Posts Tagged speculative fiction

We’ll make you believe the unbelievable – writing fiction that falls between fantasy and reality: an interview with Margarita Montimore @damiella

All writers are in the business of make-believe, from fantasy and science fiction to dead-straight factual.

And then there’s the fiction that likes to play between the two, explore the strange, bend the possible (here’s my own manifesto on that). When I came across Margarita Montimore’s debut novel The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart (Gollancz) ((Oona Out of Order in the US, published by Flatiron Books), where a woman lives her life in non-chronological sequence, I recognised a kindred creative spirit.

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.

Pic by MacKenzie Cadenhead

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.

Pic by David Swanson

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.

Roz Tell 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.

Roz You 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?

Roz My 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.

Roz How 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.

Roz You 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.

Roz What’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.

Roz Amen to that. Here’s where Margarita hangs out on line. Tweet her on @damiella , find her on Facebook track her down on Instagram , sign up for her newsletter and find her website and her books.

And here’s an update on my own strange times

 

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AI, the Bradbury tradition and imagined futures – interview at One Giant Read

one giantWhen astronaut Major Tim Peake blasted off for the International Space Station, the UK literary community launched a project of its own. One Giant Read is described as ‘a shared reading experience from Literature Works in partnership with the UK Space Agency, Royal National Institute for Blind People and supported by Gollancz, the Poetry Archive and Plymouth University’.

I’m beyond delighted that Lifeform Three is included in this month’s edition, which explores artificial intelligence in both the provable world (I refer you to that fetching shot of Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game) and in speculative fiction.

They interviewed me here about writing in the traditions of SF, and reviewed Lifeform Three here. It’s such a nice review that for the rest of today I’ll be wearing One Giant Smile.

Lifeform Three mystical, compellingone giant read

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‘Music was solace, understanding and escape’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jake Kerr

for logoMy guest this week describes a journey – of looking for a life path, of circling around it many times until he found where he was meant to fit. He says he thought he wanted to be a DJ because he loved music, and indeed became a music industry journalist. Then one day he started writing stories – and realised this was how he wanted to use the experiences that music gave him. It was clearly a good move as he has been nominated for the Nebula, the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. He studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria and is now contributing to Hugh Howey and John Joseph Adams’s Apocalypse Triptych. He is Jake Kerr and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Hidden forms that tell a story’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Stephen Weinstock

for logoYou can’t read much about writing advice before you trip over an essay about story structure, and how it works invisible magic on the reader. My guest this week has used sophisticated musical structures as the skeleton of his fantasy series, a series of nested reincarnation tales inspired by The Thousand and One Nights – and his influences range from Alban Berg to Frank Zappa. For him, music does not so much conjure up a scene or a character as an entire shape, of how an idea moves into a story and where it eventually goes. He is uniquely qualified to do so, as he is a composer, pianist and dance accompanist for musical theatre with the dance faculties of UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school (though he has not yet said if he is reincarnated). Stephen Weinstock is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

SHORT BREAK I’ll be taking a short break from blogging but will be back with a post on 30 November.

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‘A lyric, a tune fragment, a thrilling chord run’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, JW Hicks

for logoMy guest this week says that most of her better ideas are sparked by music. She keeps noise-making apparatus at the ready in every room in her house. When she’s stuck she charges up her headphones with inspirational pieces and does a hand-occupying household activity until the ideas return, which usually isn’t long. Quirky and speculative fiction is her milieu, and her short stories have won prizes. Now she’s launching her debut dystopia novel, Rats, with the Triskele books collective. She is JW Hicks and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘My word-hand is singing’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Marcus Sedgwick

for logoThere’s a shelf chez Morris that holds a set of books with such exquisite titles as Midwinterblood, White Crow, Floodland and, of course, the one quoted in the catchline of this post. So shall I cut to the chase and state that I’m honoured that he’s my guest this week? His novels blend folktales, myth and sometimes futuristic speculation, and music is a significant companion in the writing – from the mournful and joyous gypsy and folk ballads of Eastern European to the romantic compositions of Gustav Mahler. For his latest novel, The Ghosts of Heaven, no music would fit – so he composed his own. Do join me on the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick.

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‘Abhorrent combinations… fear not as the music writes the story for you’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Josh Malerman

for logoMy guest this week says his novel was written in a trance. He rented an attic from a musician, who he could hear practising in the rooms downstairs, brought along a cageful of finches and set them free to fly around him as he typed. You’ll see from the title why they seemed like a good idea. These avian muses were also treated to the soundtracks of several movies – Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog and Creepshow – which doubtless helped them get further into character. When he needed to crank up the intensity, there would be two songs howling at once – the radio at one end of the room, classical music at the other. My guest reports that sometimes his birds got tired and stared at him. This endearing aural vandal is Josh Malerman, his novel is the post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Why I like to write science fiction… my first interview about Lifeform Three

cheleI think this is the first interview I’ve done about Lifeform Three. I’m at the blog of Chele Cooke, whose name you may recognise because she was an Undercover Soundtrack guest a week or so ago. Chele is holding a sci-fi festival at her blog this month, and has invited along a number of authors who’ve written in the genre, from epic fantasy to chrome-plated mind-voyages. The awesome Hugh Howey is coming tomorrow, so I must be warm-up for him!

Chele made us all answer the same questions. How we developed our stories, what our distinctive takes are and who we’ve been influenced by. Personally, I think of SF as the classic genre of the imagination, one of the finest ways to ask questions about humanity that can’t be asked any other way. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Come over for the rest.

coverLF3

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‘The perfect song for my characters to flourish’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Candace Austin

for logoMy guest this week says she can ignore just about any distraction and write – except if she can hear music. But she also can’t write a character until she has found the perfect song as a vehicle for their personality, back story and secrets. Her debut novel fits rather well with this blog for another reason too – it’s the story of the world’s most reincarnated man, with all the troubles – past and present – that that implies. She is Candace Austin and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘I hear these songs and see the flawless story I wanted to write’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, KM Weiland

for logoOne of my earliest Undercover Soundtrack guests returns this week with a brand-new novel – and another beguiling musical journey. The story features a character whose life spans two timelines, which she envisaged in her head as having a soundtrack of two personalities. Aggressive guitar, driving percussion – softened by the melancholy lyricism of early Celtic folk songs. But she’d never heard such a thing in real life – until a chance listen one day expressed exactly what she’d been looking for. She is KM Weiland and she’s on the Red Blog talking about the Undercover Soundtrack for her newest release, Dreamlander.

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