As seasoned time-travelers, Marty McFly and Doc Brown know all too well that changing the past alters the future.
And that's exactly what Lissy Ryder, the main character in Jen Lancaster's new novel, "Here I Go Again," hopes to do.
Ryder is a once-popular cheerleader who ruled high school and married the star quarterback. At 37, she is broke, unemployed, divorced and living in her parents' house, her glory days well behind her. When she thinks life can't get much worse, she receives an invitation to her 20-year high school reunion. There it becomes apparent that Ryder wasn't well liked by her fellow students and that the key to a happier future could be in changing her past. Lucky for her, an unusual classmate has just the potion for this sort of thing — one drink and Ryder finds herself back in 1992.
"The idea came to me in a dream," Lancaster said. "So I started to explore the concept, and then I read Stephen King's book '11/23/62' and I thought, 'What would be a funny take on this?' ... I've always been interested in the idea of what if you could have a do-over, so that is what this is, the idea of a do-over with big nods to movies that I love like '13 going on 30' and 'Back to the Future.'"
The novel marks a departure for Lancaster, known for her sidesplitting memoirs that tend to focus on yearlong quests to change a specific aspect of herself (her weight or her addiction to reality TV, for example). Though this novel isn't her first piece of fiction, it is the first that bears no resemblance to her own life. Her previous novel, "If You Were Here," was fictional, but its story corresponded with what Lancaster was doing at the time — moving from the city to the suburbs to renovate a house.
"New readers really liked the book, but it just pissed my fans off," said Lancaster, 45, over cappuccinos at her Lake Forest home. "I realized I couldn't have one foot in the fiction world and one foot in the nonfiction world, which is why 'Here I Go Again' is so not me. I didn't graduate from high school in the '90s, I never listened to metal music, and I don't time travel."
Making the transition to fiction can be difficult for nonfiction authors. Laurie Notaro, author of personal essays and two novels, applauded Lancaster's transformation.
"It's difficult (to) transition from nonfiction to fiction, but Jen made the leap like she had been doing it all her life," Notaro said. "A lot of writers can't do that. They get stuck in nonfiction and have trouble breaking into the world of make-believe."
When Lancaster's first novel came out in May 2011, her life was settling down and it seemed a natural time to make a change.
"I began writing fiction when I started running out of material in my own life," said Lancaster, whose husband, John Fletcher, is known as "Fletch" to her fans. "A good book is full of conflict, and I've worked really hard to eliminate conflict from my life."
A new memoir, "The Tao of Martha," which follows Lancaster's year of living by Martha Stewart's domestic rules, comes out in June. If she were to write another memoir, she said, "I would have to go outside my comfort zone and really do something that created conflict."
Lancaster's writing career grew out of her blog chronicling her life as a casualty of the dotcom bust in the early 2000s. The blog would spawn her first book, "Bitter is the New Black."
"When I got laid off, I would write my friends these 15-page-long emails," she said. "This was before people had personal emails, and my friends would tell me that I was going to get them fired if I kept sending them stuff, so I started a website. It didn't occur to me that I could actually have a career doing this until strangers found my blog on the Internet and liked it."
Six essay collections and two novels later, Lancaster is comfortably settled into her writing career, which she hopes to broaden by writing screenplays. Fox has optioned a script for a sitcom based on "The Tao of Martha."
After "Martha," she said, she'd like to write novels full time — and thereby go back to her future.
Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene for Printers Row journal.
"Here I Go Again"
By Jen Lancaster, NAL, 320 pages, $25.95