Nancy Ohlin Interviews the Very Excellent Margie Gelbwasser

Margie Gelbwasser ( is the author of two terrific YA novels, INCONVENIENT (Flux) and PIECES OF US (Flux), as well as a super-fun middle grade novel, CHLOE BY DESIGN (Capstone). We had a great chat about a bunch of stuff: alcoholism and Russian culture, the fashion industry, and the pleasures of writing from a misogynistic POV. Also, toothbrushes!

Margie, age five, with a doctor's bag and gun.  Smart and badass.

NANCY:  Margie! First, tell us something about yourself. Where do you live, where are you from, what is your background, and whose toothbrushes occupy the toothbrush holder in your bathroom?

MARGIE: Ha! You're funny. OK...where I live is in northern New Jersey, near Paramus—the mall capital of the world, or so it seems since the highways near here are always clogged. I've lived in this area since I was eight (with small breaks when I went away to college and when my husband and I lived in Morristown). Before that, my family and I lived in Belarus. We came to America as refugees in 1979 and settled in Brooklyn, NY, for eight years before moving to New Jersey. 

Oh! The most important question—the toothbrushes. We have a Pursonic set so my hubby's toothbrush, son's, and mine live together under an ultra-violet roof. They're friends.

NANCY:  What was your path to becoming a writer? Did you always want to write?

MARGIE:  For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a writer....except when I wanted to be a doctor LOL. Writing was always my passion, though. I just didn't always know it could be a career. In second grade, the Yeshiva I went to had a story contest. I wrote about a kidnapper who tied the main character to a tree and other stuff seven-year-old Jewish girls in Jewish private schools should probably not write about. Shockingly, I didn't win. But I always wanted to be an author. I wasn't allowed to major in writing because my parents said it wasn't practical. And, it's OK. I got here anyway.

The writer at age seven, plotting about kidnappers and trees.

NANCY: What was it like growing up bicultural? How has that experience influenced your writing?

MARGIE:  Growing up, I often felt I didn't quite fit in with the Russians and I wasn't Jewish enough for some others. Because of my family's background—my grandfather was in the Gulag for five years because he received prayer shawls from America; my dad was not admitted to medical school because the Jewish quota was filled; my grandmother had to escape from the Germans while serving in the Russian army after a “friend” disclosed my grandma was Jewish; my grandparents' families (both my mom's and my dad's side) were all killed in the Holocaust—my parents always corrected people when they said we were Russian. We were not. We were Jewish. In Russia, “Russians” were those who were not Jewish. In America, people did not get that. And I also grew up feeling like I shouldn't be proud of the Russian side of me. That side hurt my family in the former Soviet Union. There, no one thought of my parents as “Russian.” They were just Jewish. Ironically, when we came to America, people kept calling my parents Russian.

It wasn't until I got to college that I accepted the Russian part, too, and realized there is a culture there that shaped who I am. When I wrote INCONVENIENT, I wanted to show that. I think many kids of immigrants struggle with this dual identity syndrome and where they fit in. There is a lot of talk now about diversity in YA. When I wrote INCONVENIENT, I also wanted a story where a girl is multicultural but that's not the only thing about her. When we shopped the book to editors, many wanted a coming of age story about a girl who's Russian. I didn't. I wanted a story where the girl is Russian and Jewish, but there are other things about her as well. I wanted multiculturalism to be one aspect of who she is, not her whole being.
NANCY: Where does the darkness in PIECES OF US come from?

MARGIE:  I'd be lying if I said I was all rainbows and sunshine, but I'm not as unhappy as the themes in my books. However, I did struggle with depression. I currently have issues with anxiety I'm working through. It's also easy for me to imagine what it would be like to experience the hardships my characters do. When I write, I can place myself in their shoes fairly easily. And, to be honest, while I'm super proud of PIECES OF US, it was a bit of a relief to be finished with it because it really weighed me down sometimes. I also feel, as writers, we are able to immerse ourselves in our books, like actors do in their roles. For that time, you dig deep and pour out what you need to make the words come alive. And it can be draining. But it's all worth it in the end.
NANCY:  INCONVENIENT is first person POV, and PIECES OF US is first person POV, alternating between four characters. With each book, how do you decide what POV to go with, and how do you develop the voice/voices?

MARGIE:  I tell my friends that I'm not that great of a writer because I can only write in first person present tense LOL. That was actually one of the harder things about writing CHLOE BY DESIGN, my middle grade novel (which I published as Margaret Gurevich). I did it in first person, but it had to be in past tense, and it took me a few tries to get it. Mental block, I guess. I'm actually impressed when people can write a good novel in third person. I usually get the characters in my head first, and their voices come to me. From there, I write like them, so first person just comes naturally.

With PIECES OF US, I got Katie's voice first and from there, the other characters came together. That book was a challenge because I had to establish four distinct voices—two boys, two girls. The best compliment my editor gave me was about their voices. He said even if he didn't read the headers of each chapter (that say who's speaking), he would know who was talking, and that I pulled off something that is really hard to do in multi-POV books. So that made me SUPER happy.

Alex, the misogynistic male, was my favorite to write. I knew guys like that, and it was really fun to remove myself completely from my own head. And even though I didn't agree at all with his vitriol, I was proud of myself for creating such an authentic jerk. Kyle was actually written in second person. That's how I heard his voice. He was the most fragile of all characters to me. I saw him so removed from his situation, so broken, that he couldn't tell the story using “I”.

NANCY:  What was it like writing CHLOE BY DESIGN? Will you be writing more middle grade novels in the future?

MARGIE:  CHLOE was so fun! There were challenges, for sure, like the TONS of research I had to do (talking to people in the fashion industry, reading fashion blogs, visiting fabric stores in NYC, watching fashion shows, etc.), but it was a good break from the angst in my YA books. In CHLOE, there's a mean girl, but not to the same degree as in my other books. And Chloe might fail a challenge, but that wouldn't result in a downward spiral drinking binge. It was nice to just write and not have to worry about the dark depths of a character. I definitely want to write more MG books. Fingers crossed!

NANCY:  Where do you get your story ideas?

MARGIE:  The million-dollar question, right? With INCONVENIENT, I had always wanted to write something with a Russian-Jewish character and the Russian culture and the role the culture plays into alcoholism. Growing up, alcohol was always present at all gatherings. People drank a lot and it was accepted and encouraged. It made me wonder how one would know if someone had a problem. Add to that the myth that there are no Jewish alcoholics and INCONVENIENT started to come together.  

PIECES OF US was a little different. I didn't set out to write a book about bullying or abuse. But I got Katie and her voice. I did have the idea of teens going away every summer to a bungalow colony, away from their school lives, having this double identity. I did that as a kid. For years, my older sister and I went away with my grandparents each summer. We could be whoever we wanted there and so could the other kids. When I heard Katie's voice, I wondered what she needed to get away from. What was happening in her life? Once I figured that out, I thought about how the other characters fit into her drama and what each was struggling with. Slowly, the pieces came together, and I knew the subjects I wrote about (bullying, abuse, dating violence) were important to discuss.

With CHLOE, an editor I worked with before actually came to me with the idea. She asked if I'd be interested in writing a Project Runway for teens type book. I loved the idea and created the challenges and fleshed out the characters. I researched events in California and saw they have a rodeo and thought that would be such a fun tie-in. And, because of my own close relationship with my grandparents, I found it natural to have Chloe's grandfather play an important role too.

With the current project I'm working on, I wanted to write something about a girl with anxiety/OCD because of my own issues. But that wasn't enough. For weeks, I thought about what else I can do with her, as I didn't just want a book about a girl freaking out on every page. Finally, after brainstorming with a few friends, I got an idea that works so it's not just an “OCD” book. I guess the short answer to your questions is that I get ideas from my life as well as the world around me.

NANCY:  How do you straddle the fine line between truth and made-up, especially if you're basing characters or plot elements on real people or events?

MARGIE:  I learned the hard way that too autobiographical is a no-no. The very first version of INCONVENIENT was a multigenerational novel. It was a fictional account of my family's struggles in Russia, ending with a teen growing up in 1980s/1990s U.S. So...correction. It was supposed to be fiction, but I wanted to tell my family's story, and I struggled with keeping it true-to-life but not exposing too much of stuff no one in my family wanted me to expose. The story didn't work because I couldn't be creative enough and I worried about hurting people. It was over 300 pages, too. The teen part came out the best because I purposely did not want the girl based on me at all so I did what I wanted. I ended up not using any of the teen part in INCONVENIENT, but that section showed me I could write the teen voice well and it jumpstarted INCONVENIENT for me.

When I write now, there may be elements I borrow (e.g. the Russian culture, some family dynamic, a guy I knew as a springboard for Alex), but I'm conscious of the fact that I just want to write and tell a story and not be purposely tied to who/what I know.

NANCY:  How have your friends and family reacted to your books? How do they feel about the fact that you are a writer?

MARGIE:  My parents are very proud to show my books to their friends. And while I know they worry about the financial aspects of being a full-time writer and are thankful my husband has a “real job,” they're really proud of me for pursuing my dream and making it work. 

Margie, age three, with her mom.

As for my husband, he's super supportive, but he worries about me and the toll the business can take. He knows I try hard but he didn't expect so many things to be out of my control. Nor did I. :-) Like now, I'm looking for a new agent and it's been tough. I can't wait to finish my current work in progress and call him saying an agent wants it and wants to sign me. That will be awesome. And when it's sold, even more awesome.

I also have a seven-year-old. He's too young for my books but thinks it's cool I'm following my dream. He also says my books are “good” based on the page or two I read him from CHLOE. The kid knows what he's talking about—clearly.

NANCY:  Did having a child change your writing in terms of content, process, whatever?

MARGIE:  Not in any of those aspects, but having a child showed me more than ever that I need to do what I love. He's one of the reasons, I finally bit the bullet and decided to write full time. I want him to grow up knowing that following your dreams is possible. Having a job you love is possible. And if you really want something, you do what you can to make it happen.

The other day we were driving home from school and he said to me, “Mommy, there's a boy in my class who wants to be a doctor just for the money. He doesn't think he'll like it at all, but he says you can make a lot of money doing it. Why would anyone want a job they don't like?” And, OMG, this question made me so happy. I don't know what the future will bring, but my goal for him is to pursue his dreams and a career he loves. There may be sacrifices along the way to do that, he may have to have more than one job to make ends meet, but if he thinks the job of his dreams is possible, that's awesome. I don't want him growing up thinking he has to be X or Y or that soul-crushing work is the only way to get by.

NANCY:  If you hadn't become a writer, you would have been  ...

MARGIE:  Oooh, I like this one! I've always wondered what it would be like to act. I think I'd be good at it. And I have the struggling artist thing down. :-) It would be fun to even have a walk-on role in a show. I'd be the girl in 2 Broke Girls who'd order soup from Kat Dennings.

Besides that, I think I'd be great at event planning. It's stressful, but I love booking engagements, calling for space, etc. I plan assemblies for my son's elementary school and love the whole process. Days before each show, I'm a bundle of nerves worrying that the guy/group may not show up, but he/they always do and I'm so proud of booking the shows and my kid knowing “Mommy got this assembly together.” He even tells his friends his mom did this, and he loves giving me input about who to bring in next. He likes to tell his friends he's instrumental to each show I pick.

NANCY:  Favorite cures for writers' block?

MARGIE:  One of my first writing classes was with an awesome writer named Kristen Kemp. Her advice was to just get words out on the paper, even if they're garbage. If you worry about having nothing to write, you'll keep staring at the page for days. So I follow her advice. I'll write whatever. Often I'll have to scrap the pages, but usually it gets my brain moving and within the garbage, I find a gem to work with and go from there.

The other thing I do is write scenes out of order. Often, I may not know what exactly goes next, but I'll have a clear picture of the ending or a pivotal scene or just a fun scene I know is coming up. I'll write those and piece them together later.

NANCY:  And finally, please tell us anything that you feel is important or interesting about you that I've missed. Total free-for-all!

MARGIE:  Everything is important and interesting! J/K Hmm...well, the sequel to CHLOE BY DESIGN: MAKING THE CUT will be out in Fall 2015, so I'm really excited about that. It's called CHLOE BY DESIGN: BALANCING ACT and focuses on New York Fashion Week.

Also, one of the stories I wrote will be included in Shaun David Hutchinson's collaborative novel, VIOLENT ENDS. That will be out in Fall 2015 as well, from Simon Pulse.

What else? Um...I have my twentieth high school reunion coming up on November 29, so that's crazy. The good thing is that it gives me an excuse to shop for a cute outfit. And I started running recently and am up to five miles, which is something I never thought I could do! So getting better with age, right? :-)

For more about Margie, please check out her website and also the book trailer for CHLOE BY DESIGN!


  1. Great interview!
    I'm enjoying learning more about everyone this month.

    1. I know, it's great!! Now, all we have to do is get all of us in the same city for a cocktail party!

  2. Thanks, Jenn! I've had fun reading about everyone too!

  3. I loved learning more about your background. Great photos!

  4. I like Nancy's idea for a cocktail party!! Great interview!

  5. Cocktail party! Cocktail party!! We need to do that!


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