New York Times bestselling author Allison Winn Scotch’s latest novel is the perfect beach read. On the eve of graduation, six Penn students write down their dreams for the following two decades, confident they will always be best friends.
Twenty years later, things haven’t turned out quite how they expected. The friends have splintered apart, estranged ever since the premature death of their ringleader Bea. On what would have been Bea’s fortieth birthday, the five of them reluctantly return to Philadelphia, to the house they once shared, for an emotionally-charged reunion.
In Twenty Years is witty and funny, showing us how easily life diverges from youthful expectations, and how fear—of rejection, and failure—can drive us apart.
We are happy to discuss her latest book, and more, with Allison Winn Scotch.
Kelly Sarabyn: What drew you to the idea of writing about a reunion of college friends? Have you been to any of your own reunions?
Allison Winn Scotch: Well, I’ve long wanted to write a reunion book, partially because I feel tied to my college years in that “wow, I can’t believe it’s been so long, it feels like just yesterday!” sort of way. I think most people have a particular time in their lives that they look back on with rose-colored glasses, and for me, college is it. So I suppose that was my starting point: returning to a place I feel very nostalgic about, but returning to it with the insight and maybe a bit of world-weariness that you’d have twenty years later. Also, my own twentieth reunion was approaching, and I think I wrote with this in mind too: the actual notion of going back and feeling like I was twenty again, but also knowing how far removed I really was from that. (And I did make it to my reunion, and it was a blast!)
KS: The role of social media and fame in your book was very interesting. Catherine is a successful craft blogger who manages to turn her website The Crafty Lady into a business empire. Annie is obsessed with instagramming and facebooking, curating and filtering her photos so her life as a stay-at-home mother appears perfect. And Lindy is a celebrity musician. All three of them, though, seem to chafe under the demands of social media, often feeling like frauds and wishing they didn’t have to worry so much about how their lives appeared to everyone else. What’s your take on the role of social media in people’s lives? Is there a way to engage it authentically, especially once commerce becomes involved? Is documenting one’s daily life for public consumption ever a good thing? Can private relationships thrive under such scrutiny?
AWS: I love this question because I have a very mixed view of social media, and yes, I do think my views on it are reflected in the book! My beef with social media is sort of exactly what you touched upon in your question: I absolutely hate the posturing and the pretense of some of it, and I wish, so much, that people didn’t feel the need to one-up other people. Also, I do wonder how engaged in life you are when you’re endlessly snapping photos or curating your Instagram feed. Like, that’s not living! That’s living to post photos. That said, I love aspects of social media as well: I love seeing my friends’ kids; I love reading about the awesome things that are happening in their lives; I love having company during my day because I have an entire network of writer friends on Twitter. The feeds and friends I’m drawn to are the one who do keep it more authentic; fewer selfies, more self-realization, if that makes sense. Like, please complain about your day or your kids or whatever, and I’m guaranteed to like it. I also truly love hearing about my friends’ successes and triumphs. But the overly-curated ones? Well, let’s just say that I did take some inspiration from my feed for the book. I think it’s pretty exhausting to always present a perfect, pretty life, and to be honest, I’m not even sure how much everyone admires those lives. I like to read between the lines, and the more perfect a social media feed, the more I’m convinced that it’s the opposite. Be messy! We’re all messy! That’s ok.
KS: Catherine and Owen start dating their freshmen year of college, and are still together almost twenty years later. Catherine runs her craft empire, and Owen stays home, somewhat unhappily, with their children. Even though there are more stay-at-home fathers than ever before, the role of stay-at-home parent is still largely occupied by women. Do you think Owen’s unhappiness as a stay-at-home parent stemmed in large part from the difficulties of eschewing societal expectations? Or do you think it was more particular to his personality? Do you think eschewing those societal expectations of parental roles can put a strain on a marriage?
AWS: Ooh, this is such a thoughtful question. Truthfully, I’d never want to make any sweeping conclusions about gender and work and societal norms because a) that’s so tricky and b) there are exceptions to every rule. In Owen and Catherine’s case, I think, like some (not all!) stay-at-home parents, Owen realizes that it’s not as fulfilling as he anticipated. That just because he didn’t love his career, that he perhaps shouldn’t have abandoned a career entirely. When I was writing them, I honestly just flipped the genders and wrote his malaise to echo the malaise of some of my friends: they might not love staying at home full-time, but they also don’t know what else they quite want to do. And please know that I say that with ZERO disrespect or judgment for anyone’s choice. Bringing kids into the mix and figuring out how to raise them is so personal and specific to every individual couple. But I do think, especially as kids get older, there is a bit of what now? Like, maybe there’s a second act to be had, and Owen, like some other parents who stay at home, is dealing with that. Do I think it’s exacerbated because his wife is the breadwinner, and she feels a little burdened, regardless of the double-standard? Probably. But I also think that he’s just discontent and that burdens her as well.
KS: It struck me that all five of the friends have what would seem from the outside to be charmed lives—they are all educated, successful, wealthy, and attractive—but on the inside, they all, in different ways, seemed to be struggling to find contentment. Do you think most people, especially if they are ambitious in the way the characters are, quietly struggle in this way, or was there something about returning to each other that made them reexamine their own lives with a more critical eye?
AWS: Gosh, honestly, these are the best questions! Hmmm, well, I think that middle-age brings a lot of questions, though it also brings a lot of acceptance. Like: wow, is this really my life? And also: yup, this is really my life. I don’t believe that all successful people struggle with happiness. I do think though, that midlife is a tricky time, full of self-examination, and these characters are dealing with those questions: is this it? Have I lived up to who I thought I’d be? Am I happy? If I don’t change something now, will I ever? You couple these questions with the very vivid memories of who they used to be and the dreams that they held for themselves, and, well, yes, I guess that’s where they find their struggle. Who we thought we’d be in our youth and who we actually become can be very different, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. These characters are assessing which one it is for them – better or worse. And if not better, then what they need to do, what changes they have to make to find tangible happiness. (I mean, it’s not called a mid-life crisis for nothing!)
KS: Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective. You did a wonderful job with this—it never felt jarring or like we should have stayed longer with one character. Have you used this structure before? Did you find it difficult to implement?
AWS: Oh, thank you so much! I’ve never written in the third person before OR with four or five different perspectives before, and I actually really loved it. It was such a refreshing change for me, though my readers are used to first person, so I hope they agree! I felt like I was able to really get inside each character’s brain and stay with them for just long enough to draw out the chapter. And then when I was sick of one of them, I could move on! 😉
KS: Even though I never felt like the time spent on any character was out of balance for the story being told, at the end, I did feel like I knew the female characters best, especially Annie. Colin was the most opaque to me. Of course that could have just been a reflection of who resonated with me personally. In your mind, were certain characters more prominent to the story? Did you have a favorite?
AWS: Funny, when I was writing it, Lindy was my favorite to put down on paper because of her attitude. I still love her, but like you, I know that Annie is really the heart of the book, and it’s meant to feel that way, probably because with Bea gone, she’s really the most emotional and in some ways, therefore, the most grounding of all of them. I’m actually glad you said that about Colin: he’s meant to be a bit more opaque, for his own reasons that are drawn out in the book, and he’s used to putting up walls. That said, I really enjoyed writing him too because there was something intriguing about him, and if I were Annie, I’d probably fall for him too. Ha ha. What can I say? In college, I didn’t always make the best romantic choices.
KS: It seemed like an important theme in the book was appearances vs. reality. There was the characters’ projected presence on social media, but also, on a more intimate level, the way some of the friends, especially in their estrangement, romanticized or demonized each other. Is this a facet of life that particularly interests you?
AWS: For sure. 100%. As I said before, I am really drawn to over-analyzing social media, as well as people’s body language and behavior in public. I’m fairly outgoing but what I really enjoy most is observing people, and I think that carries over a lot into my writing. Like, picking up on some nuance at a dinner party or whatnot. I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I are out to dinner, and I’ll start telling him who is on a first date or shushing him so I can overhear a strained conversation at the table next to us. I hope that doesn’t make me sound bad. LOL. I just mean that I find human behavior – and our need to put on appearances or facades – pretty fascinating. I tell my kids all the time: never judge someone’s insides based on their outsides, and I think this is really true. I guess I’m drawn to figuring out what’s on the inside, regardless of what I’m seeing on the outside.
KS: Are there any writers who have inspired you as a writer? What genres of books do you read? Any favorite books to recommend?
AWS: Oh gosh, that list is too long! So many writers have inspired me, whether through their writing or through their friendship. It’s funny: I went through a phase where I really wasn’t reading books that were similar to mine – I kind of needed a palate cleanser, I guess – so I read a bunch of thrillers. My favorites, and I really LOVED them, were The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson and What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan. I’m back to reading books that are more akin to mine, and right now, am really enjoying Gayle Forman’s upcoming novel Leave Me, and I can’t wait to dive into Taylor Jenkins Reid’s One True Loves, which I’m hearing raves about.
Allison Winn Scotch is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels, including Time of My Life and The Theory of Opposites. She lives in Los Angeles with her family and their dogs. You can buy her book here.