Monday, November 16, 2015

Interview with Nancy Ohlin

I'm so pleased to welcome fellow YA Outside the Lines blogger Nancy Ohlin to On the Verge this month. Nancy's third YA novel Consent was just released last week, but I was lucky to have a sneak peek. The novel--which is about a teen music prodigy and her relationship with her teacher as it crosses the line into something physical-- is riveting and a little horrifying.

Jody: This book, Nancy, I've got to tell you: it pushed my buttons in a way that few books do. I think my reaction is a mixture of remembering vividly what it's like to be a teen--and feeling as if I knew everything about everything--but also, now, being the mom of a teen daughter and knowing keenly that kids this age don't know as much as they believe they do. And here's this guy--the teacher--taking advantage of that! Where did the spark of this story come from?

Nancy: I wanted to write a novel based on a (bad) personal experience.  But over time, the story did a 180 and morphed into a totally different book with totally different characters.

Jody: It's interesting when that happens-- a story taking off like that. Do you find that most of your work starts with something true?

Nancy: Not always. Every day I get sparks of inspiration from the most random things: someone I run into at the grocery store, a car passing by, a song on the radio. I actually have files and files of book ideas that I want to write up in the future.

Jody: Once you have your idea or two, what's your next step?

Nancy: I start with a central idea or a character.  Then I sit down with a notebook and write down a bunch of stuff—it’s a lot of brainstorming and free-associating, like, “she has a scar on her face!” or “he hates pizza!” or  “the Nile River!”  Also drawings and charts and maps and such.

Eventually, these crazy ramblings start to form the beginnings of an outline.  Then I outline.  Once I get into the first draft, though, I tend to wander away from the outline and lose myself in the weeds. This process is very me:  a marriage of chaos and order.

Jody: I like that, and I like that you seem to understand and accept your process. That's been one of the harder things for me, figuring out how I work, knowing when to push and when to let go. It's taken me years. Have you been at this for a long time?

Nancy: I actually started my writing career as a ghostwriter. An editor friend gave me my first big break and hired me to ghostwrite for a children’s mystery series.  That gig led to many others.  It took a while for me to write and publish my own original novels, though.

Jody: How many books have you ghostwritten?

Nancy: Something like eighty books.

Jody: Wow! That's amazing. I guess you would figure out your process after that kind of track record. When you started writing your original novels, was it easy to break in or did you still collect a few rejections along the way?

Nancy: Oh, I got rejections. That time is all one big blur, so I'm not sure how many. The acceptances, I definitely remember, because they involved much screaming and happy-sobbing on my part.

Jody: Switching gears a bit here, but what's your work schedule like? Do you try to write at a certain time each day? Write for a certain number of hours or complete a certain number of words?

Nancy: I like to write in the mornings, either at home or at the library or in a cafĂ© with some of my writer friends.  I try to stay off the Internet, but that’s not always easy.  If I hit a block—e.g., if I’ve been staring at my computer screen for half an hour—I make myself get up and do something else, like taking a walk or riding the exercise bike and watching old Scandal episodes.

When I’m on deadline (or multiple deadlines), I work anywhere from six to twelve hours a day. When I’m not, my ideal is four to six hours (or better yet, no hours and spending the entire day at a spa—but sadly, this rarely happens).

Jody: You sound like you're pretty busy.

Nancy: My schedule can be nuts. I’m a full-time writer, and I’m usually juggling several projects at the same time, like one or two (or more) original projects and one or two (or more) ghostwriting projects.

Jody: And then there's your day to day family life too, I'm assuming.

Nancy: Yes. I have a seven-year-old daughter. And four cats and a very senior bunny.  And a twenty-year-old son who goes to Juilliard and performs a lot, so if he has a concert or recital, even if it’s across the country, I drop everything to go hear him.  My husband is a law school professor (and an associate dean and an author and a frequent traveler), so running a household together can be a challenge.

Jody: It sounds like it. Any tips for balancing all of that?

Nancy: I’ve learned to let stuff slide.  My number-one priority is my family.  Then my health.  Then my work (although “work” sometimes creeps up to #1 or #2).  If on any given day I manage to write productively for a few hours, go to a yoga class, feed everyone, spend time with my daughter, spend time with my husband, and talk or text with my son, that’s a good day.  But to maintain this balance, I can’t always get to the dishes or the laundry or the house cleaning.  Or a shower. Sometimes, I eat popcorn for lunch because I’m on deadline and too exhausted to cook.

Still, I wouldn’t trade my life for anything.  I know how fortunate I am to have what I have.

Jody: You mentioned before that you try to stay off social media when you're working, but you and I both know that we've got to be ON social media for promotional purposes. What's your take on that?

Nancy: I do what I can.  I’m on Facebook, I have a Twitter, I have a website.  I support my author friends and their books, and I’m very grateful when they do the same for me (thank you, Jody!).

Jody: No problem! That's one very nice thing about social media--meeting other writers in our community. But the self-promotion part has always felt a little icky to me...

Nancy: For me too. My friends often tell me that I’m “too Japanese.” This is a reference to my Japanese mom, who taught me to always be nice and polite and never brag or draw attention to myself.  This makes it super-hard for me to go out there on social media and be all “buy my amazing book!” or “check out this amazing review of my amazing book!”

I focus on the social aspect of social media. Also, I love going to literary festivals and conferences and meeting book people and fellow authors.  And I love meeting readers, both virtually and in real life.

Jody: What are you working on now?

Nancy: Oh, a bunch of stuff!  I have several original YA and MG projects simmering:  a mystery set in Alaska, a dystopian fantasy inspired by Chernobyl and Fukushima and Japanese folk tales, and another, equally dark fantasy about monsters.  I’m starting a new ghostwriting project that I’m really, really excited about.  I recently finished Book 6 of an early grade non-fiction series for Little Bee.

Jody: You sound like you have your hands full.

Nancy: I do. And something else fun: I'm sharing my passion for writing with my daughter. She loves to write and illustrate graphic novels, and I love helping her.  Her recent titles include Creatures are Popping Out! and Battle of the Universes.  She is definitely a future author.

Jody: Aw, that's great. I look forward to checking those books out in the future! Thanks, Nancy, so much, for chatting with me today.

Nancy: Thank you for having me here!

For more information on Nancy Ohlin:

To buy Consent
on Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Indie Bound


  1. Congrats on the new book, Nancy! Thanks, Jodi, for a look into another writer's process.