Margot Wood brings a Fresh perspective to a Jane Austen classic

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Margot Wood never thought she'd be a writer. She majored in marketing and established a successful career in publishing at HarperCollins. For ten years, Wood proofread manuscripts that would later become some of the most popular novels in the world. "If you've read a YA novel from 2009 to 2015, I probably worked on it in some capacity," she said.

Margot Wood — Courtesy photo  

Making the sausage
Eventually, Wood decided to try her hand at writing.

Even though she had spent a decade working in the industry, she faced unexpected challenges. "I know how the sausage is made. I've seen how books come together from the publishing side of things, but I'd never tried to write my book. I wasn't fully aware of what that process looked like," Wood explained.

She credits her profession with preparing her to tell her own stories. Unlike many first-time writers, Wood had the unique experience of reading hundreds of successfully published books. Experienced authors often claim the best advice is to read as much as possible. Wood agrees.

"I think that is the best advice any writer should get. Throughout my professional career, I read hundreds, maybe thousands of books. I was constantly adjusting to new books and new material. After a while, it just got in my head that this was something that I wanted to do."

A letter from the past
Early in her drafting stages, Wood discovered a letter she had written at the end of her first year at college.

"When I finished my freshman year of college at Emerson, I wrote this letter to my little sister, who was still in high school," she said. "I wrote a list of everything I wished I would have known before I started my freshman year... because I screwed up so many times. I wished someone would have told me about this stuff.

The letter instantly evoked all the messy and embarrassing moments she had encountered at school. "All those things I'd listed to my little sister brought back the memories that taught me those lessons. All of those mistakes I'd made my freshman year came flooding back. Now that I had that distance from my college years, I could see just how funny that shit I got into was," she said with a laugh.

She modeled the character of Elliot in her book after herself and wrote many of her own real-life experiences into it. While her college days were fodder for comedic scenes, Wood realized she was still missing a solid plot. "I needed to bring something to tie it all together," she said.

She struggled to find an original idea and nearly gave up, she said.

"I stalled out for a while. Then I realized, 'Okay, Margot, you work in publishing. You read all of these books for a living. How many of them are original, and how many of them are just retellings?'" Leaning on her literary background, Wood did some digging and realized that many successful YA novels borrow plots from classic literature.

"So many of them are retellings, and I understand why now. It's nice to take an existing plot structure, turn it on its head, twist it around, and put your spin on it."

Image courtesy of Abrams  

From Emma to Elliot
Wood returned to the writer's desk and quickly realized that her novel already shared many similarities with one of her all-time favorites. "It was my favorite Jane Austen book, Emma, and I realized that Elliot and Emma were so similar. The cast of characters already lined up with the cast in Emma. What Emma is going through and what she's trying to do was already what Elliot was going through and trying to do. It fits so perfectly," she explained.

With a new roadmap to follow, Wood felt even more determined to finish her manuscript. She bought a used annotated edition of Emma from her local bookstore and combed over the text to find ways to incorporate the classic into her modern tale.

In researching Emma, Wood discovered that not everybody loved the story as much as she had. "Emma is a controversial story," she said. "A lot of people hate her and find her annoying, which is funny, because she is one of the first characters that I related to when I first read the book."

Staying true to the Jane Austen novel and her own college experience, Wood also made the difficult decision to include a triggering event in Fresh. The story's climax depicts a sexual assault scene.

"I wanted to include that in the story, because that is a pivotal moment in Emma. It needed to happen with Elliot, because she needed to reach her low point," Wood explained.

"Sexual assault happens on college campuses far too often. I had my own experience with it. So I used what happened with me as what happened with Elliot. I included that scene because it's important in Emma. It is Elliot's turning point in Fresh as well."

Queer and ADHD representation
Elliot's story was always going to be Queer, according to Wood. With so much of her personal life and coming-of-age journey inspiring the novel, there was no way she could have written a straight protagonist.

"I'm Queer, I'm Bisexual, so that's just what I know," Wood explained.

Not only did Wood make sure to write a Bisexual lead, but she rounded out the rest of the novel's characters with LGBTQ+ representation. "It was important to me to have a Queer cast," she said.

Writing such a Queer book was essential to reflect the contemporary setting and accurately represent Wood's college experience. "Not only does it reflect Gen Z, the Queerest generation out there, but I went to Emerson College, where the book is set," Wood said. "Emerson is one of the Queerest colleges in the country. The unofficial motto... is 'Gay by May or your money back,'

"If I'm being true and honest to the location that this book is at, that means making it a very Queer-friendly space."

Fresh not only gives readers a modern college story, but the novel also explores what life with ADHD is like through the eyes of the protagonist.

"I set out to highlight what it's like to [have] ADHD. I [have] ADHD," Wood said. "I was diagnosed when I was 11 years old, and it's been one of the defining factors of my life. It has steered me in all these directions."

Wood's diagnosis has been an important part of her life. She wanted to show her readers what it's like to experience higher education and navigate relationships while dealing with a train of thought that can sometimes run off the rails.

"I wanted to show ADHD from the perspective of the person who has it," Wood explained. "I include footnotes throughout the book. Those are my way of visually representing what it's like to be a person with ADHD, when you're having one train of thought and then having to jump down to the bottom of the page where another train of thought happens."

Her creative use of different fonts and word placement on the page has been praised by readers who share Wood's experiences with ADHD. Some have written to thank Wood personally for creating a story about a neurodiverse Queer character.

For neurotypical readers, the story can sometimes feel overwhelming, but Wood says that's the point. "The book is supposed to be chaotic. It's supposed to be a little overwhelming, because that's Elliot."

Now that Fresh is finally on shelves, after five years of working on the novel, Wood is ready to take a well-deserved break. "I wrote it while I was working full-time. I was burning the candle at both ends. I'm in a period right now where I'm trying to recharge both those ends so I can do it again," she said with a laugh.

While Wood doesn't have any new literary projects on the horizon, she is working with a screenwriter to hopefully bring Elliot and all her friends to the TV screen sometime soon.

Fresh is available for purchase today. Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore or library and read along with the SGN book club today!