WBBT Stop: Micol Ostow

MicolMicol Ostow has written a whole bunch of things–short stories, media tie-ins, romantic comedies, and more. Her novel Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa releases this week in paperback from Razorbill. She left an editing position at a major New York house to write full time and pursue an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College (which is where we met, over many, many glasses of vino, hiding from the cold). She has an adorable dog. More on all that–except Bridget Jones–from the lady’s lips. Or, more precisely, fingertips.

GB: Your wonderful book Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa is being released in paperback, oh, any day now. Tell us about Emily and how you came to write this book. Also, can you clarify that the main character is not you and the book’s Noah isn’t your Noah?

MO: Of course, when you write something so personal, people want to assume that it’s wildly autobiographical. Emily and I share the same cultural background, but actually, we had very opposite experiences with our Puerto Rican families. My mother took us to spend Christmas with her parents every year, so we grew up in much closer contact with our family than Emily ever did.

The one thing that I will say is that when I was 14 and fortunate enough to spend the summer with my uncle and his family in San Juan, I was shocked at how much responsibility fell to my cousin Angela. She and I are the same age, and she oversaw a lot of the housework, in addition to babysitting her three younger sisters. Meanwhile, her older brother Mario was generally free to come and go as he pleased. I don’t know that that sort of gender divide is Puerto Rican, per se, or particular to my family, but it was quite an eye-opening experiencing. I never again took my own chores for granted!

And no, Noah in the book is most emphatically not Noah in real life. What people don’t realize is that EMILY was written a good year before I even met real-life Noah. It just happens to be one of my favorite names for a boy. So maybe that’s part of why I was drawn to the real one. But yeah, it’s something that people take note of, and it usually makes them laugh.

GB:  I once heard Sharyn November say that when she was growing up–and still–she found it extremely difficult to find books for kids and teens that had Jewish characters in them, which were not necessarily about being Jewish. I also don’t see that many books for teens with Latino characters. You’ve written about the challenge of capturing true multiculturalism before. I still see a lot of room for more diversity in books for younger readers. (Though, that said, if you take translations out of the mix, the field probably bats higher than books for adult readers.) What do you think about this?

MO: I agree, I think the challenge with any sort of "multi-culti" lit is to figure out a way to integrate the cultural authenticity without necessarily creating a didactic body of work. Of course, when one sets out to write the first of a book about a particular cultural minority, there’s a lot of establishing and background that needs to be laid out. So it’s hard not to find ourselves reading books like ESTRELLA’S QUINCEANERA (which is a great book, by the way), where the focus of the book is drawing a picture of the cultural rite in a way that the reader can identify with.

One of my favorite books that I’ve read in the last few months is HATERS by Alicia Valdes-Rodriguez, wherein the characters are all multi-ethnic. And yet, it’s all incidental to the storyline, which, in my opinion, is much more honest.

GB: You have also written several romantic comedies for Simon and Schuster and much work-for-hire. Is your process different at all in the different kinds of work? Do you juggle projects at the same time and how, without going completely stark raving mad?

MO: Oh, I’m stark raving mad, all right!

EMILY was a more thoughful book to write than the romantic comedies are, and it took me a lot longer to find her voice. I read a lot of Sweet Valley High growing up, so that very commercial sensibility comes to me pretty naturally.

That being said, the ro coms need to be plotted much more tightly than something that can be more literary and meandering, so it’s an entirely different set of skills that you have to bring to the table as a writer for that sort of project. Not to mention the turnaround times are insane!

Work-for-hire can be particularly challenging because the author’s voice is actually a liability in that situation. It is much harder than you might think to have to adjust to a "series style" or voice.

But I love being able to balance out all three because they really speak to the different sides of my personality: analytical and introspective, chatty and (I hope) snarky, and obsessively detail-oriented. So I wouldn’t ever limit myself by committing to one form of writing over any other.

GB: Tell me about the project you and your brother are working on for Flux–it’s pretty exciting. Your brother put together an amazing box set of CDs themed to each character, and I can’t wait until you post the playlists online. This seemed like such a great tool–particularly in a collaboration–for knowing who the characters are. After all, what defines teenagers more than the music they like? When will the book be out?

MO: Our book is tentatively titled I’M WITH THE TRIBE: A Guy, A Guitar, and a Date with (Non-Denominational) Destiny, and I’m super-excited for it! We’re publishing with the uber-indie imprint Flux, and the book will be out in Spring ’09 (actual pub month to be determined).

It’s a hybrid graphic novel, meaning that it’s a traditional novel with graphic panels and spot art interspersed throughout. My brother David is handling the illustrations (and all of the musical references, since that’s much more his thing than mine. If it were up to me, the playlists would be largely composed of Madonna remixes).

TRIBE is the story of a yeshiva (Jewish day school) boy who starts up a garage band in the hopes of raising his "cool quotient." The story follows the band’s progress, but the protagonist, Ari, slowly learns that he may in fact have other talents that set him apart from the crowd.

It’s a story that’s really close to both of our hearts after having attended Jewish day school from kindergarten straight through to senior year. And as much as I don’t practice very much in my daily life, I’m constantly amazed to see how pervasive Jewish themes are in my work. I guess you can take the girl out of yeshiva…

GB: So, you and I are in the same MFA program–Vermont College, represent! What made you decide to do a program like this even though you were already publishing? Do you think it’s been worth it?

MO: I’d always wanted to go back and get an MFA in creative writing, just for my own personal growth, even though, as you mention, I was already publishing, and it wasn’t necessarily something that was going to "further" my career. Vermont College especially intrigued me because of the caliber of its alumni (um, MT Anderson?!). So when I decided to leave my job to work full-time as a writer (last winter), it seemed like the logical time to enter into a writing program. It’s been a great mix of discipline and interactivity as I adjust to a life of pj’s and my laptop.

Vermont has been great. I love the dialogue I have with my adviser, and I especially love having the opportunity to look critically at the work that’s already out there in the world. As an editor, you’re usually so buried in manuscripts that reading gets pushed to the back burner. Now I have to read! Life could be a lot worse.

GB: Okay, so the Shaken & Stirred people, we love Buffy, and you’ve done some work on a couple of Buffy projects in the past, when you were an editor at Simon and Schuster. What’s your favorite episode of Buffy and why?

MO: Yeah, I could go on forever about "Buffy." But I’ll just give you my greatest hits:

"Becoming, Parts I and II"–so poignant and gorgeous. Just the most bittersweet ending to the most achingly emotional season. And what a cliffhanger! I remember watching part I and literally wanting to stay, rooted to my seat on the couch, until the premiere of season three.

"Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered"–well, I love the Xan-Man, and this episode was hilarious and goofy.

"Tabula Rasa"–Spike in the three piece suit? The hat with the ear flaps? Joan the Vampire Slayer? Hysterically funny, but also devastating. That Willow sure can do a weepy scene. "Stay away from Randy!"

"Once More, With Feeling"–that musical was just perfect in every way. I just watched it the other night with a girlfriend, during some pre-Halloween (my favorite holiday) festivities.

Visit today’s other WBBT sites:

Lisa Ann Sandell at Interactive Reader
Christopher Barzak at Chasing Ray (he was here yesterday)
Julie Halpern at The Ya Ya Yas 
Rick Yancey at Hip Writer Mama
Jane Yolen at Fuse Number 8
Shannon Hale at Bookshelves of Doom
Maureen Johnson at Bildungsroman
David Lubar at Writing & Ruminating
Sherman Alexie at Finding Wonderland

7 thoughts on “WBBT Stop: Micol Ostow”

  1. Man – doing three distinct types of writing and not losing your mind – ? Wow. AND able to work on a project with a family member without going all Lizzie Borden is the sign of a truly awesome person. Her many projects speak to the caliber of writing she is able to do. Wow. You have some impressive people in your program at Vermont! Thanks for a great interview!

  2. Just want to put out there that Micol was solely responsible for Reena’s mix in the box set and there are no Madonna remixes to speak of.

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