My third novel Ever Rest, is now shortlisted, with honourable mention, for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize 2022!
Several reviewers have mentioned they’d like to introduce it to their book clubs, so I’ve created these crib notes, to use as a primer before reading, or a refresher afterwards. I’ve included key themes, suggested questions for discussion, and an interview by Garry Craig Powell at Late Last Night Books where I explain my inspirations and intentions – which, of course, might be entirely irrelevant to your own reading of the book. Spoilers are flagged in case you’d like to avoid them.
The title is more ponderous than I would like. I wanted to call it Sleeve Notes, but Amazon’s rules require the words ‘Study Guide’ in the title, and prominently on the cover. There were other options, but they were even more earnest. So Study Guide it is.
Anyway, it’s formatted as an ebook and a PDF and you can download it free from all the major ebook retailers. Find it here.
PS For more of my creative doings, you might like my newsletter, here
Margarita worked for more than a decade in publishing and social media before she decided to focus full time on the writing dream – and here’s a good moment to mention that Oona is a USA Today bestseller and Good Morning America Book Club pick. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and her dog. She didn’t tell me her dog’s name, but she did mention that Mr Montimore is called Terry. Here are the human Montimores giving a reading at Oona‘s launch night at Powerhouse Arena in New York City.
Roz Margarita, you describe yourself as a ‘writer, editor, weirdo’. I love that. I’m going to leap on the standout word for me: weirdo. Why weirdo?
Margarita I’ve been drawn to the left-of-center for as long as I can remember. And I’ve accumulated my own quirks over the years. Nowadays I think of being a weirdo in terms of embracing the unconventional and celebrating original ideas.
Roz All my life, I’ve been told I’m weird or strange. I find that hard to understand – because to me, I’m normal.
Margarita I grew up in Brooklyn as a Russian immigrant, and being part of one culture while assimilating with another gave me an outsider’s perspective. From the time I was a kid, I was exposed to foods many would consider weird (meat jello, anybody?) and odd superstitions, while also developing an interest in the paranormal and general high strangeness (yes, watching Unsolved Mysteries probably had a lot to do with that). Then there was my goth phase… I think I started out wanting to be normal but embraced the weird as being true to who I am.
Roz My kind of weirdness, at least in terms of my writing, is a taste for the unusual. It might be described as high concept – a strange thing happens, which creates its own physics for the characters and a new way to explore what it is to be human.
Margarita Yes! I’m drawn to this same thing. How ordinary people respond to something extraordinary. I’m also a fan of atypical story structures—playing with timelines, unreliable narrators, etc.
Roz I think our kinds of weird are similar. Your novels are praised for their sense of romance, mystery, suspense, and bold story concept, and also their literary qualities. When we messaged on Facebook, you used a phrase that really captured this – ‘making the unbelievable believable’. What do you aim to create with your fiction?
Margarita I aim to create stories that will entertain, but also offer thought-provoking themes if readers want to dig deeper. I like to present a world that’s a bit off-kilter but rooted in the real and familiar, so that it’s easier for readers to buy into the reality I’m presenting. And I hope that giving people a taste of the less familiar makes them look at things with a fresh perspective (whether it’s the notion of memory or aging or something else).
Roz Tell me about Oona. It’s a charming idea. Readers have commented that it raises questions about living in the moment.
Margarita Writing it also helped me be more cognizant of living in the moment, because I found I was prone to basking in nostalgia or imagining an ideal future. Now I’m trying to take the book’s message to heart and be more present, make the most of every day.
Roz I’d like to add a further interpretation – it shows the remarkable degrees to which we can change, into people we cannot imagine we’ll ever be. And if we look backwards, we find we were people we can’t imagine having been.
Margarita I love this—and I never thought about describing the story in those terms. But it’s true; in some ways, our lives are composed of adopting a series of identities. And when we live chronologically, the transition from one into another usually doesn’t seem as dramatic and disorienting.
Roz So true! We hardly notice change as it’s happening. But open a diary that’s 20 years old and… wow! Was that really me?
Margarita Exactly. It’s like an entirely different person wrote all those things.
RozTell me how you came to write Oonaand what you were aiming for.
Margarita Oona was inspired by the moments of disconnect I experienced in my late thirties. It was hard to believe I was pushing forty when there were some days I still felt like a teenager. And then there were others when I felt much older than I was. That got me thinking about a story in which a woman experiences her adult life out of order because she time-travels to a different age every year.
I’ve long been fascinated by time travel as a story device, but I felt like there were ways it could be used to explore more personal narrative. You don’t often get an in-depth look at the effects time travel might have on a person’s day-to-day life, their identity, and their relationships. That’s what I wanted to explore in this novel.
Roz I’ve always been fascinated by time travel too. It could be one of the greatest inventions storytellers have given us. Such a rich playground for so many powerful emotions – regret, the yearning to change something, the temptation to cheat…
Margarita And it’s a great way to explore how we deal with mistakes. Trying to fix them vs. accepting them, realizing how mistakes play into our personal growth, etc.
Roz We both have an afterlifey novel. Mine is My Memories of a Future Life. Yours is Asleep From Day – about a woman whose memory is erased in a car crash, who finds herself in a mysterious world, haunted by mysterious dreams.
Asleep From Day reminds me of Iain Banks’s novel The Bridge, where we enter the consciousness of a man in a coma on a strange version of the Forth Bridge. Funnily enough, The Bridge was a touchstone for me when I was developing My Memories of a Future Life. I was inspired by its daring vision, a fantasy where you think you know the real-life version of what you’re seeing but you can’t be sure. And also the fully fleshed characters – Banks spent as much time on their complicated lives and outlook as he did on his high-level concept. With my novel, I did something different from Banks, but Banks was a lighthouse for me. Did you have any lighthouse texts for either of your novels?
Margarita I wouldn’t say Oona Out of Order was directly inspired by any single book, though I do understand the comparisons to The Time Traveller’s Wife, a novel that I love.
Roz Me too! I admire the way she worked the concept so thoroughly.
Margarita If anything, I resisted writing about time travel for a while because Audrey Niffenegger already did it spectacularly. But once I felt I could approach the concept with a different perspective (having a female protagonist do the time-hopping, focusing on broader coming-of-age themes in place of TTW’s epic love story, etc.) I was comfortable developing this story.
RozYou like to flirt with multiple genres, don’t you? I do too. My first novel is contemporary suspense. My second is sci-fi.What will you surprise us with next?
Margarita I love to flirt with multiple genres because I feel like it gives stories more interesting dimensions. It’s not a conscious decision, it’s just that what I write tends to incorporate aspects of various genres. I don’t have specific genres in mind, but I do enjoy giving my work a surreal/speculative quality, so I expect that will flavor whatever I write next.
Roz The publishing industry generally prefers authors to stick within one box. Do you anticipate any problems with your versatility?
Margarita The problem was getting a foot in the door early on, when agents were complimentary about my work but expressed concern over how to position it. Some suggested I rework my stories for YA, where genre-bending is more prevalent. Others encouraged me to follow a more conventional plot structure, especially with Oona (fun fact: early versions of the manuscript were rejected by 200+ agents!). Thankfully, it was published with its quirk intact and embraced as book club fiction. I’ve been able to avoid being pigeonholed so far, so I’m less concerned about it being an issue moving forward.
Roz Is there a quality or theme that readers might recognise as central to all your work? I find I’m often writing about people who are haunted in some way, who feel out of place and restless, are looking for the thing they need to change in order to settle. Maybe they can, maybe they can’t. How about you?
Margarita We definitely have some overlap here. If there’s a unifying theme to my work, it’s people who are looking for home. And I use the term broadly. Home can be a place, a person, or even something we find within ourselves. It’s where we feel the most secure, where we can feel a sense of belonging while being our truest selves.
Roz Yes – a sense of belonging and security. I’m with you totally. My characters are also looking for that. Perhaps we could call it ‘inner home’.
Margarita “Inner home” is a great way to put it.
Roz You self-published Asleep From Day, didn’t you? Can you talk about that decision? Did you seek a traditional deal for it first?
Margarita The agent I worked with prior to this one submitted Asleep From Day for me and sent it to editors who specialized in literary fiction, women’s fiction, suspense, and mystery, though the novel didn’t neatly fit into any of those genres, and thus it wasn’t acquired. I decided it was best to part ways with that agent and try my hand at self-publishing. Roz, what led you to self-publish? Do you think you’ll ever consider the traditional route with any future work?
RozMy path to self-publishing was similar to yours. I had agents for each of my novels. I had enthusiasm from a range of publishers and was also being tipped for book clubs, but each time the editors worried that I wasn’t a neat genre fit. A few publishers suggested changes that might please the marketing departments, but they compromised my vision too much. Fortunately, I knew all the editorial disciplines because I’d run a publisher’s editorial department and I’d also self-published non-fiction successfully. So off I went.
As for the next novel, I’ll certainly seek a traditional home for it. I’d love to find a publisher who’s a good partner for my work. And I think it’s always worth querying to see what’s possible for each individual book.
Margarita I wish you luck with it. Hopefully, publishers are noticing that readers enjoy genre-bending fiction that doesn’t strictly adhere to formulas.
Roz What was your process for getting all the feedback and support necessary for a polished book?
Margarita I was a book coach at Author Accelerator at the time, so I had access to multiple talented editors, one of whom I hired to work on Asleep from Day. After that, I hired a proofreader.
Roz How did you develop and decide the cover?
Margarita The cover was designed by my husband, Terry, who’s a professional graphic designer and illustrator. I gave him a number of ideas but also encouraged him to develop his own concepts. The only thing I was sure of was that I wanted the cover to convey a dreamy quality. He ended up doing about 20 different designs before I picked the final one.
Roz I notice it’s now out of print. Can you talk more about that?
Margarita I decided to take it down so that my publishers at home and abroad could position Oona as my official debut. I may republish it at a later point in time, but for now I’d rather readers focus on Oona, which I believe to be a better book.
Roz Here’s Margarita out of order, 1999 to 2019.
Roz Oona is your second novel, and your debut in traditional publishing. How did that deal come about?
Margarita In very much the traditional way. I sent out queries, got an agent, and the book was submitted to editors. To my utter shock and delight, more than one editor expressed interest, so I was given the chance to speak to each one to get a sense of their vision for the book. An auction followed and I selected the editor/publisher I felt would be the best fit for Oona. Not long after that, it sold in the UK.
Roz Before your novels, you worked in publishing and social media. You also have a degree in creative writing. And you blog at cool places. What was the path from those to your books?
Margarita I initially thought I’d have a career in publishing, but after working at a literary agency, I realized agenting wasn’t going to be the right fit for me. Working at HarperCollins offered a glimpse at many more types of career paths and I loved the years I spent there, but I just couldn’t find my niche in the industry. Transitioning into social media was a lucky break, and I was fortunate to work at some of the places I did, but as I advanced career-wise, I had less and less creative energy to put into my own projects. It wasn’t until I left New York and my hectic work life behind that I could truly focus on writing books.
RozHow has that background helped?
Margarita Having a background in both the agent and publisher side of the industry has come in handy. The technology has changed (there was a lot of photocopying back in my day!)
Roz Oh lord, there was! You’ve just reminded me. When manuscripts arrived… when we marked them up and sent them for typesetting… when galleys came in… when we sent them out again…
Margarita Many of the basics are the same. If nothing else, understanding the gauntlet a manuscript has to run before it’s represented by an agent and then sold to a publisher made me aware of the long timelines and tough odds I was up against. On the social media side, having that professional background has helped me develop my author platform online.
RozYou also freelance as a book coach and editor. Tell me about that.
Margarita I don’t take on as much editorial work these days so that I have more time to write (I don’t draft quickly). But I find it deeply gratifying to help other writers develop their stories and it’s also helped me take a more objective approach to my own work.
Roz Likewise, on all counts. I also freelance as a book coach and editor. I love figuring out what a writer wants a book to be and helping them achieve it. And I often find I learn a lot from their brave attempts.
Margarita Yes, isn’t it funny when you find yourself correcting a particular issue in someone else’s work over and over, only to find the same issue in your own work later on? Editing can be a good way to become a more self-aware writer.
Roz It’s the best education. Or: our students can be our best teachers.
Margarita And we can learn something from just about any piece of writing. Even when it misses the mark, it gets us thinking about how to improve it and what makes for a satisfying story.
RozWhat’s it like to be publishing in these strange times?
Margarita It’s a strange time to be doing book promotion. But I’m also amazed by how the writing and book community is unifying in the face of this global crisis. Whether it’s independent bookstore owners hand-delivering books to their customers, book clubs shifting their meetings to online discussions, the numerous reading lists being shared, or the countless ways authors are supporting each other’s work. I hope people will continue to turn to books as a source of comfort and a positive escape. And I’m proud to be part of a creative community that is determined to thrive in difficult circumstances.
In this episode we’re spanning the entire spectrum of the book-reader continuum. What makes a good writing group? What makes a good reading group or book club? How do you organise such a group? How do you find a group that suits you? Should authors visit book groups or does it cramp everyone’s style? We have the answers!
This book is being read everywhere, apparently! Or it is in the USA, which is home of Literary Roadhouse. They invited me to be part of their book club podcast, where we spent a good hour getting our teeth into Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.
Some of us adored it. Some of us grumbled about the very things the others loved. Such is the nature of a truly satisfying book club discussion. If that’s your bag too, step this way.
My guest this week says she was a singer long before she was a writer, and when she started writing, music was a natural place to find story inspiration. She writes a series of novels based around the members of a book club, and many of the titles and characters come from tracks that have been special to her. I took unashamed pleasure in seeing Icicle Works and Peter Gabriel make an appearance – the latter with Sinead O’Connor (gasp). And one of her books was inspired by a track by Indigo Girls, which talks about reincarnation and the soul reinventing – possibly a familiar idea to longtime visitors here. Anyway, she is award-winning journalist and contemporary women’s fiction author Karen Wojcik Berner and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
‘Try to nail something down in a novel,’ said DH Lawrence, ‘and you either kill the novel or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.’
(This is the first time I’ve come across a quote that put the words ‘nail’ and ‘novel’ together, so I thought it was worth a mention.)
Lawrence was talking about the influence of a story’s narrative voice, and how it has to be deployed with feints and subtlety. By coincidence, I’d just read his short story The Lovely Lady and badly wanted an excuse to talk through why I like it so much. So as the gods seem to be hinting, here we go.
(If you haven’t read it already, it’s here. It’s not that long and I’ll wait for you.)
How’s this for an opening?
The Lovely Lady is Pauline. ‘At seventy-two… sometimes mistaken, in the half-light, for thirty…. Only her big grey eyes were a tiny bit prominent… the bluish lids were heavy, as if they ached sometimes with the strain of keeping the eyes beneath them arch and bright.’
Pauline lives with her son, Robert, and her unmarried and distinctly less favoured niece Cecilia: ‘perhaps the only person in the world who …. consciously watched the eyes go haggard and old and tired….. until Robert came home. Then ping! … She really had the secret of everlasting youth… could don her youth again like an eagle.’ How interesting that she only turns this magnetism on for Robert. Never Cecilia. And how creepy.
Here we have characters we recognise by their familiar vanities – and an off-kilter situation. And it’s all accomplished through simple description. First, we’re shown Pauline (most frequently referred to as ‘the lovely lady’) in a way that lets us know how she sees herself. Then we see Cecilia’s view of her. There’s a lot of unrest here; an unstable situation that can’t last. Simple and masterful.
We don’t get Robert’s point of view. He is a mute adorer of his mother. And anyway this is going to be Cecilia’s story. Cecilia, by the way, is very quickly abbreviated to Ciss, or perhaps I should say reduced as the narrator informs us the diminutive is ‘like a cat spitting’. Tiny details that reinforce her true place. (But we want this to change.)
They all live in a house that is ‘ideal for Aunt Pauline’ – but living death for the other two. That is just as well because they don’t have the confidence to leave. Cecilia is ugly and tongue tied, and Robert, a barrister, is secretly mortified that he can’t earn more than £100 a year, in spite of his best efforts. (Notice the ‘showing’, not ‘telling’ – we don’t get a sentence saying Robert’s an underachiever. We’re shown what that means and how it makes Robert feel.) By day he is at work. When he comes home at night, the old lady keeps him in awe of her beauty and gay conversation.
It doesn’t help that Robert is ‘almost speechless’. Dwell on those words for a moment: ‘almost speechless’. They reach so much further than ‘quiet’.
The language drums out the unnatural state of this triangle. Ciss intuits that Robert is never comfortable ‘like a soul that has got into the wrong body’. The lovely lady is only seen by candlelight, when she is radiant in antique shawls. She made her fortune dealing in antiques from exotic countries. Are we treading into vampire territory here? Perhaps, but not literally; this is a psychological hold. The lovely lady steals Robert’s youth to keep up the illusion of her own. Meanwhile Ciss is always sent to bed early and can see the confusion seething in his soul.
‘Every character should want something,’ said Kurt Vonnegut. Ciss wants to marry Robert, but can’t see how to prise him away and fears her dazzling aunt will live for ever – or at least until Robert is a broken husk. Nudging the vampire idea again, but so obliquely. (And she’s Ciss now; never Cecilia. Her status is so insignificant that the narrator doesn’t use her proper name.)
This talk of the supernatural is also storytelling sleight of hand – seeding suggestions for what comes next. One day, Ciss learns something that may give her a means of escape.
From here, the old woman is no longer ‘the lovely lady’, a legendary and exquisite presence. She is Pauline. Not even Aunt Pauline. Ciss has glimpsed the reedy old woman under the brocades.
The relationships thicken
Ciss’s relationship with Robert deepens and she becomes Cecilia again – although he will not break away from his mother.
The final solution is bizarre, poignant and funny, but it works beautifully because of the structures and influences the author has been weaving while we looked the other way. The nailing that was done with the lightest touch.