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Posts Tagged versatile authors
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.
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.
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.
And here’s an update on my own strange times
Asleep From Day, Audrey Niffenegger, book club, book club fiction, how to write a time travel story, Margarita Montimore, Oona Out Of Order, quirky fiction, romantic mystery, romantic suspense, speculative fiction, stories with time travel, surreal, The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart, The Time Traveller's Wife, unreliable narrator, versatile authors
How do we write about ourselves? How do we write a memoir that will have value for others? How do we find the necessary level of truth, empathy and self-examination? How reliably are we remembering and does that even matter? What about the other people who are part of our story – how do we approach writing about them?
For me, the very best memoirs perform a conjuring trick with your mind. Even if the author is nothing like you, they somehow seem to be writing experiences you’ve also had or recognise.
Today I’m thrilled to be talking to such a writer – Peter Selgin, whose memoir The Inventors was one of my favourite books of last year (though it was actually published in 2016, but who cares about that?) Peter is a literary powerhouse – novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor and associate professor of English at Georgia College & State University. He’s also an artist, and the gorgeous pictures in this post are by him. (Find more of his art here.)
Roz Your memoir The Inventors is mainly written in second person, with your older self-addressing your younger self. I found this moving and effective; it allowed you to express complex emotions about your illusions and motivations, to bring your younger self alive in all his truth and complexity, while commenting from your perspective now. This is one of the challenges we face with memoir: how to be wiser than we were but also kind to our follies. I think your style choice balances them beautifully. How did you arrive at it? Was it something you’d seen in another book or did it happen for you spontaneously?
Peter My decision to write The Inventors in second person was mostly logical. At some point it became obvious to me that the younger version of myself whose story I was trying to tell, this thirteen-year-old boy, was in many ways a different creature than the fifty-something man I had become. I realized that I couldn’t inhabit that younger self fully or authentically; I couldn’t be him again. But I still wanted to tell his story. So instead of telling a story about him, as him, I told it to him. This gave me the sense of distance and perspective that every memoirist needs.
I think the hardest thing—or one of the hardest things—about writing memoir is how to be objective, honest, and fair, while avoiding all forms of sentimentality, of unearned emotion. I was intent on not romanticizing or glorifying my own past in any way. I didn’t want my younger self to come across as in any way heroic. But I was equally determined not to portray him as a victim (I’m no great fan of victim memoirs). The second person enforces acts as a sort of prophylactic against sentimentality. “You did this; you did that.” It has—or should have—the objective authority of an instruction manual or a cake recipe.
In the past few years the second person has become very trendy, which makes me almost wish I hadn’t used it, but it really was necessary for this book. And I think with second person that’s the key: is it necessary? if not, don’t use it.
When your agent disagrees
Roz I saw you remark in a blogpost that your agent advised against second person because it wouldn’t be as commercially appealing. We tread a fine line with our professional advisers, don’t we? Can you talk about handling advice that may be right in some ways, but wrong for your artistic direction? Your agent suggested a major change. How did you resist and still remain on good terms?
Peter My agent Christopher Rhodes was concerned that the second person would put off editors (this was before it became as trendy as it is now). At one point I rewrote the entire manuscript in the first person, but felt that it lost something crucial in the process. It no longer had that ruthlessly objective tone that had made it not only possible to write, but fun to write. And so I switched it back into second person again.
Ultimately, Christopher arrived at a brilliant solution: break up the second-person voice with another voice, with short intervals or inter-chapters in the first person. I used those intervals as opportunities to comment on the process of writing my own memoir and on memoir in general, little glimpses into the author’s process or notebook. In fact, I raided a few notebooks of mine for reflections to include in them. I’ve long been attracted to the sort of writing where the author’s inner process is exposed to the reader, the way the plumbing, ducts, and other normally hidden features of architecture are externalized at the Centre Pompidou.
Writing about real people
Roz Inevitably when we write memoirs, we involve other people. Many of them haven’t necessarily consented to become part of a book. Even if they do consent, they might not appreciate how we will use the material about them.
An example from my fiction – I have friends who jovially say ‘I’d love a part in your book’. They imagine a cameo where they’re doing something jolly and typical of them, like a special guest in a movie. They think it’s all surface. Instead we might write complex responses to our time with them, responses they might be entirely unaware we had. We cast them as part of our struggle to deal with life. We must write them this way in order to be truthful for the reader, but we also are aware it might create surprising and personal questions for the real people in our orbit. How did you handle this generally?
Peter On one hand, we should always respect the feelings of other people and try not to hurt people or use the medium of memoir irresponsibly or vindictively. But then we also have a responsibility toward telling the truth, or anyway trying to be as truthful and honest as possible. I’m lucky to have been born into a family that tolerates artistic needs and temperaments. While my egocentric father was more-or-less oblivious, my mother has always been supportive of my work as an artist, even when it’s come at her expense. Which isn’t to say that nothing I’ve ever written has given her offense. She was particularly offended by a passage in The Inventors in which I describe the family home as having gone somewhat to seed in the wake of my father’s death (of all the things that could have offended my mother about The Inventors, I never imagined it would be that passage).
The thing is, you can’t predict other people’s responses. It’s probably best not to try. Try to be as fair and objective as possible. Write to understand rather than out of anger, anguish, or self-pity; and never use the medium as an instrument of revenge, judgment, condemnation. The lens of self-righteous indignation is a poor instrument, I think, through which to view one’s life—let alone the world—clearly.
Roz In your book, there are two interesting ways you acknowledge this conundrum. You describe one of the main characters by just a label, ‘the teacher’. And at the end, you invite your brother George to write an afterword and correct anything he likes. He says that several details are wildly inaccurate from his point of view – even the kind of pen he had. This creates a sense of unreliability, but somehow does not undermine the book at all. Perhaps it also resonates neatly with your title, the men who invent themselves. Perhaps it also shows the complexity of reader belief, that what matters to them is inner honesty.
Peter As I see it, the memoirist’s job isn’t to tell “the truth,” which isn’t always possible. In fact it’s never possible at all, since “the truth” is a moving target that alters with the slightest shift in perspective or time. The memoirist’s job is to remember. And memory is entirely constructed.
Nor is it a stable construct. It keeps amending and refining itself, until finally what we remember isn’t “the truth” or even our own experience, but a story, a fiction based on experience, that we’ve told ourselves over and over again. With each telling the story acquires its own mythic reality independent of the facts, whatever those may have been.
Memory and truth are very different things. When students ask me, “How can I write about X if I don’t remember X?” I remind them that “to remember” is a verb, that there is no such thing as a memory that exists on a shelf in a storage room somewhere in our brains. Memories are like wind; they exist through the process of remembering. Whatever the act of remembering evokes, though it may not be “the truth,” still, it will do for memoir.
Roz You wrote two memoirs and a book of memoir essays. Why did they naturally split into three books?
Peter I’ve actually published only one memoir and one “memoir in essays.” A third memoir exists. Titled Painting Stories: a Life in Words and Pictures, that focuses on my love affair with those two things, how for many years they were at odds with each other, and how I finally succeeded in reconciling them. It has yet to find a publisher, in part because it needs to be produced in full colour, which is expensive. But everything we write is autobiographical, isn’t it — or rather everything we write is a blend of memory and imagination. But while fiction is driven mainly by the imagination, memoir has memory humming under its hood. It’s a matter of priorities.
The eclectic writer
Roz You have an eclectic mix of output. First of all, you’re an artist and graphic designer as well as writer. But within books you’re also quite diverse. You have fiction short and long, memoirs and essays, three craft books, five books for children. This is, of course, what a naturally curious, creatively inclined, expressive person does. But commercial folks would say that’s too diffuse. I have a good friend who writes award-winning non-fiction and has also written a novel that is terrifically good, but his agent doesn’t want him to enter that market and won’t attempt to sell it. Have you experienced this kind of obstacle?
Peter The demands of the marketplace are hostile to versatility. If an artist has a successful “product,” the market demands that they produce more of the same. For me that’s always been a problem, since I hate to repeat myself. This was driven home to me many years ago, soon after I published my first book, a children’s book. The book having done well, my editor at Simon & Schuster was eager to see more from me. I met with him several times. At each of those meetings I must have shown him half a dozen ideas I had for more children’s books, each of which was of a completely different order than the one we’d published, none of which appealed to him. It became obvious that what he wanted more of the same. But I just couldn’t get excited by that. I envy artists who, having found a successful style or method, are able to repeat it over and over again with minor variations. That’s a formula for commercial success. But I’m afraid I just don’t have it in me.
Roz Neither do I.
When we teach writing…
Roz New question. You teach a university graduate program in creative writing. What do you think we teach when we teach writers?
Peter Every teacher is different, of course. My focus has always been on craft, and especially on what makes for good storytelling. What information does the reader need, when do they need it, and how should it best be delivered?
Roz That is brilliant. I always think good writing knows exactly how it’s handling the reader. What they’re directing the reader to notice. And to feel.
Peter Of course there’s no single right answer. But those are the kinds of issues I look at when analysing and diagnosing a piece of writing. I see myself as something of a clinician. Of course, when it comes to prescribing, the first question should always be, “What is it that this author has set out to do? How can I help them to write the book that they seem to want to write?” I reject the often-heard accusation that creative writing teachers necessarily mould their students into their own image. Of course it may be true in some cases. But in my experience, the shape of the “mould” is determined by our students’ drafts, by the vision they present me with.
Roz I spotted on Facebook recently that you’ve been revising a novel after feedback from agents and publishers. What kinds of things did you re-examine?
Peter The novel, titled Duplicity, is nominally about twins—but the way Moby Dick is about the whaling industry. It’s really about dualities, opposites, contradictions, and paradoxes of all sorts, including a phenomenon of physics known as “quantum entanglement,” by which a single entity may exist in more than one place at a time. Having had it rejected by nearly every publisher in the country, large and small, I decided to revise it—not heavily, but to get rid of as many of what I call “speed bumps” in the narrative road —words, sentences, paragraphs, in one or two cases whole passages that slowed things down unnecessarily. I like the analogy of a story or narrative as a guided tour with a destination, but also with detours and side trips to interesting sights along the way. Some things are worth pulling over for; others less so. In revising I got rid of a few side trips.
Roz Give me some amazing final words!
Peter The best advice I’ve heard given to a writer is what the titular character tells (actually writes in a note) to Buddy, his fledgling author younger brother in J.D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction. He has Buddy ask himself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world would he most want to read if he had his heart’s choice.” Seymour then tells his brother to “sit down shamelessly and write the thing [him]self.”
And on that note, of things we’re writing ourselves, here’s my latest news
first person narration, first person narrator, how to write memoir, interview, Jane Friedman, multiple genres, Peter Selgin, second person narration, second person narrator, The Inventors, versatile authors, writing life, writing memoir, Your First Page
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