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