I’m so pleased today to bring you an interview with one of WU’s own contributors, Allison Winn Scotch. Allison is a prolific freelance writer, and The Department of Lost & Found will be her first published novel, available nationwide May 8th. She’s already garnered some fab reviews, with Booklist calling the debut “impressive,” Cosmo calling it “too good to pass up,” and Redbook tagging it as an Editor’s Choice and selecting the novel as their book club’s “pick of the month” for May.
I talked to Allison recently about her journey, her process and the debut of her first novel. Enjoy!
Interview with Allison Winn Scotch
Q: Your first novel, The Department of Lost & Found, will be published in May, but you’ve been a successful magazine writer for years. Have you always wanted to write a novel? What made you commit to the idea behind TDLF in particular? And did you know, right from the beginning, that you would try to sell the story?
AWS: I’m not sure if I’ve “always” wanted to write a novel, but in recent memory, yes, it’s been a goal. I started my first novel about seven years ago, and it took me nearly four years to complete. But, like many first novels, it was adequate, not great, and while it got me agent representation, it didn’t sell. Such a bummer. Though in retrospect, I’m incredibly relieved because when I read it now, I’m mortified. I’d be equally horrified if it had actually been published! So when I started TDLF, it was always with the idea that it would be published: that was really what I was striving for – to become a published fiction author. I’d tackled pretty much everything I wanted to do in the magazine world and was ready to branch out. The idea for TDLF came to me instantly and easily: I was caught up in the grief of mourning one of my best friends to breast cancer, and I just sat down one day, imbued with the voice of this character, who was fighting the disease herself. The novel has no relation to my friend’s life at all, but the germ of the idea did spring from my experience in helping her with her battle…and, of course, provided a good deal of catharsis in coping with her death.
Q: How has it been for you, managing both nonfiction assignments and fiction pursuits? Are you very organized? What might a typical day look like for you?
AWS: I’m hyperly organized. Hyperly. But that’s probably more due to the fact that I don’t like having my ducks in a row. At this stage in my magazine career, I pretty much know exactly how long an assignment or interview or particular aspect of research will take me, so I’m able to allocate chunks of time for then, and then allocate other chunks for my fiction. A typical day? Well, I walk our dog between about 8:30-9:30, then get to my desk and catch up on all of my internet gossip. (I literally can’t start work until I’ve adequately surfed my favorite sites!) I usually get my mag work out of the way in the morning and early afternoon – I consider deadlines to be sacred, so I honor that work before my fiction. I take a break at about 1:00ish to go to the gym and run errands, and then spend the rest of the afternoon working on fiction (or wrapping up mag work, if need be). And of course, that pampered dog gets one more (shorter) romp in the dog run at some point in the later afternoon too. But because I have a really strict pattern to all of this, it all seems very manageable.
Q: You’ve said TDLF represents a fusion for you—a real-life event spurred the idea, but then your imagination crafted it into something else entirely. Did you use this story to help you heal personally? What was the journey like for you? How did it surprise you?
AWS: I used this process to heal almost entirely. When I say “almost entirely,” I mean that my grief will always be with me. There is literally not a day that passes when I don’t think of Lizzie, my friend, and there are still times when I hear a song or filter through a memory and am flooded with tears. But after writing the book, I no longer felt gutted. When I started the book, I was very damaged from losing her, and in writing it, I purged that grief: I was able to sort of experience cancer in a different way, via Natalie, my protagonist, and being able to control her situation and write a happier ending provided tremendous catharsis. I think one of the most difficult aspects of watching a loved one battle cancer is the loss of control that you feel. And writing this gave me a bit of that control back, not, obviously over Lizzie’s situation, but perhaps over my emotions, if that makes sense. And to be honest, that was surprising. I didn’t expect to feel as healed as I did when I finished.
Q: Did any particular part of the book give you trouble, and, if so, what did you do to overcome it?
AWS: Upon first read, my then-agent felt like the character wasn’t flawed enough. So I went back and wrote in scenes which made her seem more human. I think it’s really easy to craft “perfect” characters (at least it is for me!), but readers want to be able to relate to these very real, and thus very flawed, people. And I now keep that in mind while at work on my next book.
Q: The heroine in your story, Natalie, has been diagnosed with breast cancer…and she’s just lost her boyfriend. But her character at the beginning of the story isn’t necessarily sympathetic; she is a willful senior aide to a New York senator who doesn’t always play fair. By setting her up against a questionable opponent (cancer), she has to face possibly losing it all. Was fear the primary vehicle for Natalie’s personal growth? How do you use fear to propel the story forward?
AWS: Wow, good question. I’m not sure that it was so much fear because, well, I’m not a big believer in living a life full of fear. (Though don’t even talk to me when I’m about to get on a plane!) I think for Natalie, cancer was a wake-up call that she was cruising through life without giving much thought to the actual life itself. Sort of going with the flow because it seemed like that was the path she should be on, without taking anytime to consider whether or not she enjoyed or more importantly, respected, that particular path. And I think this is a pretty common theme for women in their 20s and 30s. We’re so busy moving through life and intent on being a “success,” that we don’t stop to ask ourselves what really defines “success.”
AWS: Well, the story itself is set in New York, so, in terms of actual places, you see much of the city, including Central Park, Rockefeller Center and Sloan-Kettering. Since I live here, I didn’t have to research that so much. I devoted a lot more research to the process, both emotional and physical, that breast cancer patients undergo. I spoke with a lot of survivors, as well as relied on an oncologist, to get the details right. And to be honest, I’m terrified that I didn’t. Not because I think that I didn’t, but because I want so very much to honor these courageous, amazing women, and I’d be gutted if they felt like I sold them out. Fortunately, we learned that one of the big cancer magazines is running a positive review, and that to me is like the ultimate seal of approval. I couldn’t have been happier.
Q: Did you rely on symbolism and/or theme in your book? How did you use it, and how did you make it work for you?
AWS: I do, actually. As I said, Natalie is someone who has coasted through life, and as the story goes on, she realizes that “she needs to make her own luck.” There’s a subplot that’s threaded throughout the book that deals with a four-leaf clover necklace, and, without giving to much away (!!!), its presence in her life (and around her neck) comes to represent much of her mindset as she goes through her various chemo rounds.
Q: Booklist’s review said that you handled “the topic of cancer with humor and hope, never dipping into the maudlin.” Did the tone surprise you, or was it your goal to keep things on the light side? Did you struggle with it at all?
AWS: No, I was very, very conscious not to make the book weepy or maudlin. For two reasons: one, as I mentioned, I wrote this as a way to heal, and the last thing I wanted was to get bogged down in sappy emotion. And two, when you speak with cancer survivors, they are so full of life and laughter, I couldn’t see making this a maudlin story because in real life, these women are anything but. They are so kick-ass and determined that it would have felt false to make it anything but full of life and humor.
Q: What do you think is the most important message in your book? What did it teach you, if anything?
AWS: Well, I hope that people walk away from the book and really realize that they are the ones who control their own paths. I’m a big believer in making your own destiny (at the risk of sounding totally lame!), and I really do believe that you always have a choice in how you live your life. Natalie’s cancer was a catalyst for change and put her on a new course of self-discovery, but I don’t think that you have to be diagnosed with cancer to appreciate your good fortune or to assess what might need to be tweaked in your own emotional make-up or day to day life.
Q: Name three things we might be surprised to know about you.
AWS: Hmmm, okay. Let’s see. In college, I went naked in our production of Hair! It was terrifying but hilarious. What else? Well, even though I’m a writer, I’m a TV and pop culture addict. My DVR is filled to the gills, and my friends consider me their gossip guru…if you ever want to know the inside scoop on what really goes on in Tomkat’s world, I’m your gal! Finally, hmmm, okay, when I was younger, the first thing I ever wanted to be was a sportscaster. My husband, who is a raging Red Sox fan, gets quite a kick out of this since I’ve come to loathe baseball season, if only because he acts so deranged in our living room. But I could quote any stat on any player on any team, though at the time, I rooted for the Phillies and the Eagles. When my family moved to Seattle when I was 10, my loyalties shifted to Seattle teams. And up until recently, I had a crush on Ichiro! (Cue: endless humor for my husband as well.)
Q: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
AWS: Oh gosh, probably an actress! I really do love the creative process of embodying a new character, and acting would allow me to do the same thing. Thank goodness the writing gig worked out because this way, I’m still fulfilled and I don’t end up in US Weekly! (Or have to be on a constant diet!)
Q: What’s next for you? Will you continue as a novelist as well as a magazine writer? Will you continue to draw from real-life experiences to jumpstart your fiction? And what would you love to write down the road?
AWS: I’m halfway through my second novel, and for now, I’m trying to slightly shift my focus to fiction. I’m so, so grateful for all of the magazine experience that has, undoubtedly, made me a better writer, but like any career, after years and years of doing the same thing, I’m ready for a new challenge. So I’m still most definitely doing magazine work, but I’m trying to also flex new muscles and see where they can take me. My second book deals with the intricacies of female friendships and explores a character who is Natalie’s opposite: someone whose life is paralyzed because she’s too afraid to recognize her own potential.
Thank you, Allison, for a great interview, and best of luck in this new phase of your career!
C’mon, y’all, and go out and buy (and then voraciously consume) this WU contributor’s uplifting book!