The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
As you may remember, dear reader, our Her Campus chapter has a collaboration deal with Abrams Publishing. Before she graduated this past year, Natalie Tyler wrote several reviews for Her Campus.
After her graduation, she extended the offer to myself and Emily Venné.
Now that the exposition and explanation is over, we can get to the good stuff.
Through publisher Mary Marolla, I was offered the chance to review Margot Wood’s debut novel, Fresh. Fresh follows Eliot McHugh through her (often turbulent) freshman year at Emerson college. Loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma, this novel (and Eliot) leap from one young adult learning experience to another.
In my interview, I asked Wood several questions about her writing process, narrative choices, and sparkling characters. Read ahead to see her answers (and my answers to her answers, what can I say? I like to talk)!
MC: You wrote in the preface that this novel was inspired by a note you wrote your sister after your first year of college. What process did you go through to adapt your experience to a (hopefully soon-to-be) bestseller? [And have you read Frat Girl? Cassandra and Elliot both seem to learn an important lesson about judging people too quickly.]
Wood: Before I even knew I wanted to write this as a whole novel, I started with scenes I thought were funny. I took that letter and started to write scenes based on each mistake I listed and once I had enough, I read it all over and was like I have no idea what the story is here yet but this shit is funny and let’s see if I can turn this into a novel. Which, I did! Eventually! And I have not read that book yet but at your mention of it, I went ahead and ordered a copy! Thanks for the rec!
[Frat girl can be purchased here, but fair warning, Cass is much judgier than Eliot]
MC: What parts of Emerson culture did you keep? Was there really a Third Floor Report? (and follow up, is it available to read somewhere?)
Wood: I tried to keep all of Emerson’s culture in this book. From details like everyone there is an artsy weirdo in their own way, the specific classes Elliot takes, the fact that students smoke constantly outside the building, the waffle iron always breaking, the fire alarms going off in the middle of the night, the library being popular as a study space but the actual book selection is limited, etc. All of that was part of the culture when I was a student there and, according to my current Emerson student sources, still is part of the daily life of being an Emerson student, especially for those that live in The Little Building. The only problem with setting it that particular dorm was between starting the novel and finishing it, The Little Building was completely renovated so I had to update parts of the story to reflect the new building but in a few aspects of the story I decided to ignore the new renovations and stick with the version of the building that I knew when I was there.
And oh my gosh, yes! The Third Floor Report was real! Though it was from my sophomore year when I lived on the fourth floor so it was technically called the Fourth Floor Report but the real one wasn’t written, it was illustrated in comic strip format! And thank god it’s not online anywhere, lol.
[Avoiding spoilers for the book, I SO want to read that comic. If the Empty Calendar Times ever starts running again, consider this my audition to ghostwrite]
MC: What made you choose to include the sexual assault scene in such an otherwise peppy and positive book? Did you feel like representation of these events in other books added to the stigma surrounding it, or did you want to give Elliot a life changing experience?
Wood: The inclusion of that scene stemmed from it being a loose retelling of Emma by Jane Austen. In the original classic, Mr. Elton tries to kiss Emma even though she never gave him a reason to think she was interested. I wanted to take it one step further in Fresh because, unfortunately, what happens to Elliot happens so often on college campuses. It happened to me too when I was in college. And while I really struggled over whether or not to include that scene, what I was more nervous about was having Elliot make the decision to not formally report it. She does report the incident to her RA, but Elliot ultimately decides what’s best for her is to put it behind her and move on, to not let the moment define her or overtake her life. While that whole part of the book certainly serves as the catalyst for Elliot’s growth, I also wanted to show readers that making the right choice for you should be respected, even if it upsets others because it’s not what they would do.
MC: Which character do you see yourself most in? Which character are we supposed to learn the most from? And what should we learn?
Wood: I definitely see a lot of myself in Elliot in her voice, sense of humor and overall chaotic internal monologue, but in my professional life I’m definitely more like Lucy. Unlike Elliot, when I went to Emerson I knew exactly what I wanted to major in and was much more focused on my grades, ha! I think readers can learn from any one of Elliot’s core group of friends. They each have their own arc and learn things about themselves over their first year away from home but overall, readers can learn it’s okay if you make mistakes and it feels like you’re making things up as you go. You’ll figure it out.
[Coming from someone who made a lot of mistakes freshman year, mainly social, you really do figure it out. It takes time, but believe in yourself!]
MC: How did Elliot’s sexuality guide your story? What do you want this representation to mean to the LGBTQ+ community?
Wood: Fresh is a queer story but it’s not about being queer. Elliot is bisexual, Lucy is straight, Micah is gay and nonbinary, and Rose is a lesbian but these identities are never discussed in depth, nor are they questioned. None of the choices these characters make are because of their sexual and gender identities. Those identities inform their choices but they are not the driving force behind them. Elliot never questions her sexual orientation in the story, but what she does question is intimacy vs. romance and what it means to be a good sexual and romantic partner. There is no queer pain in this story, only queer joy and a lot of queer messiness.
[Thank goodness for that! I loved Love,Simon, but I’m pretty sick of queer pain stories. Also, we stan Rose. Trust me.]
MC: And finally, what do you have to say for anyone who is just trying to figure out who they want to be in college? What advice would Elliot give us?
Wood: In my head because the story is written and published now, Elliot is no longer a freshman! So, her letter to anyone trying to figure out who they want to be in college is [to] try things! Experiment! Explore yourself and your surroundings! Be curious! Be prepared for things to get messy because they inevitably will and guess what? THAT’S GOOD! That’s okay! As long as you are kind to yourself and to others during the process, you’ll figure things out.
So there you have it folks! My existential questions for the author answered!
Now, I’m not being paid to say this (and I don’t think I can be ‘fired’ either) but I really enjoyed Fresh. Eliot was a complex character who was allowed to make mistakes. She saw how her mistakes impacted the other people in her life, and she tried to make it right. Sometimes, that’s the only thing you can do.
On my book rating scale (which I just made up BTW), Fresh receives:
Plot: 8.5/10 (I’m used to dragons, but coming-of-age tale with ties to classical novels works too)
Characters: 9.5/10 (I wanted to befriend several of the main characters, even with their hideous flaws)
Moral of the Story: 10/10 (screwing up is okay/ try to be better than you were yesterday/ if your RA tells you to take different classes, you better listen to her.)
Readability: 10/10 (Eliot thinks the way I write, so if you can make it through my articles, you can make it through the book)
All-around score (if I did the math right): 9.5/10 (Good Score! Read it! Thanks).
Fresh comes out on August 3rd, you can pre-order it here.