Warning: This interview includes a discussion of sexual assault as well as gun violence that can be traumatic for survivors.

A year after the release of her New York Times bestseller 2015 novel, “The Happiest Girl Alive,” author Jessica Knoll was ready to share a different but tragically similar story: her own. In The Happiest Girl Alive, the protagonist Ani has set up a new life for herself as a glamorous magazine editor. However, her shiny facade hides a difficult past: Annie, formerly known as TiffAnnie, survived a brutal high school rape and later a school shooting perpetrated by a friend. A 2016 Lenny’s powerful essay showed that Ani’s path was not so different from the path of her creator. Knoll was also a victim of gang rape as a teenager. In her article about Lenny, she described in detail the traumatic attack, as well as the painful and disappointing response of those supposed to help.

“I think the catharsis was writing [the book]. I think writing an essay and speaking publicly about it was an excuse. It was like building blocks,” Noll tells POPSUGAR Now of the movie version “The happiest girl in the world” streams on Netflix.

Knoll — who, like Ani, attended a private high school and worked as a magazine editor (Ani at the fictional The Women’s Magazine, while Knoll worked at Cosmopolitan) — also wrote the screenplay for the film, which starred Mila Kunis as an adult Anya and Chiara Aurelia from Cruel Summer as a young Tiffany. A lot has changed for Noll, 38, since the novel was published. “I didn’t know who I was when I wrote the book,” she says. “I think now I know who I am and [I’m] start living my life the way I really want to. I don’t just live my life for other people to see.”

That lesson, learned through years of therapy, Knoll says, led her to a place of preparation for seeing her story on screen. Noll tells POPSUGAR that she thinks “art is important in terms of allowing people to process difficult things through art. I think it allows people to embrace that and spark a dialogue. And it should reflect what’s going on in the world. ”

Unfortunately, both of the tragedies central to the plot of The Happiest Girl Alive happen all too often, making the film’s release and ultimate message all the more important. Ahead, Knoll talks about her own experience of sexual assault, working on the film, and what she’s learned over time.

POPSUGAR: Why do you think Chiara and Mila were the perfect actors for the role of Anya?

Jessica Noll: We started with Mila; we started with an adult Ani. There was always the question of who would step into the role, and from there it would determine the choice for young Tiffany. Sweet, interestingly enough, that was the name — for all the years she was at Lionsgate [before Netflix] – Milo’s name was never mentioned in the conversation. When we got to Netflix, [producer] Scott Stuber was the first to speak out about Mila Kunis, and literally everyone shut up. There was complete consensus among the group.

And with Chiara, I think over 1,500 girls auditioned for the role and our casting director narrowed it down to 10. I knew who Chiara was because I watched the AMC show Tell Me Your Secrets and she’s really great at it. And for me it happened instantly. She was already in my mind and I really saw a lot of Mila in her.

PS: Did you have any conversations with them about how to portray these characters who are an extension of your life?

JK: Probably a bit more with Chiara, and never about portraying a character. I think Chiara was more interested in the parts of my story that I didn’t write about or get into that we would talk about in person. I would say, “You can ask me anything.” And it was also really interesting to talk to her because she was 18 when we shot it, so she’s very close to the character’s age. So we’ve also talked a lot about the issue of consent, and how these incidents are framed and how they’re still being blamed — even with her generation, where they’re more educated and have some articulation around consent that [mine] did not do.

PS: When the book came out, you hadn’t publicly revealed that Anya’s experience was drawn from your own. Can you talk about getting to a place in the next year where you were ready to talk about what happened to you?

JK: I was so scared of my high school experience when I said, “I was raped,” and everyone, from adults to my peers, said, “No, you weren’t. You played a part in it, and stop using that word.’ We didn’t have the term gas lighting back then, but this is gas lighting. And so when I started writing the book and I knew I was going to include that scene, it had to be part of her story. I think I was hoping that under the protection of fiction I might be able to understand how people interpreted that event today and whether they saw it the way I did. And then, if they did, I would, on the one hand, be validated – just that personal validation like, “I’m not crazy; I’m not making this up.” I mean, it’s crazy. You are the victim of a crime and then you are told that there was no crime.

And I think a lot of people have that experience. So, first of all, I just wanted to feel like I was finally told, “You’re not crazy. That’s what happened to you.’ And then I felt confident that, “Oh, I can actually come forward and say that this is mine, and I don’t have to worry about getting hurt a second time, because the readers are showing that they see this incident for what it is.”

PS: What was it like watching the scene than writing it? Was watching the film version more difficult or more painful for you?

JK: I didn’t think it would happen, because I wrote the scene in both the book and the script, but I also didn’t go to set a day when they filmed it, because I didn’t want the actors who were in that scene feels uncomfortable because they are between 18 and 22 years old and I am 38. When I was that age, someone in power scared me so much. It’s already hard enough to do these scenes, so I didn’t want to add to that pressure. So when I looked at the dailies later, I thought, “I’m so glad I wasn’t there.”

It was really hard to watch and it made me sad because I thought, “Oh, that’s what they say you do when you normalize what happened to you, even to live with it.” You say, “Well, I’m sure it wasn’t that violent, or maybe they were just a little confused.” And then when you actually watch it — like that scene in the hallway where everyone sees her and laughs — seeing it actually happen, it’s just, “Wow!” This is a real coordinated effort. This is very disturbing.

PS: The story also centers on a school shooting, which is unfortunately still a common reality in America. How much attention did you and the filmmaking team put into portraying this and how do the students react to it in the film?

JK: [Nonprofit gun-violence prevention organization] The Sandy Hook Promise was our media consultant on this issue. They read versions of the script and gave us feedback. For the sexual assault scene, there was an intimacy coordinator on set at all times who actually helped coordinate the actual choreography of the violence. But in addition to this, there was mental health support that was available to anyone who needed it for any of the traumas depicted. And this applies not only to the actors, but also to everyone involved in the production.

[Most of the actors] much closer to the generation where they have friends who have survived school shootings. They had to perform school shooting exercises in their gymnasiums. High school is stressful enough for many people. All the reasons why it was stressful [my] generation and all the generations that came before it. It is dishonest to add to this. It makes me so angry. It makes me so angry that we have done nothing to help these children. And it is the fabric of life for many Americans. There should be stories around it.

PS: How have you changed since you wrote the book, and how did those changes translate into the script?
JK: I think I’m less blindly angry at everyone and everything all the time. The crazy thing is that it didn’t happen for a while after the book came out and after the essay came out. I was pretty much stuck in a very angry and sacrificial place for a long time.

At some point, probably in 2020, things started to click for me. When I had to open the book and read certain passages—because we were trying to remember how she said it in the book and maybe twist something and put it into the script—I don’t recognize that person. I’m sad, alone, how much I hated myself and the way I talked about myself. There were a lot of times in this book where she called herself a piece of shit, and it’s me talking to myself and I’m like, “I just can’t believe I actually felt that way.” And at the same time, I thought that everyone else was horrible and that everyone was hurting me. I saw no good in anyone, let alone myself. Now I’m completely out of it and I just feel like I have empathy and compassion for people that I never thought I could have empathy and compassion for. I understand that all people have different life experiences that shape who they are and how they behave. I’m just more comfortable and I know who I am.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 29: Jessica Knoll, Chiara Aurelia, Mila Kunis and Finn Wittrock at the Netflix Premiere

PS: Did this change the ending of the book? Can you talk about that decision and why it’s different in the film?

JK: The spirit of the finale was always about reclaiming your voice and reclaiming your old identity and not being ashamed of who you are. We still have that in the movie, but what I think we also have that makes it maybe more cinematic and bigger is that it becomes more than just her. And that’s what happened to me while writing the essay, and the connection that this role brought me to so many other women, and realizing, “Oh my God, it’s so crazy that we all sat around for so many years and kept this and blamed ourselves,” but it manifested itself in our unhealthy coping mechanisms.

And a lot of it could be alleviated or dealt with in a healthy way if we just felt safe enough to talk about it. People want to feel safe. They want to feel, “If I talk about it, I’ll be supported.” And that was the experience I had after the book came out. So we wanted to find a way to incorporate that into the film as well.

Luckiest Girl Alive is now streaming on Netflix.

This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.

If you or someone you know would like to speak with someone who has been trained to help victims of sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.