Ten Girls To Watch: Our Interview With Novelist Charity Shumway
While working on Glamour magazine’s 2007 “Top 10 College Women to Watch” feature, writer Charity Shumway reviewed résumés and interviewed young woman after young woman who had already accomplished something spectacular in her short life. Even in their early 20s, women were making huge impacts on their communities and the world at large. But instead of feeling empowered by these women, Shumway said she felt like she, well, sucked.
“I think sometimes when you are young yourself, but a little older than someone else, you feel very competitive and very losery,” Shumway said. “At 25, to see a 22-year-old coming out with a book, and one who also discovered a star, and a concert violinist on stage, sometimes you feel already behind. I think that’s the worst feeling: the one where you feel you’re behind, and you already missed something, and it’s too late for you.”
This is also the mindset of Dawn West, the narrator of Shumway’s first novel, Ten Girls to Watch. Dawn is a college graduate a year out of school working terrible temping jobs just to make ends meet. A student who once aspired to go to law school and become a lawyer, Dawn is now writing an online advice column about lawn care… from her apartment in Brooklyn.
Before going to school for publishing at Columbia University, Shumway had jobs she was passionate about with non-profit organizations. She was also a janitor, a temp, worked in a tuxedo shop, and wrote a lawn care column very similar to her fictional protagonist’s. “My experience after college just floored me,” Shumway said. “I thought if a hard-working girl goes to college and graduates, that should be enough to get you started in life, and that really did not seem to be what happened. It’s not what my parents expected, it’s not what my teachers expected, it’s not what anyone prepared me for, this brutal awakening.”
Grad school and freelancing helped Shumway land a job at Glamour, a workplace that was very different from the nightmare portrayed in movies like The Devil Wears Prada. “If anything, I was a National Geographic reader, and I think I was pretty snobby about women’s magazines, actually,” Shumway said. “Working at Glamour was so cool. There were all sorts of cool women reporting on cool stories.”
Instead of a man’s world topped with a glass ceiling, Shumway found the publishing field to be very female friendly. In elevators and offices filled with women, Shumway said she often had to remind herself there were men in the world. “One of the things I loved about working at Glamour was that womanly niceness mattered. Being friendly and nice and in a sort of womanly way wasn’t like, ‘That’s bad for career, you need to be more serious.’ That was grease in the wheels,” she said.
Women’s magazines have taken heat over digitally altering photos to portray unrealistic images of models. In July, Seventeen promised to no longer edit the bodies and faces of models after a middle school student created an online petition to stop the abuse of photoshop.
In 2009, after printing images of models three to five sizes larger than average, or well into what is referred to as “plus-size” in the fashion industry, Glamour listened to comments and letters sent in by happy readers and continued to photograph models with varied body types. “It felt, at heart, a very feminist magazine. They’re very, very pro-women, with a friendly, female cheerleader vibe going on,” Shumway said. “Most of the people who work there are pro-happy, healthy women, not about how to sexually satisfy your mate.”
In Shumway’s novel, the character Dawn’s “big break” comes as the chance to work for fictional Charm magazine’s “Ten Girls to Watch” contest. Sound familiar? “The main point of the book is that Dawn is still struggling at the end of book, but there is a sense that maybe things are getting better, day by day,” Shumway said. “Not some day things are magically solved, you fall in love with Prince Charming, and find some great gig. But bit by bit, you get experience, get your feet under you. As an adult, you feel more confident that things are going to be OK, you’re going to figure it out, and your career will happen.”
Shumway’s own job jump from Glamour to Goldman Sachs was an enormous culture shift, one she thinks she may be the only person to ever make. What she learned was that adapting to the codes of your employment doesn’t have to redefine you. “No longer was I allowed to sign emails with, ‘XO,’” Shumway said. “I think the big thing that I felt was being a little more formal, and I sometimes think being more formal is the default mode in male-dominated fields. But it doesn’t neuter you. You can still be yourself, even if it is a more formal version of yourself. It doesn’t need to feel like you’re denying your true self just because you’re not using exclamation points.”
On Shumway’s website, Ten Girls to Watch is described as a “novel about stumbling through the earl years of adulthood while taking (or not taking) advice of the women who’ve gone before you.” Who knows what Shumway’s life would have been like if she knew then what she knows now about life as a 20-something college graduate.
“I realized that maybe someone comes out of the gates as a superstar, but everyone has to work hard in life,” Shumway said. “The good news is, eventually something does work out, even if it takes a lot longer than you’d hoped.”
Written by Lauren Slavin