Interview with Micol Ostow for the Summer Blog Blast Tour

Welcome to the Summer Blog Blast Tour!

Today’s interview: Micol Ostow, author of family (Egmont USA, 2011). Ostow is the author of numerous books, including Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa (Razorbill, 2006) and So Punk Rock: And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother (Flux, 2009).

From my review of family: “Melinda Jensen is seventeen, lost and broken, looking to be healed. She goes to San Francisco where she is found and made whole by Henry. He is her answer, her salvation, a promise. He brings her into his family, a family of people whose bonds are created not by blood but by wanting to be together. What is more beautiful, what is more healing, what is more hopeful than that? But blood will come. Because Henry is both more and less than what Mel wants and needs. Eventually she will realize that Henry is broken, that Henry is not giving but taking. What she sees as beauty and healing is a lie. By that time, though, there will be blood and it may be too late.” family is loosely based on the Manson Family murders.

Liz B: family is told in a unique style –episodic verse, as broken as Mel, and jumps around in time, as Mel tries to figure out how she got to a place of blood and screaming. The style is as important and telling as any plot point or character. Why episodic verse? Was this always your choice for Mel’s voice?

Ostow: Mel’s voice came to me long before the nuances of her story did, so yes, I would say the choice was intrinsic. With most of my previous novels, I conceived of a premise first and foremost, and voice tended to follow when I set about writing. This story, however, was borne of a writing exercise I was given during the final semester of my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. The first piece of the novel that I wrote was the vignette entitled “undertow,” which at the time was a standalone short story. After that, I wrote a short story from a young “Henry’s” point of view, and only then did it become clear to me how Mel and Henry’s stories would intersect. At that point, I sat down to try and attempt a long-form narrative (though I still wasn’t certain that this concept would lead to, or sustain, a complete novel). I would say that certainly in those early days, Mel’s voice was perhaps the *only* aspect of the story that was clear to me! When I wrote, I literally heard her speaking to me. It was almost in like transcription in that way.

Liz B: What, artistically and creatively, went into creating a non linear story like family?

Ostow: Well, as I say above, I wasn’t completely sure what the story arc for “family” would be, only that I was interested in exploring how someone “normal” might find herself caught up in a dangerous cult like the Manson family. So really, I was just feeling my way through the story as I went. I started at the end of the novel mainly because that was the one plot point I had a distinct impression of — that Mel, a reinterpretation of Linda Kasabian, would find herself on the cusp of unspeakable violence, trying to decide what to do or how to proceed. Then I began to work backwards to determine how she’d arrived at that point.

Obviously since the story isn’t linear, I wasn’t writing linearly, but I will say that almost all of the vignettes that appear in the book appear in the same order in which they were written, and in which they were first arranged. Once I had my first draft down, I edited out a few segments and wrote new segments in for clarification, and to help flesh out certain plot elements and characters. But I think, when writing, I jumped around in time as I needed to as an author, to allow the story to reveal itself, and fortunately, that seemed to work for my early readers (meaning, my agent and editor), as well.

Liz B: Readers who are familiar with the Manson Family murders will see some similarities in family, but Henry could be about any destructive guru. What research did you do?

Ostow: I didn’t do very much formal research, mainly because the book stemmed from my own innate fascination with the Manson story; by the time I sat down to write, I’d already read quite a bit about Charles Manson out of sheer curiosity and seen several versions of the Helter Skelter movie. I read Helter Skelter again when I realized that I was going to go further with the novel, and a few other biographies of Charles Manson and the Manson Family, and also watched a few documentaries. Wikipedia, though not the most reliable source, was also very helpful for urban legends and anecdotes about Manson that helped me fight through bouts of writers’ block (in particular, the story about how his mother once traded him for a pitcher of beer is an unconfirmed rumor that made its way into the book, as colorful and unbelievable as it is).

All in all, I probably did as much research as anyone would do for a project based on a true story, but again, the “research” was purely recreational and brought me to the project, rather than the other way around.

Liz B: How did family change during the revision and editing process? It was emotionally draining to read Mel’s story. My heart still breaks for her, I still want to save her. But that was just from reading it! You lived with Mel for months and months. What did you do to disconnect  from the darkness of family when you weren’t working on family? When you returned to writing or editing family, was there anything you did to get back into Mel’s head?

Ostow: I mostly did my writing first thing in the morning, so that once I was done, I could leave the house and go to the gym to pound all of the darkness out — running was a particularly good antidote to writing “family.” And I wrote slowly — maybe one or two vignettes a day — because, as you say, it was very draining. I did read a lot of dark fiction to help keep me “sharp” for writing, but when I wasn’t reading or writing, I was seeing friends, practicing yoga, watching sitcoms…all of the things we do to normalize and clear our heads. If I wrote at night, then I generally needed to spend at least an hour binging on “Office” DVDs before bedtime.

I also developed stricter and different writing routines, in that I wrote almost exclusively in the little office nook I have carved out in my bedroom, or at a particular local cafe. Having a designated “family” writing spot also helped me to compartmentalize all of the emotions that went along with writing that story.

Going back wasn’t necessarily pleasant, but it was easy to do! One read-through and I was immersed again. And reading the dark fiction and watching dramas, thrillers, and horror movies kept me in that mind frame. The good news is that I’m one of those weirdos who watches horror movies to relax.

Liz B: What are some of the books you read as a teen?

Ostow: My number one favorite author when I was teen was Stephen King — no surprise there. I think the only surprise (to me, at least) is how long it took me to write something creepy myself! I also loved Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale. I guess I was on to the dystopian trend a decade or so in advance!

Liz B: What are some of the books you are reading now?

Ostow: I’m back on a dark kick (though to be fair, I never *really* go off of the dark novels): last week I read Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars, and Adele Griffin’s Tighter, which is a modern-day Turn of the Screw. I also went back to Shirley Jackson earlier in the year: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House. And my big BEA coup was Marianna Baer’s Frost. So good.

Liz B: I have Full Dark, No Stars on my shelf, waiting to be read; and now I have to get Frost! What are you working on now?

Ostow: My next book with Egmont is due in November, and my first baby (!) is due in December, so I’m plugging away on that (the writing, not the pregnancy. The pregnancy is fairly passive though no less consuming). It’s a ghost story that, like “family,” alternates in time. Unlike “family,” it has multiple point of view characters (for now — ask me again in a month!), neither of whom speak in verse. So, similar in tone, but nonetheless, a departure. I’m excited!

Liz B: Congratulations on the baby! And I’m looking forward to your next book. 

Thank you!

Check out Chasing Ray for links to the rest of today’s interviews: 

Tessa Gratton at Writing & Ruminating
Maria Padian at Bildungsroman
Genevieve Cote at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast


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