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Author Profile – Allison Winn Scotch

Today’s post by  Allison Winn Scotch | @aswinn

We’re delighted to visit with New York Times Bestselling author Allison Winn Scotch today. Her new novel, THE THEORY OF OPPOSITES, is making waves and getting rave reviews. We were able to sit down with Allison and get pick her brain about this novel in particular and the writing life in general. We’ve also got a copy of THE THEORY OF OPPOSITES up for grabs to one lucky winner. See entry form below for details.

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Allison Winn ScotchGrowing up with the last name “Winn” was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because prior to any monumental event — a T-ball game, my SATs, a talent show -my dad would look at me and say, “What’s your last name?” And I’d have to reply, “Winn.” (Get it? Win.)  It was a curse for those same reasons. 🙂 There are only so many times your dad can say that to you before you roll your eyes with annoyance and wish that your last name weren’t an actual verb that stood for excellence. (Though I married a guy whose name is an alcoholic beverage, so I guess it’s better than shouting back “scotch!,” which surely would have put me in therapy for years.) Still though, my dad’s message stuck with me, long after I left the house and headed 3000 miles away for college. The message was this: be your best. Not THE best. YOUR best. And I think that this childhood mantra has probably influenced my writing and my characters as much as anything else in my life.

Be your best. It’s pretty simple right?

And yet. And yet, it’s not that simple. As busy women, we so often feel compromised; we aren’t as patient with our children; we eye the clock at work, wondering when we should rush out; we keep track of friends only on Facebook; we wish we did yoga more; we wish we ate organic food more; we wish we slept more, had sex more, relaxed more. I mean, I could write a list that went on forever. What is our best anyway?

I often try to answer that question through my characters, particularly in THEORY OF OPPOSITES, but in my other books too. I start with women who aren’t living their best lives (not to sound like Oprah or anything) and who have to find their own way to actually find their own happiness. And while none of these characters are me – in fact, in THEORY, I’m more like my protagonist’s best friend than my protagonist — it’s eye-opening to take the journey with them. To open up their lives and see how small changes, maybe not compromising on a unfulfilling relationship or maybe asking more of herself than she’d asked before, can change their worlds entirely. I push them to risk more, to be braver, to stand on a high wire and look down and see how beautiful it can be. And when I do that for them, I also do it for me. I discover that maybe I could be more courageous or more patient or more open to change. It’s a pretty amazing process actually: that I start with fictional two-dimensional characters in my imagination, and I end up with fully-formed  people  who have somehow taught me how to be a little bit closer to my best.

Here’s the truth: you don’t have to  be named Winn to understand your potential. You just need a little honesty, a little clear-headedness, and maybe, if you have a few hours in your day, a good book. And if you can’t find those few hours, don’t worry. There’s always tomorrow.

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The Theory of OppositesMarybeth: Allison, you were a journalist for a number of years before turning your hand to fiction. It what ways did that prepare you for writing novels? In what ways did it make it harder?

Allison: I can’t think of many ways that it made it harder, but there are many things that made it easier. For one, I understood the discipline that it takes to  write. It’s not a hobby, it’s a job. I learned about deadlines and revisions and exacting standards of editors. I apply all of these things to my fiction work too. Writing is work, whether it’s for a magazine or for a novel. Trust me, there are plenty of times when I’d rather not write or I want to quit before a revision is done, but I learned in my magazine days that it’s not done until it’s  done.  Also, that you have to show up every day and write. For my magazine work, this was because I had editors and contracts. Now, it’s because it’s habit.

Ariel: THE THEORY OF OPPOSITES is the first novel of yours that I’ve read, (I know, I am ashamed) but like all your other books it has a contemporary setting. Why are you drawn to writing about the here and now?

Allison: Ha ha, don’t be ashamed! There are so many great writers and great books out there; we can’t read everything. That’s the truth. I think, to answer your question, that I really enjoy examining what my peers and contemporaries are going through in their own lives. Women who are struggling to find a balance; marriages that need to be reinvigorated; parents who love their kids desperately but don’t always love the parenting aspect of it. Those types of things. I read books to hopefully find something within the pages that resonates with me, and maybe leaves a bit of an imprint, a tweak in my mentality or emotional landscape. I guess by exploring these every day things that we all come up against, I hope to do the same for my readers. There’s a lot about life that can be tough. I like my characters to go through those same struggles that readers do.

Marybeth: You’ve got young children. How has motherhood changed or informed your writing? Are there any challenges that are inherent to this season of life?

Allison: Motherhood has informed my writing in so many ways. Not least is that I often explore the complications of parenting and parenthood in my novels. I think any mother will tell you that it’s the most wonderful thing in the world, but it is also exhausting and fragile and confusing and sometimes breaks your heart. And that’s all okay. And it’s also okay to wonder, as my characters do, how parenthood will change you or if you even want to or need to be changed. My kids are sort of the base note, resonating all the time, in my life. But I also try not to make them my  entire  life. So I enjoy exploring this theme in my books. As far as challenges? Sure, absolutely. I think most working moms can agree that we often leave parts of ourselves behind — when I’m with the kids, I am sometimes thinking about work; when I’m writing, I’m sometimes distracted by what I need to do for them. It’s not as if writers — or working moms, for that matter — can ensconce themselves in a bubble and just pick one thing to be in that moment. I felt this pretty acutely with my last book before Theory — I just felt pulled in too many directions and was exhausted by it. I took a break from writing, spent real quality time with my kids, moved with the family across the country, and sort of gave myself the nurturing I needed. I’m truly, truly fortunate to have the type of job where I can do this — step back, assess, decide how much of myself I want to give to work, etc — but yes, being all things to all people is a challenge. I’ve come to realize that I can’t be all things to all people, and that’s just fine. I give my best. That’s it.

Ariel: You tackle some difficult relationship issues in THE THEORY OF OPPOSITES. Willa and her over-bearing father. Will and her unreliable husband. Why do you think these themes resonate so deeply with women? How is it empowering to address them in story form?

Allison: It’s funny — I have a great relationship with my dad (and my mom, for that matter), and I feel sort of bad that my past few heroines have struggled with paternal figures. It has nothing to do with him. 🙂 But that said, I think a lot of us feel like we are products of our childhoods…we are a generation that spends time in therapy, trying to break the shackles of our early years or trying to, I don’t know, figure out who we are as adults. So maybe that’s why those story lines resonate. As far as the marital/relationship storyline, well, I think in this Facebook age, everyone stares at pictures of their friends or friends of friends or people they barely know and measures their relationship by that yardstick. “Oh, Jon and Kathy look SOOOOO happy in St. Tropez! What am I doing wrong?” And a) I think this kind of comparison is really destructive and ridiculous, b) I think it’s important to realize that no one’s life is shiny and perfect, and c) relationships are complicated, and that’s totally okay. Anyone who has been married for a while — or been in the dating world for a while — or just…wants to find some sort of partner in her life — knows that there are wonderful highs and lows to relationships. That’s how they go. Full stop. And I think women like reading about these highs and lows and knowing that their own partnerships are normal, and that no matter what happens with those relationships, the women themselves, the readers, are  going to be okay.  How empowering is it to pass along that message? So empowering. (I mean, without giving myself too much credit.) But I think, again, in today’s Facebook era, that is more important than ever to be honest about the fact that life and relationships are sticky and messy and sometimes glorious and sometimes much less glorious. That’s how it goes. It’s always nice to hear or read that someone else gets it too.

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Allison Winn Scotch Novels

New to Allison’s novels? Make sure you check out the rest of her backlist. I know I will.

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Author Spotlight: Carolyn Turgeon

We’re delighted to announce that the winner of this giveaway is CARINA BISSET. She has been notified via email. Thanks to all who entered and don’t forget to come back soon. We have a number of giveaways lined up for the future.  

Please welcome author Carolyn Turgeon to She Reads today. Hers will be the first in a new series of Author Spotlights. We’re certain you’ll be charmed by this magical writer. | @CarolynTurgeon

We’re giving away all three of of Carolyn’s fairy-tale based novels today. Leave a comment on this post and you’ll be entered to win.

Carolyn Turgeon

Carolyn Turgeon

In The Fairest of Them All, Rapunzel lives in the forest with her adoptive mother Mathena, who’s a witch, and they tend a large garden filled with herbs and offer spells and potions to women from the kingdom. I know it’s shocking when I admit that very little of this is based in my own life or true-life events I’ve witnessed. What I love, though, is to write about beautiful, fantastic places and events as vividly as I can so that the reader forgets where she is altogether. You might be sitting in a Starbucks reading my book, but I want every cell in your body to believe that you’re in the deep ocean, a medieval castle, or an enchanted forest where two witches live in a house and the tower next door.  It may not work for every reader, of course, but I try!

Two years ago I visited my old high-school friend Erika in Haines, Alaska, where she’s lived for the last couple of decades. I knew that she had built her own house and studied herbs and liked to fish and garden, but for some reason talk of outhouses and no power and snow over the years had given me the impression that she lived somewhere… kind of crappy. So when I arrived in Haines for her summer wedding, I was surprised at how dazzling the whole landscape was—the massive mountains, the gleaming lakes, the lush green all around and that purple fireweed ripping through it. I guess I had this idea that she lived in a shack, submerged in snow all year round. When I turned up her driveway—after a long drive up Haines Highway and past a galloping mama moose and her babies—I was astonished to find little wooden fairy tale house and a magical oversized garden next to it bursting with flowers and vegetables and herbs. There was abundance and beauty in every direction: beets, carrots, kale, cabbage, zucchini, dill, lemon balm, bright red dahlias… all of it oversized and spectacular, from a giant’s garden. For the evening wedding feast, we ate bright luscious salads heaped with fresh vegetables Erika had grown, along with platters of wild salmon, halibut, and crab. Above us, the sky turned milky but never darkened.

So there are real places where the fairy tales start. When I sat down to write about Mathena and Rapunzel’s garden in the middle of that enchanted medieval forest, I imagined myself back in Alaska, in that garden, and I imagined a traveler’s surprise when they turned down a forest pathway and confronted the witch’s garden with vegetables and herbs and flowers so bright and so massive that no one but a witch (or two) could have grown them.

Fairy Tales

Carolyn kindly sat down for an interview this week. We are fascinated by the way she puts a new spin on classic fairy tales. We think you’ll be every bit as delighted by her answers as we were.

Marybeth: Because of your subject matter, I always assumed your books were aimed at a young adult audience. Do you get that a lot?  

The Fairest of Them AllCarolyn: I do get that a lot. When I mention “fairy tale ” people almost always ask if I write for children. I think most people associate fairy tales with children and Disney, and the packaging of my books tends to be pretty sparkly and girly, and plenty of teens do read them. But they’re not really aimed at teens. The issues I explore in my books, and through fairy tales, are women’s issues: aging, beauty, mother-daughter dynamics, female rivalry, female friendship, and so on. And though I’ve worked with the fairy tales made popular by Disney, my books go back to the Grimm, Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen stories, which are much darker. I like taking the extreme situations and relationships that you find in fairy tales and exploring the psychology and raw emotion behind them, “looking at their guts ” as my friend Jo-Ann Mapson described it. The evil queen from Snow White? In this book, she’s Rapunzel: a gorgeous girl valued for her beauty above anything else, overly sensitive, damaged, disillusioned by the prince, who’s not perfect, and by her own process of aging and diminishing beauty and power. I’m not sure she has much choice but to become the evil queen from Snow White, who’s motivated by a kind of jealousy and insecurity that most women can at least relate to (even if they’d never consider eating someone’s heart).

Ariel: I can distinctly remember my mother reading to me from a book of classic fairy tales when I was a very young child (maybe three or four years old). I was spellbound. Can you remember the first fairy tale you loved? Which one was it? Why?

When I think about my childhood it’s this tangle of memories run through with shimmery, spellbinding moments from (Disney) fairy tales: Snow White racing through that dark wood with the branches reaching out for her, Cinderella hurrying away from that chiming clock, the brambles surrounding Sleeping Beauty’s castle as she sleeps, that glass coffin in the forest surrounded by grieving dwarves. They’re all dark, beautiful, frightening moments that seared themselves in my brain, I think! I read those Golden Books when I was very young, and discovered the Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen stories, etc., later. My aesthetic has always been that combination of light and dark, beauty and terror, that’s at the heart of those old stories.

Marybeth: How did fairy tales become the fodder for your fiction?  

GodmotherCarolyn: Well I’ve always loved fairy tales, as well as magic realism and traditional storytelling. My favorite book is 100 Years of Solitude, in part because it just feels like the kind of storytelling you might have heard sitting around a fire, wrapped up in a blanket, way back when. And then in college I studied Italian literature and old story cycles. In the same week had to write a paper comparing three versions of the traditional “three rings ” story that appears in the Novellino and Decameron and other places and also write a short story for a creative writing class. I think I became enamored then with the idea that there are these stories that we tell and retell again, that take on new, specific meanings with each retelling, in each new time and place. So my first novel, Rain Village, began as a modern retelling of the same three rings story (which is this lovely religious parable) that I began for that creative writing class. That element was dropped by the final draft, but I remained enamored by the idea of what you can do when you retell these incredibly powerful, flexible old tales. It was probably natural, then, for me to move on to Godmother next—my second novel, about the fairy godmother from the Cinderella story and what really happened on the night of the ball.

Ariel: I always joke that THE LITTLE MERMAID ruined my life. I was twelve years old when the Disney movie released. And because I share a name with the main character people have always felt the need to crack some bad joke about the coincidence. Because of that, I’ve always resented that story. Yet the fact is the original version is so different than the Disney version. Why do you think we so often feel the need to sanitize what are, in many cases, very dark and alarming stories?

MermaidCarolyn: I love Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid ” and based my novel Mermaid on it, but it’s definitely a weird and depressing story. Publishers Weekly called my book “a dark retelling ” of the Hans Christian Andersen tale, which was a bit crazy since my book couldn’t possibly have been any darker! But people conflate/confuse the original versions and the Disney versions all the time. I can say that if I’d been at Disney and trying to turn that dark Danish tale into a huge Hollywood animated movie for the masses, I would have changed it, too! Hans wrote the story in a state of absolute despair and heartbreak (when a friend he had strong not-quite-brotherly feelings for was off getting married), imagining this little mermaid who loved a human prince but could never be loved back by him and could never truly belong to this human world she so desperately wanted to be part of—so desperately that she lets her tongue be cut from her mouth and gives up her voice forever in order to get the potion that will change her tail to legs (and also cause her excruciating pain). It’s pretty masochistic and dark, but I love that the mermaid became a way for Hans to express just absolute alienation and despair. If you have to be heartbroken, that’s the way to do it! But yeah, I would probably give the mermaid her man and let her keep her tongue if I were at Disney and going for mass appeal… Luckily, I’m not!

Marybeth: I’m fascinated by how you use beloved fairy tales as the frame for stories that are relevant for today’s reader. Why do you think these classic stories have such staying power?

Carolyn: I think they tap into pretty primal, universal fears and desires. One theory is that fairy tales, with all their darkness and horror, allow children to grapple with their fears of a terrifying world and exert some control over it. The situations fairy tale characters find themselves in might be extreme, but they’re all based in real fears: the child abandoned in the woods, the candy-covered house inhabited by a witch who wants to eat you. The world is scary and dangerous and these stories offer a way to negotiate that. I think they do the same for adults—offer a safe, remote way to explore very real anxieties and tensions.

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