Elena Bowes caught up with American author Annabel Monaghan about her touching, hilarious and addictive debut novel, Nora Goes Off Script.
I read that the story idea for Nora Goes Off Script came to you after watching a lot of Hallmark movies while recovering from surgery. Can you expand on this?
I was stuck in bed recovering from surgery for a few weeks in 2019, and I got hooked on the Hallmark Channel. It’s not hard to do; you just have to watch one. I got lost in all of those beautiful small towns with their independently owned hardware stores and festive community events. After the first few I thought, wait, didn’t I just see this one? But maybe last time she had a cupcake store instead of a custom wreath business? It was the same movie over and over again, and I got to a point where I could predict the exact moment that the handsome guy would be called back to the city, only to have a change of heart and return immediately after the commercial break.
I started wondering about what kind of person wrote these super romantic movies. And I wondered what it would feel like to write them if you’d never really been in love. And that’s where the idea for Nora Hamilton came from – she’s newly divorced and has never been in love so she writes these scripts with a bit of eye rolling. I thought it would be fun to see what would happen if she fell madly in love.
You’ve said that you had the best time of your life writing this book. Can you describe your writing process?
I wrote this book during the initial months of 2020 quarantine when the world was very quiet and my children were sleeping until noon every day. I fell so madly in love with Nora and her life that I jumped out of bed at sunrise every day to see what they were up to. I’m not sure that actually qualifies as a ‘writing process,’ but that’s it. I like to start writing with a general idea about a character and a situation and then find my story as I’m writing it. I usually don’t really understand who my characters are until I’ve completed a first draft. I find this journey of discovering a story as I go to be the most fun thing in the world. Also, I don’t recommend this ‘process’ to anyone. It’s not efficient.
Was there anything hard about writing this book? Or did it just flow out of you once you had the characters in your head?
Once I had the story written, I had to go back and fill in the details and make things make sense. There were several weeks in the story that had nine days instead of seven. Trees and plants were blooming at the wrong times of the year. I always have problems like this, which is a result of writing without an outline or a timeline.
Was there a particular book that made you want to become a writer?
When I was a kid, I can remember several times when I would be reading and think, “Oh man, I wish I could do that.” Among those books were Heartburnby Nora Ephron and The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood.
You wrote Nora, your debut novel at 52. What advice would you give to other late-to-bloom (including 60-year-old me) aspiring novelists?
I could answer this question with twenty thousand words, but I’ll spare you. I think we are all so obsessed with doing big things at a young age, like we’re on a game show and the buzzer is about to buzz. I think that’s total nonsense, and there is so much that we don’t know and are unable to do until we are older. I could not have written this book twenty years ago. I didn’t have the wisdom or the life experience to tell this story. And I probably don’t have the wisdom or the life experience now to tell the story I’m going to tell when I’m sixty. We bloom when we bloom, so let’s just enjoy it. Let’s not be chasing what we think we should have written a decade ago; let’s just write the story of today.
I read that you thought actors Leslie Mann and Mathew McConaughey would be perfect for a screen version of Nora and Leo. I couldn’t agree more. Have you gotten any nibbles from Hollywood?
Yes! And I think we have a deal, but I also think I’m not supposed to talk about it.
Nora makes her living writing formulaic, light romances for The Romance Channel until her good-for-nothing husband Ben leaves her and she writes a much deeper, more honest and revealing script that gets picked up by a major studio. You’ve written several Young Adult books until Nora, where the lead character Nora is 39, an adult, like you. I was wondering if there are parallels with Nora’s story and yours, how both of you were ready to open up more about your personal life in your writing?
The main overlap between Nora and me is our daily routine – wake, kids, run, write, kids, dinner, wine. I think it probably took both of us a while to find our more authentic voices. Writing YA was very fun, and it felt sort of safe to me, as if I was only revealing my teenage perspective to the world. It took me a decade of writing my column for adults to feel more confident sharing my current perspective on life. There may be a parallel there with Nora moving from something formulaic to something true. She also makes my meatloaf.
Any tips for writing humour?
None. Sometimes things are funny and sometimes they’re not. I don’t seem to have any control over how that goes.
I am really excited about a novel I have coming out next summer, called Same Time Next Summer. It’s about a woman who brings her fiancé to her parents’ beach house to look at a wedding venue and runs into her old boyfriend. And then a bunch of stuff happens.