Later this week we’re going to be giving away a copy of Micol Ostow’s new book, family. To learn about the book and meet its author (and even get some writerly advice from her) check out our interview below!
Micol Ostow was working as an editor of young adult fiction when she began to write her own books; since then, she has published over 40 works for readers of all ages. Micol received her MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2009, and currently teaches a popular young adult writing workshop through Media Bistro. Her newest novel, family, is an exploration of cult dynamics told in lyrical vignettes, published by Egmont USA. She lives in NYC with her filmmaker husband, and a persnickety French Bulldog named Bridget Jones. Micol blogs about books, writing, and courageous ladies in literature with the readergirlz divas over at www.readergirlz.blogspot.com. You can also visit Micol at her website, www.micolostow.com.
Q. Can you tell us a little about your new book family?
A. family is a novel told in lyrical vignettes, and inspired by the Charles Manson family and the Sharon Tate murders of 1969. It deals with a seventeen-year-old runaway named Melinda who seeks belonging, validation, and intimacy with a man she encounters on the road, Henry, and his extended “family”—really a cult, with deadly intentions.
Q. What inspired you to write a book dealing with cult dynamics?
A. Though I’ve typically stayed on the lighter side with my own writing until this point, as a reader, I’m very drawn to dark, edgier stories (I’m the type of person who loves to stay in with a horror movie to “relax!”). I think in general, I came to family thinking a lot about the appeal of darkness, and what the allure of it is for me, and for so many others.
The Manson story in specific is one that has always fascinated me, because it is so much more horrific than any imaginary ghost story could be. When I first learned about Helter Skelter and the Manson Family, I couldn’t believe that the story was true. And the more I learned about it, the more incredible it became. Most interesting of all was that so many of the girls who followed Manson came from very “normal” backgrounds—meaning, they had very stable, middle-class family lives with no history of abuse or violence. That put a different spin on the “type” of person to get caught up in a dangerous cult situation. Ultimately, I was interested in why someone could be swept up in such a self-destructive situation, and Mel’s attraction to the darker side of Henry’s family was even a bit of a mirror for my own obsession with scary stories.
Q. Who is your favorite character in family?
A. Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to meet any of them in real life! Especially knowing the real-life composites they were drawn from.
I suppose I’m most intrigued by Henry, since the most fascinating thing about Charles Manson himself was whatever innate quality he possessed that enabled him to inspire such slavish devotion from people. Though Manson is guilty of many, many things, he didn’t commit any of the Tate-LaBianca murders himself, and in fact, wasn’t even there on the night that Sharon Tate and her household were killed. It’s chilling to think that anyone could be capable of inciting such violence from others.
And I have endless compassion for Mel herself, and any other girl (or person, for that matter, but particularly girls and women, whose self-esteem can be so fraught) who truly considers herself worthless. What can we do as a culture to help our girls value and love themselves in the way that they deserve?
Q. Why did you decide to write family in the form of free verse?
A. I didn’t! Mel’s story first came to me in vignettes, so that was how I decide to write them down, figuring I could go in and weave things together after the fact if I needed to. (This was the first time I’d written a novel without a detailed outline in hand, and the whole process was one big experiment.) Ultimately, it turned out that the story made sense in vignettes, so that format stuck. The verse was just a reflection of Mel’s state of mind, which is why in some places the narrative is much more cohesive. As Mel begins to deteriorate, the language becomes increasingly fragmented. But I had never written poetry before writing this book and wouldn’t have thought to deliberately set out to write a novel in poetry. This format and style of the story was simply Mel’s voice as I heard it in my head.
Q. You wrote an essay for Flirtin’ with the Monster, the Smart Pop anthology on Ellen Hopkins’ Crank and Glass, about identity and accepting all of the parts of yourself—good and “bad.” Wholeness and identity are themes that are also woven into family. What draws you to writing about these particular themes?
A. Ooh, thanks for the reminder! I guess this is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Ha!
I’ve had an author bio kicking around for a while on various websites that goes, “Micol Ostow is half Puerto Rican, half Jewish, half editor, half writer, half chocolate, half peanut butter . . .” that I wrote up when my first novel, Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa, about a girl grappling with mixed identity, was published. That little blurb reads very jokey, but the truth is, much of my upbringing was shaped by what I wasn’t in any given situation, rather than what I was. There was always an “either/or:” if I was with my Jewish day school friends, I was the one who was “less Jewish” because my mother’s family was Catholic. If I was with my Catholic boyfriend, I was VERY religious by comparison. If I was applying to colleges, I was “less Latina” than others who were checking off that box on the application form. It felt as though everything I was only existed as a point of comparison. In the end I decided that I wasn’t “more” of one thing or “less” of another—that I was (am!) just me.
And I think that’s something that Melinda needs to learn about herself—that being broken doesn’t mean never healing, never having the chance to choose the light over the darkness. But I don’t want to spoil any of her decisions or actions in the story for anyone who might be planning to read the book!
Q. Neither Kristina nor Melinda from family have typical families, a fact that seems to have influenced both girls’ paths and choices. Do you think our families play an important in shaping who we become?
A. Yes, absolutely, but as I mentioned above, having a supportive family doesn’t guarantee an easy, charmed life, and having a difficult upbringing shouldn’t have to mean that a person is irrevocably “damaged.” In general, those of us who have loving, caring family systems (whatever shape or form they make take) definitely have an advantage in the world, and my heart breaks for people who don’t have a safe place to grow and be. But above all, I think we owe it ourselves to love ourselves and do right by, to, and for ourselves every day. Every single person in the world deserves to be happy and loved. But we have to work for it, too. All of us.
Part of that is loving and doing right by others, too, for what that’s worth. I really think that kindness and positivity attracts its own.
Q. Do you like writing novels or essays better?
A. I think there’s more of a sense of satisfaction in stepping back from a work of my own fiction and saying, “I made that up out of the inside of my own brain.” That’s incredible! Fiction is incredible. Creating a story whole-cloth is the closest I’ll get to magic in this lifetime.
But that said, I have a journalism background, and an MFA in writing, and I love thinking critically about the literary canon at large. It’s gratifying to draw conclusions about writing based on a pre-selected body of work—and it also can greatly enhance one’s own writing! So for that reason, I really do enjoy writing critical essays, like the ones Smart Pop publishes.
I’m also a big fan of the personal essay, a la David Sedaris, or Sloane Crosley. I read a lot of narrative nonfiction. I like to write that type of material, too, but unfortunately, my life is a lot less colorful than either of theirs, so I don’t expect to be publishing anything like that any time soon.
Q. Your bio says that along with writing young adult literature, you also teach how to write YA lit. Any advice for aspiring writers?
A. There’s a great quote from Stephen King, who is one of my very favorite authors of all time, from his excellent craft book, On Writing. He says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.”
I am deeply skeptical of aspiring authors who:
- aren’t well-read, and
- are particularly un-well-read in their area of interest.
Don’t tell me you want to write YA if you can’t name a single book in the genre that was published in the last decade!
And no, Harry Potter doesn’t count. (COME ON.)
There’s another great quote—and unfortunately I can’t recall where it’s from just now—to the effect of, “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.” And again, yes. A writer writes. It’s really that simple. If you want to put on your lucky deadline sweatshirt (I have one of those) and drink coffee from your magic writing mug (ditto), or join a critique group and spend HOURS debating the merits of x/y/x aspect of the industry, good on you. And all of those various aspects of the “the writing life” are special and meaningful and important, sure.
But none of them are a substitute for writing. None of them matter, really, if you aren’t writing.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. The follow-up to family. Not a sequel or related, but also dark and twisty. A companion, I guess, would be the right term.
Q. If you could tell us to read one book this year (besides your own) what would it be?
A. Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls, due out in June. Oh, my. Surreal, lush, and dreamy—sort of a modern-day take on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Nova is so talented it makes my head hurt. Read Nova’s book!