Margarita Montimore, OONA OUT OF ORDER

Margarita Montimore, OONA OUT OF ORDER

Zibby Owens: I’m talking today to Margarita Montimore who’s the author of Oona Out of Order, a Good Morning America Book Club pick and a USA Today best seller. Her previous book is Asleep from Day. She has a BFA in creative writing from Emerson College and worked for a decade in publishing and social media before writing full time. Born in Soviet Ukraine and raised in Brooklyn, she currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and their dog.

Welcome, Margarita. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Margarita Montimore: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be part of your podcast.

Zibby: Oona Out of Order, I already told you how much I just loved this book, so original, so interesting and captivating. First of all, tell listeners who may not know, what this book is about, please.

Margarita: First of all, thank you so much for all your kind words. The book is about a young woman named Oona. It starts out with her in 1982 on New Year’s Eve. She is about to turn nineteen, kind of facing this crossroads in her life. When the clock strikes midnight, she passes out and wakes up in 2015 in her fifty-one-year-old body still a young woman on the inside. She’s nineteen now, but all of a sudden she has traveled in time decades to inhabit her older body. She discovers that every year the same thing is going to happen to her where she’s going to leap into her body at a different age, thereby living her adult life out of order. It’s a pretty wild concept. The origins were, it came out of my being in my late thirties and having those similar moments where — what is a thirty-something-year-old supposed to feel like? I’m approaching forty. I still sometimes wake up feeling like I’m nineteen on the inside. Other days, I wake up feeling like a way old lady on the inside. That jarring feeling of wondering, what does it mean to be your age, to feel your age? What are you supposed to have done with your life? It got me thinking. Then in the back of my head along with all of the pop culture influences that I grew up on, all of the time travel books and stories and movies and shows that I inhaled my entire life, one day I was brainstorming talking to my husband and just bouncing ideas off of him. Then in a flash I was like, what about a woman who lives her adult life out of order? Both of us kind of sat up. As soon as I had that pitch of every year she’s a different age, I was like, yep, that’s it. The title came just instantly after that. I knew, that it’s. That’s the next thing that I have to write.

Zibby: Did you know Oona’s name from the beginning?

Margarita: Yes. As soon as I had out of order, I love alliteration, so Oona just came smoothly after. I have a little spreadsheet where anytime I come across a name I really like, I’ll just add it to the spreadsheet. I have first names, last names, unisex names, and just anything that captures my eye. I don’t remember if I referred to it or if I just was like, nope, it’s got to be Oona. I know that’s a name I’ve liked for a long time. It gelled very, very quickly from that first conception.

Zibby: Then how soon from having the idea did you sit down and start writing? Or did you outline the whole thing? You must have had to outline it forever. Didn’t you? I was thinking, how did she keep this straight?

Margarita: I didn’t.

Zibby: You didn’t? Oh, my gosh.

Margarita: No. That’s what makes me such a crazy person. I actually had very, very loose notes for a couple of the leaps. It sounds like such an insane thing to wing it on a book like this that requires so much intricate connections and plotting. I’ll tell you, revising, that was a whole other story. I wrote it quickly and had a loose timeline of what happened just to her chronologically and then what happens to Oona’s chronology leap by leap versus consecutive year by year. That’s how I kept track of it. Anytime I try to outline a story, when I actually sit down to write it, it takes off and veers in this whole other direction. At least half of the initial notes that I had, I ended up kind of discarding because the characters, they have a will of their own. It just went in its own direction. The first draft took less than — it only took seven, eight months, maybe. Then it took much longer than that and many, many, many revisions, including rewriting a good third of the book, probably, and writing a whole leap that did not make into the final version, writing a new leap that did. I wish I was as organized as some writers I know that can map out the entire story and then adhere to it when they sit down and write. For me, it’s a little bit more chaotic, but I find magic in that chaos.

Zibby: Whatever you’re doing, it’s working. Nobody said you had to outline. I didn’t mean to imply that you should have. I was just impressed by how many little things you would’ve had to keep track of between all — even as a reader, I was like, wait, did that happen then? Had this happened yet? just that kind of mental note keeping.

Margarita: I took some notes as I went, for sure. Then even the little threads that — when I would go back and revise, okay, let’s include this element throughout the story, then it was just a matter of going back and leaving little breadcrumbs and retracing my steps. Of course, everybody has a different system. Sometimes I just wish that I was much more organized and regimented in that way because I know that writers who outline really well, they tend to have a much easier time revising. I love revising too. For me, it’s all a process of discovery. Like you said, whatever works.

Zibby: I wish I was one of those people who could eat whatever they wanted and not gain weight, but I’m just not going to be one of those people. I’m going to take what I have. There are so many things I wish that I did differently, but this is just who I have become. Maybe it’s the same type of thing.

Margarita: I feel you. I’m one of those people too.

Zibby: How much did this timeline dovetail with any of your own experiences? I found myself wondering how old you were when I was reading it. You’re obviously not as old as Oona. How did you decide when to start it? Was there an age you wanted her to be at a certain time? How did you figure it out?

Margarita: Initially, one of the reasons I set out to write this book, I thought a lot more of it would take place in the eighties because I feel like I was born ten years too late. I made Oona older than I was so that she could be a teenager in the eighties. Again, the best laid plans, as I wrote it, it just turned out that more of her leaps took her to the nineties and the end of subsequent decades. I wanted her to experience a broader range of ages. I did have to take her up older, twelve, thirteen years older than I was where I could still write to certain experiences of a certain age but at the same time still recapture the different decades of her life and the different moments and the phases of life but still keep a personal scope of showing her coming of age as a woman, really, but also through all of these different bigger milestones in her life.

Zibby: I feel like you used music so much throughout the whole book. I was like, this author must love music. Do you love music? Was it just a device that you used in the book?

Margarita: For me, I would say my teens and twenties is where music was like air for me. It was such a huge part of my identity. It’s such a big part of the way that I would connect with other people. I would have friendships form around bands that we loved, the clubs that we went to, the music that we danced to. I would say because she starts out as an eighteen-year-old, it made so much sense for her to also have that deep connection with music and have it be such a part of her identity. It wasn’t a conscious effort either. It just sort of came to me, not out of nowhere, but it was just like, this is who she is. Even some of the bands that she’s into, obviously we have a lot of overlap in our tastes. Most of what she loves, I love too. At the same time, certain things like the fact that her favorite band is Velvet Underground, I don’t know where that came from. They’re a band I appreciate but don’t listen to a ton of. I was like, okay, but this is what she’s telling me. I’m just the note keeper here. I’ve just got to get this down and share this is who she is.

Zibby: It’s so funny. I interviewed Betsey Johnson earlier today about her memoir, Betsey: A Memoir. I read both of your books in close succession. In her book, she did a lot of the real things that Oona did in your book. She actually married somebody from The Velvet Underground. She designed clothes for them. She sold her clothes to Patricia Field. Then I’m reading your book and I’m like, this is so crazy. It’s all worlds coming together.

Margarita: Wow, I love those little crossover moments. I love her as a colorful, creative figure too, so that’s awesome.

Zibby: Just a random aside. A lot of the themes that you write about are loss of memory, having to find yourself again, having to find your path again. I read in one interview that you attribute this to that sense of not totally belonging, being an emigrant as a child. Correct me if I’m not getting this right. There was an essay when you said, because you emigrated to America when you were four from Soviet Ukraine, and that straddling two different cultures and speaking Russian and English, you’ve always felt a little sense of otherness and that that’s how this theme came into the book. Just talk more about that now that I’ve barely been able say that right.

Margarita: You actually got it a hundred percent. You nailed it. I think that there is that feeling of where do I belong? I came from this other culture that’s still very much part of my heritage and that especially my parents growing up were very still rooted in and made sure that I knew where I came from and still had certain traditions and parts of my culture that remained with me. At the same time, of course I’m learning the language because I am assimilating. I always have that perspective of comparing where I’m from versus where I am. I would say it’s even more strongly within language, how to express yourself in different languages and just the way that certain words — even to this day, even though my Russian is so rusty, some words just will not express what I want to say as well as a specific Russian word will. It’s so strange even to this day that that happens. I think it’s not just a sense of belonging. In a broader sense, it’s that search for home and that feeling of being — it can be described as that feeling of belonging. It can be the physical place. It can be that emotional place where you feel at ease with who you are. I like to explore that in my stories because I feel like we’re always looking for something. We’re never fully formed. We’re always evolving. Whatever it is that we achieve, we always set new goals or a new quest for ourselves. For me, I encompass that as that feeling of home. What is it that’s missing in our lives? What sense of completion are we looking for? How are we trying to get about it? Again, it can stem from our identity. It can stem from our external circumstances. Usually, my story’s a little bit of both.

Zibby: I thought it was so interesting in the book how it was only her mother that you let into the secret, that her mother knew what was going on, but no one else, and how that relationship had to be translated over time.

Margarita: Right, and to some extent also can be later on because she needed to have at least one constant. Certainly for me, I would say my whole life my mother has been that for me. There certainly were some parallels. It was also an interesting way to explore that mother-daughter, parent-child dynamic. Everybody has some wisdom that they can impart. Certainly, a parent is the one that has more of that wisdom and the life experiences. As a child, there are certain times because of her unusual circumstances, Oona is older or she has a different sort of wisdom because she’s seen the future. She knows what actually happened. To use that time travel as a metaphor of what a parent and child can learn from each other and how that can affect their relationship, and have their relationship evolve where Oona is that teenager at times in her life, but it’ll be jarring for her mother because externally, she will be completely different ages and considerably older, and also just that sense of growing with another person and trying to accommodate their evolution as an individual.

Zibby: That’s awesome. How did you become a writer to begin with? I know this isn’t your first book. I know you worked in publishing, but that’s so vague. When did you know you were a writer? What led you down this path and all the rest?

Margarita: I knew at sixteen, really, and probably even before that. I wrote little stories and poems. I took a creative writing class when I was sixteen that completely just — it blew my mind. It took me from, oh, writing is something I do in my spare time, to, , I have things that I want to share. I want to learn how to say things and express myself through this medium. I want to tell stories. I’ve been a bookworm my whole life, but that was when I knew I was serious about it. I was a creative writing major in college. They don’t exactly come knocking down your door when you graduate, like, “We’re looking for creative writing majors. We’ve got a nice six-figure salary for you, full benefits. Please just come write whatever you want.” I kind of drifted for a little bit, just knew that I had to also develop a career. That took me from publishing to social media to meeting a really, really wonderful man who said, “Hey, if you want to write books, come move to the suburbs.” When I got married to my husband, I left my career in social media and took on some freelance editorial work but really focused full time on writing books. I admire the writers who are able to have full-time careers and families, or even part-time careers and families, and still write books. For me, I am so all in on whatever it is that I’m focused on. When it was my career, I was all in on what I was doing work-wise. I knew that in order to really write, and write to the best of my abilities, I needed to be all in. I needed to have that full time, be in my cocoon and create things. I’ve very, very fortunately been able to do that for the last five years now. It’s been incredible.

Zibby: What’s coming next? Do you have more book ideas? Are you just going to ride this? Also, were you just so excited when this was picked as a GMA Book Club pick? What has this whole thing been like? I don’t want to skip forward too fast. What was it like when this actually came out and you got this attention and all of the rest?

Margarita: Oh, my gosh. Every step of it has been incredible. I self-published my first book. I wrote another book in between that book and Oona that I just set aside and didn’t do anything with. It took four and a half years. During that time, I saw a lot of writers that I knew get agents and editors and book deals. One writer I knew hit The New York Times best seller list. I saw what a tough road that was and how many obstacles you had to surmount and how tough the odds were. Every time I crossed another hurdle, for me, I tried to be very present and grateful about every one of those moments, whether it was getting the agent, whether it was getting that book deal. Everything on top of that, it just blows my mind on levels that I truly, truly never expected. When I found out about Good Morning America, I always think of this line from My So-Called Life, it’s like a stun gun to your brain. That’s how I felt. There’s been so many moments where I have truly been like, is this real life? No, but really, have I drifted off to a parallel world or a dream state? Is this really my life? What I’ve heard from other authors, especially during their debut year, the biggest issue for them has been that it goes by in such a blur. They wish that they had time to really stop and enjoy it more and worry about it less. I’ve tried to keep that in my mind so that every time something wonderful happens, whether it’s just somebody posting about the book on Instagram or seeing my book on a Times Square billboard, that I stop and just really go, wow, I feel so lucky and I’m so grateful for this.

Zibby: That’s amazing. It’s so nice to see all this hard work rewarded. Not everybody can be in Times Square, but how great to appreciate it so much. It’s just really awesome.

Margarita: That was the thing too. I knew that there are no guarantees. I really tried to remind myself that, essentially, I’m signing up to be a professional lottery winner. Every book, every story is a ticket. You keep piling up those tickets and hope that something is going to break through. Of course, it takes hard work and dedication, but I will never discount the fact that luck also plays a factor. I’m so fortunate that my numbers were called.

Zibby: Does this mean you want to keep playing the lottery? Are you going to write more books?

Margarita: Yes, a hundred percent. To go back to your earlier question, I have a lot of story ideas in mind. Right now, it’s just about narrowing down. Over the last couple of years, I have started parts of, I kid you not, at least five different books. One of them is a sequel to Oona Out of Order. Funny enough, as much as I don’t outline, I do have a loose outline for about three-quarters of another Oona book. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I know that her story is not over. There’s definitely more that I want to explore in the Oonaverse. At the same time, I also to want to write something that is different, that’s standalone, explore new characters, new places, new events. I think the next couple of months are going to be me really, really going back into that writer cocoon and figuring out, what are we going to really, really buckle down and develop next? I’m so excited. This is my life’s work. I feel like this is what I have been put here to do. The fact that I’m able to get a readership and have people actually read and enjoy my work is tremendous.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I know you’ve already included a lot of this just now, but do you have any specific advice for aspiring authors?

Margarita: It really, really comes down to tenacity. However much you think you’re going to be rejected — sure, there are some lucky ones that have just the right story at the right time or know the right people and are able to make it through, but it’s so few and far between. Most people, they really hustle. Of all the writers I know that have made it and have gotten published, nobody has just slid through. They’ve all worked so tremendously hard. They’ve put in the hours. They’ve revised. I’d say writing is revising more than it is actually drafting. However many times you think that you’re going to need to revisit that work and tighten it and polish it, double, triple, quadruple it. Get used to people saying no because it’s going to happen. Hundreds of people said no to Oona before somebody said yes. We’re talking over two hundred agents turned down earlier versions of the manuscript. That’s what revision and sheer stubbornness can do. You really have to believe in what you’re doing. Then I would also say find your tribe. Find that support system of other writers, of friends who will be there to prop you up because there are going to be moments where you feel like, I can’t go any further with it and you can’t keep trying.

I always think of this cartoon where it’s this man who is digging with pickaxe in a mine. There’s two of them. The one on top, he’s just had it. He’s like, “That’s it. I’m done. I give up.” He turns around and then you see in the next frame that there’s a pile of diamonds maybe six inches if he kept digging. I also think of that. I can’t ever give up because that treasure might just be a little bit further out of reach, and I’ll never know. The only ultimate rejection is if you reject that dream yourself and give up on it. Really, you have to keep going. You always have to keep learning too, reading, writing. However good you think you are, you can always get better. However bad you think you are, you can always get better. Just really be in it for the long haul. Do it for the love. I think everybody has a story in them, or stories in them. Find the story that only you can tell in the specific way you can tell it.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s so awesome. That’s great advice. Thank you for your book and for all your time and insights. Thank you. I really appreciate it.

Margarita: Thank you. It was such a pleasure. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Zibby: Of course. No problem.

Margarita Montimore, OONA OUT OF ORDER