Each month, the Bustle Book Club asks an author to recommend a book they think everyone should read. In January, To All The Boys I've Loved Before author Jenny Han recommended The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle. Follow along with the book club on Bustle and join the conversation on Goodreads.
The author and television writer behind the Famous in Love series, Rebecca Serle wrote her latest novel, The Dinner List, for adults, and according to her — and Jenny Han! — it's the perfect book club pick.
In The Dinner List, one woman gets to live out the fantasy you've probably played out in your head: If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, who would they be? When Sabrina Nielsen arrives at her thirtieth birthday party, she is surprised by the guests sitting around the table: her best friend, whose role as a wife and working mother hasn't left much time for their relationship; her father, whose struggles with addiction lead him to leave Sabrina and her mother years ago; her college professor, who was something of a mentor to Sabrina; her ex-boyfriend, who she shared an intense relationship with for a decade; and Audrey Hepburn, her idol. Over the course of the evening, old issues are made new again, deep buried secrets come to light, and Sabrina is forced to deal with the baggage from her past and the prospect of a future very different from the life she has always known.
Serle sat down with Bustle to talk about the inspiration for her novel, the names on her own fantasy dinner list, the process of transitioning between book and television writing, and so much more.
Bustle: Can you tell us a little bit about The Dinner List and how you came up with the idea for the novel?
Rebecca Serle: I came up with the idea for The Dinner List about five years ago, and I wrote the first 100 pages. I remember it sort of came to me as, “If you could have a dinner party with any five people, living or dead, what would that be? What if someone attended that dinner one night?”
I wrote the first 100 pages pretty quickly, and they felt really good and authentic in the way books you are meant to write sometimes do. Hopefully do. Often do. Then, my television show: I have a young adult series called Famous in Love which I adapted for TV. We sold it to Warner Bros., and then the pilot got picked up, and then they picked up the series, and all of a sudden I was living in L.A. and I was working full time on the show.
It was three and a half years later, and I had just gone on this kind of crazy ride. I came back to New York and back to my computer, sort of really wanting to make something else creative and wanting to own the process of making something creative in a way that I hadn’t totally had the opportunity in the last year. Then I found the pages on my computer. I just discovered them. I was working on a different novel that clearly wasn’t going anywhere. I kept trying to make it happen, it wasn’t going to happen, and I sort of went hunting and found these.
I wrote the first 100 pages pretty quickly, and they felt really good and authentic in the way books you are meant to write sometimes do. Hopefully do. Often do.
In the three and a half years since I started the book and came back to New York, my grandmother passed away. My grandmother Sylvia, who this book is dedicated to. All of a sudden, a concept that was really kitschy and fun and a little bit zany and whimsical — which I hope parts of the book still are — became something that was much more grounded, emotional, and real for me. Because I really understood the idea of what I wouldn’t give to have one last dinner with her, to ask her all the questions I never did when she was alive. All the questions we never ask people when they're alive, because we never think to. And just also circumstance that takes people out of our lives, and what we wouldn’t give to be reunited with them, both dead and alive.
While on tour and in press interviews, you have been asked about your dream dinner list. Has it changed from the beginning of your book tour, or maybe from when you started writing The Dinner List, to now? Do you think that in a year from now, it will be different?
RS: Yes, I do think so. The number one person on my list is my grandfather (Sylvia, my grandmother’s husband) who passed away when I was two and a half years old who I never got to really know — I’m tearing up just talking about it — but who I’ve always really felt was my guardian angel and has been responsible for so many of the wonderful things that have happened in my career. I just feel him so deeply in my life, and I know how much he looks after me. That is a beautiful thing, but to sit with him physically and to hear his laugh and to hear him talk and to get to have a meal with him as an adult — that would be unbelievable. He is always going to be the number one person on my list.
...to sit with him physically and to hear his laugh and to hear him talk and to get to have a meal with him as an adult — that would be unbelievable.
And then there are people who sort of come in and come out. I love Nora Ephron. So much of my work is inspired by movies of hers I loved growing up. So much of my life, too. I think my dream of living in New York City and the life that I have made here for myself are tied to those early narratives I have about what this life looks like here. So much of that life, it’s what she created. But yes, I do think we lose different people in our lives. We break up, we lose people, people fade out. We have people that fall out of our lives for reasons we can’t know until much, much later. I think my list will ever be evolving.
How did writing The Dinner List and returning to the world of novel writing compare with your experiences working on the Famous In Love television show? Did your experience in television shape or change the way you approach your book writing?
RS: It’s so interesting, because I did my Los Angeles launch event with a writer who I admire an exorbitant amount and who has become a very dear friend of mine, Gabrielle Zevin, who is the author of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and Young Jane Young, and she is just one of the greatest living novelists in my opinion. But she said to me at the event, which I thought was very interesting — she’s read all of my work and has always been a great support for me — she said, “I think that writing television allowed you to write The Dinner Table in a way I’m not sure you would have been able to.”
I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I think she is right. So much of TV writing is so focused on dialogue, and sort of tracking different characters in space, which was so important to this, and balancing different narratives and the way that they tie together. Balancing narratives and tracking characters in space and dialogue were so important in this book. It would be foolish to say my three and a half years coming off the show and doing that full time did not wildly contribute to my ability to write this book.
Along the same lines, what was it like to write this novel for adults compared to your young adult series? Were there things that challenged or surprised you?
RS: I sold my first book when I was 24, and so I was very close to the teen experience. I was very close to what it felt like to be 17, 18, 19, falling in love for the first time. I had just at 23 gone through my first major, major heartbreak, so all of it felt very fresh. So it was all stuff I really wanted to talk about; it was real to me. I came back to this book when I was 30. I wanted to talk about what it feels like to be in your early thirties, what it feels like to be dealing with a different set of circumstances, particularly with friendship. What it feels like when some of your friends are married, some of your friends are having babies, some of your friends are single. What does it look like when your lives are so different and your priorities are so different? What does love look like when you’re staring down the barrel at 30, when there are things you want for your life. Maybe I want a family, maybe I don’t want a family. Maybe I want to focus on my career, maybe I want both of those things and I need a partner who is aligned with me enough. Maybe love is not enough. All of those questions are really important in my life right now, and I want to talk about them.
I wanted to talk about what it feels like to be in your early thirties, what it feels like to be dealing with a different set of circumstances, particularly with friendship.
Is that what inspired you to choose the guests that you did? What is it about those relationships — between friends, lovers, parents and their children, students and their teachers, heroes and their idols — that interested you?
RS: Yes. I mean, I think that all of the really major relationships in my life are represented at the table. Now, that doesn’t mean that is what my relationships look like, and I have to make the caveat that I have the best parents in the universe. It’s always a little interesting when you make a challenging parental relationship, because I feel like in my previous work I have been very protective about that. I would never want them to feel like I was expressing those things that I necessarily felt personally. But of course no one gets out of childhood unscathed. We all have things, and so I think all of the primary relationships are: parental, romantic, friend, which I think is very, very intimate and in some capacities is the most important relationship at the table in terms of Sabrina, the relationship she has with Rena. There is hero, and then there is mentor. Those five relationships are sort of the primary ones, at least for me, that constitute a life. I wanted to look at all of them.
At the end of the day, the book is sort of like a giant therapy session of coming to terms with the past and the ways these relationships have let her down, the ways in which she is responsible for what has happened in them. And also, the reality that everyone is human. We are all just doing the best we can, but sometimes the best isn’t that good and that has to be okay.
The format of the novel lent to that feeling of being in therapy. It is interesting in that it switches from the present dinner to flashbacks of the past that explain how and why each person is at the table, and the history they have with one another. How did you come up with this idea?
RS: Well, I originally had the idea for this dinner, and I quickly realized that having all of these people unmovable at a table would not be that interesting. It was clear to me very early on in the first chapter that there would be a very, very big emotional element missing. You needed to be able to invest in this relationship and this character in a way that you weren’t going to have exposure to if you just saw her over the course of this one night. You have to know where she’s been, what’s happened to her, what happened to her and Tobias. That is sort of how the alternating chapters came to be. I wanted to know her story, and I felt it was important for readers to know her story in order to invest in how did we end up here? Why are we here? What do we have to work out? It’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another thing to see it. I wanted us to be able to see it so we could really be invested in the outcome of what is going to happen at midnight.
Sabrina’s best friend Jessica has a theory that people are either flowers or gardeners, and cites it as a reason that Tobias and Sabrina don’t work (because they are both flowers). Is this a theory you subscribe to personally?
RS: I think recently somebody said to me that I didn’t make it up and that it came from somewhere else, which is probably true. All writers steal. I don’t know exactly, but it is something I remember a friend of mine saying to me and that I do believe to be true in sort of the larger picture. Here is what I am coming to now, the difference between 24 and 33: You can trade off. In good relationships, you can be both gardener and flower, and that the pendulum sort of swings. But I do believe that there is probably a larger, overarching dynamic to each of the relationships you have, a way in which the energy can swing. I think that that is okay, as long as both people are aware of it.
In good relationships, you can be both gardener and flower, and that the pendulum sort of swings.
I have been in relationships where I have felt like a flower, I have been in relationships in which I have felt like a gardener, and in extremes I don’t think either one is particularly healthy or something to strive for. I think you want a little bit of a trade, but still understanding that in some relationships you are in you will have a little bit more of a fixed role. I have them in my friendships too. I do think it is probably right, but I think that you should endeavor to trade off.
Tobias and Sabrina have this unique tradition of asking each other to explain how they feel in the moment with five words. What inspired this? What are your five words?
RS: It is something I do with a friend of mine who lives in L.A. who I don’t see very often. He and I were really close in college. We shared a creative writing workshop together, we were actually in Marianne Wiggins’ class who was an old professor of mine and a mentor of mine who is on my rotating dinner list. I don’t really know who started it, we’ve been doing it for so long. Twelve years. I don’t remember who started it or how it came to be. But we would go sometimes two years, a year and a half, six months without talking. Sometimes still, we are busy. Life comes up. You’re on tour. There are all sorts of things happening, and it became this very kind of distilled way for us to just communicate exactly what was going on. Sometimes we will still text each other, “5?” It’s a nice thing. You get this real snapshots of where this person is at.
It came from our very dear friendship. I don’t know who started it, but let’s say it was me.
As you know, Jenny Han selected your novel for Bustle's new book club. What do you think makes a good book club book? What do you think makes The Dinner List a particularly good choice?
RS: I think questions embedded in books make for great discussion. I think that The Dinner List is a great pick, and it sounds so egotistical for me to say, but here we go. One of the things that is so delightful to me about putting this book out in the world is how much conversation it has sparked, how much really nice conversation it sparked. There is so much in our discourse right now that is polarizing. This question of, who is the five people you would gather? What is your dream dinner, what would that look like? I think that question is unifying and sweet and nice. I love the way people are sharing their list, I love the way people are talking about their families, I love the way people are talking about their heroes, and the stories that are coming out of it. People have anecdotes about meeting Barbra Streisand as a kid for five minutes, and wanting to have dinner with her. All of these narratives about people’s lives, people’s personal and zany and aspirational. I think it’s fun, and I think it is also allowing and will allow people to get to know their neighbors and their friends and people in their book club better. I think it's a really cool exercise to get to know something about someone’s life. It’s the most I could ever ask for, and it’s the most joyful thing that makes The Dinner List the perfect book club pick.
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