Interview with Alyssa B. Sheinmel for the Summer Blog Blast Tour

Welcome to day 5 of the 2011 Summer Blog Blast Tour!

Today we have Alyssa B. Sheinmel, author of two of my favorite books, The Lucky Kind (Knopf, 2011) and The Beautiful Between (Knopf, 2010).

From my review of The Lucky Kind: “Nick Brandt, 16, doesn’t know that answering the phone will shake up his world. A strange man asks for “Sheffman Brandt,” knowing Nick’s father’s name but not knowing he goes by Rob, his middle name. A stranger, whose call upsets the tight, close world of Nick and his parents. The man calling is Sam Roth. As Rob Brandt later explains to Nick, thirty years ago Rob had a son who was given up for adoption. Sam is that child. His father had a child, a child given up for adoption, and Nick never knew. His parents never told him.”

Liz B: I adored The Lucky Kind!  I loved Nick and his family, and could easily see how and why both Stevie and Eden are attracted to how stable and typical they appear.  What inspired The Lucky Kind?

Sheinmel: Well, first of all, thank you!  The idea for The Lucky Kind came to me when I found myself giving adoption thought in a way I never had before.  Up until a few years ago, I’d gone most of my life without being personally touched by adoption (as far as I know). Seemingly all at once, I became close with several people who’d been adopted, and a dear friend confided to having given up a child for adoption. Adoption became something I couldn’t stop thinking about, and I knew it was only a matter of time before it became something I would write about.

Nick’s father gave a child up for adoption, and that impacts his current family. What research do you do about adoption and adoptees and birth families?

After I learned about my friends’ experiences on both sides of adoption, I began to think about it a lot. Two of the adopted adults that I’d met had no interest in finding their birth parents. I wondered how I would feel, had I been adopted; I honestly don’t know.  I can imagine feeling both ways about it: wanting to know from where I came; wanting to know if I looked like my birth parents; wanting to develop a relationship with the people who gave me the life I came to have. And yet, I can also imagine the opposite feeling: not wanting to meet the people who didn’t want me; not wanting to hurt the feelings of my adoptive parents by somehow suggesting that I needed something more than they could give me.

Around that same time, I read an unforgettable book called The Girls Who Went Away, about women who’d been essentially forced to give up their children for adoption in the years before the Roe vs. Wade decision. The book spoke to the long-term effects that giving up these babies had had on the women who bore them, and on their families, years later. It was heartbreaking and deeply moving; I couldn’t put the book down. But I was also struck by the fact that mostly the birth mothers’ stories were told. The biological fathers were barely mentioned. I began to wonder about the effects that giving up children for adoption had on fathers; surely some of these fathers were every bit as deeply touched by the experience as the mothers had been.

And I thought, most of all, about my friend who’d given up a child for adoption. My thoughts were often not about the baby who had been given up, but about the family my friend was going to go on to have someday. I couldn’t stop thinking about that future family—that spouse, those children—and the impact that an adoption that had taken place so many years earlier might have on that future family. I couldn’t get that idea out of my head, and that’s where the story for The Lucky Kind began.

Liz B: When rereading The Lucky Kind, I was impressed with the structure.  While the book takes place in the months after Sam Roth’s phone call, you also showed the reader what Nick’s family was like before so that the reader could appreciate the small but significant changes that went on in Nick’s world as he dealt with his new world view.  I’m curious, especially because of the layers within it, whether your writing style is one of outlining or plunging forward?

Sheinmel: Somewhere in between.  I don’t outline, but I make a lot of notes both before I begin and as I write the story.  I usually have a pretty good sense of where my story is going to go, and how it’s going to get there.  (At least, I think I do.  Occasionally, a story can take on a life of its own!)  I did, at one point, put The Lucky Kind aside to try to write something else; but I kept coming back to Nick and his family. 

Liz B: As with The Beautiful Between, I adored the writing and descriptions. As you can tell by my outline question, I’m fascinated by how writers work and what goes into their craft. How would you describe your process? Are you an early morning writer, late at night, or weekends?

Sheinmel: Well, thank you again!  Because I have a day job, writing for me is mostly an evenings and weekends activity. I’m much, much more of a morning person than an evening person, so my most productive writing time is probably Saturday and Sunday mornings.    And, I actually come up with a lot of story ideas, and with a lot of phrases and plot points, when I’m on the subway to and from my day job.  I’m constantly making frantic notes in between stops.

My writing process is definitely still a work-in-progress in and of itself.  So far, I’ve written each of my books a little differently than the last.  I’d like to think that my process won’t ever stop developing; I hope that I learn something more about how to write every time I put pencil to page (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be!).

Liz B: Any special music?

Sheinmel: Nope.  I can’t listen to music while I write; I get much too distracted.  I like to have my narrator’s voice in my head when I write, even when I’m writing in the third person.  With music on, I end up with the musician’s voice in my head. 

Liz B: Was The Lucky Kind always the title?

Yes, although I didn’t know it until I was about halfway through my first draft.  But as soon as that phrase popped up in the dialogue between Eden and Stevie and Nick, I knew I’d found my title.

Liz B: Both The Lucky Kind and The Beautiful Between share a New York City setting. When I began reading The Lucky Kind, I wondered if Nick and Eden went to the same school as Connolly and Jeremy (from The Beautiful Between) but then saw that they don’t, so I wondered if maybe they went to the same parties. New York City is almost another character, but not the rich, privileged, trendy, version of New York that appears in shows like Gossip Girl.  Why New York City?

Sheinmel: I’m a big fan of writing what you know—or at least, writing some of what you know – so I always try to ground my stories in real details.  For me, that meant placing The Lucky Kind in New York City.  That’s where I went to high school, and those are the restaurants and movie theaters that I grew up going to, the subway I grew up taking, the streets I walked with my friends.  That’s not to say I’d never write a book that takes place anywhere else.  (I hope that I will!)  But New York seemed like the natural setting for this story.

And, I’ve definitely thought that even though Nick and Connelly don’t go to the same schools, they bump into each other at inter-school parties and events from time to time!  I like to think that they might know each other, at least as vague acquaintances.

Liz B: What are you working on now?

Sheinmel: I’m a little superstitious about talking what I’m working on.  When I began writing, I wouldn’t even admit that I was working on anything at all!  (My husband used to see me working at the computer, and I’d insist I was just shopping online.)  Now, I’ll admit when I’m writing—but I still don’t like to talk about any new project until it’s really taken shape.

Liz B: What is your next book?

Sheinmel: Thank you for asking!  My third book is called The Stone Girl, and it’s publishing in August 2012.  It’s a bit different from my previous books – it’s in the third person, which is a first for me, and it’s a bit darker than either The Beautiful Between or The Lucky Kind.  It’s about a very troubled girl named Sethie, a character I loved so much that I wanted to protect her, even as I created and wrote the difficult things she experiences over the course of the novel.  The Stone Girl means so much to me, and I can’t wait to hear what readers will have to say about it.

Liz B: Thank you!

Remember, Chasing Ray has links for the other interviews in today’s Summer Blog Blast Tour

Genevieve Valentine at Shaken & Stirred
Stacy Whitman at The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Matthew Cody and Aaron Starmer at Mother Reader

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

Summer Blog Blast Tour, Day 1

And it’s the Summer Blog Blast Tour 2011!

New to the Blog Blast Tour?

Twice a year, during one week, children’s and young adult book bloggers interview a mix of authors. Each day, Chasing Ray will have highlights from each interview, along with direct URLs. In addition, the participating bloggers link and cross link to the various blogs and interviews.

This week is the Summer Blog Blast Tour — here is the week’s schedule. I hope you enjoy!


Tara Altebrando at Chasing Ray
Shirley Vernick at Bildungsroman
Jack Ferraiolo at The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen at Writing & Ruminating


Sean Beaudoin at Chasing Ray
Neesha Meminger at The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Rachel Karns at Bildungsroman


Sarah Stevenson at Chasing Ray
Emily Howse at Bildungsroman
Ashley Hope-Perez at The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich at Hip Writer Mama  


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


Genevieve Valentine at Shaken & Stirred
Stacy Whitman at The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Alyssa B. Sheinmel, here
Matthew Cody and Aaron Starmer at Mother Reader