Friday, May 11, 2007

Alison Winn Scotch, The Department of Lost and Found

I heard the buzz about The Department of Lost and Found many months before it was out. I eagerly awaited my advanced reading copy and began it as soon as it arrived on my doorstep. It's a quick read because Allison Winn Scotch keeps the reader engaged and the book moves along without getting too technical or sad as the character of Natalie struggles with breast cancer.

Natalie Miller is a political senior aide to a New York senator. She is career driven and focused, but when she is diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, life takes an unexpected turn. To make matters worse her boyfriend dumps her and her chemo treatment forces her to stay home. The only thing that makes her the slightest bit happy is watching The Price is Right. Natalie writes in her journal, develops a crush on a kind gynecologist and wonders exactly why her ex-rocker boyfriend is coming around to take care of her.

Allison is getting rave reviews for her debut novel and with good reason. It's a terrific debut about a serious subject. The Department of Lost and Found is written with such skill that you will eagerly await Allison's next novel as soon as you close this one.

How long did it take you to write the book? How did you find your agent?

I wrote the book very quickly – the first draft took me about three months. I was fueled by the grief of just having lost one of my closest friends to breast cancer, and writing was really a way for me to exorcise my pain.

Once I’d completed the first draft, I spent another month or so revising it with my then-agent. Once I felt like it was ready to be sent out into the world, my agent decided she didn’t think it was “good enough,” and she wanted me to start a new project instead, so… after a frank discussion, we amicably agreed to go our separate ways.

It was a really terrifying moment for me – after all, as any writer can tell you, finding an agent is a really arduous process, and once you have one, the last thing you want to do is walk away from her. But I knew that this book was worthy of landing with someone who felt as passionately about it as I did, so taking that leap was really necessary. Fortunately, I received several new offers of representation within a few weeks of querying, and I signed with my current agent, whom I couldn’t love more and who couldn’t love this book more. I feel really lucky to have found her and think it will be a career-long partnership.

Writers are a kind group- we all sort of assist each other out when we can. You are a huge help to people, answering tons of questions on your blog. How did you get so knowledgeable about all things in the publishing industry?

I fully believe in the concept of paying it forward, especially because, as I made my way up the rungs of the publishing industry, there were certainly plenty of people who offered me a hand. I also believe that there is always more than enough work to go around, and just because you land a story at Glamour doesn’t mean that I won’t also land one.

It’s a silly concept: the one of cut-throat competition among writers, because if you’re good and you make yourself valuable, you’ll nearly always find that editors are eager to work with you. But I’ve digressed from your question. I’ve been a freelance magazine writer for about six or seven years (wow! I can’t believe it’s been that long!!), and really, the knowledge that I share is just information that I’ve learned along the way. I had a lot of basic questions when I started out, and there weren’t always resources for quick and easy answers. So I’m happy to be able to be one of those resources now.

The book deals with breast cancer. I imagine the research was pretty intense. How did you learn about the different aspects of the disease?

Actually, the research wasn’t as intense as the real-life situation that I’d lived through. Because I’m a health writer, I actually already knew a good deal about the disease. In fact, when my friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, I’d just completed a story on it, which involved interviewing survivors, so again, I was pretty well-versed in terms of the science and medicine behind it. But watching my friend go through her battle really taught me about the emotional nuances that survivors and patients, as well as their friends and families, have to deal with. I think that might be the harder thing to pinpoint.

I mean, anyone can interview doctors, which I also did, or google breast cancer, and learn the ins and out of the disease. But writing about the disease from the viewpoint of someone who was battling it, when I hadn’t actually battled it myself, well, that was much harder. I very, very much wanted to honor what survivors go through without getting overly maudlin or sappy, and my one grave concern was that survivors would write it off as inauthentic or silly or just flat-out wrong.

Fortunately, however, we’ve received a lot of early praise from breast cancer groups and women who have been touched by the disease, and nothing makes me feel more satisfied – knowing that for the most part (hopefully!) I got the emotional journey right. (Of course, it’s a different journey for everyone, so I do want to clarify that I’m not trying to make sweeping judgments about what survivors go through!)

Did you see the Lifetime movie, Why I Wore Lipstick to My Masectomy? It also dealt with a young woman getting breast cancer.

Argh, I’d meant to Tivo it and totally spaced out. But I’ve heard that it was great, and that Sarah Chalke was really moving. I’m a big fan of Scrubs, so I’m happy to watch her do anything! Actually, I’ve interviewed Geralyn Lucas, the author of the book, before, and she’s really the epitome of a strong, thriving survivor. I love her story, and even more so, I admire her spirit.

The Price is Right was Natalie's favorite game show in the book, what is your favorite gameshow in real life?

Ooh, well, when I was a kid, it was definitely The Price is Right. Seriously, I dreamed up this whole scenario about how I would spend my 18th birthday on the show, because that’s how old you have to be to go on it. I just loooooved it. Plinko was my favorite, but they only did it every few weeks, so I’d wait with baited breath each show, hoping today would be the day for Plinko! These days, I don’t have too much time for game shows – I have two small kids and am working on my next novel and am still doing magazine articles – but every now and then, I’ll catch Wheel of Fortune.

I used to be a complete crossword puzzle junkie, so Wheel kind of nabs my interest. I pride myself on being able to decipher the puzzle long before the contestants and then rolling my eyes and saying, “That was soooooo easy, morons!” (Yeah, I’m a little competitive. So what?)

Oh, I also like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which is often on when I’m in the gym in the middle of the day. The contestants tend to be either freakishly smart or incredibly idiotic. Just yesterday, a guy didn’t know the answer to the question, “What children’s song says ‘you’ll be working all the live-long day?” I mean, maybe it’s because I have kids, but how could you not know that? Of course, on the flip side, some of these people can answer the most obscure questions. Once they answer them correctly, I always sort of pretend that I would have responded the same way, though, between you and me, I never would have!

What was the last novel you read? What kinds of books do you enjoy reading?

I just finished Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to an End, and I feel like I want to tell every person I’ve ever met that they must read this book. It’s especially perfect for any fan of The Office, which is one of my can’t-miss shows each week. Anyway, I took TWCTAE on vacation with me to Mexico, and literally, I was lying in the spa, getting this decadent massage, and all I’m thinking about is when I can get back to my room to read the book! Every time my husband tore me away from it, I’d set it down, and say, “This book is so freaking good, I can’t get over it.” (Note: I have a toddler, so I probably really did say “freaking.” Because the substitute word would be too risky since he’s our virtual echo these days.)

I must have repeated that mantra like, 1007 times that week. I am in awe of Ferris’s intellectual creativity because there’s just no way I could ever, ever write something like this or come up with this concept. As far as books I enjoy reading, I tend to gravitate towards semi-dark but still entertaining women’s fiction. Lolly Winston’s Good Grief, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, and Ann Packer’s Dive From Clausen’s Pier, are three classics that I always recommend.

If you had a day all to yourself, how would you spend it?

Are we talking dream day, here? Ooh, wow, I can’t even imagine. Well, to begin with, I’d definitely sleep in. I have a 2 ½ year old and a four-month old, both of whom are very good sleepers, but I still feel like I’m continually enacting a part from Night of the Living Dead. It doesn’t help that my upstairs neighbors have the grace of elephants and are constantly dropping bowling balls or cement blocks or something similar at about midnight. So after a leisurely night’s sleep, I’d get up and take a walk (on the beach, since we’re talking dream day).

For some reason, I really like to get outside first thing in the morning…most mornings, I walk my dog, but since this is a day spent by myself, I’d just bask in the warm weather, stretch my legs and sip my very, very necessary latte. From there, I’d have some cereal (I’m an addict…even on my dream day, I’d eat cereal), work out, and then probably treat myself to a movie marathon.

As any parent of young kids can tell you, it’s nearly impossible to stay on top of new movie releases. And it’s such a bummer for me because I’m a total pop culture junkie, and I hate not being able to get to the movie theater. I mean, I’m even willing to watch that show on E! that unveils the trailers, I think it’s called Coming Attractions or something, just to get my fix. After a mega-movie session, I’d probably end the day with a massage, some take out, and a gossip magazine to put me to sleep. Yes, I’m a writer, but hey, I’ll cop to subscribing to US Weekly, People, and my own personal bible, Entertainment Weekly.

What is your best/worst childhood memory?

Well, this is going to sound really lame, but most of my childhood is a happy memory. I came from a very normal, well-balanced family, and I think, if I do say so myself, that my parents did a really kick-ass job. So I don’t know that there’s one thing that I can pinpoint.

You know, singing along to Annie, winning swim meets, getting into water balloon fights, playing spin the bottle…I did all of those wholesome things. But the worst? I’d probably say that in junior high, there was a really a-holish guy one year ahead of me, and for reasons still unknown to me (er, well, no, as an adult, I’m sure he was ragingly insecure and just liked to pick on younger girls), he was just so, so mean to my friends and me.

At one point, I distinctly recall him chasing us around the play field with an aluminum bat, and I’m certain if he’d caught us, he would have used it. Anyway, for some reason, whenever I think of negative childhood experiences, the memory of this guy leaps out at me. I talked back to him and stood up to him, but still, he must be haunting part of my psyche because that’s the first thing that comes to mind. Years later, it turned out that he needed help from a family member of mine, and to quote Alanis, all I could think was, “Isn’t it ironic.” Coupled with a few swear words for good measure.

What is your daily required reading? I start my day off with for the latest celeb gossip. (I also love Oh No They Didn't and Popbytes) And of course the news.

Oh geez, well, this is where it could get really embarrassing. I’m glad to hear that you read dlisted because my tastes don’t run much higher. Okay, to be fair, I start my day with CNN to make sure that the world hasn’t imploded while I was sleeping. And from there, I hit a few writer’s websites and update my blog. But it’s all downhill after that: Television Without Pity, PerezHilton, People, TV Guide, EW, Just Jared or dlisted if Perez isn’t yet updated…do I have to go on and further embarrass myself?

I was also a huge fan of Fametracker and mourned the closing of their forums the way a mother might her child. Thus, I’ve found a few substitute forums where I go to unscramble celebrity blind items (my favorite!) and read any other salacious tidbits on the stars.

What do you see yourself doing in the next two years?

Ideally, I’ll be focusing almost exclusively on fiction, with the occasional really cool magazine story thrown in. My second book is half-done, and it’s been a labor of love, but right now, I’m really happy with it. (As is my agent, more importantly.) And while I’ve loved all of the magazine writing I’ve done for the past half-decade, I do feel like I need to flex a different muscle, just like anyone might after working at the same job for so long. And having longer deadlines that come with writing novels, rather than the harried pace of the mag world, affords me more time to hang with my kids…and feed my celeb gossip addiction on the side.

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Blogger Manic Mom said...
Obviously, I love you both! Amazing women with amazing stories to tell!

That Lipstick to my Masectomy is a book too--did you guys know that? I haven't read it.

Also, Allison--what KIND of cereal!?!?!?

Good to see you both are kicking A$$ in your writing careers! Steph @ 1:17 PM  
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Blogger Stivel Velasquez said...
Natalie Miller had a great life: good boyfriend, great job, a life that was really going somewhere. But then came that dreaded word––cancer. And nothing will ever be the same again. Her boyfriend dumped her,sportsbook her job as a Senator's aide is going down the tube due to some nasty leaks to the press, and her body has become a slave to the whims of chemo. Natalie is not sure how or why her life has spun out of control, but she's determined to get it back. Even if that means rooting around in her past, starting from the ground up, and finding that maybe––just maybe––giving up control isn't such a bad thing. @ 11:42 AM  
Blogger kimberly sayer said...
Natalie Miller was born in Canda and moved to Australia when she was 4. She studied song and dance from a young age and joined Young Talent Time when she was 11 years old, the first Sydney-sider to be recruited. Her first musical numbers were "Premier Night" and "My Mother's Eyes".costa rica fishingShe was first a contestant on the show and then auditioned to become a team member. She remembers touring to be the best part of her YTT, especially Universal Studios in America.When Natalie finished YTT, she continued to develop her music, touring with Vince del Tito and as a solo artist. Natalie was in demand as a backing singer, performing with artists such as Deep Purple, Barbra Streisand and joining Kylie Minogue on her "Impossible Princess" tour. She joined forces with "Max 22" in 2000 to record the single "Gonna Miss Your Love" which went on to achieve chart success. @ 12:15 PM  
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