Rebecca Serle, IN FIVE YEARS

Rebecca Serle, IN FIVE YEARS

Zibby Owens: I got to interview Rebecca Serle on her pub day, which was really, really exciting. She was in the best mood and bouncing from the walls. It was before the whole coronavirus came out. Now her tour has been cut short, but I have very fond reminiscences of being able to celebrate her publication day with her publicist Arielle Friedman, who I adore, and my husband Kyle. We had a great day. Try to take some of that joy away when you listen to this episode, even though now we’re in a very different time.

Here’s her bio. Rebecca Serle is the author of six books, and she’s a television writer. Her latest novel, In Five Years, is the Good Morning America Book Club pick for March of 2020. By the way, it was a best seller on The New York Times list. Rebecca codeveloped the hit TV adaptation of her YA series Famous in Love and is also the author of The Dinner List and the YA novels The Edge of Falling and When You Were Mine. She received her MFA from The New School in New York City and currently lives in Los Angeles.

Welcome, Rebecca. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Rebecca Serle: I’m so excited to be here with you. This is so much fun.

Zibby: I use that ridiculous tone of voice because it’s Rebecca’s pub day today for In Five Years. There’s so much excitement. She’s glowing in this beautiful yellow and white dress. Oh, my gosh, there’s so much excitement in the air.

Rebecca: It’s so fun to be here and to share this with you. I’m very happy.

Zibby: You came from Good Morning America this morning. You were the Good Morning America book pick. What was that like? Tell me when you found out about becoming the book pick and all the rest?

Rebecca: It was pretty wild. I think the craziest part of the whole journey was seeing the book up in Times Square on that jumbotron. It really throws the whole thing into perspective. It was pretty wild.

Zibby: That’s so cool.

Rebecca: That was very exciting.

Zibby: I was saying this earlier, but just so neat to see any book plastered all over Times Square and all over the billboards, especially your book.

Rebecca: Yay! It’s been really fun. I feel like we’ve had so much support and so many great early readers and people like yourself who are really getting behind the book. I’m so happy.

Zibby: Now that we’ve talked about the celebration, let’s go back in time. Please tell listeners what In Five Years in about.

Rebecca: In Five Years is the story of Dannie Kohan who’s a corporate lawyer living in New York City who has a very airtight five-year plan. We meet her on the day of her big job interview, the place she’s wanted to work forever. She nails the interview. That night, she gets engaged to her boyfriend. Everything is going exactly according to plan. She comes home that night and falls asleep on the couch and wakes up and lives exactly one hour five years in the future, and wakes up in an apartment she’s never been before with a man she’s never met before. Then she wakes back up in her real life. Four and a half years go by. She meets the man who was in that hour with her. Everything starts to both ravel together and unravel to bring her towards that hour.

Zibby: I did not see where this was going. I could not predict the ending. In part, you have to figure out what happens. It’s like a mystery, almost.

Rebecca: That always makes me so happy. Obviously, I know where the books are going. I’m not a super airtight planner, but in some ways, you know where books are going. Whenever anyone tells me they’re surprised by something I write, it makes me so happy. I’m like, yes!

Zibby: I kind of felt like a moron at the end. I was like, oh, I should’ve seen blah, blah, blah, but you could never. Maybe if I read it a second time.

Rebecca: It makes me very happy.

Zibby: How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Rebecca: I really think that all writers are sort of interested in exploring one or two themes over and over again. The theme that I’m really interested in exploring is the dialogue between fate and free will. How much is in our control? How much is going to happen regardless of what we do? How much is just predetermined in our lives? My last novel, The Dinner List, was really about going back in time and kind of relitigating the past underneath that umbrella of, what could we have controlled? What could we have done differently? What was always going to happen? In Five Years is very much about the fantasy of getting to see what’s coming and how even though if we see what’s coming, we can’t see what it will mean. It sprung out of that. My interest in that theme, I think it’s just the central question of the human existence I’m most interested in. It’s something I’m always trying to figure out about my own life too. What do I have to do to make things happen? How much am I responsible for? How much is me just sort of greeting whatever’s unfolding in my path?

Zibby: Have you always wondered? Have you always been somebody who thinks that through? Did something happen that made you focus more on it?

Rebecca: I’ve always been somebody who really thinks it through. Even my first book, When You Were Mine, was a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet from Rosaline’s perspective. It was looking at the greatest love story but from a different point of view. Was that always going to happen? Were they always meant to die? Could things have turned out differently? I’ve always been really interested in that concept. I come from a very spiritual household. My mother was very into astrology when I was very young. I think that dialogue around fate and choice was something that I just grew up with.

Zibby: I like how you seamless wove in the other book titles and descriptions. That was very deft.

Rebecca: But it really is. I mean, you guys should definitely check those out. I see my work as being pretty collected in that way.

Zibby: It’s nice to even be able to articulate that and to see the common threads. I feel like so many authors, it takes a while to figure out what their writing is about, and why, and what message they’re trying to uncover.

Rebecca: That’s really interesting you say that because I think I didn’t really realize it until I was writing The Dinner List, my last book. I didn’t realize that all of my books had been — I knew that I was wrestling with that, but I hadn’t put it together that they all were really, at their core, about that one thing.

Zibby: I spoke to the author Dani Shapiro about her latest book, Inheritance. She was like, now that I’ve figured this piece out about myself, I realize that every book I’ve ever written is the same theme, and it all goes back to this. She’s very introspective. You can soul search, but sometimes you have to wait until they all come out or something. I don’t know why that happens.

Rebecca: You can see them kind of lined and be able to draw some conclusions. I think it’s just an interesting phenomenon that we really write the same story in differing ways.

Zibby: In a way, it’s about control. This book, when you start with Dannie and her five-year plan, I respect that. I’m a planner. I change my plans, but I like to have a plan, which is why the current environment is killing me. I relate to that. This is what you do to accomplish X, Y, Z, and then it will follow, but it doesn’t always follow. And so was it never going to work out? Or might it have worked out and you just — I don’t know.

Rebecca: I’m much like yourself. I’m a person who really likes to have a plan. I used to be probably way more of a planner than I am now because I think life has revealed itself to be very unpredictable. The way my life has turned out and what’s come into it has always consistently really surprised me. I think I hold less tightly to the idea of, this is what has to happen, and more, this is more the feeling of what I want in my life and I’m open to what that will look like. The picture can change, but what I’m really after is the feeling of happiness or connection or peace or whatever it is. I’m willing to let the vision of what I think that looks like go in favor of the emotion that I really want to experience. I think when we envision our lives a certain way, what we’re really saying is, I want to feel that thing and I think this is the best way for me to feel that thing, but we don’t always know.

Zibby: I love the movie Sliding Doors. It’s one of my favorites, not that it’s exactly the same, but just that your life can so easily go in a different direction. You just don’t know what moment it is that’s going to — or was it all predetermined?

Rebecca: I don’t know.

Zibby: We could talk about this all day.

Rebecca: We could. I don’t know. I’ve got to write some more books to figure it out.

Zibby: I can’t wait until your next five books on this topic. I will be very avidly consuming them and everything. Tell me about the writing process for this book. Did it differ from your other books? Did you know from the start — did you have your characters picked out first? What was the whole process?

Rebecca: I always start with a conceit. For this one, it’s the answer to the question, where do you see yourself in five years? Then I say, who do I think would be best to tell this story? Then I usually free-write for about twenty to thirty pages. Then I’ll stop and think, what are the surrounding principles of this book that I’m writing? Who are the characters? Where does it take place? Where do I think the arc is going? What are some plot points that I think I have to hit? That’s as far as I really go in outlining. I’m not a super tight, airtight outliner. People say this all the time, but I think that the best part about writing is when it feels a little bit like reading when you also are waiting to find out what happens next. I’m not a huge plotter. This book, I wrote very quickly. This book took me about three and half months to write. Everybody has a different writing process. For me when I’m writing, I like to stay in step with the work, so I’ll try to write two thousand words a day and do that pretty consistently until I’m through a draft. It’s hard for me to step out of a work and then come back to it. I like to stay in line with it. I feel like magical things happen for me when I’m in the zone of the book. Things come together and I think seeds are planted that later manifest in the book when I’m really in it. For me, it takes me about three to six months to write a book. I’ll write consistently that whole period.

Zibby: So you wake up. Do you do it at home? Paint a picture for me of your writing life.

Rebecca: I lived in New York for twelve years. I just moved to Los Angeles, which is where we met, in August.

Zibby: I should thank Sarah Mlynowski again for helping me with something in my life because she helps me with everything. Introducing us was a mitzvah.

Rebecca: Yes, she’s amazing. She met me when I was probably twenty-three years old and was like, okay, here’s what you have to do. She’s very good. We love you, Sarah. So my life looks a little bit different than it did then. Actually, In Five Years, I wrote predominantly in LA because for four years I was living back and forth. I was bicoastal because I had a television show called Famous in Love that shot in LA. We wrote the show there, so I was back and forth. I was really nervous about leaving New York. I knew it was time. I knew I really wanted to be in LA, but I was nervous about leaving because I felt like maybe the magic of writing books comes from New York City because all my books are about New York City. They’re so deeply rooted in the city and the restaurants and the places of this town.

Zibby: As I was reading, I was like, is she going to have something based in my apartment? It was getting so close to me, and the Hamptons. I was like, oh, my gosh, it’s like she’s following me around. It was great. It was so real.

Rebecca: I love this city so much. I was nervous about that. I wrote the majority of In Five Years in LA. It was a really good learning experience for me to see, okay, I can write a book there. For me, it’s just a word count. It’s two thousand words a day. Sometimes that takes an hour, an hour and half. Sometimes it takes six. It just depends on what the mood is and how active I am on Instagram. It’s terrible. Social media’s just killing productivity. It’s so bad.

Zibby: It’s really a double-edged sword because every author has to now be on Instagram, pretty much. It’s like giving a dog a distractible toy. This is a bad analogy, but you know what I mean? It’s like taking my kid and putting him in a classroom and also putting a phone in front of him, or putting a fidget spinner and being like, now focus on the teacher.

Rebecca: Now focus on the teacher, how? It’s very challenging. I need to get a little bit better about carving that out in my life and having it just be a part of it and not this net that’s over all of it.

Zibby: Do you have any tricks? Anything that you’ve found? Anything that worked? No?

Rebecca: No. Please let me know if anyone does.

Zibby: Do you have the alert that comes up?

Rebecca: Which is hilarious because it’s like, let me know on Instagram. Let me know if you have any tips for not being on Instagram, on Instagram.

Zibby: They’re so sneaky because it’s also like email. Do you get the alert that tells you how much you’ve been on a day?

Rebecca: I get the weekly alert, not the daily alert.

Zibby: I put something on Instagram where it tells me after an hour, like, you’ve been on Instagram one hour today. That’s when I’m like, oh boy, time to put it down.

Rebecca: That’s helpful. Are you good at doing that after it says it? Are you good at being like, okay, this is enough?

Zibby: Then I won’t be on it that much longer. Usually, that’s a note to myself that I’ve been on my phone too much that day because if I’m on an hour of Instagram, I’m sure I’m on an hour of email, whatever. That’s not all of it.

Rebecca: It’s not just writing. I want to use that time to read. Predominantly, it’s an issue for me with reading. I’ll get into bed and I’ll say, I have forty-five minutes or an hour, whatever it is before I have to go to sleep. I’ll notice forty-five minutes go by and I’ve just been on my phone. That’s very valuable reading time.

Zibby: It’s so true. That’s happened to me too. It’s the worst. I have to tell myself and just be so intentional with my time, you can pick up your phone, but if you spend the next ten minutes on your phone versus the — think about what you could read in ten minutes. That might be enough. That might be the piece of the book you want to talk the most about. If you hadn’t read it or if you hadn’t read it then…

Rebecca: Completely. Books can both get written in tiny segments, and they can also get read in tiny segments. Even if you have ten minutes, that’s still three, four pages that you can get through in reading. I want to get better about finding those found moments not just for writing, but for reading.

Zibby: Sometimes I try to do it in a taxi or something.

Rebecca: Yeah, fitting it in.

Zibby: Especially long drives where I’m like, ugh, I don’t want to go to this meeting down here. I’m like, well, if I read thirty pages, I might forget where I even am. Although, one time I did end up in the completely wrong place because I never even looked up. I was like, uh…

Rebecca: More reading time.

Zibby: What do you like to read? What are your favorite types of books?

Rebecca: I like to read, whatever we’re calling it, women’s market, commercial fiction. It has like twelve qualifiers, which is a whole other conversation. I love Curtis Sittenfeld and Emma Straub. I loved Sally Rooney’s books last year, Normal People and Conversations with Friends. I thought they were both excellent. I just read One Day in December, Josie Silver. Right now, I’m reading Evvie Drake Starts Over which is a lot of fun. It’s with me on tour.

Zibby: Amazing. Have you ever had a thing — this is sort of related to this book — where maybe you had feelings for a friend’s boyfriend or spouse? Not that this necessarily happened.

Rebecca: No. That has never happened to me, but I will say that this book is in part inspired by a very interesting psychic prophecy I had about my love life like eight years ago that ended up — I won’t go totally into it — ended up in part coming true, but it was a part that I hadn’t —

Zibby: — Wait, go into it. What do you mean, I won’t go into it? A psychic prophecy about your love life?

Rebecca: It was complicated and sort of odd. I had this reading like eight years ago.

Zibby: Wait, go back. Is this something common? Do you frequently go to readings? Was this out of the blue?

Rebecca: This was gifted to me for my birthday. I had this reading. She told me a lot of very interesting and valuable stuff that was relevant to my life. She also told me about my future spouse and a lot of qualifiers as to who he would be and the age that I would be and the age that he would be. There were a lot of determining factors of this. I met him. I won’t get into this part of it, but nothing was as it seemed. It really got me thinking about how interesting it is that, like I said, maybe we can see what’s coming, but we can never see what that will mean until we’re in that moment. In In Five Years, Dannie gets to live that one hour five years in the future. That hour from the first time she lives it to the second time she lives it doesn’t change, but the entire surrounding context as to what that hour means, why she’s there, all of it, is entirely different than what she thinks in the beginning. I was really interested in that idea. It’s not a new idea. This is back to Greek and Roman writing and Shakespeare, the idea of prophecies coming true, but in a very different context than what we think they are. Yes, so I have a little bit of personal grounding experience in this whole thing.

Zibby: Did you get together with the guy that the psychic thought you were going to get together with?

Rebecca: No.

Zibby: No, but he was in your life in some way?

Rebecca: Yes, I met him.

Zibby: You met him, but nothing happened?

Rebecca: No.

Zibby: I’m just going to keep digging because I feel like there’s something good there, but that’s okay. I can leave you alone.

Rebecca: It was a very interesting thing. On a more macro level, we were talking about this a little bit before, but I was thinking that last week in the leadup to the publication of this book, how differently my life has turned out than what I thought it would. Then I started to think if it had turned out exactly as I thought, this book wouldn’t exist. This book is an actual physical manifestation of my life looking so different than the life that I thought I was building.

Zibby: What did you think you were building?

Rebecca: I had such an airtight vision for my life when I was younger.

Zibby: Let me hear it. What was it?

Rebecca: I wanted to be married by the time I was in my mid-twenties. I wanted to have two kids by the time I was thirty. I was writing children’s books and YA, really thought I would stay there. Never imagined myself — I mean, it was a dream of mine, but never really imagined creating and running a television show. Didn’t really think about a career in Hollywood. Now I find myself in this adult space which is really where I belong and where I want to make my permanent home. I feel so lucky to publish here. All of life has looked very different. Thought I would never leave New York City. Thought I would live here forever. None of that is where I am now. Yet life is so good. That’s the thing. My friend likes to say you can’t be your own control group. We’re not always the best judges of saying what our happiness needs or what we need for happiness. Sometimes we have these plans. Then life delivers us something else. It’s about just moving with what that is and embracing it.

Zibby: Good or bad.

Rebecca: Good or bad, yeah. Here we are. We’re in the middle of this very odd moment. We’re in New York City. This very odd health stuff is going on. Yet here we are having this moment of connection and putting art into the world. Everything is everything. That’s kind of how it is.

Zibby: Yes, I love this whole philosophical turn of this conversation. You wrote a fantastic proposal scene with all the classic New York bells and whistles and everything. Then of course you fast-forward to the scene and in this you say, “Everything goes according to plan, everything, except that David and I don’t get married. There are always reasons, and good ones too, but none of them are why. The truth is that every time we get close, I think about that night, that hour, that area, that man. And the memory of it stops me before I’ve started.” What I loved about this is sometimes we don’t make decisions and we think we don’t know why, but really deep down you kind of do know why, and yet you don’t say it. I was just wondering, have you had that type of experience in your life?

Rebecca: Yes. I’ve definitely had experiences, particularly in my personal life, where my brain is trying to rationalize, like, no, this is good. This makes sense. This fits. Yet somewhere down in your core when you sink low into yourself, there’s something that just says, no, it’s not. You need to leave. You need to change. This isn’t the thing. That’s really something that Dannie’s wrestling with, a little bit of what’s coming up from her from her inner voice versus this very, very, very airtight plan that she’s held to so strongly for so long, and how those two things are talking to each other. Yes, I very much relate to that. I think that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at listening to the voice inside me and recognizing it for what it is and not trying to mask it or trying to pretend that it’s saying something different than what it is. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to listen to that voice because sometimes what that voice is saying is, change your whole life.

Zibby: Yes, but that’s when you have to listen the most, I have to say. I know. I feel like if Dannie was a friend of mine, I would’ve sat her down and been like, okay, you obviously don’t want to do this. It’s been four and a half years. What is the deal with the wedding? I could plan it for you in like a week.

Rebecca: Let’s talk about this.

Zibby: What’s going on? To each his own, even fictional characters. Five years from now, do you have any idea? You’ve given up on a vision, right?

Rebecca: Yeah, I’ve given up on a vision except for the way that I want to feel. I would love to keep feeling really fulfilled in my career. Now what I imagine is publishing more books, creating another television show, writing my first film, but I’m not attached to those things. I’m more attached to the fact that I want to keep being challenged and I want to keep feeling fulfilled in my career. I want to keep feeling like I’m reaching new heights and challenging myself in different ways and different areas. In my personal life, I’d love to just feel peaceful and connected and settled. I don’t know.

Zibby: Those are nice ones.

Rebecca: They’re nice things.

Zibby: I would like to feel peaceful and settled.

Rebecca: I wish that for all of us, particularly now. I think calm is really important. We were talking about this a little bit earlier, but Elizabeth Gilbert, who I also love, Instagram’d something this morning. She said something like remember that to be powerful, you must be calm. I think that’s the moto of the week.

Zibby: I like that. I’m trying now, of course, to think of examples of people who are powerful but not calm.

Rebecca: But I think real power —

Zibby: — I get the point of it. Yes, of course. You have to stay centered to be able to…

Rebecca: In five years, I’d like to be more centered.

Zibby: I like the goals. I like it. Do you have any idea for your next book yet?

Rebecca: Yes, I finished a draft.

Zibby: Oh, already. Of course, because you do them in like two minutes.

Rebecca: It’s weird. I tend to write a book a year. I’ll draft it pretty quickly. Then it’ll take me another maybe six months to edit. I just finished a new one. I haven’t even really talked to my publisher about it, so I probably shouldn’t talk about it here.

Zibby: But still in the adult space?

Rebecca: In the adult space, yes.

Zibby: On these themes?

Rebecca: Yes, it’s very much in the vein of The Dinner List and In Five Years, for sure.

Zibby: Very cool. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Rebecca: I always say read as much as you possibly can. Apprentice yourself to books. I think it’s the best advice that anyone could give. Parrot other people’s voices until you find the amalgamation of them. Then that amalgamation becomes your own. That’s what I did. I used to read JD Salinger short stories. It was really how I found my voice. I was a short story writer first. I went to The New School, actually, for my master’s in fiction. I wrote magical realist short stories. That’s what I did. So I think apprentice yourself to books. Then I would really encourage anyone who wants to be a writer, if you want to be in publishing, I really do feel like getting to New York is important. If you want to work in Hollywood, I think getting to LA is important. I really do feel like immersing yourself in the industry that you want to be a part of, being here, understanding how it works, and being a part of the dialogue is important. Then also if you have a finished manuscript, going to bookstores, looking in the books that you think are comps to your book, seeing who represents them because agents are always thanked in the backs of books, and then looking up their guidelines online and seeing how to submit to them is the best way to find representation.

Zibby: I love the acknowledgement sections of books. It’s my favorite part.

Rebecca: Me too. I love it.

Zibby: Sometimes I just start there.

Rebecca: I love it. I love writing them. I love reading them. I think they’re so intimate and personal. It’s also such a nice way to end a book, in getting a little taste of the author’s world after you’ve just finished their make-believe one.

Zibby: Totally. I feel like when you know the author more, it informs your reading of the book. It makes it deeper. Maybe you think of different things than you might have. Sometimes you’ve got to just glom onto the acknowledgments if there’s no other way to do it. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Rebecca: Thank you so much for having me. This is so much fun.

Zibby: Congratulations again. Thanks for coming here on your publication day. Congrats on all of your accolades. More to come, I’m sure.

Rebecca: Yay! Thank you.

Rebecca Serle, IN FIVE YEARS