The One Where Margie Gelbwasser Interviews Nancy Ohlin

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Nancy.

Today, you'll read the scoop on her! Not only is Nancy the author of the awesome YA novels, Always, Forever, and Beauty, but she also co-authored a post apocalyptic YA trilogy, Fire-us, with Jennifer Armstrong (Harper Collins), collaborated on several celebrity novels, has written non-fiction for both kids and adults, and was even on the “Today” show once for a book she wrote called How to Make Your Man Look Good (Without Making Him Feel Bad). OH, and I learned she was even a deputy mayor! I know! WHAT?? Is there anything she can't do?

Keep reading to find out more about this lady of all trades!

1) In terms of career, do you have a vision that would mean you've “made it”?

My personal bar of “making it” has crept up, up, up over time and taken over my mental health like kudzu. In the beginning, it was: “If only I could get my weird little literary short story published somewhere, anywhere.” Then: “If only I could finish writing a whole entire novel.” Then: “If only I could get an agent.” Then: “If only I could get my novel published.” Then: “If only I could write full-time.” Then: “If only I could get higher advances.” Then: “If only I could get on the NYT bestseller list.”

These days, it wavers between “If only I could have total financial security as a writer plus a movie deal plus all five-star reviews …” and “If only I could write what I want and feel good about the stories I create even if no one besides me ever reads them.”

This last bit is my current Zen goal. Because even if I somehow manage to achieve total financial security plus a movie deal plus all five-star reviews, I’m likely to set a new bar for myself re “making it.” (“Okay, I’m a millionaire, now I need to be a billionaire.”)

I know this seems obvious and cliché, but … as neurotic and self-critical as I can be about this “making it” business, I am often reminded that I have a wonderful, rich, very privileged life. Aside from the fact that I have a roof over my head and don’t live in a war zone, which is a lot to be grateful for in this world, I’m a published writer. I love my work. I have an incredible husband. Our kids are happy and healthy. I have a lot of awesome friends. I get to travel to cool places.

An aspiring writer I know said to me the other day: “You’re living the dream.” I looked at her like she was insane. But then I thought about what she said. I am living the dream. Or at least a dream. It’s far from perfect, but it’s pretty okay. Four stars, at least.

2) I find retellings fascinating. How did you come to write Beauty?

Beauty didn’t start out as a retelling; it started with a nightmare. One night, I had this scary dream about an evil queen who controls her queendom with colors (sort of like what goes down in Lois Lowry’s The Giver). The dream haunted me for days, and then I thought about Snow White, and it all came together into a story about a teenaged princess who makes herself deliberately ugly in order to make her vain, narcissistic mother love her. It was a very personal book for me because of my own body issues and mom issues, and this thing I’ve noticed in myself and other girls and women, which is, you have to be pretty but not too pretty, or people will kill you with their envy.

3) When writing retellings, how much of a guide is the original story? Do you find yourself constricted by it?

With Beauty, the story of Snow White provided a lot of inspiration and fun springboards. For example, I turned the queen’s mirror into a character called The Beauty Consultant. The poisoned apple became a recreational drug.

With Always, Forever, I started out wanting to do a retelling of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which is one of my favorite books (and movies) of all time. This evolved into the story of an insecure, odd-duck girl who stumbles into a dark mystery (and ghosts and a hot boyfriend) at a fancy boarding school. While drafting Always, Forever, there were moments when I realized I was being too literal (“Who should be the Mrs. Danvers character?” “How do I duplicate Manderley?”), so I had to step back and give myself some breathing room to make stuff up from scratch versus sticking to the original text.

In the past, I’ve started (and set aside) retellings that weren’t working out because I felt constricted. I realize now that that was probably all me, and that I’m actually allowed to write retellings that are wildly divergent from the original texts.

4) The voice in your books is so compelling, and I'm drawn into this fairy-tale yet modern world. How does the voice come to you?

With both Beauty and Always, Forever, the voices came very easily because they’re both very me. Ana (in Beauty) struggles with self-image and self-esteem; Tess (in Always, Forever) is the uncool girl who wants to sit at the cool kids’ table. So … me all over the place. The fairytale-yet-modern vibe of Beauty seemed right because the story combines traditional fairytale elements like queens and princesses with contemporary issues like peer pressure and eating disorders.

I’ve also done a lot of ghostwriting (of fiction) for various ages—early grade, middle grade, YA, and adult—and I find that process fascinating because I get to create (or recreate) voices that are totally not me. I enjoy stepping into someone else’s shoes, whether it’s a character in a pre-existing series or a real-life person.

I hope that someday, a voice that is the polar opposite of me will form out of the ether, and I will tell that story and have a great fun time doing it.

5) Do you feel there's a genre you might love reading but have a mental block when it comes to writing that genre? Why?

I’ve always wanted to write adult or YA historical fiction—I have a bunch of ideas re specific times, places, and events—but I’m scared to go there because, well, research. When I do research, I tend to go overboard because I want to get Every Last Detail Exactly Right. I worry that I won’t be able to be spontaneous and free and creative when I’m drowning in facts and dates.

6) What's next for you in this crazy writing world?

I’m currently revising my next YA novel for Simon and Schuster, Consent (which I’ve nicknamed “Love in the Time of Sexual Consent Laws”). It has an amazing cover, which shall be revealed soon. I’ve been working on Consent for so long, and so intensely, that I’m excited to imagine what might come next for me. I have no idea what it is, which is part of the thrill of it. (It’s new! It’s unknown!)

I’m also writing several early grade series pseudonymously, including a travel-mystery series called Greetings from Somewhere.

7) If you could only eat one food, every day for a year, what would it be?

I could live on sushi, blueberries, and dark chocolate. And good coffee. And good wine. Sorry, that’s five things.

8) Anything else that you'd like share?

Thank you for chatting with me! YAOTL rocks!


  1. A writer friend of mine said she's thinking of attempting a retelling for her next YA. I told her she must read Beauty and Always, Forever first! Love your books!

  2. Aww, thank you, Jen! I love your books, too!

  3. I like hearing the stories behind your retelling ideas. Fun interview!

  4. Thanks, Yvonne! I love retellings (reading them, writing them) and often find myself "retelling" TV shows, movies, etc. in my head, just for fun!

  5. Replies
    1. Jenn, I will let you know if I figure how to achieve it!

  6. Replies
    1. Thanks, Holly! We writers need to create a Zen support group that involves lots of shared wisdom (plus cocktails).


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