Today, I talk with Allison Winn Scotch, author of the new fiction novel, "The Department of Lost and Found," which is Redbook's May Book of the Month Club pick and also a Literary Guild pick. Allison tells us how she did it:
Tell us about yourself.
Well, I’m a full-time writer and live in New York City with my husband, two kids, and our dog. I grew up in Seattle, however, and would leave NYC in a minute if I could get my husband to agree to move to a beachside community and raise naked babies on the beach. I’ve been a freelance magazine writer for about seven years, and transitioned to fiction about two years ago when we sold my first novel, The Department of Lost and Found. When I’m not working or hanging with my kids or walking the dog (which, combined, is nearly always), I like to go running and well, this is embarrassing to admit as a writer, but also tune into the boob-tube. I’m a huge pop culture junkie, so the DVR is my friend.
Tell us about your book.
The Department of Lost and Found is a story of an ambitious 30-year old go-getter who is diagnosed with breast cancer and discovers that the life she’s been living might not be the one she should be living at all. Which sounds maudlin and all of that, but it’s not. Really, it’s just the story of a smart, savvy young woman who hasn’t quite found her place in the world, and her diagnosis is a catalyst for change. A lot of readers have told me that they don’t feel like the book is about cancer, rather, it’s really a universal story that so many of us can relate to: that we’re struggling to figure out the path we should be on, and sometimes, we take some faulty steps before landing on that right road.
Your book is based on your close friend and her losing the battle with breast cancer, why a novel instead of a memoir?
Yes, I lost one of my best friends, Lizzie Prostic, to breast cancer over two years ago. I actually never considered writing a memoir. I mean, cancer was Lizzie’s story, and it wasn’t mine to tell. Sure, I could have told it from an observer’s perspective, I suppose, but I’d already lived through that…I didn’t want or need to rehash the pain or anger that comes from losing a friend at 31. Again, that never occurred to me. What I was more interested in doing, I guess, was retelling a cancer patient’s story, only this time, with a more uplifting outcome. Writing a memoir wouldn’t have allowed for that, obviously. I wrote the novel very quickly – three months – and in doing so, I purged a lot of my grief over the situation, and really felt like I had experienced cancer in a whole different way than with Lizzie, which was very cathartic and healing. I still think of her daily, but the writing process numbed the pain a bit and made the wounds feel less fresh.
Why was it important to you to get her struggle in your book?
Well, I should point out that Natalie, my protagonist, really isn’t a reflection of who Lizzie was. So while Natalie struggles with figuring out her life, Lizzie, in many ways, already had. She was a new mother, wildly successful at her job, going to law school at nights, happily married…well, you get the point. She had a pretty clear idea of who she was. Sadly, Lizzie lost her battle with cancer just six months after her diagnosis, so even if she had wanted to make changes to her life, the horrible truth of the matter is that she simply didn’t have the time to. But, when writing the book – and from interviewing cancer survivors in the past – I did want to give Natalie (and I guess, vicariously Lizzie) that chance to reinvent herself after she came so close to losing it all. Not many of us are afforded second chances in our lives like this, and hopefully, maybe the book will inspire people to take a closer look at their lives and assess whether or not they’re really the lives they want to be living. In an ideal world, it doesn’t take cancer to issue that wake-up call.
Is your main character a composite of several people you know?
Yes and no. In some ways, Natalie is obviously a reflection of Lizzie, in that they were both strong, dynamic, accomplished women who were diagnosed with breast cancer. But Natalie is much more flawed than Lizzie ever was, which goes without saying, I suppose, since she was one of my closest friends. I think the inspiration for Natalie was really some of the worst traits I sometimes see in other people who are perhaps focused on the wrong things. And to be honest, many of us harbor some of those characteristics. I mean, certainly, I can admit to being self-centered at times or neglectful of my family or whatever. The difference is that ideally, in real life, you have many more positive characteristics to outweigh those negatives. In the book, Natalie’s scale is tipped too far in one direction, however, and cancer helps her rebalance both her priorities and her life.
As your character grew, did you learn something about yourself or your friend's struggle as well and what do you want your readers to take away from the book?
Definitely. As I’ve partially already touched on, working my way through Natalie gave me some insight into my own life – my shortcomings, my strengths, my priorities. What I really love about Natalie’s journey, (and with apologies to Seinfeld), is that she comes to realize that she’s the only one who is the master of her domain. And what I mean by that is that she recognizes that she always has a choice in how she lives her life – what happens to her might be out of her control: she gets cancer, her boyfriend leaves her, her job deteriorates – but how she responds to those situations, whether she tramples over them like a bull or whether she learns that it’s okay to lean on friends and look for help, well, those are all within her own grasp. And that really becomes an underlying theme for the book: that you always have a choice, even if you didn’t choose the situation that you’re in. And certainly, this applied to my own life when I lost Lizzie. Everyone mourns in his or her own way, and it would have been entirely easy to get bogged down in the grief and the misery of it all. But, as I’ve said before, you can choose to sink into your misery or you can choose to find a way to crawl out of it, and I try to choose the latter, regardless of the situation. I hope that after reading the book, readers might choose to do the same.
You write articles for magazines as well. How do you "turn off" the non-fiction writer and go into fiction mode?
Well, I find that writing fiction is much more difficult than writing magazine articles. Probably because with magazines, I’m already given a standard set of parameters – word count, general story idea, etc – and I just have to adhere to them, whereas with fiction, I’m on my own! The best way that I’ve found to get into fiction mode is to simply dive in. I have a real tendency to completely procrastinate working on my novel, so every morning, I tell myself that at, say 11AM, without fail, I have to start working on it. Trust me, I eye that clock with dread. But it’s almost like going to the gym: you make the time, and once you’re there, it becomes a lot easier. So I start by rereading a few of the previous pages, to sort of rev my engines, and then I require that I write or attempt to write (on a bad day!) for an hour. >From there, I’m free to go about my day!
How did you find your agent?
Dumb luck! No, seriously, I blindly queried her, and just completely lucked out. I wrote what I think was a pretty strong query letter, emailed it off to a bunch of top-choice agents whom I’d researched on Publishers Marketplace and AgentQuery.com, and she wrote back to me within an hour requesting a full. By the end of that day, she asked me not to accept an offer anywhere else until she finished, and when an offer did indeed come in the next day, my agent finished reading that night, and called me the next morning. I was smitten, and even pulled the manuscript for other agents who were still reading. I just knew instinctively that this was the agent for me, and I’m happy to say that I was 100% right. Sometimes, you just have to trust your gut (along with writing a kick-ass query letter), and I’m so grateful that I did. I couldn’t love my agent more, and I’m certain that it will be a career-long partnership.
Your book has received a lot of buzz. Was that work on your part, the agent, the publisher or a mixture of all?
It really has been a collaborative effort. Certainly, I’ve tried to work every last contact and angle that I had, but truly, that will only get you so far I’ve been very, very fortunate to have a lot of support from my publisher, and while a lot of authors complain that they don’t get adequate attention from their in-house publicist and marketing team, I really feel like I have. Maybe part of that is because yes, I do have connections, so my publicist has more enthusiasm for the project…I don’t know. But the Morrow team really has been getting the book out there and trying to garner great press. As has my agent. I mean, she’s so enthusiastic, she might actually be the biggest cheerleader of us all! Of course, some of it comes down to a bit of luck: that of the hundreds of galleys that land on an editor’s or reviewer’s desk, that they happen to pick up mine…some things you just can’t control. Of course on the other side of the coin, there are plenty of places where I’d die to have the book reviewed, like EW, but that were no-gos. So…eh, that’s life.
How did it feel to be named Redbook's Book of the Month Club pick for May. You're also a Literary Guild pick - a writer's dream come true. How did it happen for you?
Oh, I just about peed on myself. Seriously, when that Redbook email came in from my editor, I seriously went bananas. It happened via Morrow – they pitched the first serial rights, and I guess Redbook read the ARC and thought it was a winner. The same thing with the Literary Guild. It’s pretty amazing: there are all of these people behind the scenes working for the book’s success, and I get to reap the glory. I’m really just pretty grateful for all of it, and for all of them. I guess this is what a movie star feels like: they have their make-up artists, their hairstylists, their agent, their publicist, their manager, and then they land the Oscar. J No wonder their speeches are so long! Because at the end of the day, yeah, I wrote the book, but a lot of other people helped get me here.