By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Margot Wood to the WNDB blog to discuss Fresh.
You’re an alumnx of Emerson. I actually am too and I teach as an adjunct in their MFA and MA programs now. Why did you want to set Fresh at Emerson?
I tried to write Fresh set at a fake, large university but that type of setting didn’t feel right for the story. A lot of freshmen in America are undeclared and don’t have a concrete idea of what they want to major in—just like my main character, Elliot McHugh—but at a college like Emerson, an incoming freshman with no plan is very rare. The Emerson student body is made up of highly driven, creative individuals—the kind that knows exactly what they want to do after graduation. So by setting it at Emerson, Elliot’s very normal situation of not knowing what she wants to do with her life suddenly becomes more unique and it immediately sets her apart from those around her. That and I knew Emerson’s famous Little Building would be the perfect setting for dorm life hijinks.
Fresh reminded me a lot of American Panda in how realistic the college experience felt (probably because both were written by authors who actually went to those colleges). Are there any things in Fresh that actually happened to you or someone you know, and did you create anything entirely fictional for the story?
I was a marketing major at Emerson, not WLP (Writing, Literature & Publishing), so I’ve had no formal writing education. So the very first time I tried my hand at fiction writing with Fresh, I started with my own experiences and mistakes as a freshman at Emerson. By the time I finished the final draft Elliot’s story had taken on a life of its own, but there are still so many themes and details throughout the book that are pulled directly from my own life. A few fun examples of real things that happened to me (no spoilers!) are the Cheez-Its in exchange for friendship sequence at the beginning, the dating auction, the classes Elliot takes (including a presentation on something akin to Project Tender Chicken), forgetting to read The Iliad and bombing the first test, and pretty much every interaction Elliot ever has with her family members.
Fresh is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. Have you always been an Emma fan? What drew you to this story as an inspiration for Fresh?
In high school my English teacher had us read most of Jane Austen’s stories and out of all Jane’s incredible leading ladies, Emma Woodhouse is my absolute favorite. She was the first character I truly connected with in literature. When I started writing Fresh, I started with the characters first. Elliot McHugh has been in my head for a very long time, and I knew I wanted to explore a story of a charming, funny young woman who means well but doesn’t always do well. Someone with a lot of confidence who is ultimately humbled by her mistakes. But even though Elliot and her friends and lovers were so clear to me from the get-go, I struggled with story. I had all the pieces: the characters, the setting, tone, themes, and style of humor, but I didn’t know how to put it all together.
After a year, I took a step back from Fresh and started re-reading my favorite books to try and find some sort of inspiration. Within two chapters of rereading Emma, my brain lit up like fireworks. Elliot McHugh reminded me so much of Emma Woodhouse. Like Cher Horowitz in Clueless, Elliot McHugh is her own character and a modern version for sure, but it was so obvious that day reading Emma in my living room that I couldn’t believe it took me a whole year to realize it. I gathered all the pieces I already had of Fresh, merged it with Emma, and everything fell into place. Within three weeks I had my first full draft and four months after that, my agent sold the book at auction.
Clueless is also an Emma retelling. Do you think Elliot would get along with Emma and Cher in real life?
Damn, what a good question! With two dominant personalities, it could go either way. I do think Elliot would offer Cher her hand in friendship (or ask her out) but Cher is particular and controlling while Elliot is a chaotic improviser, so I think it would be up to Cher if she wants to be friends.
Elliot’s footnotes throughout the book were so honest and fun, as well as other elements like the Elliot McHgh drink scale. I loved that they felt like the real thoughts of a college freshman when you’re still figuring out who you are and what you think of the world and other people. Did you write the footnotes while you were writing the main text of the book or did you add those in at a later stage?
I am so glad you like the footnotes and all the other visual elements! I wrote the footnotes from the very beginning for two reasons: First, footnotes are just so fun to write and are a great vehicle for comedy. I use them to break the fourth wall, crack jokes, add more to the backstory, and even make the reading experience interactive.
The second reason I use footnotes so extensively is that they are a visual and physical representation of Elliot’s neurodivergence. Fresh is told from Elliot’s POV, a very close first person, and even though it is only casually referenced throughout the book, Elliot is ADHD, like me. The footnotes are largely in the service of comedy, but they are also meant to be distracting. You must physically move your eyes to the bottom of the page to read each footnote and find your way back to where you left off. From the beginning, I knew I wanted readers to experience how it feels to be Elliot, how it feels to have ADHD, and the use of footnotes was my way of exploring that concept.
I love that Elliot, who is bi, has an entire group of LGBTQ+ friends and community. Why did you choose to give Elliot a diverse LGBTQ+ community? How do you think her experience fits into the common narrative of LGBTQ+ teens that college will be a place where they can be immersed in that type of community? I know that’s how I felt, at least, that finally, I’d have more queer friends once I got to college.
I gave Elliot a diverse LGBTQ+ community because that is exactly what it was like for me in college. A common saying among Emerson students to this day is “gay by May” and it makes sense why. A lot of kids don’t come out or explore their sexuality or gender in high school because some come from families or communities that aren’t accepting or safe and college can very often provide the space, distance, and privacy needed to feel safe enough to explore one’s identities. Other times I think the common narrative that you’ll have more queer friends in college comes simply from the fact that a lot of people come of age a little later, after high school when they’re 18, 19, 20, etc.
If the characters in the last TV show that you watched were thrown into Elliot’s life at Emerson, how do you think they’d handle it? Who would drop out before the first semester is even over, and who would surprise themselves by graduating with a 4.0?
HAHAHA! The last show I watched was Hannibal and if Hannibal Lecter was one of Elliot’s professors, he’d probably kill her during finals and eat her in the dining hall with none the wiser. Other than that, I think Hannibal Lecter would thrive at Emerson. He’d probably be one of the most popular professors.
Did you have a playlist, a mood board, or anything else like that as you were writing this story? Did you dream up how Elliot would decorate her dorm? (I feel like that’s one of the most fun parts of living on campus.)
I did none of those things for Elliot! Ha! She is not an aesthetically driven person, but I did do those things for all the side characters, her RA Rose and her roommate Lucy in particular.
You’ve had an incredible publishing career, including founding Epic Reads. What lessons did you bring from your own career in publishing to the writing of Fresh? Were there any things that remained elusive or hard even though, in theory, you knew to expect them?
Thank you! That’s so lovely of you to say. The one piece of advice I’ve picked up during my career in publishing that I now follow myself as an author is DON’T READ YOUR GOODREADS REVIEWS.
But more seriously, the other thing I learned from my days at Epic Reads that has remained constant throughout my career is that if you try and chase trends in order to write something that will be popular, you will be chasing for the rest of your career. Every four years or so the entire YA demographic turns over and with that comes a completely different audience with their own unique tastes, aesthetics, and interests. What’s popular in YA is always changing because the audience is always changing and knowing this freed me in a way. This understanding allowed me to write what I wanted to write instead of trying to please a certain audience.
My background in publishing has really come in handy though when it comes to partnering with my publisher’s marketing team. I know what all those bullet points mean, I know what sales conferences are, I know what to ask for, I know the timelines and budgets and how things work. But most importantly, I also know that publisher marketing teams are understaffed and overworked. They are doing the best they can with limited resources and way too many titles to work on. (This is true of every publisher, by the way, not just Abrams!) Because of this, I think I have a slightly better idea of how I can direct my own self-promo efforts and support the marketing team where it makes the most sense.
Does this mean Fresh has the greatest marketing plan of all time and will automatically become a bestseller? Lol, no way, but it has led to a strong working relationship with my publisher and that gets us one step closer to getting Fresh onto as many shelves as we can.
If you could build your dream panel for this book, what would it be about? What other authors would you love to have on it with you?
My dream panel for this book would be a panel made up entirely of fellow Emerson College authors. There are a few of us out there now like Katie Cotugno, Maurene Goo, Nicola Yoon, David Yoon, and Taylor Jenkins-Reid who happened to be my freshman year RA!
If the characters from Fresh showed up on your doorstep, who do you think you’d get along super well with? Would anyone grate on your nerves?
I would be instant friends with Elliot and Micah. It would probably take Lucy and me a few hangs to warm up to each other but then we’d become lifelong BFFs. And Rose? Well, it would depend on how she’d handle losing at Ping Pong.
What other books do you see Fresh as being in conversation with?
I see Fresh being in conversation with some of the other new Jane Austen retellings out this year, such as: Where the Rhythm Takes You by Sarah Dass, A Taste for Love by Jennifer Yen, and Pride and Premeditation by Tirzah Price. I would also love to see Fresh being in conversation with other books set in college that deal with the fun messiness of queer love.
Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books?
This is too much pressure. There are too many books I want to recommend. I’d love to plug We Are Inevitable by Gayle Forman, Between Perfect & Real by Ray Stoeve, Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins-Reid, and coming this fall is Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray, Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms by Crystal Frasier and Val Wise, and Drawn That Way by Elissa Sussman!
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
Oh gosh, let’s go with something incredibly random: What is the best Nicolas Cage movie? And the answer is obviously Face/Off.
Margot Wood is the founder of Epic Reads and has worked in marketing for more than a decade at publishing houses both big and small. She is a graduate of Emerson College and once appeared as an extra in the Love, Simon movie. Born and raised in Cincinnati, Wood now lives in Portland, Oregon. You can find her online at margotwood.com.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.