ou never know where inspiration for an interview will come from. In this case, it was an email from Sulay Hernandez, from Kensington Publishing, recommending Margo’s book for a WOW! review. She then shared what Publisher’s Weekly, Alissa Valdez Rodriguez (NY Times bestselling author) and Kelley St. John (National Reader’s Choice Award winner) had to say... It didn’t take long to ascertain that indeed, Margo was “an engaging writer” (who doesn’t believe PW?!), and we knew we couldn’t stop at a review. We know you will join us in agreeing we did the right thing, by following through on interviewing Margo. Enjoy, we surely did!
WOW: When you were a young girl, what did you want to be when you grew up? Do you remember when you realized writing had become a part of who you are?
MARGO: I had no idea what I wanted to be when I was a kid. I didn't grow up with many inspiring role models, but I do remember really responding to Linda Ellerbee, especially when she did a show where she asked kid's what they thought about politics and other real issues. I didn't know exactly what her job was but I saw in her a smart woman who crafted stories and worked with ideas and information and it really appealed to me. The only other time I can recall really clicking with words was when my fifth grade teacher said we would have to do sentences based on the week's vocabulary list and I burst out with "I love writing sentences!"
WOW: We both share a dream, not the lofty kind most pursue, but the dreams you have about graduating. I used to do the same thing, so odd, didn't have the dream before graduating...only after. So, I thought I'd find out if you knew why you dreamed it. It could save me a trip to a shrink. I wonder if this is more common that we think.
MARGO, laughing: I knew I wasn't the only one having the school dream and that it started after I graduated and is still a staple really makes me think that it, or some version of it, is universal. I once asked a psychiatrist and he said it was most likely a manifestation of anxiety. A very thoughtful friend said it might have to do with a feeling that I haven't earned it yet. I have a feeling "it" covers a lot of stuff so I assume I'll be having this dream for years to come.
WOW, grinning: Probably, since I did for years...therefore, I won't be telling how long ago the dreams stopped. But enough of that, Margo, even though you embraced writing as an integral part of you, are your surprised to realize that you are a published author?
MARGO: I am beyond surprised to find myself where I am. This path is not one I was supposed to take. My family is a practical, hard working bunch, writing a novel and then expecting it to be published is way out of the norm for us.
Most of the time people say I seem very blasé about it all, but it's just that I'm so freaked out about the whole thing I've decided to play possum. I don't take anything for granted since I've had to work very hard for it and navigate blind a lot of time. There really wasn't anyone I could turn to for advice or help; and I can't help but give a nervous giggle when people say they admire me for what I've achieved, since I'm still not quite sure how it all worked out the way it has.
We really can't help but smile at the sincerity, she made us feel really good that she had 'hit the big time.'
WOW: Well, without a doubt, one of the attributes that contributed to your success is focus. So, let's talk about the benefit of focus; life has a way of interfering with the best-laid plans. How did you stay on track until getting your book picked up?
MARGO: Life definitely got in the way of me pursuing my career in writing. I had to put everything on hold for three years to concentrate on my son (and I doubt the sacrifice would have won me any mother-of-the-year awards). Once he was off at preschool, I said to myself (and husband) that I had earned a three year time credit and I would use it to polish and finish manuscripts, get an agent and get published. Since I broke things down into goals and time frames, it helped keep me focused and let me know where I should be, and by when.
My son started pre-school in September 2003 of and in September of 2005 my book deal was announced.
WOW, our eyebrows elevated as our jaws dropped: Whoa! I think will have to emphasis the single-mindedness in your focus. And, again we share something, that's exactly what we did for our daughter, the first three years were spent getting to know her, etc. I bring that up because it is an important point. It shows that you have brought the gift of priority setting to the table with you. That actually makes focus more powerful, because you are divided within.
While on the subject of motherhood, producing a book can certainly be compared to going through labor and having a child. So, Margo, what have you received for all your labor ? (Of course, that's beside the "I'M PUBLISHED!!!" sensational realization.)
MARGO: For me the satisfaction comes from the fact that I love to write; and now, I'm lucky enough to be able to map out a future for myself in books. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life and I know how rare it is for people to be able to do what they truly love.
My main motivation, to make my writing life work out, is to be able to do this for the rest of my life. I firmly believe this is what I was born to do and I'm not about to squander a chance to see where my efforts take me, no matter how difficult things can get.
I was at a party and people were chatting about retirement and I was asked what my plans were. I said I never planned to retire and would hope to continue writing until I literally can't anymore.
WOW, nodding our heads in agreement: Perhaps you feel so strongly because you have a main goal--that influences your writing--tell us about it, and why it is so important to you.
MARGO, leaning forward: My intent has always been to show another side of the Latina experience. I am a first generation Mexican-American who has had to figure out how to exist outside a familiar environment. I sometimes feel I have a foot in the traditional, defined world of my culture, but at the same time I've done and experienced things I never would have, if I would have stayed put and been a little more safe (some would say reasonable) about my choices.
Just living life with open eyes (and ears) has let me experience so much and see many sides of people, sometimes bad but always interesting. I know I'm not the only Latina who feels as if she's being pulled in two different directions, but I wasn't finding any books exploring this that were fun reads, but still had something to say.
My stories may feature Latinas but I write about universal themes, which all women can relate to.
WOW: How does this fit with something you shared with us? You said if you could be any animal, you'd be an elephant! Okay, we really want to know, why an elephant?
MARGO, with a hint of fun beginning to surface in her eyes: Elephants are matriarchal, have great memories and keep the herd together. In, some ways, I'm the same way. I've seen so many great documentaries about elephants, that I can't help admiring them; and think that if the world functioned a bit more like elephant herds do, it would be a better place for everyone.
Plus, female elephants have a 22 month gestation period, about the same amount of time it takes to complete a cycle of a book, from conceiving the idea, writing it, to publishing-if everything goes right.
WOW, we're wide-eyed and loving her allegory: That is really good... And it does start with conceiving the idea. You mentioned that you love to read books and magazines, is this your main source of ideas?
MARGO: I usually get my ideas spontaneously, or while I'm asleep. But I do clip articles and keep them for reference because even though I do write fiction, there has to be some facts in there.
I go through reading jags, fiction, biographies and such. Lately I've been in despair because I haven't been able to focus on reading a novel, but I've been writing a lot. So I've had to get my fix by reading magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. The writing is top notch and the perfect length for me.
WOW: That's a great suggestion... We've all heard about writers that keep a note pad with them at all times. When inspiration smacks you upside the head, do you have your pen and pad handy? And if nothing is happening, how to you stimulate your brain?
MARGO, chuckles: When the idea is good, I force myself to remember key points and as soon as I can get to my computer--I write up a pitch sheet that includes a title, concept, logline, premise and short synopsis. It helps me concentrate on the nut of the idea and see if it's something I really will be able to commit to.
I've had all sorts of ideas, made the pitch sheets for them and then have discarded them, because I realized we weren't clicking. Sometimes, an idea is good but its just not the right one for me. That being said, I have a lot and hope I can get around to writing them all.
WOW: WOW, Margo, I think all of our readers just bookmarked your article. That is such a great idea.
The chase is always on to capture that great idea. We're told to write what we know. But you also have to make it real and touch your reader; you have hit a beautiful balance in Underneath It All. How were you able to do this?
MARGO, smiles modestly: The first version of Underneath It All was your standard fill-in the blank chick-lit template and it was disingenuous and hollow. Mostly because I wasn't writing what I know, I was writing what I thought (hoped) an agent would sign and an editor would buy.
I had to admit to myself that I couldn't fake it and needed to take some risks. It took a lot of soul searching, firing an agent and getting over myself to write a story about a flawed woman, who is totally human. Who has experienced life from a place that's closer to my perspective. And not the one I thought I should have based it on--the books that were already out there.
I also allowed myself to look to what issues I have dealt with and use humor to let the main character work her own feelings out about her friends and family. My main character is not me and I'm not her, but there is a lot of personal truth in her story.
WOW: You've brought up a good point. No matter how much we love writing, sometimes it is hard, hard work, it involves our heart, who we are and takes courage. With all of that in mind, we'd like to know: why did you do this, write this novel? What do you hope to impart to your readers?
MARGO, her look emits sheer determination: I wrote Underneath It All and stuck with it when things looked really bleak because I had no other choice. I'd committed 100% to seeing it through and never gave myself an out.
I had written before (mostly for websites and some magazines) and knew getting into freelancing or finding a writing job that would make me happy would be difficult, but not impossible. I figured, if I was going to make life hard for myself, I may as well take a huge risk.
I believed in what I was doing, that I had something to say and was the person to say it. I knew I just needed to find the right people in an agent and editor and they'd get it, too. It took some time and wasn't an easy process, but in the end it was worth it; because I know I've aligned myself with women of integrity in Jenoyne Adams (my agent at Levine Greenberg) and Sulay Hernandez (my editor at Kensington). And, in the end, that's what counts-knowing that you are working with people who love what they do and doing work that means something.
WOW: Margo, when you sat down to write Underneath It All, UIA, what was your approach? Was it 'hit and miss,' just writing when you were inspired? When did you become serious about UIA becoming a book you wanted to see published?
MARGO: For me writing a book was a job choice. Just as if I had said I was going to freelance for magazines or open a cupcake store, I approached it as such.
I kept banker's hours, 9-5, set daily word count goals and would not let myself start revising until I finished the whole manuscript. (For me it's too easy to get caught up in making one paragraph perfect and never moving on to the next chapter. So, I wouldn't let myself fall into that trap, even when I wasn't happy with what I had written.)
When I finished, I set Underneath It All aside before revising. I listened to criticism; then revised until it felt right and I could stand by my manuscript--despite pressures to tart it up or make it something I never intended to write.
I'm a fairly impatient person so I had quite a learning curve when it came to the realities of writing a book, but the more I looked around for something on shelves that related to my experience as a modern Latina woman, with a foot in two worlds, the more I knew I had to see this through.
WOW: Despite your keen focus, you've branched out into various types of writing: magazines, books, screenplays. Do you have a favorite? What do you like about each of them?
MARGO, after a short pause: For sheer speed and efficiency, I like screenplay writing. You bang out 120 pages max and it's mostly dialogue. But screenwriting is an almost impossible business to break into. You really have to work all the angles and make connections, something I've never been good at. But I did generate two screenplays, one of which I'm reverse adapting into my third novel; so it was time and energy well spent.
There was a point where I had to choose whether I was going to concentrate on writing novels or writing for magazines. Being that I had experience with freelancing, I knew it would be a constant hustle to make contacts, generate timely ideas and look for work. I'd still like to write for magazines and I hope to do so in the future, but I have to take the initiative and find the work.
Right now my focus is on books. I just keep reminding myself how great it feels to finish that first draft. It might not be perfect, changes will have to be made to the title, character, you name it, but you have a book there.
WOW: There's another proof of the power of focus, when you can resist the temptation to make it perfect (whatever that is, at the moment), and produce that first draft. That explains how you can have another book on the way.
And that brings up the question, how are you able to write? There is so much to be done to promote a book once it's released; where do you find the time, emotional fortitude, ability to focus?
MARGO: I'm all new to this and I'm not sure if I should approach it as if I were running for office. As of today, I get the feeling this is the calm before the storm and I have no idea what's going to happen. So I've been using the lull to work on my other projects.
It's hard to find a balance since I want to do all I can, but I also need to focus on the next book and then the next. My goal is to reach out to as many people who'll listen and make myself available to organizations and book groups who are interested in Underneath It All.
I'm nervous about doing my first signing but I figure it goes with the territory. If I wanted to hide behind my computer, I would have picked a different job.
WOW, laughing: You said it took credit to reach inside yourself to write UIA, you brought up another area that takes courage--book promotion. You're right, it isn't the vocation for those determined to stay timid.
I wanted to ask you about an interesting favorite site of yours (other than WOW!, of course), that lends credibility to your love of writing. It may seem obvious, but I think it's an important question: Why do you like Dictionary.com and how does it help you write.
MARGO, grimacing: I'm not the best speller and it was what I was known for going through school. I once had a teacher make a crack about it in front of my seventh grade English class. And I remember feeling so betrayed by it; especially since I really loved to read and write.
I suppose most of my trouble with spelling has to do with the fact that I've always been in a hurry. I purchased a paperback Webster's Dictionary with my very first pay check and carried it around me through college and various moves. And even though I don't use it any more, I still have it on my bookshelf. It's a reminder of the importance I've placed on words even before I realized I wanted to work with them.
I still manage to mangle the spelling of words to such a degree that I stump my word processing program. Dictionary.com isn't as warm and cozy as my paperback dictionary; but it has saved me tearing my hair out more than once.
WOW, laughing: Oh, yes. By the way, that's one more thing we share in common... We've read that your third novel/proposal is about a couple who fall in love but never meet. Do you even know where that idea came from? There many ideas that go through a writer's head, but how do you discern the ones worthy of all the work it will take to bring it to fruition?
MARGO: This idea was originally a screenplay. So I envisioned it with scenes mirroring but switching back and forth between characters-easy to do in a screenplay, but a little tricky in novel form.
I was really taken with the basic story idea, two people who are unwilling to take a risk on each other, that I've come up with what I hope is a great solution-featuring the two main character in the same chapter, telling their own story in first person.
I struggled at first and considered focusing on more conventional story idea; but this one, to me, is a pure love story. And since I don't do love stories, I wanted to challenge myself and see what I make of it.
I've worked on novels only to have to stop myself because I just wasn't feeling it. When everything is clicking, the character's voice, her situations feel real, then you know you have an idea that's going to be a satisfying story.
WOW: Well, you certainly created that in Underneath It All, you tell a great story and Jacqueline's character is fully dimensional. Then, what do you find most important, the message or being commercially acceptable?
MARGO: For me they both went hand in hand. The story and what I'm trying to do would go nowhere if I wrote myself into a corner.
Underneath It All is not a message book, but a book with a message.
I was very honest with myself; and more than once had to defend my choice to write a commercial novel, not something literary. But at the same time, I had to find a balance between making my characters caricatures of themselves that played into stereotypes, while acknowledging there is some truth there.
In the end, I write about smart, complicated women and use humor to convey the messages I want pass on to the reader.
WOW, smiling: That is definitely writing what you know, that just the woman I discovered while reading your blog. You exude a special spirit of life, excited to share and excited to know how what you've written affects others.
You've finished your second novel and have a third in proposal form. How do you keep this wonderful, fresh, enlivening spirit about you...not to mention, living your personal life and promoting UIA?
MARGO, with a hint of a grin: I've spent all this time on my own, by myself in my office and now other people are involved, have opinions about what I wrote-it's kind of like emerging from solitary confinement.
I remember my official lunch with my editor, her boss and the publicity director. I'd approached the whole thing as the most important job interview of my life and was shocked to realize they were just as eager to make me happy, as I was to make a good impression on them.
It wasn't until we ordered dessert that I let myself enjoy the accomplishment of it all, and let myself realize that this is a real big deal. I'm really happy to be doing what I'm doing and can't wait to see what the New Year brings me.
Secretly, OK--not so secretly, I can't wait to be busy with promoting, so I can turn to writing to get away from it all. It'll certainly make me appreciate what quiet time I do find once Underneath It All comes out.
WOW, smiling: Yup! That the dream situation for anyone that has progressed beyond the grocery list and penning a letter to sweet Auntie Abigail.
Margo, you know we're Spotlighting Readers this issue, would you tell us what your readers mean to you?
MARGO, eyes focused and leaning forward: I read a lot and I know how it feels to read something that really speaks to you. Knowing how many other ways people can spend their free time--doing something other than reading a book, I would never take the investment of their time and money or granted.
I write knowing someone else is supposed to read what I write, I don't write to feed my own vanity, which is why my characters are imperfect and human. For me, reading a good book is like having a good meal, one which you want to share with friends and remember fondly. That's what I hope readers get from Underneath It All and from my next books.
WOW: We're sure that is how your readers will feel, not forgetting some really good laughs. This has really been fun; and yet, you've given us a lot to think about--Oh, kind of like reading UIA.
Before we close, Margo, are there any closing comments you would like to share?
MARGO, with a big smile: I'm game for book groups; so if any want to contact me about attending a meeting (via phone or in person when possible) I'd be very happy to do so.
I'm also setting up events with local libraries (mostly in Los Angeles at this time) to reach out to readers and aspiring writers--since libraries played a huge role in my youth.
I hope readers enjoy Underneath It All and, in the end, that's all that really counts.
WOW closing comments: This has been a most enjoyable time for me. I told Margo that she made my fingers itch to get back to my novel. It is our hope that you feel the same way. And because all writers know that reading makes them better writers, we would recommend that you pick up your copy of Underneath It All, it's as easy as the click of your mouse.