As Sarah Watson’s YA novel, Most Likely, opens on a chilly January morning in 2049, it is Inauguration Day for the first woman president of the U.S. Who is she? Watson doesn’t tell—but instead flashes back to fall 2019, when four inseparable friends buoy one another as they navigate the choppy waters of senior year. Readers share in the teens’ fears about growing up and growing apart, while not knowing who of the four will be center stage on that Washington, D.C. podium three decades later. Though this is Watson’s debut book, the Santa Monica resident has an impressive log of writing credits: she is the creator of Freeform TV’s The Bold Type, now in its fourth season, and previously worked as a writer and executive producer of NBC’s Parenthood. Watson spoke with PW about her inaugural YA voyage, embarking on a different writing tack, and the importance of friendship and hope in reaching one’s destination.
There is a great deal hanging in the balance throughout Most Likely, since readers know that one of the four protagonists will be elected the first woman president of the U.S., but don’t know who it will be. What inspired this high-stakes plot—and your decision to keep the candidate’s identity hidden until story’s end?
I was inspired to write the novel by several events colliding into one. I was so disillusioned by the results of the 2016 election, as were many of us who thought that Hillary Clinton would become our first woman president. When that didn’t happen, I started thinking about who that first woman elected would be. At that time, I was training to run a marathon with a friend, and we pulled in another friend to train with us. As we ran for miles and miles, talking and talking, my friends pushed me further and further, and helped me become the best version of myself while we trained.
At the same time, I was reading Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, and I was surprised to learn that she was a Republican when she started college, and the women friends she met at Wellesley pushed her to think further and deeper—and to grow. And that made me realize—and I can easily get emotional saying this—that whoever our first female president is, we will owe a huge debt of gratitude to her friends, who will have shaped her to be who she is. I firmly believe that we become who we are because of our friends.
And I didn’t want to reveal which of the characters becomes president because I wanted readers to realize that any one of the four could be elected president. They all have their wonderful strengths and weaknesses, and I loved the idea that each has equal possibility—and the idea of readers not rooting for just one of them.
You’ve created numerous teenage characters for television, and now for the page. Does writing in each medium present very different challenges?
Yes, the writing is so different. It’s funny—the thing I like most about writing for TV is the thing I hate most! I love that it’s collaborative, and I hate that sometimes you’re not able to write exactly what you want. On the other side of that coin, if you do write yourself into a corner, you have a group of other writers to help you get you out of it. And that has happened to me many, many times. It’s also interesting to me that the thing I liked most about writing Most Likely is the thing I hated most: every choice was mine. But luckily, when I did get stuck a few times, I had a wonderful editor to help me write myself out of that corner—first Pam Gruber, who was the acquiring editor, and then Farrin Jacobs, who became my editor when Pam left Little, Brown.
I don’t think that my television writing experience influenced my novel writing all that much. At first, I explored my novel’s characters through dialogue, which is what one does when writing for TV. But then I realized that I had to psych myself to go internal with the characters, which was a whole new challenge, but an exciting one. I’ve always been a lover of books, so this let me follow my own passion as a reader in a whole new way. Oh, but one thing TV writing did help me with in the novel was chapter endings—I realized they are like act breaks and have to be written so that readers want to turn the page.
Given the results of Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 election and the failed 2020 presidential bids of Elizabeth Warren and other female candidates, do you feel your novel’s empowerment message to young women is more remote, or all the more crucial to strive for?
What happened four years ago and what has happened recently absolutely makes it all the more critical now. I wrote the novel almost as fan fiction—reflecting what I wanted to happen in terms of electing a woman president who I can believe in. Since the 2016 election, I’ve become a lot pickier about which projects I am involved in. I know that there are very creative, darker stories being written, but I want to put hopeful things out there. With Most Likely, I wanted to create an empowering female fantasy that makes readers feel good and lets them escape a bit. I hope readers are inspired by it. I was inspired writing it—and it made me more hopeful.
Why did you open your novel in 2049—and select that as the date of the first woman president’s Inauguration?
When I originally thought of writing a story about the first woman president, I thought of making it more of a period piece, set in the 1980s or ’90s. And then, after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida in 2018, I was very inspired by the students who used their voices and acted in such powerful ways. It made me hopeful that we can rely on these highly qualified, capable kids. This is the generation that will save us when they come of presidential age. I am confident that will happen—but I hope we don’t have to wait till 2048 to elect our first female president.
Most Likely by Sarah Watson. Little, Brown/Poppy, $17.99 Mar. 10 ISBN 978-0-316-45483-4