Today on the blog I’m so happy to be talking to author Nancy Ohlin. She and I have a lot in common—a publisher, an amazing editor, and two books out this spring. Nancy’s young adult novels THORN ABBEY and BEAUTY, both with Simon Pulse, debuted on the same day! I’ve already had the pleasure of reading THORN ABBEY and believe me; it is unputdownable and will leave you hoping for a sequel. Maybe if we ask Nancy nicely she’ll write one! In fact, you’ll have the chance to ask her in-person if you live in the NYC area and want to pop over to the Books of Wonder bookstore at 18 West 18th Street (between 5th and 6th Ave) this Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Nancy will be there with fellow authors Kristi Cook, Sarah Beth Durst, Kit Grindstaff (Kit stopped by for Writer 2 Writer Wednesday back in April), Jonathan Maberry, and Phoebe North. (see below for a link to the event.)
Talk a little bit about your journey toward becoming an author. When did you decide you wanted to write for teens?
When I was a child, I read all the time. I pretty much lived at the library and loved to walk through the stacks, grabbing whatever books caught my eye. One day I spotted a beginners’ Italian guide on the shelf and decided to check it out so I could learn Italian. (I was ten at the time.) Later, it was novels—new, classic, foreign works in translation. In high school, I went through a phase of reading Freud and analyzing my dreams. I loved loved loved mysteries, especially old ones with retro covers.
Not surprisingly, this passion for reading led to writing. I still have a copy of one of my very first short stories, about a princess named Feraline (how did I come up with that name?) with “goldenhair, silverblue eyes, Rose Red lips, Snow white skin, and a beautiful voice like birds.” (As a Japanese-American kid, I was fascinated by fairytales about princesses with blond hair and blue eyes.)
I started writing professionally when I was thirty. I’ve published early grade, middle grade, YA, and adult books. I especially love writing for teens because it’s such an intense time of life, and because my own adolescence was so crazy and complicated. Those years gave me, and continue to give me, a lot of dark inspiration for stories.
THORN ABBEY was inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s REBECCA, and BEAUTY is a retelling of the Snow White tale. Can you tell us a little more about each novel and how you were inspired to write both?
Published in 1938, REBECCA is a novel about jealousy and obsession—two of my favorite subjects. (Alfred Hitchcock made it into an amazing movie in 1940.) In the story, a young woman meets, falls in love with, and marries a wealthy older man, Maximilian, whose former wife Rebecca died under mysterious circumstances. The (nameless) narrator is timid and unsophisticated and feels that she will never live up to the perfect, beautiful Rebecca. But eventually, she learns that Rebecca wasn’t exactly what she appeared to be … and neither is Maximilian.
I really related to the narrator, who feels so out of her element as Maximilian’s new wife and is haunted by the memory of Rebecca, and I wanted to write a contemporary retelling that touched on these themes: being an outsider, not fitting in, trying to live up to “perfection.” This inspired me to create the world of Thorn Abbey, an elite boarding school in New England, and Tess, an insecure scholarship student who falls for a gorgeous rich boy named Max. Max’s perfect, beautiful girlfriend Becca died the previous spring at Thorn Abbey. Except that Becca isn’t dead, exactly, and she’s not happy about Max moving on.
As for BEAUTY: I wanted to start with the tale of Snow White and turn it upside down. What if Snow White desperately craved her stepmother’s affection, but knew that her own beauty was an obstacle? In BEAUTY, Princess Tatiana Anatolia (called Ana) deliberately makes herself ugly so that her mother, Queen Veda, will love her. Then her mother sends her away to a boarding school called The Academy whose student population consists of the most beautiful girls in the kingdom. Ana has to solve the mystery of the school’s true purpose and dig deep within herself to stop her mother’s tyranny—and save herself in the process.
I’ve personally struggled with body image issues. And growing up, I had a difficult relationship with my mother. Those experiences really came together for me in writing BEAUTY.
Do you work from an outline?
To outline or not to outline … that is a tough one! With THORN ABBEY, I started with a fairly rigid chapter-by-chapter outline, but strayed from it as I got into the actual writing. I scrapped the pre-planned prologue altogether and just went with something else entirely that felt more organic. (It is a dream scene that echoes the famous opening line of REBECCA: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”)
I’m writing a new novel now with pretty much no outline at all. It’s totally an experiment. I wanted to give myself the freedom to discover my characters and their stories from a deep, subconscious place versus forcing them to do this or that based on chronological convenience. It’s way more right brain than left brain, and it’s scary but thrilling. (Of course, I may have to get more left brain later and impose an ex post facto outline on a subsequent draft. But for now, I’m just driving along without a map …)
What time of day do you write? Do you have a certain process?
I write best in the mornings, when I’m fresh. But sometimes, I can go all day staring at my computer and not typing more than a sentence or two before the actual inspiration kicks in, at which point I have to seize the moment and just go with it. I’ve had days when nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens … and then at four p.m. I start typing away like a crazy person and produce five, ten good pages in a kind of creative trance.
If I need to jump-start the process more proactively, I’ll change my work space: a different room, a different venue. Cafés are nice in theory but often distracting (although I do like to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations for dialogue and characterization purposes). The quiet room in the library is the best (except for the no food or beverages rule). And we all know that long walks and long showers are great for writer’s block.
What does a good day of writing for you look like? How about a bad day?
A good day: When I’ve written a scene in which I’ve totally captured a character in a particular bubble of (literary) time and space. When I achieve that, I feel euphoric and also a little bit obsessive, because I’ll spend the rest of the day thinking about that scene and reliving it over and over in my head, like a mental victory dance.
A bad day: The opposite of that—when I feel like I haven’t gotten to the heart of anything or anyone at all.
I read that you’ve done some ghostwriting and collaboration. How is that process different or the same for you?
Ghostwriting and collaborations are very different from my original writing in the beginning of a project, because the inspiration tends to come from the life of a real person (e.g., a celebrity) or from a pre-existing series (with the characters, setting, and other details already in place). So the first step is for me to completely know that person or series. I actually really love this part of the process because it’s like being a journalist: asking tons of questions, doing lots of research, organizing the facts in my head.
Then comes the creative part, which can be very similar to what I do with my own novels. How creative I can be will depend on the project. But however much (or little) freedom I have to “make stuff up” (for lack of a better term) at this stage, I enjoy it tremendously, and I employ the same creative strategies with regards to plotting, dialogue, and so forth. Also, if I’m working with a collaborator, I really appreciate the teamwork aspect; writing can get so lonely sometimes.
How do you balance writing time vs. marketing and what has it been like marketing two books at the same time?!
In an ideal world, I’d write 100% of the time and never have to do any marketing. I’m a writer and not a marketer. On the other hand, I love the freedom and power the Internet gives writers to reach out to readers and hear back from them. I also love meeting readers at signings and readings. I have events coming up in NYC, Chicago, and Ann Arbor this fall, and I’m so looking forward to them!
Marketing two books at the same time can be very confusing—like giving birth to twins who are polar opposites, and having to describe them in the same sentence, sentence after sentence, a lot. (Did that even make sense?) That being said, I’m incredibly grateful that THORN ABBEY and BEAUTY came into existence this year and feel so lucky to be a part of the stellar Simon Pulse list (including HOW MY SUMMER WENT UP IN FLAMES – my favorite summer read of 2013!).
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
A teacher once told me that a writer should create characters very, very fully and richly by knowing every detail about their lives, even if those details never make it onto the page. Like—imagine the inside of your character’s refrigerator (beer and pizza? organic everything?), her former pets, all her relationships past and present, where she went to elementary school, her favorite movies, etc., etc. … then keep those details in mind while writing. Then put your character in a situation. Literally plop her down in a set of circumstances (e.g., it’s a rainy night, she’s driving along, she sees a young girl huddled by the side of the road). She will react naturally and spontaneously from the wellspring of personal detail that you have created about her. Your job is then to record whatever she does.
Another good piece of writing advice has to do with first drafts. As in, a first draft is not a final draft. I sometimes get stuck with my writing because I think that every word has to be perfect from the get-go. It took me a long time to learn that I can just put the words on the page and edit (and re-edit and re-re-edit) them later.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I’m writing another dark, romantic mystery, but it’s very different from Thorn Abbey. It’s about two cousins with an intense, complicated relationship, a guy they both like, and a murder.
(Of course, I could always revive the story of Feraline with her goldenhair, silverblue eyes, and Rose Red lips!)
How can people find you?
My author website is nancyohlin.com. I’m also on Twitter @nancyohlin, and I have an author page on Facebook (Nancy Ohlin).
Thank you so much for interviewing me!
Thank you for stopping by my blog!
Here is the link to the Books of Wonder event: