Annabel Monaghan, NORA GOES OFF SCRIPT

Annabel Monaghan, NORA GOES OFF SCRIPT

Zibby is joined by columnist and author of Does This Volvo Make My Butt Look Big? Annabel Monaghan to discuss her debut adult novel, Nora Goes Off Script, which is one of Zibby’s current favorite books. The two talk about how Annabel always knew she wanted to write but didn’t start her career until her late thirties, why she became so inspired by Hallmark Channel movies, and what each reader believes this story’s love interest looks like. Annabel also shares how she found writing both this novel and her next project so enjoyable, even during the early days of the pandemic. Check out Zibby’s review of Nora Goes Off Script here!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Annabel. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Nora Goes Off Script.

Annabel Monaghan: Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

Zibby: As you have seen on Instagram and everywhere else, I have been raving about your book. I absolutely loved it. It’s my favorite book I’ve read. I was talking to my whole Zibby Books teams. I was like, “This is like the book I want to publish. Here are all the things that I like about it that make it so great,” which I’m happy to go through. It’s so great when a book is a source of entertainment and that you feel like you cannot get away from it. You’re in it the whole time. It involves every sense. You cry. You laugh. You’re just in it. It’s so great. You’re so funny. I just loved it.

Annabel: I could listen to this all day. That’s the nicest thing I’ve ever heard. I’ll tell you, I wrote this book — I wrote it during quarantine, so I was in it. I wrote this book all at once because I didn’t have anything else to do. I felt so joyful while I was writing it, so I started waking up earlier and earlier every single day to check on Leo. What’s going on with Nora? I couldn’t get up early enough to just get back to it. I hope that comes across. It was the most fun I’ve ever had, was writing this book.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Hardly anybody says the most fun they ever had was during quarantine.

Annabel: Right? I know. I feel kind of weird about it, actually, because that was a terrible thing.

Zibby: But it’s great that the writing process itself was joyful.

Annabel: It was kind of a nice time for introverts, just to be locked down in your head.

Zibby: Wait, go back. I have your last book because I read this, as I told you, Does This Volvo Make My Butt Look Big?, which I am also going to post when I go to LA next and I can stand next to my Volvo and show people. I will not show them my butt, but will show them the Volvo in the book.

Annabel: Yes, always show the Volvo.

Zibby: I love Lee Woodruff, by the way. Love her.

Annabel: She’s the best.

Zibby: I know more about you and that you’ve been writing awhile. Take us back. Tell me the beginning. You grew up in LA. Start from there. Just give me the overview.

Annabel: Oh, my goodness, this is a fifty-two-year-long story. I grew up in LA. My ancestors all grew up in LA. My family’s been there for a long time. I really wanted to be a writer. I went to Duke University. They had a really good English program. I took all the writing classes. I was on track to fulfill my dream. When I graduated from college, all of my friends, Lizzie included, wanted to move to New York City. It turns out you cannot get a job writing books. That’s not a thing. I needed food. I needed shelter. I got a job working in banking and turned completely away from this thing that I wanted to do. I had it in my head that I would work during the day and then write at night because somebody on TV did that. Banking isn’t that kind of job. You work during the day, and you work at night. I did that. I enjoyed it. I ended up going to business school. I met my husband there. I graduated and moved back to New York. I went back to banking. Then that was really the moment when I was the person who was the farthest away from what her skill set was possible. I enjoyed that job, but that is not stuff I’m good at. I got pregnant, and I quit. Then I was home with children for a while. I didn’t write anything until I was thirty-seven. I am the late-start story, and it’s working out fine.

Zibby: Yeah, it seems to be going well. You started with essays? What happened? You wrote YA?

Annabel: I have this friend, Elisabeth Wolfe, who had an idea. She said, “It’d be interesting to write a book about positive thinking for teenagers.” I said, “Yes, that’s interesting.” She called me all the time about it until we actually sat down and wrote it. That was our first book. It was published by Simon & Schuster. It’s called Click!: The Girl’s Guide to Knowing What You Want and Making It Happen. That was super fun, but I always wanted to write fiction. After that, I wrote A Girl Named Digit, which is the story of a teenage math genius who fights crime with the FBI, as you do, and then a sequel to that, Double Digit. During that time, I started writing my column. Writing my column, I sort of found my grown-up voice. I became more comfortable talking — there’s a distance with YA. You can talk about your seventeen-year-old self because who cares? I think there’s something a little bit more vulnerable when you’re talking about what’s actually happening to you as a wife and a mother and a person in the world. I think that Nora came out of that. I think that I wrote enough of those essays that I become ready to write about grown-up life.

Zibby: Wow. How did you start the column? Did you know at the beginning it was going to be a column? Did you start it as essays? I feel like having a column anywhere is a dream for so many people. How did you go about that?

Annabel: That was actually one of my little-kid dreams. I would sit and just write stuff. People would read it. Here we are. I was at a baseball game one day. This woman said, “You know, the local paper is looking for a lifestyle column.” I went home and I wrote a proposal, probably three pages about, these are my ideas. These are my thoughts. I sent it in. Five seconds later, she said, “Sure, you’re hired.” It’s actually not that hard to get that job. I think they were desperate. She didn’t even know me. I just got lucky starting to write for my local paper. I got my feet wet doing that. Then I started sending it to The Week. Then I sent it to The Huffington Post for a while. Then that got weird. It appears in a bunch of places. Mostly, it’s on my website and in my local paper.

Zibby: Then did you write other novels that were not this and that are in a drawer somewhere?

Annabel: Yeah, I wrote a novel for three years. It was so boring. I was so bored writing it. I’m always trying to pitch it to people. Isn’t this a great idea? Everybody says it’s so boring, and so it’s time to let it . There’s a lesson in that. I just want to write something that’s fun to write because it’s likely fun to read. I think that whatever you’re putting into a page comes across to the reader, so I’m going to stay away from that boring book.

Zibby: What was the boring book about?

Annabel: It was about this young girl who moves home. She has an affair with this guy. He turns up dead. It doesn’t sound boring, but it’s boring. It doesn’t have legs. You’re not going to read this book, Zibby.

Zibby: It’s okay. I don’t need to read the book. I’ve got plenty to read. It’s fine.

Annabel: It’s not coming. You sure do.

Zibby: It’s fine. It’s totally fine. I was just curious. I was really asking because there are so few people who just come out of the gate and write a great novel. I feel like there are usually two practice novels kicking around. You need to go through the process of trying to write one before you can write a good one.

Annabel: I think that’s true. I’ve been writing a long time by taking a lot of breaks. It just seems like this was the time for me to get this book out.

Zibby: Maybe we should talk about the book. Usually, I start with, tell listeners what this is about, but I was so excited just to get going. Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit about Nora Goes Off Script?

Annabel: Nora is a romance channel screenwriter, so think the Hallmark Channel. She ends up writing a more serious script about her divorce. That gets picked up as a feature film and is filmed partially at her house. She ends up falling in love with Leo, the man who plays her husband in the movie.

Zibby: Where did this idea come from? Was it just a stroke of inspiration one day?

Annabel: No, it was actually a bunch of different strokes of inspiration that all kind of congealed in my head at the same time. In 2019, I was stuck in bed for a little bit. I just got hooked on the Hallmark Channel. I know I’m not the only one. You watch two hours. You just hang out in these idyllic towns with these privately owned hardware stores and bakeries. One ends, and then you watch another one. Then you watch another. After three or four in a row, I was thinking, did I just see this one? Last time, I think she had a cupcake shop in Chicago. This time, she’s in Akron with a ballet studio, but it’s the same movie. I just started getting so interested in how you construct a film like this, for twenty minutes, where to the exact minute you can predict when the guy’s going to leave and go back to the city and then have a change of heart and come right back after the commercial break. I started thinking about, who writes these movies? I started watching for the credits to see. Is it a super romantic person who is pouring their heart out into them, or is this all happening around a conference table in New Jersey where they’re just reverse-engineering a story over and over again? I thought a lot about that. That’s where Nora came from. She spent ten years supporting his shipless husband and her two kids by writing these movies. She writes with a little bit of detachment and a little bit of eye-rolling because she’s never really been in love. I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to run her through that lightning-bolt, toe-curling romance and see how she would react and process that?

Zibby: Wait, did you figure out the romance channel? Is it someone writing it, or is it people in New Jersey?

Annabel: It’s all different people, but they’ve got a structure. You come and you take your story, and you lay it over this structure. P.S., the structure works. They’re great. They’re so fun.

Zibby: It’s so funny. I feel like the romance channel for grown-ups is like the American Girl movies for girls.

Annabel: That is so true. So true.

Zibby: Right? I’m literally thinking, there’s the bakery in Paris. There’s the horse one. There’s the gymnast one. They all have the same thing, so you kind of know.

Annabel: They all have the same thing. It’s the same doll with different hair. I think that’s absolutely true. There’s a real fantasy that they’re selling. Every single one of these women has a super lucrative career that started as a fun hobby. She’s a cupcake magnet. She just did a fun thing and made it into this amazing career. My favorite is the custom wreath designer. She has a beautiful home. I just wonder how many wreaths she sells. It’s a lot of wreaths.

Zibby: A lot of wreaths. Can you talk about why you were in bed for a while? Were you okay?

Annabel: I was. I was sick and had surgery. It all ended well. No big deal.

Zibby: No big deal, all right. Leo, who did you have in mind? Did you have anyone in mind, or did he just come fully formed too? People actually have been direct messaging me saying, “Who did you have in mind? I had Bradley Cooper,” they said to me. Who did you have in mind? I was like, no, I wasn’t thinking that.

Annabel: That’s the first time I’ve heard Bradley Cooper.

Zibby: That was not what I was thinking.

Annabel: What were you thinking? Kyle?

Zibby: Kyle. Yeah, I guess, actually, more like — now that I’m thinking about it, it is kind of like him in my brain. Dark hair, stubble, but I didn’t have a particular person. Maybe it’s almost like — now I’m forgetting the guy’s name. Do you remember that Jennifer Lopez movie with the really beautiful man with the strawberry? Maybe The Wedding Planner. I have to look up this guy’s name.

Annabel: I think The Wedding Planner was Matthew McConaughey.

Zibby: No, then it wasn’t that. I’m going to look it up. I can’t remember his name. He has these chiseled cheekbones. He’s very Mediterranean.

Annabel: I think I want to see this movie.

Zibby: Blue eyes. I’ll think of his name. Who did you have in mind?

Annabel: I made him up, but I can see him so clearly in my mind that if I saw him in a crowd, I would say, there’s Leo. He’s so real to me. What I think is really interesting is — one of my friends read this very early. She texted me. She said, “Okay, so he’s Brad Pitt.” Brad Pitt, he’s just not for me. That’s not my dream guy. Then I went back and read, what was it that made her think he was Brad Pitt? I don’t really describe him in the book. He’s tall. He has dark hair. Everybody’s just bringing what their daydream about this guy is. I’ve honestly heard everything.

Zibby: I literally wrote the person back and I said, “No, I was picturing someone with dark hair.” Maybe that’s why.

Annabel: This is like that design your own fantasy. That’s what it is. He’s whoever you make him.

Zibby: Whoever you want to be, with that whole thing like — never mind. Then Nora, you talked a little about where she came from, from your own experience and essays and everything. I loved that she was set in her structure. I really also related to that. Everything was set up so she didn’t have to think about it. This is what she did. I loved even the rituals of writing, how she would bring her pencils and light the fire. Everything had to follow the same order. That’s the way it was until it just wasn’t that way at all.

Annabel: I think a lot of people cope that way. If you were fully responsible for an entire family and the well-being of everyone, you need support. She didn’t have any support, so she created her support by having this structure in her life. That’s also my writing routine, so I just gave it to her. I think that’s where the similarities between Nora and me end. I gave her my routine. I light a candle. I have the tea. I set the intention. I start.

Zibby: Wow. I was really motivated by that, to be honest. I was like, that doesn’t sound so bad, ten to two, if I stopped everything else I was doing or whatever. It just seems like, okay, this is something people can do if this is their job, ten to two, and still fit in a workout.

Annabel: It’s hard to write for four hours. If you write for four hours a day, you’re really writing. That is fantastic. If you told somebody, you said, oh, I only work four hours a day, they’d think, what is this, a hobby? Writing, for me, for four hours, I’ll get a lot done. I don’t need to write for eight. I couldn’t write for eight hours.

Zibby: I had one day where I was editing what became Bookends. I posted somewhere. I was like, oh, my god, I just spent nine hours in this manuscript. It was a Saturday. I had to do all this editing. So many people wrote back. They’re like, yeah, welcome to writing world, or whatever. I was like, oh, my gosh, do you do this all day every day? I can’t do that. I need more things.

Annabel: Did it feel good to dive in for that long, or did it feel exhausting?

Zibby: It did, yeah. It was so productive. I got so much done. It was great. It was like a puzzle. Books are so long. The essay form, it’s so easy for me to move things around, all that stuff. A book, it’s so expansive. It’s like trying to wrestle the snake back into that box.

Annabel: I feel the same way.

Zibby: It’s hard.

Annabel: Actually, I will write an essay if I’m getting really bogged down just to have that sense of completion because it’s very easy to get lost in a novel. It can be overwhelming.

Zibby: I need you to give me your tips for real because I am actually writing a novel now.

Annabel: Are you really?

Zibby: I am, yes. I am having a lot of fun with it. That was literally my goal when I started. I was like, I’m just going to do this for fun. I don’t have time for anything that’s not super fun. This is going to be my break from everything. If it’s not fun, I’m not doing it. It is overwhelming to keep going back. How do you stay focused? I was trying to analyze what it is you did that was so effective. Was it the build-up? Was it the twists and turns? Was it the dialogue? There were so many things that I felt like made your novel work so well just from a structure standpoint. Did you know that going in? Did it just come out as you wrote it? How did that all happen? Did you go back and —

Annabel: — I wish I knew. Thank you. I do something that’s very time-consuming that I’m really not sure I would recommend to anybody. I have to start at the beginning. If I’m writing page seventy, it really helps if I read the first seventy pages. The novel is not about the situation. The novel is about how the people are responding to the situation. You need to be in your protagonist’s head. For me to really understand the way you understand how she’s feeling, I often — talk about inefficient. I would read the whole thing. Oh, now she’s falling in love. Now this is happening. Oh, but now this happened. Now I can feel what her reaction is because I’m in it. Very time-consuming. If you write every day and if you write for long enough, it all stays in your head. If you’re writing a novel and you take a week off, you might as well just start again. You have to keep feeling going. As long as the feeling is going, then you know what the next thing is. Does that make sense?

Zibby: It totally makes sense.

Annabel: Can you say anything about the novel you’re writing?

Zibby: Soon, I can, but not yet.

Annabel: I cannot wait to hear. That’s so exciting.

Zibby: We’ll see. I’ve taken a really long time off. Maybe that’s why I’m scared to go back. It’s been a month. Now I can’t even open the document.

Annabel: Sometimes you go back, and it’s better than you thought.

Zibby: Oh, that’s good.

Annabel: Sometimes you go back — this happens to me all the time. I’ll go back and read something that I wrote, and I’m like, I never saw that coming, as if I don’t remember writing it. Sometimes it’s nice in a drawer.

Zibby: You said to Kyle when he went to your event at Diesel that you like to get to know your characters — or maybe you said this in your speech — so well that you know how they would handle having their heart broken, except I think you said it better than that.

Annabel: Probably not.

Zibby: I love that. How do you get to know the characters so well? Is it just part of that magic of novel writing? I’m sorry to ask so many craft-related things. At the beginning with Nora, were you like, okay, this is what she’s going to wear? I can picture her room. I can picture her clothes and her jammies and being under the blanket on the porch. Did you set out and say, these are the things about her, or did it just all come to you as you went?

Annabel: I had a situation. This is a single mother who’s writing these romances to support her family. She’s got to make this work. She is not going to be fussy as a result. She puts on her morning sweater. She doesn’t have a lot .

Zibby: I loved that, the morning sweater. I was like, I need a morning sweater. That is such a great term. I love that.

Annabel: It’s the only way you know it’s morning. I started with her circumstances. I really didn’t get to know her until I was halfway through the story. I had her as a practical person and a person who was hanging on. She’s really quite competent, actually. I was so impressed by the way she pulled a lot of stuff off. No, I got to know her. As I got to know her and she started telling me the story about her divorce, then I sort of understood that she has these abandonment concerns. What would be the best way to break her heart? Maybe she would be abandoned. I used to teach novel writing at Sarah Lawrence College. There were all these exercises we’d do. What’s in your protagonist’s purse? Do they have a Mac or a PC? All these questions that you should know about your protagonist, that actually doesn’t work for me. For me, I have to just start writing. I know that’s not the most efficient way to do it, but I don’t get ideas unless I’m typing. That’s how I got to know her, was by writing about her.

Zibby: Wow. How long during the pandemic did it take for the first draft of this to come out? Just wondering.

Annabel: The first draft of this probably was only about three months. My children were sleeping until noon every day. I was getting up at four. I was really writing a lot. I had nothing else to do. The first draft of this book was only thirty thousand words. I started trying to convince my writing friends that that was a book. They all said, that’s not a book. You can’t have a book that’s thirty thousand words. Then I ordered The Bridges of Madison County on Amazon. I’m like, this is thirty thousand words, people.

Zibby: Is it really?

Annabel: It really is. It’s thirty thousand words.

Zibby: No way, oh, my gosh.

Annabel: Yes. No one would buy it. I have a tendency when I write to leave the room too quickly. Something happens, and then the next thing happens. I went back and I sat in the room with Leo and Nora with the kids, and I doubled the size of the book just by — the first draft, it was just a series of things that happened. Then it became an actual, full-size book.

Zibby: It’s so amazing. What now? What are you most excited about when you’re doing all these events and having this whole groundswell of support, people coming? I saw on your — I’m like, that’s so great. Her whole town showed up for her, something that would happen to Nora — it’s just so great — if Nora were to write an actual book. How does this whole thing feel after suffering through banking and all that stuff and coming here? What is it like now?

Annabel: I don’t know if I could actually describe it. It’s my actual dream come true. People say, oh, it’s a dream come true. This was my dream when I was a little child. Frankly, when I was a little kid, I used to read those Penguin Classics books, the little thin paperbacks. There was a penguin on the back. I would run my finger over it. I would dream of writing a book with a penguin on the back. Now here’s my book, and it has a penguin on the back. It is an actual dream come true. Yesterday, I saw my book in the airport when I was leaving LA. It’s really amazing. It’s amazing to see how excited people get for you. It reminds me that we need to show up and be enthusiastic for people when they’re trying to do whatever it is that they’re trying to do because it just feels really good.

Zibby: Sometimes I’m like, when people accomplish something in other jobs, nobody is cheering for them. When you write your book, at least you get a moment. You get a pub day. How great is that? Everyone you’ve known your whole life is like, congrats. I guess when you’re an architect, maybe the house goes up, and you have that moment where the client sees it and you see it. I feel like having this creative job, writing and reading, it’s such a community thing. Everybody gets invested in it.

Annabel: It’s so personal. That’s the difference. If you’re a banker and you close a deal, great. This is, I showed you who I was, and you accepted it. It’s very personal.

Zibby: It’s really amazing. What next? What are you doing next? Are you going to write another novel? Did you already write a novel?

Annabel: Yes. I am finishing in the next ten days. I think that’s the deadline we agreed on. It is a novel. It takes place in Long Island. It’s another love story. I’m also having a really fun time with it. I’m not bored, so hooray!

Zibby: Good. Hooray. Amazing. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Annabel: I would say keep going. I just don’t think that everybody rushes out of the gate, writes their first thing, and it’s a hit. If you are trying to get something published and it’s not getting published, that’s just because it’s not the right thing at the right time. If I were to go back to give advice to my younger self, I wouldn’t change anything. Everything that I’ve done has added up to this wonderful thing happening. You just have to keep writing. I think that’s part of the problem. If you’re not feeling success, you’ll stop writing. It’s a muscle. It’s like running. Writing really is like running. The more you do it, the easier it is. Then you start craving it first thing when you wake up. Not always. I would just say keep going. It’s not too late.

Zibby: Awesome. By the way, Lizzie has texted me because I texted her as soon as we got on the phone. This is our mutual friend, Lizzie Friedman. She was the one — “I’m the one who told you to read her book.” She sends her love.

Annabel: Thank you for the PR there, Lizzie.

Zibby: It was all because of her. Thank you. Again, I just loved it. I really did. It’s so nice that there’s the book out there and everybody’s reading it and are all feeling equally obsessed with these characters and the story and everything. Thank you.

Annabel: It just means the world to me. Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: All right, Annabel, I hope to see you soon. I’ll see you this summer, I’m sure. Bye.

Annabel Monaghan, NORA GOES OFF SCRIPT

NORA GOES OFF SCRIPT by Annabel Monaghan

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