Emily Heyward is co-founder and chief strategist at Red Antler, the leading brand company for startups. Founded in 2007 and based in Brooklyn, Red Antler is a multi-disciplinary team of strategists, designers, and marketers. Working closely with founders, Emily has led branding efforts for top companies such as Casper, Allbirds, Zagat, and Birchbox. She started her career in advertising at Saatchi & Saatchi, followed by JWT. Her years as a strategist, combined with an entrepreneurial spirit, inspired her to form Red Antler in order to directly apply consumer insights and brand positioning to business growth. Emily lives in Brooklyn with her wife, dog, and a whole lot of books.
Photography by Dana Veraldi
Girls at Library: What was the first book you fell in love with that turned you into a lifelong reader?
Emily Heyward: So I started reading at a very, very young age, and the first books I really remember reading and loving and reading again and again and again were The Little House on the Prairie series.
GAL: A girl after my own heart!
EH: I loved them and I read them all like, 100 times. But really when I think about the first book, like, love of my life, I think it was The Neverending Story—the book. I think a lot of people don’t even know that there is a book, because so many people have seen the movie and they’re surprised to learn that it’s based on a book. But it’s this amazing fantasy novel by a German author, Michael Ende, and I love Little House on the Prairie and that was definitely my first reading experience, but Neverending Story was when I think I really became obsessed with a book. My friend Merida and I used to spend hours drawing the characters and imagining what they looked like, and creating our own stories about it. I had an very immersive, escapist relationship with this book.
GAL: Do you still read fantasy?
EH: Sort of. I read a lot of sci-fi and dystopia, which we can definitely talk about later. But I don’t really read strictly fantasy, other than I read all of the Game of Thrones books and Harry Potter, but I mean—with the exception of Game of Thrones, dragons and wizards and stuff don’t pull me in. But after The Neverending Story I went through a massive Stephen King obsession in middle school. So I’ve always been drawn into supernatural or horror, and I think that evolved into more sci-fi, less fantasy.
GAL: How often do you read?
EH: I’m always reading something, and I read every night.
GAL: What does the written word mean in your field?
EH: Well, the written word is incredibly important in my actual job, because I’m building brands and I’m directly responsible for figuring out how to bring them to life first through an idea, which gets expressed through language, and then how gets translated into actual brand copy—how do we describe this? What do we say on the website, in advertising?
GAL: So there’s a major connection between being a reader and your profession.
EH: I think so. I mean it’s not a total direct connection in that I’m always reading fiction and I’m not doing “creative writing” — it is creative writing, but it’s not like I’m writing novels, I’m writing brand copy. So it’s slightly different, but I definitely think reading, writing plays a huge, huge part of my job.
GAL: Because your job is to tell the brand’s story more or less, right?
EH: Yeah, 100%, yeah.
GAL: Which leads me to my next question—what is the power of story?
EH: I think that story at its heart has the power to reveal someone else’s experiences to us, and therefore drive connection in a way that sometimes just telling it wouldn’t achieve. When you can express it through a story, which actually makes people feel something, that’s much more powerful than just a straightforward description that you may or may not actually relate to and understand. I think it definitely drives empathy and I think in our world, where we’re trying to get people to fall in love with brands, just for the functional reasons of wanting to buy a product, you know that can really create a sense of connection and understanding and have people relate to something on a deeper level and feel that they’re a part of something, not just buying an item.
GAL: Do you have a current or forever favorite book?
EH: Yeah, both! So my current favorite book, like my favorite book I’ve read recently was The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I think he is an amazing writer, and what really blew me away about that book was that he wrote this incredible story, and you almost feel like you’re reading this horror story or dystopia, but then the underlying horror really happened. I mean, there’s so much that happens in the book that is sort of fantastical, but in a way that gets to the truth of the horror of slavery than if he had just written a straightforward narrative about slavery. There are some things I think are just so horrible to wrap your head around that you kind of need to use fantasy to get to the truth, if that makes sense. And then my favorite book of all time is Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. My business partner Simon actually recommended it to me because he knew I really loved The Handmaid’s Tale and other books by her, and I could just read this book again and again and again. It paints this very bleak version of the future—I’m sort of obsessed with dystopias, I think! Which is so weird.
GAL: It’s not weird at all! Do you think that somewhat translates into your ability to strategize for brands, worrying about what could possibly happen?
EH: Oh, absolutely! I think I’m constantly—so many of these dystopian books constantly talk about technology and innovation gone wrong, and it’s like, just because we can build it, should we? And the connection between humanity and technology and things we take for granted in our everyday lives. And I’m really thinking about these things when we’re making decisions and even evaluating like, is this business a good idea and does the world need it? I’m constantly bringing up The Circle by Dave Eggers in meetings whenever we’re talking about privacy and transparency [laughs]. These things really influence how I think about wanting to be a force of good while we’re promoting innovation and change.
GAL: Is it important for you to physically hold a book that you read?
EH: One hundred percent. I live in fear of the day that physical books are no longer something you can get your hands on. I would probably be the person seeking out the black market for physical books and pay like, hundreds of dollars for a paperback. I tried reading once on a device and it was like, a horrible experience. And I even read your brain processes things differently on screens versus paper. Like, sometimes I have to read something for work, and even though I hate wasting paper, I’ll actually print it out. And I’ll feel a little guilty doing it, but it’s just very hard for me to absorb information as well when it’s on a screen.
GAL: Well, speaking from my own personal experience, it’s so easy to click out of the book and go look at Instagram or emails again, you know?
EH: Oh, totally. And I like reading back, I’ll flip back a lot. And I have a visual memory where I can remember how far along in the book and where on the page was the thing I want to read again, and can get to it really quickly. But I can’t do that on a device.
GAL: Do you have a current favorite reading spot?
EH: Yeah! I mean it’s summer, so I would say the beach. I’ll spend all day, Saturday and Sunday, at the beach every weekend.
GAL: How do you choose the books that you read?
EH: I get a lot of great recommendations. My wife reads a lot, she’s always digging up great books. My sister and my mom give me a lot of great recommendations, friends, and then you know, if there’s an author I love, I’ll keep an eye out and see if they’re coming out with something new. And I also love going to bookstores. A new one just opened on my block and I cannot imagine a better bookstore to have opened on my block.
GAL: Is it Books Are Magic?
EH: Yeah, I live on that block.
GAL: I haven’t gotten there yet, but I will. I’m glad they opened another bookstore there. It’s so important—don’t you think that bookstores and libraries, especially thinking about the future through a very frightening dystopian lens, that both of those environments will begin to hold new meaning for people?
EH: Yeah, absolutely. I think that it feels almost like this rare, dying thing we need to protect, it’s like a hall of ideas.
GAL: When you go into a bookstore, will you ask them for recommendations?
EH: Yeah, sometimes! And I think some bookstores are really good about having their recommendation table. Yeah, I’ve definitely gone in for recommendations and discovered some great books that way.
GAL: Do you prefer non-fiction to fiction?
EH: I’ve read, like, two non-fiction books in my entire life [laughs].
GAL: Yeah, it's sort of a pointless question based on your love of fantasy.
EH: Yeah [laughs]. I’m fiction, all the way.
GAL: Fiction is real life, right?
EH: Totally. I think I learn more from fiction than non-fiction. It’s funny, because I feel like there’s people who stretch between both, but most people are one camp or the other.
GAL: Yes, I tend to agree.
EH: Non-fiction is like reading a really long magazine article, you know? It can be instructional or educational or interesting, but I don’t escape into it and fall in love with it. It doesn’t make me feel something the way that fiction does.
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it?
EH: This is a hard one. I think There’s Always Room for Popcorn.
GAL: A truth universally acknowledged.
EH: Yeah, it’s my life philosophy.
GAL: I can’t wait to read that when it comes out. Would it be illustrated?
EH: Oh yeah, there would have to be some illustrations in there for sure.
GAL: Would it come with a pack of popcorn?
EH: Oh my god, what a fun idea. Not microwave popcorn, though, I really don’t like microwave popcorn. But some kernels, totally, I love that. Wow, now I’m really going to have to write this book. Yeah, some kernels and seasoning and instructions on how to make popcorn on the stove, which is super easy, people don’t even realize it.
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books that she returns to again and again to read for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
EH: So I think for my Sanity Shelf, I would want the books that really most successfully create worlds in which I can fully escape, those books that when you’re reading them, nothing else exists and you’re really in it, you know? Everything else disappears. So definitely some of those have stuck with me through my whole life, like every time I read Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald I’m totally transported to the south of France. Franny and Zooey for sure. The Goldfinch, which I read in three consecutive days. It was all I did and it was this bizarre, fever dream experience where I stopped being able to distinguish between the world of The Goldfinch and my real life, I would dream about The Goldfinch. And then honestly Harry Potter , like if I’m really having a tough time in my life, like I’m really upset about something where I can’t even concentrate enough to read, that’s when I pick up Harry Potter and it just makes me so happy.
GAL: Who’s your favorite author?
EH: There’s so many amazing authors, but I think if I answered that question, if you told me someone had a new book coming out, who would I be most excited about, I think it would be Jonathan Franzen. I just love his books, I can’t wait for him to write a new one. I think his characters are some of the best I’ve ever read, and I think he does such a great job. You’ll get this second-hand impression of someone through the eyes of another character, and then it switches to the point of view of the person you’ve been sort of observing and judging and liking and it switches their point of view and you get this totally different perspective. And it really allows you to feel all these assumptions that we make about people that are like, totally off-base. You think you know someone, and then you’re in their head and you’re like, “Oh, that totally wasn’t why they were acting that way.” I also love the way he writes really relatable, honest, human stories against the backdrop of some sweeping, societal, epic theme, and I really love that combination. Like a lot of the books that I love sort of play with that, like the Elena Ferrante novels, it’s this very human, intimate story about a friendship, but it’s against the backdrop of generations and change and politics in Italy, and I love that contrast of small and large.
GAL: What are you reading right now?
EH: It’s a fun, summer book right now. And it’s awesome. I’m reading Party Girls Die in Pearls by Plum Sykes, who wrote Bergdorf Blondes. She’s hilarious, and it’s a great beach mystery read, and I’m having a lot of fun reading it.
GAL: Do you have any other books on deck for this summer? Do you generally make reading lists for yourself?
EH: Well, I definitely do for the summer. Over the summer, my reading definitely takes a lighter tone because I’m usually reading at the beach and there’s a lot of noise around, people talking, so it’s just hard for me to read something really serious. So my sister, my wife and I have this spreadsheet that we share the beginning of the summer where we collect all the fun summer mysteries and dramas and whatever else, and then designate who buys them, and then we share them with each other.
GAL: Speaking of recommendations, please name the three books you’d like to recommend reading to our GAL audience and the reasons for your choices.
EH: Ok, my first is called These Days Are Ours by Michelle Haimoff. I found it to be very relatable. It’s a beautiful story about a girl, and she’s in her early 20s, in that time period where you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to be as an adult, but it’s set against the backdrop of post-September 11th New York City. I was there during that time. It was just such a strange, unsettling time to be living in New York, and I’m sure all of America, and the book just captures that really well.
My next recommendation is a collection of stories called Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead. This is one of his earlier books, and I fell in love with it years ago. He is such a great writer. It’s about a black kid growing up spending his summers in this small, all black enclave in the Hamptons. And this is so corny, but I literally laughed and cried and couldn’t put it down. Like, every emotion.
I read this book this year that was so good I want everyone to read it. It's called Christodora by Tim Murphy. It’s about a set of characters whose lives are intersecting across decades in the East Village in New York and also a little bit in L.A. It's set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis and AIDS activism, which is actually not something that I knew a ton about. And as I said before, it’s kind of these human stories set against these sweeping, epic events, and it’s this unbelievably touching story about this family, but it’s also about the AIDS crisis and how it affected people’s lives, and it’s just beautiful. I cried.
I have one more. It came out a few years ago but I read it this year, it’s called The Keep by Jennifer Egan. This book was so weird, I don’t even know how to describe it. I couldn’t stop reading it, I was totally enthralled by it, but I don’t even know what genre to say it is. So I just think everyone should read this book.