Sometime ago, I got an early read on the opening pages of a manuscript that has haunted me ever since. While I read, I was filled with a deep sense of foreboding about the story and its narrator, seventeen-year-old Mel. I was chilled, torn up by what going to happen, wanting to stop it, wanting to warn Mel, and yet helplessly carried along. I was also filled with a sense that this novel NEEDED to be published and I knew—yes, I knew it in my bones—that one day soon I’d be seeing its release. Today is that day! (Technically, that day was April 26, but I’m celebrating today for a reason I’ll tell you below.)
These pages that I read were from an early draft of Micol Ostow’s latest novel, family, inspired by the Manson Family murders in 1969.
I’m about to give away a copy of this incredible, original, and disturbing book, and I’ll also share an interview with its author, the incredible, original, and actually very sweet and not disturbing Micol Ostow. BUT, before I say anything more, to get a sense of how this book made me feel, I need you to see something.
This. The book trailer. Turn up your volume, cut the lights, and hit Play:
(I swear that trailer is going to give me nightmares.)
That probably gave you chills. Want more? Here’s the summary of the book:
i have always been broken.
i could have. died.
and maybe it would have been better if i had.
It is a day like any other when seventeen-year-old Melinda Jensen hits the road for San Francisco, leaving behind her fractured home life and a constant assault on her self-esteem. Henry is the handsome, charismatic man who comes upon her, collapsed on a park bench, and offers love, a bright new consciousness, and—best of all—a family. One that will embrace her and give her love. Because family is what Mel has never really had. And this new family, Henry’s family, shares everything. They share the chores, their bodies, and their beliefs. And if Mel truly wants to belong, she will share in everything they do. No matter what the family does, or how far they go.
Told in episodic verse, family is a fictionalized exploration of cult dynamics, loosely based on the Manson Family murders of 1969. It is an unflinching look at people who are born broken, and the lengths they’ll go to to make themselves “whole” again.
So intense—so good.
I’m happy to say that Micol was kind enough to answer questions from me, in the first author interview I’ve ever posted on my blog. So why am I posting this today and not a few days ago when the book released? Because today is Micol’s birthday! Happy Birthday, Micol! To honor her birthday and her book’s birthday, here’s an interview with Micol—and also a chance to win a copy of her book:
Thank you for agreeing to do this with me. I love the idea of getting to interview you—for this, my first-ever author interview on my blog—because I’ve spent years admiring you and your books. I admire your writing. Your dedication. Your ability to do your work and get it done and not distract yourself to oblivion. Your generosity with other writers (I’ll get to that in a minute). And—wow—your RANGE. (I hope this doesn’t sound stalkerish; I should probably admit to my blog readers right about now that I know you in real life!) I especially loved your coming-of-age novel Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa and I adored So Punk Rock, but this lighthearted, often romantic, and very funny part of you is only one side to you, isn’t it? In family you reveal a much more twisted, disturbing side. Please tell us what drew you to write a novel inspired by the Manson Family. And what’s more “you”—the creepy and twisted, or the funny and light.
I’m so flattered to be the inaugural author interview on your blog! Everyone’s excitement for this book has been incredible and overwhelming, but yours in particular means so much because I am so bowled over by your talent.
But then, this interview would probably get really boring really fast if we slid into a full-on mutual admiration society, so I will try to stick to the questions from hereon in.
(I do have to say, though, that I’m not *quite* sure that you got the idea that I’m so disciplined. A quick look at my recent internet history would probably astound you. I’ve lost a LOT of years to Gawker’s Real Housewives recaps.)
Okay, so, yeah: I have a total split personality. I’ve always been 50% total pop culture junkie, girlie-girl, and I got my start as an editor in very commercial fiction—which is probably why my first forays into YA publishing were mostly along the same lines. I like quippy, of-the-moment dialogue and trend-driven, zeitgeist-y stories. Gettin’ Lucky is a prime example of that—a romantic comedy that cashed in on the poker phenomenon of a few years back.
But I’ve also ALWAYS been a huge fan of horror movies, ghost stories, and lurid, true-crime tv. That obsession can be traced to my mother, who was in grad school while I was young, and who inexplicably used to do her homework to Saturday afternoon B-movies on mute. It wasn’t unusual for me to come down into the den to inquire about lunch, only to see a giant, red-eyed monster, prone and slack-jawed across our television screen.
It’s possible that image might have imprinted.
My mom was a big reader of Stephen King, and I recall seeing the original hardcover edition of Pet Sematary on her nightstand when I was eleven. When she told me the book was about a household cat who came back to life, I freaked the eff out. I NEEDED to read that book. But for whatever reason, my mother’s parental instincts chose to kick back in at that moment, and she wouldn’t let me.
Naturally, my only recourse was to sneak into the adult section of the library during one of our Saturday pilgrimages.
(Side note: weekly trips to the library? AWESOME. Good job, Mom!)
Pet Sematary was checked out whenever I swung through the ‘Ki’ section of the stacks, but I did manage to get my hands on The Shining one particularly auspicious morning. I made it about a third of the way through the book before I had to return to the children’s room to be picked up.
I couldn’t sleep at all that night. Or for several weeks thereafter.
Thus began my full-on obsession with horror.
At some point in all of this, my parents gave in and I was allowed to read King in plain sight.
It was a Friday night, and I was somewhere between age eleven or twelve. My father came home with some books—he liked to pick things up for Mom and me to read on weekends, another awesome habit that has made me the book-hoarding fiend I am to this day. The one he’d brought for me was Helter Skelter.
“You’re going to love this,” he said. “It’s just like Stephen King. But it’s true.”
The book had a photo insert. A PHOTO INSERT. I didn’t sleep for months. But I did, in fact, love it.
That should give you a sense of where I’m coming from.
Anyway, I like to think that the chirpy, happy quippy stuff counterbalances all of the morbid, creepy dark material that I’m drawn to. A perfect Saturday afternoon would an Office marathon followed by a slasher double-feature (and some reading, of course).
How do you have such range? No, really, HOW? Do you have any practical advice for other writers on how to move from writing something more playful—like your upcoming novel What Would My Cell Phone Do? (out this June from Puffin)—to something with the deep and frightening intensity of family? Does your writing routine, or writing space, change depending on the kind of thing you’re working on?
I have no advice. I have no idea how it happened or where family came from and frankly, I have occasional moments of fear that I will not be able to do anything like it again. This is a particular concern given that I have another book under contract with Egmont and it would be lovely not to have to disappoint my delightful and brilliant editor, so, fingers crossed.
I will say that when I read these days, I do pay particular attention to craft. If I LOVE something, I try to identify what it is that I love about it. For instance, I’m actually not someone who lingers over sentences, but with your books, Nova, I’m entranced by the language. In DANI it was the voice, in particular. And I tried to pick apart, well, what about the voice? Is it the word choices? The cadence? The point of view? (Yes, yes, yes, and then some, by the way.)
When I set out to write family I went out of my way to read darker stories, and to read more verse, and I tried to think about why the books that were successful of building tension, were successful. Maybe some of that made its way into my book. You tell me!
I guess that’s advice: read. Read critically. Read the types of books you want to write and try to figure out what, exactly, that author is doing. Think about what you want to do with your story, and try to do it. Try lots of different ways: different point of view characters, different forms of narrative structure. family started as a very straightforward short story, and grew into a series of bizarre vignettes that were all over the place, timeline-wise. I had no idea if everything would connect when I was finished. I had no idea if I was writing poetry “right.” I’m still not completely convinced. And with the follow-up novel, I literally spent months approaching it from different characters’ points of view and different points in time. I have five drafts of the proposal sitting on my hard drive that my editor will never see. But I think, you have to try, and not be afraid to leave a trail of regurgitated words sitting on a hard drive somewhere to get to the good stuff.
You have to try, and not be afraid to leave a trail of regurgitated words sitting on a hard drive somewhere to get to the good stuff.
As for process, the process of writing family was definitely different than it had been with the lighter material. With PUNK ROCK, I could plunk myself down any time, any place, and bang out a few scenes. It became a running joke with a writer friend I sometimes worked with, Lynn Weingarten. We’d arrange a writing date and I’d show up at the designated coffee shop hours after she did. We’d catch up on gossip, eat some cookies, and finally, I’d open my computer. And then an hour later it was just, “I’m done.” And I’d leave. And she’d be like, “um…” Lynn and I were probably writing the same number of pages on a given day, but for me it was like a light switch flipping on: time to write! Which, I will say, is a very fortunate skill of mine, that switch-flipping thing.
With family, it was more like a dimmer switch, and I always needed a very controlled environment to work. Whereas earlier I’d been writing at places like Paragraph, or the cafe around the corner from my apartment, I wrote most of family at home. I generally worked first thing in the morning, or late at night – those hours on either side of the day when the rest of world has fallen away. It was slower going than PUNK ROCK, too – on a good day, I could turn out one or two vignettes. That’s maybe four pages, depending on the formatting of the verse. And I could spend hours deliberating over the formatting: the line breaks, the punctuation…Hours.
It was exhausting, too. Without revealing any spoilers, there are at least three vignettes that I can think of that made me cry every time I worked on them. I would cry. By myself. At my desk. In my bedroom. If I wrote in the morning, I’d go to the gym immediately thereafter to pound it out on the treadmill. At night, it was—you guessed it—Office reruns.
Mel, the narrator of family, is a teenage runaway who finds herself utterly enamored by Henry, a magnetic cult leader modeled after Charles Manson. Her voice is stark, brutally honest, and perfectly fitting to someone who admits she was “born broken.” This must have been a difficult voice to inhabit while writing this novel. How did you channel Mel?
I wish I knew, and I’m incredibly touched by those readers who tell me that, as victims of sexual abuse, Mel’s voice resonated with them. It’s not something I’ve experienced firsthand and I worried a lot about misrepresenting or otherwise not doing right by abuse victims.
That said, what I think most women share regardless of particular experience, is a sense of inadequacy. It’s no secret that girls, particularly in the US, suffer from serious self-esteem issues, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned through the amazing, supportive, and dynamic women in my life, it’s that we all have skeletons in our closets, burdens and secrets and tiny bags of self-doubt that we carry with us. Some of us have smaller bags than others and some of us have learned to move past them, but everyone has their “thing,” their “brokenness,” as Mel would call it. And I think my feeling about writing Mel was how irredeemable she thinks she is. And that I can relate to that, even sharing no part of her history. I had thought about dedicating the book “to all the broken girls” (but in the end, couldn’t not give proper credit to my genius mentor, Louise Hawes), the point being that we all see ourselves as broken – and that we’re wrong. There’s no such thing as “broken,” there’s no such thing as “irredeemable.” We all deserve love, but if we haven’t been given it, it’s never too late to love ourselves. There are more than enough people out there working to break women down; we need to forgive ourselves and celebrate ourselves, and our friends.
Okay, that was cheesy. But I believe it! And I believe that women can be amazing caretakers of each other, too.
Interlude to say that I am a bit creeped out that “Helter Skelter” (the cover by Carolyn Alroy) just came on Pandora while I was writing these questions for you! Did anything creepy happen that fueled you while you were writing this book? I just got shivers and I’m only asking the questions.
I wish I could say yes! Although, I did write a big chunk of the book upstate in a 100-year-old farmhouse that was gorgeous and idyllic by day, but creeptastic at night. Very isolated and dark, and lots of creaks and squeaks throughout the night. I do recall watching The Shining by myself up there one night—for whatever reason the entire family was back in NYC and it was literally me, and the dogs—and getting up to go to bed and thinking, “Why did I do that?” I slept with the lights on that night.
I found family to be a beautiful hybrid of prose and poetic vignettes. One of the things I so admire about the structure of this novel is how—and when—the language chooses to break into verse. The form becomes deeply connected to the events of the story, and the graceful spareness of the lines makes the terrifying subject matter even more chilling. Did you go into the writing of this novel knowing it would be verse? And, if not, how did that happen… were you possessed?
Yes, possessed is probably the right term. I had no plans to write poetry and did not necessarily think that I could. Mel herself came to me fairly fully-formed, so her voice on the page is really just what I heard in my head. The book was mostly written sequentially, and it made sense to me that the earlier passages were more narrative. Once Mel started to unravel, her voice began to break down, too. It definitely wasn’t a conscious choice at any point.
I know that this novel originally started as a short story—an assignment during your time in the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. How did you grow the story into the novel? What made you know there was enough material there to turn it into a book?
The short answer is: I didn’t. I wrote one short story (“undertow”), and then another story about a young Henry that didn’t make its way into the book. Once I realized who the two characters were and how and when they would intersect, I began adding passages. First it was Mel at the story’s end—which is actually the book’s beginning—and from there, I started to fill in pieces from different points in the storyline. Every now and then I’d stop and think, “wait—does it make sense to incorporate a flashback here?” Or, “from where, in time, is Mel telling this story?” Or, “who writes a verse novel based on the Manson murders? What is wrong with me?” And then I’d think, “well, let’s see where this goes.”
Every now and then I’d stop and think… “Who writes a verse novel based on the Manson murders? What is wrong with me?”
I showed the first 50 pages to my agent, who was incredibly dubious, based on my elevator pitch (“um, it’s kind of about Charles Manson? And kind of poetry?”). Thankfully, she loved it. So I finished a draft for her, and then we worked on revises, and ultimately, had a very happy ending wherein we learned about my publisher’s interest literally days before my wedding. Best wedding gift ever.
It was a pretty good year, ’09.
Not to embarrass you, but I look back on the past few years of my own writing career and I know it’s because of you—your generous push, and your recommendation—that I had the opportunity to pitch and then publish Dani Noir, my first published novel. I will be forever grateful and I’ll probably be bringing this up for years, so get used to it. But the thing is, not all writers are as generous with their time and knowledge of the industry as you are. Why is it so important to you to help your fellow writers and build community? Was there someone who reached out to help you the way you helped me?
Um…I wish I had some great, noble agenda, but the truth is, I’m an outgoing person and I like making connections and introductions. I like “knowing people” not in a creepy, fan-girl way, but just because I’m so inspired by the writing community, and going to see people or hear readings, or otherwise support authors is both gratifying, as well as a way to offset the very isolated experience of being a writer. I like being social, and I particularly like being social within the industry that I live and breathe. I love being around book people. And to be honest, it mostly started on a much more micro level—I make recommendations and introductions for people whose work I adore and believe in, which I think goes a long way toward giving my recommendations any weight they may carry. Obviously talent is (hopefully) the cornerstone of any writing career, but as with any area of the arts, it’s also about networks, so it’s great to be able to make introductions among people who I know would work well together.
There wasn’t any one person who reached out to me at a particular time, but my very first boss, Lisa Clancy at Simon & Schuster (in those days, it was Pocket YA, but we were folded into S&S Children’s shortly after I was hired), was incredibly supportive and encouraging, and gave me huge amounts of responsibility that were in no way commensurate with my experience level. I fell madly in love with YA fiction and it’s safe to say, that apprenticeship defined my career. The woman let me edit Francine Pascal, for pete’s sake! Francine Pascal! The day she handed the “Fearless” series over to me was one of those life-alternating moments.
I know you teach a recurring course at Mediabistro on writing YA. (New Yorkers, if you want to write a YA novel, sign up for Micol’s class!) And I also know that many success stories have come out of your class in terms of book deals. What secrets are you sharing with your students and would you reveal a tiny little one for us here?
I am blessed to be teaching in New York, where many of the students come to my class from a media background, so the caliber of students I encounter is consistently high. And as brilliant as I like to think I am (ha!), I think a lot of my students register because the weekly deadlines the class imposes are so vital to their motivation.
(That, plus my notes are brilliant. BRILLIANT. Obvs.)
So the first piece of advice would be: find a way to impose those external deadlines on yourself. Take a class (there are plenty available online, through Mediabistro, or with my uber-talented VCFA colleague, Sarah Aaronson—you can find details on her website). Or find a writing group, or even just one trusted partner. As valuable as their feedback on your work is, the accountability is absolutely irreplaceable.
And of course, many of the book deals that come from class are the result of happily-ever-after hookups between guest speakers and students. I bring in agents and editors, and the students have a chance to pitch their work. This is meant primarily as an exercising in polishing one’s pitch, but because my students are awesome, it’s not uncommon for guests to follow-up on ideas that pique their interest outside of class.
So the second piece of advice is: network. If you’re in New York or another major city, attend book signings, parties, and other events. There is a fine line between opportunistic stalking, and friendly participation, to be sure, but if you’re drawn to these events by virtue of your true passion for books and writing, chances are, you’ll meet others who share that enthusiasm. You never know what opportunities or relationships are going to grow from there.
Even if you’re further away from a literary community, organizations like SCBWI do a fantastic job of setting up conferences where aspiring writers can interact with editors, agents, and authors. DO IT. I know many a success story that have come from conference attendees.
- Don’t write to a trend. Trends come and go, and if you’re shoe horning a vampire into your middle-grade sports novel just because you think it’ll sexify your story, your vampire/sportsFrankenstein mashup is probably going to stink. Write the story that truly speaks to you. And keep in mind: trends are dumb. They cycle in and out, whereas an awesome book will always be awesome. There were vampires before Twilight, and there was dystopian before Hunger Games. IGNORE TRENDS.
- “Write the story that scares you.” Someone said that at a conference once. They may have been quoting someone else. Pity I can’t recall who either “someone” was. The point is, if you’re dying to write an epic historical fantasy but are terrified that you won’t be able to pull it off, DO IT. Go big or go home.
- Don’t take shortcuts—better to take the time to get your work to the very best place it can be, than to jump the gun and start querying before it’s ready. The industry is way too competitive for anything less than your best work.
- Concepts and hooks are important, but I truly believe that every good story needs a strong emotional core.
What’s next for you? Will there be another disturbing, chilling novel like family on the horizon and when can I read it?
Hopefully! I’m still hashing out ideas for the next novel with Egmont, we’re definitely thinking dark.
And, finally, what do you say to those people who ask us when we’re going to write a “real” novel? In other words, a novel for adults. What’s the perfect comeback for this utter nonsense?
Usually I just laugh.
Thank you so much, Micol, for taking the time to answer my questions—and perfect answer to that last one; that’s what I’ll do next time, too. Hope you have a fantastic birthday and congratulations again on family!
So now, to celebrate the release of family and Micol’s birthday, I’m giving away a hardcover of the book to one lucky commenter.
(This photo actually shows MY copy of the book, with a personal inscription inside, and I’m totally not giving this one away to you. But I’ve ordered a new one, just for the winner of this contest!)
To enter this giveaway: Just leave a comment on this post. Be sure to type your email address in the comment form where it says “Email.” It’s private and only I will see it. It’s just so I can get a hold of you if you won!
(I’m closing this giveaway on Monday, May 2 at 11:00 p.m. EST and I’ll reveal the winner the next day.)