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'Ten Girls To Watch': Charity Shumway On Her Debut Novel And Why It's OK If Your 20s Suck

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TEN GIRLS TO WATCH
Stacy Young

In 2007, Charity Shumway got a job tracking down past winners of Glamour magazine's Top 10 College Women contest in honor of its 50 anniversary. When she was finished, she wasn't quite ready to move on. "I had this idea that I was going to write this super-fun, easy novel, and I was gonna do it in six weeks," she says. "Of course, it took four years." Her debut novel, "Ten Girls to Watch," comes out Tuesday and follows Dawn West, a recent college graduate who gets a job tracking down past winners of "Charm" magazine's "Ten Girls to Watch" contest in honor of its 50th anniversary. Shumway spoke to HuffPost Women about her fictionalized account of her experience and just how hard it can be to find your footing in your 20s.

You based the character of Dawn on yourself, but it says on your website that you actually had a harder time than she did.
When I first went out with this book, there was a version that circulated to editors, and in that version, Dawn was closer to my age at the time I was writing it, like 27. And a number of editors said, “Why doesn’t she have her life more together? She’s such a loser.” Which is so terrible because I was 27 and totally living in a crap apartment and not having my life together. So I made her younger.

It’s like they were asking why you didn’t have your life together yet.
Yeah, because the character is so similar to me, it was painful. But I think for a lot of people, if you are doing something in media or something creative, it can take a long time before things really start to happen. There’s no quick formula where you get hired by Fiction Writers Inc. and then you’re set for the next 20 years. Unless you're one of the very few, lucky people who like, I don't know, publish a novel when you’re 22. Sadly, I am not Zadie Smith.

I’m always fascinated by "women to watch" lists. What was it like working on one?
I think one of the things that surprised me with that project was I had so much time to just talk with these women. It was a pretty unsupervised nine months. So it wasn’t like I was asking people five questions then thanking them for their time. I chatted with plenty of them for like half an hour, 45 minutes. “Tell me about your life...”

It sounds like a dream job, actually. To just be able to sit down and talk to interesting, smart women...
I know! Who are totally willing to talk to you. You’re like, “I'm calling from Glamour magazine,” and they’re like, “Oh! Well!”

In the book, the contest is very much about pedigree and looks before 1968, and then it becomes more academic-focused.
It’s exactly how Glamour was in the earlier ‘50s and ‘60s. Martha Stewart was actually a winner in the best-dressed years. One of the things that was most amazing to me was how successful those women from the early years were. You would not have known, based on their outcomes, that they were picked for being best-dressed. And it sort of struck me that there’s something about ambitious women, or people who enter contests. You still were putting yourself out there, and I guess that’s a trait that sticks with you.

What do you want readers to take away from this book?
I do feel like the belief of “things are going to be OK” is something that is really hard to have when you don’t have enough experience yet to be certain of that. It's something that people say all the time when you’re like 23 and they think your problems are cute. One of the feelings I had after college is that nobody feels bad for you. Like, “You’re a college graduate. Get your act together. There are people who have real problems in the world.” And you know what? That’s true. But at the same time, life is actually hard! I hope people who are in that phase of life will realize it doesn’t mean it’s gonna suck forever, and it doesn’t mean you have to feel bad about it sucking.

Are you watching "Girls"? One of the conversations we've had at HuffPost Women is that, yes, Lena Dunham’s character is privileged, but that doesn’t mean her problems aren’t real.
Yeah, it doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate. It doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of attention and a little bit of sympathy.

When did you personally feel like, “OK, everything’s not perfect, but things are going to work out”?
A lot of it comes from the job I had at Glamour. Right after college, I moved to New York, and I had this job where I made like zero dollars, and I slept in a bunk bed and ate an 85-cent bagel for lunch every day. Then I finally left that job and went to grad school. And I moved back to New York and got this job at Glamour, and I was making enough that I had my own bedroom, and I was no longer dating the boyfriend who had been part of my life for many years. And I could kind of see a future.

Finally, I'm just curious: There are a few parts in the book where Dawn’s with the guy she likes, and you were kind of vague about what happened. For example, “We used only one bed that night.” Was that intentional?
Uh, yes. I'm maybe the opposite of a "Fifty Shade of Grey" writer. My agent had to really press me. At one point, she was like, “Can they just at least kiss?” It felt less important for the story than more of the stuff in her head. Like, "How do I feel about this?” And it’s also the fact that I really did want my mom to read it.

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