day. She learns something every time she sees me look in a mirror. And I want her to learn from and model herself after a Mommy with good self esteem. So I work on it all the time.
In the book's foreward, you mention coming home after 10 hour long days at Grey's, and exercising at midnight. Are you still doing that?
Sometimes. If I’m playing a game, and I fail to workout by day, then I will freaking do it at night cause I’m not about to lose all my exercise points. But I’ve gotten a lot better about finding time during the day. I get up earlier most days or get 20 minutes in at lunchtime on my office floor. I just put on music and do a couple hundred jumping jacks and a ton of sit ups and squats and push ups. It’s a great workout and you require no equipment. The thing is being willing to bring work out clothes and get sweaty at work and then try to sort of rinse off in the sink. (I have a coworker who calls it a “whore’s bath.” Nice, huh?) And y’know, a lot of us are doing it these days. The writers’ office is on something of a health kick. And it takes what it takes.
Between writing, being on set, taking care of your daughter and publicizing your book, do you ever get any time to yourself? If so, what is your most indulgent me-time activity?
Very very very rarely. It’s my biggest problem, failing to take the me-time. But when I do, I’m all about a good mani/pedi, accompanied by Pinkberry with mangos on top and a People Magazine. That’s a happy hour for me, when I do it.
Read More About Grey's Anatomy on Mommy Tracked !
If you liked this interview with Grey's Anatomy writer Krista Vernoff, check out our interviews with screenwriters Patricia Resnick  and Laurie Collyer .