Life & Culture

Don’t call my bestsellers ‘fluff’

In Rebecca Serle's new novel, her heroine gets a glimpse of the future


Imagine you were given a one-off glimpse of your life five years from now, and it looked nothing like what you were expecting? Then imagine you’re a type A personality, a neurotic Jewish woman climbing the corporate ladder, never not in control. How on earth would you cope?

That’s the premise of American writer Rebecca Serle’s new novel; her heroine, Dannie Kohan, has everything planned out. Engaged to perfect-on-paper David Rosen, rising at Manhattan’s best law firm, everything going swimmingly - until everything is turned upside down.

It’s a pulpy premise, but an awfully fun starting point for a book that doesn’t go where you’d quite expect. For Serle, a successful YA writer who has already turned a previous book into a hit TV series, In Five Years was a chance to imagine what she’d do in if she got that same flash forwards.

The Philadelphia-born 34-year old, who spent her adolescence in Hawaii, admits she and Dannie share some traits. “I’m Jewish and I’m familiar with the life of moving to New York City after college and living in Murray Hill,” she says (West Hampstead would be a London equivalent). Making Dannie Jewish “seemed to really authentically be who she was. Judaism is a part of her life in the way it’s part of mine. It’s part of what makes her who she is.”

Serle’s own life hasn’t developed as predicted either; now in LA after a decade in New York, by this point she thought she’d “be married and have two kids”. Not that she minds. “It’s such a beautiful thing when you embrace the path that you’re really meant for. I am just so much happier than I ever dreamed possible. I didn’t think that my career would have blossomed the way it has.”

Blossomed is an understatement. She sold her first novel at 24 and, growing up on a diet of high school fare like Dawson’s Creek and The OC, by her mid-twenties had created her own such show, complete with star-crossed lovers in high stakes situations. Famous in Love, adapted from her series of the same name, followed a girl-next-door catapulted to stardom after landing the lead in a Twilight-esque film. Starring former Disney actress Bella Thorne, it ran for two series before ending in 2018.

Taking her story from page to screen involved “a deep process of letting go,” made easier by the fact Serle was on set every day. “It was quite an eventful chapter,” she says. “I miss shows like the ones I grew up with, so it was a total dream to contribute to that space. It’s something I hope I’ll do in the future.”

After Famous in Love, Serle turned her attention back to writing. Her debut adult novel came out last year (she is currently adapting it for screen). The Dinner List is set at a party for a woman’s 30th birthday; the guests turn out to be the five people —alive or dead — she’d once fantasised about having a meal with, including her ex-boyfriend and estranged father.

The guests are mostly fictional, but it’s not a spoiler to say that one is Audrey Hepburn, although Serle stresses “she is my Audrey, not the Audrey”. Her own dinner list would feature Nora Ephron, of whom Serle is a massive fan — “she’d run the show for sure” — but also her grandparents Sylvia and Sam, the latter who passed away when she was toddler.

We discuss the menu; if the cuisine is Jewish, “it’s latkes all day long, I don’t care if its Chanukah” but perhaps also her grandmother’s family favourite, kasha and bowties.(buckwheat and pasta).“That was her speciality. I would want that on the table because it makes me think of her.”

A big foodie, Serle says the emphasis on a communal dinner is an aspect of Judaism that resonates. “I love that idea of everyone coming together,” she says. “I was raised in a household that really loved the traditions of Judaism, but wasn’t religious by any means, and I think that that’s part of what I’ve brought into my adult life. The gathering and slowing down and the putting down of electronics and just being present with each other, is a really beautiful thing.”

Flitting between New York and LA in her twenties, she would often attend a friend’s Friday night dinner. “It was just sort of a community thing for whatever friends were in town. It is something that I would love to bring into the family that I hope I will create one day,” she says.

Now in a relationship, close female friendships have been the primary bonds for much of her adult life, something that she reflects in her writing. “I was single for a long time and when you don’t partner young, your friendships often have the complexities of romantic relationships. The women in my life are so powerfully important to me, those relationships are just right front and centre,” she explains.

As a result, her books may be billed as romance, but tend to focus as much on friendship. Clearly drawing on personal experience, she is interested particularly in the complexity of growing up with somebody and being best friends “and then your paths diverge”. “One person gets engaged or one person has a baby, and all of a sudden lives that have been so parallel look nothing alike. How you navigate that divide and how you keep prioritising each other are very interesting questions.” Her friends, she says, are resigned to the fact they might crop up in her fiction.

She shrugs off critics who see her books as chick lit, or unserious. “Writing something that appears ‘fluff’ — which means it reads seamlessly, by the way — is quite a lot of work. Novels are a contribution because they talk about a wider range of human experience and I think if something is joyful and fluffy, that’s a wonderful contribution. I write to make people feel, to make myself feel and sort out how I feel. If I’m doing that I’m not too concerned with what category I’m in.”

It’s been a whirlwind decade, and she has no intention of slowing down; another book is in the pipeline, along with more film and television work (she has just sold a pilot script adapting another popular YA series). But writing In Five Years has encouraged her to focus on working with what life brings, rather than overthinking or over-planning. “There is a real peace and happiness in accepting what life brings us, and working with the current, as opposed to going against it.”


In Five Years by Rebecca Serle is published by Quercus


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