Hi guys! Today on the blog, I am hosting one of the kindest and most supportive authors I have ever met, Melissa Ostrom. Melissa is the author of the YA historical fiction novel The Beloved Wild, which I loved and you can see why in my review here, and I am very honored to have her on my blog to talk to us about her debut novel! I hope you enjoy this interview, and please check out The Beloved Wild! (By the way, Ruta Sepetys blurbed it, in case you didn’t know.)
About the Book
Harriet Winter is the eldest daughter in a farming family in New Hampshire, 1807. Her neighbor is Daniel Long, who runs his family’s farm on his own after the death of his parents. Harriet’s mother sees Daniel as a good match, but Harriet isn’t so sure she wants someone else to choose her path—in love and in life.
When her brother decides to strike out for the Genesee Valley in Western New York, Harriet decides to go with him—disguised as a boy. Their journey includes sickness, uninvited guests, and difficult emotional terrain as Harriet comes of age, realizes what she wants, and accepts who she’s loved all along.
1. Your YA historical fiction debut The Beloved Wild, which released in March from Feiwel & Friends, follows Harriet Winter as she disguises herself as a boy to venture into the Genesee Valley as she overcomes prejudice, nature, and eventually love. As a local resident, what do you love most about living in that region? How did the valley allure you to use it as the setting of your debut?
I’m originally from Chautauqua County. The teaching position at Kendall High School brought me to this area, and I fell in love with its gentle landscape—the sweeping orchards, Lake Ontario, the cultivated fields that alternate with woodlands, and the historical features, like the Erie Canal and cobblestone houses. I felt like a pioneer, traveling to a new place and making it my home. The families of my students warmly welcomed me. Writing Harriet’s story (and recognizing the significant role the Genesee Valley played in our country’s initial wave of westward expansion) became a way for me to show my gratitude for that welcome and my appreciation for this location.
2. The Age of the American Frontier is a time period that is often overlooked in historical fiction. How did you first stumble upon the exodus of New Englanders flocking to the uncharted wilderness of New York? What are some of the most interesting things you learned from your research?
I’m fortunate to have some dear friends who happen to know a lot about our local history. Three in particular—Diane Palmer, Adrienne Kirby, and Sharon Root—shared significant stories about the early pioneers (to whom these women can trace their own ancestries!), and those tales definitely stirred my interest. My friends also shared family memorabilia, access to the archives of the Orleans County Chapter of the DAR, and powerful reading materials, like the settlers’ reminisces, compiled by Arad Thomas. These firsthand pioneer accounts proved quite useful and remarkable. Most of the early settlers were young—just teenagers with little money and few tools—but they possessed a great deal of gumption. They worked hard to eke clearings out of the wilderness and faced incredible trials while starting their farms. Their stories inspired me. I remember reading about one young man who had nothing but the clothes on his back and an axe in his hand when he broached the wilds of his purchased lot of land. He started with practically nothing and yet made something of himself. Amazing.
3. What would be your dream adventure? Where would you go and what would you do?
Oh, I’d like to travel around our country and visit other parts of the world. But lately I’ve been thinking about walking the length of the Erie Canal—simply packing a backpack and taking off for a while, breaking up the hike with stays in inns and visits to the waterway towns. I love going for long walks and usually cover around eight miles a day. It’d be fun to set out—and just keep going! My family (when my kids get a little older) would probably enjoy this adventure, too.
4. Before you wrote The Beloved Wild, you wrote many short stories for various journals. Could you describe to us the transition you made from writing short stories to writing a full-length novel? What are the specific benefits and challenges of creating a short story versus drafting a novel?
Actually, about nine years ago when I initially decided to try fiction writing, I started with a novel, not short fiction. The novel became the first in a series of four. I finished the entire quartet before shopping around the first book. When querying this piece didn’t win me an agent, I set aside all four and got to work on another novel (a standalone). Concurrently, I began to craft short fiction.
My initial reasoning behind the short-fiction enterprise was I need to beef up my credentials! I just held a couple of degrees in English lit and my teaching certification. I couldn’t mention publications, conferences, retreats, or even an MFA in a query letter because I hadn’t accomplished any of these things. Publishing short stories would rectify that, I figured. And I have managed to find homes in literary journals for many of my stories.
But something else (something more wonderful) happened as a result of this foray into short fiction: my writing skills improved. Perhaps due to their sparer frame, stories (those admirable ones written by others and the ones I endeavor to create) showcase precise language and an attention to detail. A word must earn its place—or out it goes.
5. How do you want readers to be impacted by Harriet’s venture into the wild and her overcoming gender prejudices?
I hope readers will understand Harry’s frustrations with her lot in life and admire the pluck she demonstrates in finagling a new (more exciting, liberating, adventurous) direction for herself, a direction that reflects who she longs to be, not what society expects of her. And I hope readers will reflect on their own choices, on who they are and who they want to become, and then seek life-paths that carry them closer to their goals. That seeking is legitimate and worthwhile. We have the right to pursue our dreams and our best selves, whoever those selves may be. And I believe (with every cell of my body) that we should respect others’ similar pursuits.
6. Were there any strong women in history or in your life who influenced the creation of Harriet and her personality? Who were they, and how do they inspire you in your life?
I have a penchant for history and the Women’s Rights Movement, in particular. My interest goes way back. I can remember writing about the Pankhurst sisters in tenth grade (and the joy I felt when Mr. Schmidt gave my essay an A!). The suffragists’ determination and bravery inspired me. My favorite books invariably feature strong female protagonists. Anne Shirley, Elizabeth Bennet, Tita de la Garza, Jo March, Janie Crawford, Hermione Granger, Laura Ingalls, Jane Eyre: my heroes.
7. Why do you love writing? When did you first have a love for writing, and how was it formed?
I was a reluctant reader (and an even more reluctant writer) when I was a child. I didn’t want to sit still or stay inside. I wanted to play. I ran wild with my friends until sixth grade. At that point, kids who’d once enjoyed doing what I enjoyed—building forts, mixing potions with mud and wildflowers, snooping around the “haunted” backlot of an abandoned school—lost interest in these activities. They got “too old” and “too cool” to play. It was then that I turned to reading. Characters in books took me on their adventures. They let me keep playing. So my love for reading, though intense, definitely bloomed belatedly. Same with my love for writing fiction. Though I’ve crafted poetry since high school, I didn’t start composing stories until about nine years ago, around the time my daughter Lily was born. I remember feeling frustrated with some of the main characters in the books I was reading: they weren’t kindred spirits. That’s when I got into writing stories. I wanted to create the sorts of characters I could love—and imagine as fun pals.
8. What are your favorite books, genres, and authors? Which ones have impacted you and your writing style the most?
Anne of Green Gables—the first novel of that incredible series by L.M. Montgomery—was my gateway drug to reading. I read it when I was eleven years old, and it changed my life. Anne’s creativity, pluck, and fierce intelligence inspired me. Her eccentric imagination made me feel okay about myself. Other books that I’ve enjoyed since falling in love with the Anne Shirley books cover a wide range, genre-wise, but more often than not, they involve a lively (and relatable) main character: Pride and Prejudice, Olive Kitteridge, Little Women, The House on Mango Street, I Capture the Castle, Jane Eyre, Like Water for Chocolate, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Howl’s Moving Castle…oh, gosh, and so many more.
9. What do you do when you’re not writing? Is writing a part-time or full-time job?
I write very early in the morning and (in those three hours before the rest of my family rises) try to strum up five hundred words or so for whatever story or novel I’m in the process of developing. I’ll also sometimes write in the afternoon for an hour or two. I suppose this makes me sound like a part-timer, except that the story or novel is usually sitting, front and center, in my brain for the rest of the day. Consequently, even when I’m not writing, I’m frequently thinking about the writing, mulling over the plot, replaying what’s happened so far, imagining snippets of conversations.
My other interests indulge this distraction. I make pottery, and occasionally, after sitting at the wheel and throwing a few pots, I’ll leave my studio with an idea for a story, a solution to what’s been looking like a narrative dead-end, or a smart exchange of words. Cooking, gardening, long walks: these similarly foster some fruitful mind wanderings.
I also teach, just a class now and then, at Genesee Community College. I taught full-time (eleventh and twelfth grade English) for eleven years but decided to resign after my daughter was born. Fortunately, my current adjunct position at GCC sufficiently satisfies my hankering to teach. I like working with students, discussing good stories and difficult issues and fostering their writing skills. In between these activities, I’m either reading or spending time with my family. I have a nine-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son. They keep me busy.
10. Would you consider yourself to be a plotter or a pantser? Did you ever surprise yourself as you drafted and revised your book?
I guess I’m a mix. I usually have a loose idea of where I want a novel to go but leave a lot of mental wiggle room—for detours, accidents, twists and turns—along the way. If a character becomes very real to me, she will master the narrative and direct my writing. Sometimes, it’s like she’s calling the shots, and I’m just present to attend to her: to listen, sympathize, and try to understand. My characters do frequently surprise me.
11. How has being an English teacher influenced you as a reader and writer?
I love teaching English. My students delight me. And this profession has given me an appreciation for young people’s struggles, strengths, and (especially) potential. Age and circumstance position teenagers on an important threshold in time, their backs to childhood and their eyes trained on the misty vista of the future. Who to be, what to seek, whom to love, where to go, when to change, how to feel: there is so much to contemplate, and little is unalterably decided yet. Few doors are closed. That makes this stage thrilling—and evocative, from a writerly standpoint. A good story entails character development. This probably explains why YA lit is frequently so addictive: it’s all about development. Growth and change are inherent to the young adult experience.
12. What could we expect from you in the future? Are there any secrets you would like to share?
I’m very excited about my second novel The Unleaving, forthcoming from Feiwel & Friends in March of 2019. Here’s a description:
Maggie is a freshman at her hometown college when she attends an off-campus party in March. Never in her worst nightmare does she foresee what ends up happening: a gang rape orchestrated by the Carlton Tigers’ star quarterback, Matt Dawson. Though devastated, Maggie reports the crime, and her assailants face a serious repercussion. Unfortunately, this doesn’t put an end to her ordeal—the outraged Tiger fans see to that.
Wanting only to escape the backlash, Maggie flees Carlton for western New York and moves in with her Aunt Wren, a sculptor who lives in a cabin buffered by woods and Lake Ontario. But this isolated location harbors secrets and situations that are anything but peaceful. Even worse, the trauma Maggie hopes to leave behind follows her, haunting her in ways she can’t control—insomnia, flashbacks, and a panic that persists. These troubles are intensified when she begins to receive mysterious messages from another girl who may also have been attacked. Just when Maggie musters the courage to answer the emails, the young woman goes silent.
With a plot that is both urgent and timely, The Unleaving explores the intricacies of shame and victim-blaming that often accompany the aftermath of assault.
13. Before you go, would you like to share any advice you have to any aspiring authors or writers?
I have a few words for the writers who are feeling blue because they’re having trouble with the publishing end of this business. I’ve been there, and I sympathize.
I recently read a comment on Twitter (Lauren Spieller’s, I believe) about the phrase “aspiring writer.” She said if a person writes regularly, that person IS a writer and shouldn’t qualify the activity with “aspiring.” I wholeheartedly agree. And I also think a writer shouldn’t feel like an imposter, just because he or she isn’t having luck moving past the rejection phase.
Getting published is great, but I hope the writers out there, published or not, will keep at the writing and recognize their works’ inherent value. Their stories and novels are the manifestations of their unique imaginations and testaments to their hard work. That is no small thing.
Thank you so much, Melissa, for coming onto the blog! It’s so great to have you, and I loved reading your answers!
About the Author
Melissa Ostrom teaches English at Genesee Community College and lives with her husband and children in Holley, New York. Her fiction has appeared in The Florida Review, Quarter After Eight, The Baltimore Review, and Passages North, among other journals. The Beloved Wild (Feiwel & Friends, March 2018) is her YA debut. Macmillan will publish her second novel, The Unleaving, in March of 2019.
Have you read The Beloved Wild? Do you like YA historical fiction?
Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!