Author Interview: Emil Ostrovski

Away We Go BannerIf you’ve been following The Story Sanctuary for a while, you’ve probably heard me gush about a couple of books I read recently and really enjoyed. Here, as part of an Irish Banana Blog Tour, is the author of those books, graciously answering my pesky fangirl questions….

About Emil Ostrovski

Emil OstrovskiI’m twenty-five.

Rather than give you a witty, self-deprecating account of the trials and tribulations of my twenty-five year old, suburban, upper-middle class, went-to-a-girl’s-liberal-arts-college life, I’ll admit that I haven’t really done anything much worth reading about.

So in lieu of providing you with my biography, I will recommend that you read Desmond Tutu’s. Here.

Why Desmond Tutu?

Well, I’ve always liked his name.

Interview with Emil Ostrovski

I’m super excited to have this opportunity to ask some of the deep burning questions that reading your novels has raised. Both were such deep, emotional stories. I’ll try not to get too sappy with the questions, though…

Thanks for having me! I appreciate the kind words.

If you had to do all your writing from inside a box under a bridge, what type of box would you choose to write in, which bridge would you place it under, and why?

If I had to do all my writing from inside a box under a bridge, I’d probably take up floristry instead. I hear it’s booming.

Ha! I suppose that makes sense. 🙂 In Away We Go, the story centers around characters diagnosed with a deadly virus bearing the name of a famous character in a children’s story (Peter Pan.) Who is your favorite little-known character from children’s literature?

sweet-orange-treeThere is a classic Brazilian children’s novel titled My Sweet Orange Tree, which features Zeze, a precocious five-year-old boy living and working as a shoe shiner in Rio de Janeiro. The book jacket describes him as the most mischievous boy in the Western Hemisphere, and that is not far off. Throughout the narrative, Zeze looks after his little brother, constantly gets into trouble with his parents, deals with poverty, escapes to a realm of imagination populated by a talking tree, and even experiences his first brush with death and mortality.

Sounds like an incredible story.  I was really moved by your description of The Paradox of Vertical Flight as a sort of good-bye to some expectations you’d had about life and parenting. Is there a personal message hidden in Away We Go as well? (If so, will you share it?)

I suppose the most personal thing I can tell you about Away We Go is that it was a way of trying to deal with unrequited love. It took me a long time to figure out I was gay, I think, because in high school and middle school I never really met a guy who exhibited all three of these very elusive characteristics: cuteness, niceness, and intelligence. When I got to college, I met someone who exhibited all three almost immediately.  He was the original Zach, and the original draft of Away We Go was, perhaps, an attempt at grappling with my feelings for him, which I was confused about at the time, since I had not yet fully come to terms with my sexuality. Years later, when I revised the novel for my editor at Greenwillow, Zach changed somewhat, became more like my first ex-boyfriend, by which I mean a little more confusing and inconsistent. At the time I was revising the novel, we had just broken up, and I was pretty hurt. Injecting some of him into Zach wasn’t cathartic, and did not make me feel better. But it felt natural, and I figured I might as well get some mileage out of my pain.

You know, it’s funny – I had a hard time finding all three of those qualities in middle and high school boys, too. 🙂 Though in fairness, girls weren’t much better, I think. Rough time of life. But I digress. In reading the story, I found it so easy to root for Noah in part because of a past destructive relationship in my own life. Something would happen and Noah would respond and I’d be like, “Right?!” So… yes. I think you definitely captured the confusion and pain that some relationships can cause. I hope that seeing the story resonate with readers brings a kind of healing.

The Paradox of Vertical Flight by Emil OstrovskiAlso in your blog post about the release of The Paradox of Vertical Flight, you talk about the idea of a novel emerging as a flash or a half-second dream. What was the flash that started Away We Go?

Away We Go‘s flash was a website that catalogues the “departure” of terminally ill children.

I felt like that was such a unique part of the story. One of my favorite elements about The Paradox of Vertical Flight and Away We Go was the dialogue. I loved the genuine feel and the way that even some of the serious conversations were also filled with banter. Do you have a favorite moment of conversation between the characters in Away We Go and can you share it?

My favorite conversation is probably the last conversation Noah and Zach have in the book. Without giving too much away, I think that it’s an incredibly painful and awkward and honest moment for both of them. They’ve spent so much of the book skirting around their feelings. This is their last chance to speak to each other, and it’s one of a handful of moments that the entire novel is building toward, I think.

That was a great conversation. I won’t give anything away, either. 🙂

Are there other authors whose work inspired the story of Away We Go or whose work inspires you as a writer?

Away We Go CoverKazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was sort of my spirit-guide while writing Away We Go. I found his approach to science fiction fascinating—the idea that science fiction could serve primarily as an opportunity for a specific type of character study.  I wanted to emulate what he had done.

I haven’t (yet) read Never Let Me Go, so I can’t speak to the comparison, but I felt like Away We Go was very much a character-driven story inside the shell of a dystopian story-world. So it definitely seems to me that you succeeded.

I love the references to philosophy and classic literature in your novels and the way those ideas are incorporated into the story. Is that something that happens naturally as you write? Do you hope that the references will inspire readers to seek out those stories as well?

In both books, the references happened naturally to some degree in the original drafts, because they were an aspect of the characters’ voices. Jack loves the Ancient Greeks, and Noah likes to reference everyone from twentieth-century existentialists to Shakespeare. During revision, these references were fine-tuned, and made more consistent.  More conscious thought was devoted to their deployment.

I think it would be lovely for readers to look up, for example, Dostoevsky’s Notes from The Underground, because Noah talks about it, or to read some Whitman because they are moved by the excerpts Noah includes in his story. But that is not my primary concern. My primary concern is always preserving the authenticity of the character’s voice.

Very cool. In Away We Go, Skittles play a surprising role. Did you eat any Skittles during the writing?

I’m actually more of an M&M’S guy.  😛

Honestly, I can’t blame you. I’ll take chocolate over skittles any day. But I can see how Skittles made a superior metaphor. 🙂

I’m a huge believer in stories that challenge our perceptions of our lives and those around us. Can you name a literary moment which changed or challenged you?

I read The Grapes of Wrath toward the end of high school. It features a family called the Joads, who flee Oklahoma during the Great Depression and head for California hoping to find work. Perhaps because I loved and cared about the Joads, or perhaps also because Steinbeck was writing about a real moment in our history, the following quote resonated particularly with me:

For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back. This you may say and know it and know it. This you may know when the bombs plummet out of the black planes on the market place, when prisoners are stuck like pigs, when the crushed bodies drain filthily in the dust. You may know it in this way. If the step were not being taken, if the stumbling-forward ache were not alive, the bombs would not fall, the throats would not be cut. Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live—for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. And fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live—for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken. And this you can know—fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.”

To me, at the time, this quote captured the relationship between human beings and their history and their future. It defined history not simply as a sequence but as a moral progression, a progression whose impetus emerged from within ourselves, and it explained the existence of suffering as part of the process by which the human species develops morally. 

When I read this excerpt as a seventeen year old kid, I felt something approximating a religious feeling—of hope in humanity, in history, of awe at being a part of something so vast and so beautiful, and ultimately of grace, at all the people who take small steps to move the human species and the human spirit forward. 

YES. Such an important message, too. We certainly need the reminder that sometimes suffering is part of a larger, worthy process. Deep stuff. I so appreciate you taking time to share these things.

Visit Other Blog Tour Stops

Week 1:

4/4: Books In Her Head – Review

4/5: Such a Novel Idea – Playlist

4/6: Novels and Necklaces – Review

4/7: Words Like Silver – Mood Board

4/8: It Starts At Midnight – Review

Week 2:

4/11: Cover Contessa – Guest Post

4/12: Reading Is Better with Cupcakes – Review

4/13: Swoony Boys Podcast – Top 10

4/14: Bibliphilia – Review

4/15: The Story Sanctuary – Q&A

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About Kasey

Reads things. Writes things. Fluent in sarcasm. Willful optimist. Cat companion, chocolate connoisseur, coffee drinker. There are some who call me Mom.

4 Responses to Author Interview: Emil Ostrovski

  1. Colleen says:

    I loved this interview. I don’t really know what to comment, except to say that the author (as well as the interviewer) has a brilliant way of perceiving things. I am pretty sure I would have read that same passage from Grapes of Wrath and not “gotten” that from it. The author intrigued me, and now I am very interested in reading the book. Just goes to show that the author can have a lot of influence over the marketing of his or her books. Kudos on this interview!!

  2. danielle hammelef says:

    This author has a sense of humor that I like! I love character-driven stories and love when I can root for them, feel what they feel, and experience what they do. This book sounds like it’s a great read for me.

    • Yes!! I think he does have a great sense of humor. 🙂 I’m like you – love character-driven stories. I definitely found both books by Ostrovski to be like that. I’ll be posting my review of Away We Go next week – there is more explicit content in that story than in Paradox of Vertical Flight, so be sure to check that out. Both stories follow characters I found it easy to love. Hope you enjoy them if you do check them out!