Author and Illustrator Interview: Micol Ostow and David Ostow on So Punk Rock (And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother)

Micol Ostow has written, co-written, or ghostwritten more than 40 published works. Her novel Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa (Razorbill, 2006) was named a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, which made her feel pretty nifty. Alas, hybrid graphic novels aside, she is not very punk rock at all. She does, however, speak nearly fluent Hebrew. Cool, right?

David Ostow always liked to draw as a kid but never took it too seriously. He was trained as an architect at the University of Virginia where his professors would often tell him that he was placing too much emphasis on making pretty drawings and too little on designing interesting spaces. Today David works at a design firm in New York City where he continues to place too much emphasis on making his drawings pretty and too little on making deadlines. He illustrates on a freelance basis.

So Punk Rock (And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother) is by Micol with art by David (Flux, 2009).

What were you like as a teenager?

MO: It depends during what stage you caught me. At 13, I was an angsty, hormonal mess, writing tortured poetry and fantasizing that I was the Claire Danes character in “My So Called Life” (1994-1995). Essentially, I was waiting for my Jordan Catalano.

That said, it was actually quite a lot of ado about nothing–I had caring, available parents, good friends…not a lot of “real” problems, per se. I kept waiting for something horrible to happen to justify why I was so emotional all of the time.

Around 15, I got my braces off, started to feel a little bit more comfortable in my body, and decided to fake a little positivity. You’d be surprised how far that got me.

Dave and I both attended a small school (very similar to Leo R. Gittleman), so “popularity” didn’t have exactly the same connotations as they might have had somewhere else, but I had a good group of friends, worked hard at school, read a lot, and wrote in my free time.

Come to think of it, being a teenager wasn’t all that different than my experience of being an adult has been so far. I’m still emotional, but I think, as a grown-up, I’ve learned to channel all of that…um…passion…into more useful places than bad poetry (less-bad prose?).

DO: I was pretty insecure and, despite plenty of evidence that a lot of people liked me, I had a hard time breaking out of my shell. In middle school, it seemed like all the popular kids were playing sports and getting good grades. So I joined the basketball team and started working hard to get placed in the most advanced classes.

I was terrible at basketball (and really every other sport) and it only made me feel more insecure sitting on the bench. But I loved music, and around freshman year, I had an epiphany.

Somewhere from the furthest recesses of my mind, I dredged up memories of my dad playing guitar for me and my sister when we were very young. I knew he had an old electric guitar lying around, and I asked him to teach me some chords.

Every movie about high school I ever saw confirmed for me that girls liked musicians as much as they liked jocks. It never dawned on me that no matter how good you were at the guitar or how many sports you played you wouldn’t get anywhere with girls if you were too nervous to talk to them. That one took me a little while. Now I probably talk too much.

What first inspired you to create books for YA readers?

MO: See above re: still a teenager, from a cognitive level.

It was kind of a no-brainer and a very organic process. I graduated from college and took at job at Simon & Schuster working in one of their adult trade imprints. We published very serious, grown-up books, and it didn’t take me long to discover that my interests were neither serious nor grown-up.

After about a year, I made the jump to Pocket Books, working in their YA division with authors that I’d grown up on, like Christopher Pike and Francine Pascal. Rediscovering the mass-market genre was like winning the lottery. I couldn’t believe that editing books like that was an actual job!

Editing kept me plenty busy, and I didn’t have designs to write my own fiction, but my boss knew that I wrote on the side, for fun, and she invited me to submit a short story to a media tie-in collection, which I did. I’ve been lucky enough to be working steadily ever since.

Eventually, the writing overtook the editing, but I will say that leaving my job was a very tough decision. I do still miss it sometimes.

Writing fiction for adults has never held any real appeal for me–adolescence is where my head and heart are. Never say “never,” but as long as the inspiration keeps coming, YA seems to be where I’m meant to be.

DO: I was not a reader when I was a kid and when I did start reading in high school it was stuff like Sartre and Dostoyevsky, which I didn’t understand but which I felt cool reading anyway.

When I approached Micol about the idea of doing a book together I had been out of architecture school for a year or so and had a job as a junior designer at a small firm in Lower Manhattan. It was a good job, but architects don’t typically draw by hand these days (it’s mainly done on computers now), and I missed drawing the way I had in grad school.

I never would have imagined myself working on a YA book, but I found pretty quickly that my drawing style meshed well with the tone of Micol’s writing.

Since beginning work on the book I’ve been thinking a lot about my days as a teenager, what an emotionally charged time it was for me, and what a rich source of humor it is for me now. Writing about teen life as an adult is fun because you can look back on all the things that made you cringe back then and kind of laugh at all of it.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

MO: I got very, very lucky. I entered into publishing via the back door, as an editor, and because I had made so many connections during my time as an editor, have been able to pay the bills with ghostwriting and work for hire projects on an ongoing basis. I think the rejection karma came back to me when it was time to shop SPR, but frankly, I haven’t had too many stumbles. ::cringes:: Don’t hate me! Trust me, I know how fortunate I am. I don’t ever take it for granted.

DO: I never would have even considered trying to get published if I didn’t have a very successful published author so near at hand. I was surprised that Micol took my proposal seriously, and part of me refused to believe that someone was publishing my work until the galleys came in.

We’ve gotten some nice reviews, and it feels good to know that our sister/brother effort was by many measures a success. We will definitely collaborate again, and I would like to think that this whole thing wasn’t just a flash in the pan for me. We’ll see what the future brings.

Could you update us on your back list titles, highlighting as you see fit?

MO: I’ve ghostwritten zillions of titles for young readers of all ages. Under my own name, Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa (Razorbill, 2006) was one of my earliest original novels, and in many ways, I think is thematically a precursor to So Punk Rock.

It’s about a girl who is half Puerto Rican, half Jewish, but has been raised Jewish, and spends a summer getting more in touch with her Latina roots.

The “Judaism” in the story–such as it exits–is mostly incidental, which was very much how I was experiencing my own religion at the time. As someone raised conservative, in a fairly observant household, being Jewish was something very ingrained and passive, whereas any other cultural experience had to be actively sought out.

Now, three years later, So Punk Rock has just released, and I’m finally realizing that cultural identity is something that we grapple with every day, even if we’re not always aware of that fact. Hence Ari being forced to confront his own ideas of morality in relation to his religion and his community.

In an entirely different vein, I’ve also written three novels for the Simon Pulse Romantic Comedies line, 30 Guys in 30 Days (2005), Gettin’ Lucky (2007), and Crush Du Jour (2007), which is a fun series of very girlie, commercial chick lit. Other “beachier” reads I’ve written include the launch title in the Puffin Students Across the Seven Seas series, Westminster Abby (2005), and the recent election-themed Popular Vote (Scholastic, 2008).

DO: Let’s see, there’s So Punk Rock. Did I leave anything out?

Congratulations on the publication of So Punk Rock (And Other Ways To Disappoint Your Mother)(Flux, 2009)! In your own words, could you tell us about the book?

MO: Thanks! We’re excited! We’ve been calling the book “the VH1 Behind the Music story of an epic Jewish rock band that never was.” Or, as Tim Wynne-Jones, my former advisor at VCFA referred to it, “‘Spinal Tap’ meets ‘Yentl.’

It’s the story of Ari Abramson, a sixteen-year-old everyguy and junior at Leo R. Gittleman Jewish Day School, who believes that popularity is just a mere verse/chorus/verse away. He recruits his longtime best friend, the charismatic, if self-absorbed, Jonas Fein, to play bass in a band, and thus The Tribe is born. A one-song set at a local bar mitzvah catapults the group to sudden stardom–setting in motion a series of clashing egos, misunderstood friendships, and broken hearts.

Ari may not realize this, but he’s more of a visual artist than a musician, and the narrative is peppered with graphic interstitial “outtakes” from his notebook that my brilliant brother drew.

DO: I think Micol pretty much covered it. It’s a story about a kid who wants to stand out, who tries to be someone he isn’t and who–in the process–learns a little bit about who he really is.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

MO: David had been, I assume, reading some graphic novels during the height of the craze two or three years ago–when mainstream publishers were first getting excited about graphic novels as a viable genre and American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (First Second, 2007) had just won the Printz.

And he emailed and asked me if I wanted to write a graphic novel together, but my understanding was that the process of doing so was actually quite different than writing a straight novel.

So I suggested something that used both formats, similar to Sherman Alexie‘s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, 2008). And I suggested that Dave mine his own adolescence for some plot fodder. The Jewish day school/band story was very loosely based on his own experiences, but we found quickly that it melded both of our sensibilities together well.

DO: Again, Micol has summed it up pretty well. I didn’t have a story in mind when I asked her if she wanted to collaborate, but once we hit on our high school experience, it felt like a gold mine. You are so many different people in your lifetime, and from the vantage point of 30-year-old me, the 15-year-old me is kind of a riot.

Why a graphic/prose hybrid?

MO: Like I say, it was a compromise of both of our talents–but I will add that I think it went a long way toward solidifying Ari’s character for us. I think seeing each other’s work throughout the process really helped us to fully shape our own material and create a better-realized protagonist.

DO: I had this urge to draw but no recognizable outlet for it. So the question for me at the beginning of the process wasn’t “why a graphic/prose hybrid” so much as “how do I make my drawings relevant to this story?”

As Micol mentioned, the combination of media did really flesh out the little world we were imagining. Because the starting point for the story was my experience in a high school band, I fed Micol a lot of ideas for characters. But when Micol started writing, her own sensibilities turned them much more three-dimensional, and my drawings started to respond to her vision. Then it was just back and forth inspiration (with some yelling and some dodged phone calls thrown in).

What were each of your roles? In what ways did you work together?

MO: I say that the idea to create some version of the graphic novel, and the concept for the story itself, came from Dave. He seems to think some of it came from me. But I’m the older sister so I have veto power here.

Once we came up with the concept, we pitched it to my agent, who was enthusiastic. We put together a proposal, with an overview, summary, chapter-by-chapter outline, and some sample chapters and artwork, which she sent out on submission (more on that below).

When we were working on the proposal, we literally sat side by side hashing the material out. Once the book was sold, though, we conferred several times throughout to confirm certain plot points and check in with each other about story developments on either of our ends (with Dave, often it was an issue of updating me on places he’d decided to pull as inspiration for illustration). And we were reading each other’s stuff throughout, feeding chapters and artwork back and forth.

But it was pretty rare that we were sitting in the same room at the same time, working. Mainly because Dave’s drafting board isn’t very portable, and I can’t be bothered to leave my apartment without a very good reason.

DO: Yeah, we must have started working on it over a holiday or something because I remember the earliest brainstorming sessions taking place in my parents’ house, in Micol’s childhood bedroom. I was throwing out ideas as they came to me, and Micol was literally reading out loud to me as she typed. It was very weird and a little too much like screwing around for me to think of it as work.

After a month or so it felt like work. Micol is definitely the more disciplined of the two of us, and she demonstrated a very low threshold for my procrastination. I would spend all weekend in my room drawing. I’d get drafts from Micol and find that some things in her prose were at odds with some things in my drawings.

Luckily, since it’s harder to edit an ink drawing than it is a typed page, Micol was often the one who had to give. But it seems like ultimately the process ironed itself out because many people think that the book coheres well. I don’t know about Micol, but I look at the book and sometimes cringe at the open seams, but I suppose everyone is their own worst critic. The next time we collaborate the process will be that much smoother.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

MO: Emails between David and myself started up sometime in the fall of 2006, when I was still working as an editor. I left in January ’07 to pursue my MFA and write full-time, and we sold the book, I believe, in February or March of 2007. And it’s just coming out now, July ’09. Which for me, as someone who is mostly accustomed to a mass-market (ie: under twelve-month) turnaround, feels like a lifetime.

Major events along the way:

— I think to me, just the idea of doing something in such an innovative format was “major.” And I had only signed with my agent the previous spring, I believe, so this was the first original Micol Ostow project heading out into the world with a big, bad, ninja agent having its back.

— Also major was the fact that the book was solidly rejected by literally every house we pitched it to with the exception of, of course, its eventual publishers, Flux. Whereas many of the books I’d written before had either been developed or commissioned by publishers or packagers, so I’d had five or so original novels under my belt and had never been rejected before. It was a real learning experience.

Most significant was how enthusiastic and thoughtful the rejections were–honestly. People had wonderful things to say about the writing. But the theory was that band books were a very niche market, and that Jewish content books were a very niche market, so that to try to sell a combo of both was thought to be the kiss of death, in terms of commercial viability.

Which I completely understand. And frankly, without a doubt, the book ended up in the right place. Flux was smaller and could afford to take more risks. And to them, someone with my “track record” (meaning, 30 Guys sales, which had somehow managed to begin to earn out), was someone they’d push. So we were a slightly bigger fish in a slightly smaller pond.

They’ve gone out of their way to build their relationships with the school and library and blogging communities, and boy, has it paid off. I can’t tell you how many reviewers have contacted me, expressing interest in this book. The attention seems much more focused than it’s been for any of my more “commercially viable” titles.

And since it’s a title that is so much more personal than some of my earlier works, of course, the response has been immensely gratifying. We’re so grateful to Flux for taking a chance on our book, and to everyone who’s taken the time to read it or offer us a shout-out!

DO: I was still in my twenties when we began this thing! The proposal took a long time. I was very doubtful that my drawing was “professional” quality.

I had also just discovered the graphic novelist Chris Ware whose drawings have this crisp, machine-like precision to them. I wanted that type of precision, but for that, I knew I’d need a machine. So my first drawings were done on Adobe Illustrator, which I didn’t know very well, and consequently the drawings were very slow in coming. Not only that, but to say they were nowhere near as magical as Chris Ware’s would be a gross understatement.

After what seemed like an eternity, we finished the proposal (Micol had finished weeks before I did). Then came the eternity of waiting. As Micol mentioned, we got rejected all over the place.

I was ready to forget the whole thing when out of nowhere popped a magical little imprint (Flux) from a magical land that I had only heard of (the Midwest).

Micol had been referred to them by a friend of hers in the writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It was so serendipitous, which is another reason why I think it took so long to sink in for me that it was real.

Then we had to make the freaking book, which felt like another eternity. Between drawing for the book and grassroots guerrilla promotional projects here and there, I spent about a year of my life in constant production mode.

By the way, did you know that the Empire State Building was built in under a year?!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

MO: Honestly, the biggest challenge was finding a publisher willing to take a risk on such a quirky project!

Beyond that, I’d say the brother-sister dynamic is a blessing and a curse. We’re pretty brutally frank with each other. Which certainly has its ups and downs.

I think also there was a learning curve for Dave with timing, since this was his first professional illustration project. He has a day job, too, so he was turning in illustrations literally up until the bitter end. But all in all, rejections aside, it was a pretty smooth process. No complaints here.

DO: I think for both of us, writing a book about growing up grappling with the meaning of Jewish identity brought the whole issue of our own identities to the forefront. We come from a family that wears its Jewish heritage with pride. My grandparents were very entrenched in their Judaism. They were the most sophisticated, intellectual people I’ve ever known and somehow they managed to weave Jewish identity, learning, and ritual into their lifestyle while remaining 100% free of superstition.

The world is more secular now, and growing up Jewish in an American suburb was more of a balancing act for us. That’s really where the conflict in the book comes from.

When we described the idea to our grandfather–who unfortunately never got to read the book–he perceived it as a sort of testament to the waning presence of Jewish identity in contemporary society.

I can’t say I don’t know where he was coming from, but I think the fact that Micol and I made a project of this identity question speaks to the fact that it’s still a relevant issue to people from our generation. We’ve grown up in a very secular era, and yet there’s a sense that we may be losing something. Lots of young writers and artists are exploring this conflict.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were a beginning writer/artist, what advice would you offer?

MO: It’s only been five years that I’ve been writing and two that I’ve been writing full-time, so I’d like to think that I’m still just starting out! And what I try to tell myself every single day is mainly to relax and appreciate the fact that I am so blessed as to be able to do exactly what I’ve always wanted to do.

There are definitely days when it feels more like a job then a calling, or projects that are less about passion and more about bills. And there are days when I can’t stop worrying/wondering what the next project will be–the perils of the freelance lifestyle. It happens. I try to keep the bigger picture in mind.

DO: You should have been using a straight-edge from the beginning.

What can your fans look forward to next?

MO: I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.

Seriously, I have another standalone project coming from Puffin in summer 2011, but we actually don’t have a title yet. Stay tuned!

And in the meantime, I’m pretending to plan my wedding, which mainly involves staring at pictures of elaborate wedding cakes online.

DO: Just about all of my fans are related to me. They can look forward to less frantic phone calls.