Writers through the ages have incorporated their contemporary culture into their work, either to make their points heard or as an effortless means of entertaining. Consider Shakespeare, who had Sampson “bite his thumb” (the equivalent of flipping someone off) in Romeo and Juliet. Or, on a larger scale, look to the social atmosphere of Regency-era balls and all that came with it in Jane Austen’s novels.
When these works were brought out, audiences needed no introduction to the allusions therein. Readers today, on the other hand, require either a professor or a set of Cliffs Notes to appreciate the nuances of behavior and language.
As edifying as looking to the past can be, celebrating the culture that populates our current lifespan is way more fun. For novelist Bethany Turner, author of The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck (2017), Wooing Cadie McCaffrey (2019), Hadley Beckett's Next Dish (2020), and, most recently, Plot Twist (dropping next week!), pop culture is like her first language, so it naturally follows that references to things like Gray’s Anatomy, Lilith Fair, and Bobby Flay would end up in her romantic comedies.
As Turner told me in an interview, “Pop culture represents shared experiences, and I think that by pulling those collective moments into my books, it helps us connect—reader-to-character, reader-to-reader, and reader-to-author.”
For her as a writer, “it might all link back to being a child of the '80s—also known as the decade of the ‘very special episode.’ Growing up, movies and television didn’t isolate us. We all gathered around the TV and watched together, and then we unpacked it together. I learned about loss when Mr. Hooper died on Sesame Street and tragedy when I watched the Challenger explode. My mom helped form my love of musical theatre by acting out the Original Broadway Cast recording of Camelot with my stuffed animals—Littlefoot from The Land Before Time was Lancelot, of course—and she continually exposed us to classic films and every genre of music.”
Turner explains that these connections go much deeper than something to high-five about at trivia night. “I’ve seen firsthand how pop culture can serve as the great emotional equalizer—from my sister and myself being diagnosed with ovarian cancer six weeks apart when we were 23 and 17, respectively, and our mom distracting us with Robert Redford film marathons, to the way women all over the world will hop into a conversation with strangers when you ask them if Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen is the better Mr. Darcy. (The correct answer is Colin Firth, by the way.)”
When Turner began writing, she was in the midst of a very successful career in finance. “I was 34 years old and had spent thirteen years climbing the ladder from part-time drive-thru teller to vice president . . . and I was absolutely miserable. But it’s not always easy to spot misery when it’s hiding behind success.” What began as a creative outlet turned into an option for the change she knew she needed, both for her own well-being and the well-being of her family.
“I certainly had no expectations that I would walk away from my steady, secure job with good pay and good benefits, and instantly survive as a full-time writer,” she says. “Diving headfirst into the unknown . . . was terrifying!”
But Turner quickly recognized that she was onto something. “Over the course of those first few months, I experienced an unburdened happiness like never before as I got to bring my full self to my relationships with my husband and my sons, and to my relationship with my writing. I wrote The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck in a matter of weeks.”
To other women who feel called to change course, Turner offers encouragement. “All too often we assume that the important people in our lives have the same crazy standards of success for us that we have for ourselves. I genuinely believed that if I didn’t perform well and I didn’t excel professionally, I would be letting my family down. As it turned out, all they really wanted was for me to be healthy, happy, and emotionally present. Sometimes we need to reevaluate our definition of success.”
A good rom-com likewise invites readers to re-evaulate their status quo, with the hope of something more. In Turner’s novels, the keeps-you-guessing plotting and gentle peeling back of layers in character development take the reader through the characters’ courses of self-discovery.
Turner says, “I’ve learned so much from each of my characters—and inevitably, as I write their stories, some aspect of what I’m going through in my own life makes its way into theirs. Sarah Hollenbeck taught me to own who I am rather than run from it. Cadie McCaffrey taught me that if I accept nothing less than perfection, I’ll miss out on a whole lot of wonderful. Hadley Beckett showed me what forgiveness really looks like in our flawed, messed up world. And Olivia Ross taught me not to cast myself as an unimportant supporting character in the story of my life. . . . We weren’t made to do life alone, and often it’s the very act of letting someone break down the walls we build around ourselves that opens us up to some of the greatest things in life.”
Turner is grateful for the opportunities she’s had to connect with readers and build community. She says these connections have been, “the heart and soul of the publishing journey for me.” She’s experienced trust, laughter, and tears with her readers. There’s more to come with more books in the works, and Turner says, “I can’t wait to see what adventures we go on together next.”