If there’s one thing author Claribel Ortega knows, it’s how to remain booked and busy—even in the midst of an international crisis. Like so many debut authors this year, 2020 was meant to be a time of celebration as she ushered her first book into the world. For Ortega, the new reality is just one more way she’s managed to push through and make her presence known. Ortega is one half of the Write or Die hosting duo, a weekly podcast that gives authors an open space to discuss their journeys. She is also the creator of GIFGRRL, a graphic design business that also sells merch for writers and creatives.
Ortega spoke with BUST via email to discuss her upcoming debut middle grade novel, Ghost Squad (Scholastic, April 7), how the global pandemic is impacting such a special time in her life, and what it was like finding out her debut is going to be adapted into a film.
What is it about middle grade that made you want to write to this age group?
Writing middle grade is really soothing for me. There’s so much hope still at that age and there’s something magical about that. My writing voice also works well naturally with middle grade, so it was an easy choice for me!
Would you ever write in any other genre? Perhaps expand in kid lit to YA, or write for even younger kids?
I do write YA! I don’t have a forthcoming book in that age category yet, but I am working on a young adult fantasy that is Magic for Liars meets Holly Black’s Curse Workers series with a Killing Eve twist. I’m super excited about it.
What was your favorite book when you were in middle school?
I loved anything Goosebumps or Babysitters Club! Those were my go-to books but I also for some reason read a lot of Danielle Steel at that age.
What was your writing process like? Did you find yourself mapping out how the story would go from start to finish or did you write scenes as they happened to come to mind?
I’m what you call a plantser: not a plotter who works with super detailed outlines or a pantser who just sort of writes and lets the story unfold on its own, but a combination of both. I normally have a general idea of what happens, maybe a paragraph or two, and I plan out my characters from there. As I wrote, I’d have to go back and do a bit more planning or cutting when things weren’t working plot-wise. It’s a bit like putting a puzzle together for me.
Where did the inspiration for Ghost Squad come from?
The inspiration for Ghost Squad came from Dominican folklore that says fireflies are the souls of our lost loved ones watching over and protecting us. I thought it would make for a beautiful story while also honoring the memory of my brother who we lost to cancer and who used to catch fireflies with me when we were kids.
There’s the old adage of “write what you know.” Are there any similarities between you and your characters?
Definitely! I say there’s a little of me in all my characters. Lucely Luna, the main character of Ghost Squad, is Dominican like me, so a lot of the things I grew up with I tried to incorporate in the story. Even my love of cheese makes an appearance in the fat cat Chunk, whose favorite snack is string cheese.
Who are some authors, recent or otherwise, that you look up to?
Elizabeth Acevedo, Jason Reynolds, Angie Thomas are some of my recent favorites. I also adore Leigh Bardugo and Holly Black. Their writing really taught me a lot.
Writing can be a very draining process. What do you do to help relax your mind in between sitting down to create your stories?
I take a lot of breaks now, after learning burnout is very real. I play soothing video games like Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing, and stay active in order to help me keep balance. Lifting weights has been a godsend for me and helps me deal with the stress of writing.
Given that we’ve now find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, I think it’s more than safe to say you’ve had to alter how you’re promoting your book. What online initiatives have you joined or your publishing house has created to help on that front?
Thankfully I’ve always been really proactive about online promo, which is working to my benefit now, but all of my in-person events have been canceled which has been rough. Not to mention, loss of foot traffic in actual bookstores. Scholastic, my publisher, has been incredible. I took part in their first ever virtual book festival on their Home Base app along with R.L. Stine and other amazing Scholastic authors. My publicist has kept me incredibly busy with interviews and online events, helping me to set up a virtual launch on my April 7th release date and getting an indie bookstore to be the official bookseller even though it’s taking place on YouTube! I’ve been working with every blogger I can, answering tons of interview questions, doing podcast interviews and continuing to do my own promo using videos and graphics on my platforms. I also have online panels coming up and am launching a new YouTube series where people can go on the book writing journey with me.
Can you speak on what it’s been like for you and/or other 2020 debut authors now that the landscape of promotion has changed? Do you feel disheartened or has this reignited a resilience?
I have down days, where I’m too discouraged to do much, but I think that’s normal considering what we’re all dealing with. I’m just doing my best with what I have access to, and hoping that despite it all, my book is a success and I think that’s the same for my fellow debuts. It’s probably the worst time to debut or release a book in general, but this is our first impression, first time doing everything and it’s hard not to feel disappointed that this is how it’s all unfolding. That being said, I stand by the fact that publishing is an industry where your ability to roll with the punches can help determine your longevity. I’ve overcome all the other obstacles thrown at me, and they’ve been plentiful, so I’m not going to stop now.
What is one takeaway you’d like readers to have once they’ve finished your book, whether it be about the plot or the characters?
I hope the characters, their relationships, and the message that the people we lose never completely leave us stays with them. I also hope they love Chunk.
With your podcast with fellow author Kat Cho [author of Wicked Fox], you’re spotlighting so many other authors and giving listeners insight on the behind the scenes lives and processes. Do you find yourself heeding any career lessons they’ve shared?
Absolutely! One of my favorite parts of Write or Die is that I get to listen to all these incredibly smart authors talk about their journeys and share advice I needed to hear myself. Sometimes just knowing someone else has gotten through something you’re struggling with is such a comfort.
What was it like to find out your upcoming book was optioned for a film, before it was even published no less? Are there any details you can share about the production thus far?
It was a surreal feeling and incredibly validating as well. I deeply admire Brenda Chapman so having her believe in Ghost Squad‘s story means a lot to me. You work so hard for years on a book and don’t really know if it’ll be published let alone well-received, and I’m grateful and excited to have so many opportunities crop up before my debut has even released. No details I can share at the moment but hopefully there will be in the near future!
What’s book are you looking forward to either reading or you’re excited for everyone to check out in 2020?
I can’t wait for everyone to read The Deck of Omens by Christine Lynn Herman and I am so excited to read What I like About You by Marisa Kanter, which drops the same day as Ghost Squad!
Header image courtesy of Claribel Ortega
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