Wednesday, April 16, 2008

So everyone keeps asking what I'm reading.

And since I've been slacking, I thought I'd ask my friend, Allison Winn Scotch what she looks for in a book and for some recommendations for me (and y'all, too!).

Allison is the author of The Department of Lost and Found (out now in paperback!) and the about-to-be-released Time of My Life (Random House, October 2008). She also frequently writes for magazines like American Baby, Self, Shape and Women's Health. I read and loved The Department of Lost and Found and can't wait for her new book.

NEE: What makes for a good book?

Well, my criteria is fairly obvious: I want something that is intellectually engaging, sharply written but still highly readable. I put down A LOT of books because I find the writing too simplistic or the action too slow. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a market out there for those easier reads or those more literary reads – there is, but I’m just not part of that market. I really enjoy writers who can move their plots along quickly (I’m a mother to two young kids, so it’s not as if I have hours and hours to linger over a book), but still find a way to make their prose lyrical.

NEE: What are you reading now?

Allison: I just finished the Ten-Year Nap, which explored some fascinating issues – the staleness of marriage, the ambivalence of motherhood, the difficulties of working moms – but it was a tad too literary for my tastes. Not that it wasn’t stunningly written, it was – it was just a little bit of a slower read for me, and as I said above, I’m all about quick, quick, quick! If I really love a book, I’ll devour it in three days. Up next for me is my good friend, Laura Dave’s, The Divorce Party. Laura is the author of the fabulous London is the Best City in America, and not only is she one of the warmest, kindest, most generous friends, she’s an amazing writer, so I’m really excited to dig into her new release.

NEE: What do you consider your top 5 books of all time?

Allison: Oh geez! An impossible question. Well, “of all-time” might be a bit of stretch, but here are five books that I hold in very high esteem, in terms of books and authors who have influenced my writing and to whom it would be an honor to be compared.

1) The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer. This book was completely absorbing, haunting and made you wonder how you would react should the book’s situations (in which a young woman’s fiancĂ© is paralyzed) happen to you.

2) My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. Picoult is such a prolific writer, but for me, this was her best work that I’ve read. I think I tore through it in less than 24 hours.

3) Good Grief by Lolly Winston. The Department was frequently compared to Good Grief, and I took that as the highest compliment. An engaging, warm, moving story of a woman who lost her husband but who discovers that there is still a lot to be found in the world as she rebuilds her life.

4) Then We Came to The End by Joshua Ferris. Written in the second-person, this book was complete and total genius. A book I never could have written, even on my best day, and as a fan of The Office, I laughed as much as I marveled over Ferris’s writing.

5) Barefoot by Elin Hilderbrand. Another one that I counted down the hours until I could pick it back up. The story of one summer on Nantucket, where three women dealt with breast cancer, lost love, infidelity, new love, pregnancy and infertility. I loved everything about this book.

NEE: How do you come up with the story lines for your books?

Allison: Really, I’m struck with lightening bolts! I’ve tried to write books in the past in which I really didn’t have a strong vision, and no surprise!, the books ended up being meandering pieces of crap! With the Department, I was mourning the loss of someone close to me from cancer, when I literally woke up one day with the idea of this young woman who is diagnosed with cancer and who discovers that the life she’s been living might not have been the one she should have been living all along. The idea for Time of My Life came about after having one of those “what if” chats with my best friend…she was visiting the hometown of an ex-boyfriend, and she called me to say how weirded out she was by it. I, of course, understood exactly what she meant because, like every woman I know, I’ve entertained those “what ifs.” After we hung up, I went for a run, and voila, was struck with the idea of a discontented woman who wakes up one day seven years in the past and has the chance to redo her life, this time, without mistakes. I came home and wrote what are now the first 15 pages. But once I have that initial idea, I really let my characters take me where they want to go. I’m not a writer who outlines everything in advance…I usually know where the characters will end up in the last chapter, but it’s an adventure for all of us getting there!

NEE: Tell us more about your books.

Allison: The Department is about a headstrong, ambitious young woman who is diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. Before you cringe in horror, I should say that a) the book is very funny!, and b) the cancer is really just a catalyst for her discovering her own path, her own way and really, the life that she should have been living. What I love more than anything is when people tell me that they didn’t see this as a “cancer” book, rather a relatable story about a woman who is coming of age and coming into her own. In doing so, she retraces her past, tracking down the five loves of her life, and tries to assess if she went off-track and if so, how she can claw her way back. Natalie, my protagonist, could be any one of us because certainly, in all of our lives, cancer or not, we’ve had to muddle through the muck and point ourselves upward.

Time of My Life touches on similar themes, I guess. As I mentioned above, it’s about a 35-year old who seemingly has it all: the five-bedroom house, the cherubic toddler, the handsome husband, but who waddles around in her own “what ifs.” After an ethereal massage, she wakes up one day to find herself in her old apartment, with her old boyfriend, with her old job and her old life, and now, with perfect hindsight, she can set about rebuilding a new life and discover if it was the one she should have been living all along. It was SO much fun to write, and geez, I only hope that people realize that it’s fiction and not an autobiography! J I’ve already given my husband a lot of credit for laughing when he heard the plot line and only making a few jokes about whether or not this was my own private fantasy!