NiFtY Author Oksana Marafioti

Today’s a special weekend post, an interview with Oksana Marafioti, author of the recently-released memoir, American Gypsy. I met Oksana through my awesome, brand-new literary agent, Brandi Bowles, because Brandi also represents Oksana. Oksana’s book sounds so good,  I had to introduce her here. First, though, a description from the book, cribbed off Amazon (there’s more, so click the link for a full description):

Fifteen-year-old Oksana Marafioti is a Gypsy. This means touring with the family band from the Mongolian deserts to the Siberian tundra. It means getting your hair cut in “the Lioness.” It also means enduring sneering racism from every segment of Soviet society. Her father is determined that his girls lead a better, freer life. In America! Also, he wants to play guitar with B. B. King. And cure cancer with his personal magnetism. All of this he confides to the woman at the American embassy, who inexplicably allows the family entry. Soon they are living on the sketchier side of Hollywood. 

BH: What is it about your book that you think will grab readers most?

OM: I think, maybe, the promise of the Romani culture revealed. Despite a Gypsy’s popularity in literature and media, most know very little about us, and what they do know is often distorted by stereotypes.

BH: Which parts of your book gave you the most joy to write?
OM: All the funny parts. It’s liberating to examine your life with a sense of humor. I also loved writing the romantic bits. When I wrote about meeting Cruz, the boy I fell for in high school, I relived that moment as if we were standing there, our eyes locked. Gave me that fizzy feeling all over again.
BH: You originally queried our agent with a fiction project, is that right? What made you decide to write your memoir, and was it easier or harder for you than writing fiction?
OM: I always toyed with the idea of writing about my family, but I didn’t seriously consider it until meeting Brandi. Her interest and enthusiasm was contagious, and I soon found myself writing for hours, researching multiple generations, quite unexpectedly fascinated with a story I thought I knew so well. For me, a memoir was easier because I was so close to the characters. And I knew the ending, so it was much easier to plot the story and see how it should develop.

BH: Is there any feeling or message you’d like readers to take away from your story?

OM: My most earnest message is that family is important, no matter who you are and where you come from. Family is the fountain of youth, the holy grail, the ultimate wonder of the world. We are all bruised by our pasts, but anger and cynicism are poisons passed on, by example, to our children. If we, as children, suffered abuse, we, as adults, have a chance to save another from it. Our culture may dictate rules and traditions, but never who’s worthy of love. And weather we admit it or not, every one of us yearns for one thing, and one thing only: To be accepted. So when we look into the eyes of a stranger who may not speak our language or know our way of life, before we make a judgment against them, we must always remember to see in those same eyes a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, sons and daughters, loved ones. Family and tolerance are the essential ingredients of happiness.

BH: What’s the most helpful writing advice you’ve received?

OM: Figure out the ending, first! If you have it, your characters will gravitate to it and your story will unravel.

Thank you, Oksana, for telling us about your book and your writing! I’m eager to get my hands on American Gypsy!
For more Oksana, you can follow her on Twitter here, and visit her website here.

Keeping Ahead of Trends in YA Lit

Weekend Writing Special

You’ve finished the first draft of your young adult manuscript. It’s new! It’s got a great hook! Nobody has done anything like this before! It’s a reality-television-show-to-the-death featuring vampire-esque aliens. You imagine literary agents begging, no, clamoring, for your manuscript. Your idea is The Newest Thing.

Until, a few weeks later as you’re hard at work on revisions, all of a sudden everyone has done this. And their books are being published Right Now. That author of Twilight (whose name I keep forgetting) does a horror reality television show novel. Suzanne Collins has something with alien-vampires. J. K. Rowling creates a Harry Potter spin-off featuring vampires who run a television series about aliens.

My personal experience with this is not nearly as extreme or ridiculous. I had this idea for a future, post-apocalyptic setting for a novel, and I dove (dived?) right in. Minutes later, I read The Hunger Games. Then The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Then, while reading Publishers Lunch from Publishers Marketplace, I found two other post-apocalyptic YA trilogies due out in a year. How can I compete with that?

I can’t. Not as far as the general idea goes. No one can. In a lot of ways, we are all tuned into the collective unconscious. We read many of the same books, watch the same movies and television shows, hear the same news stories, and on and on. My hook has to be more than “post-apocalyptic” etcetera and so forth. An intriguing story idea can do a lot…

…but an awesome character does so much more.

An author friend of mine was worried about this a few months ago, as was I. We’d just finished revisions on our manuscripts (we thought) and we were ready to embark on our new projects. “I’m thinking vampires,” she said. “But it’s been done, you know?”

I did know. I wrote one. And then I told her something I should pay attention to myself: if the characters are memorable and compelling, it doesn’t matter what the setting is, or what creatures they are. Vampires, werewolves, telepathic fairy-kin, selkies, were-amoebas. After all, we’ve read contemporary fiction featuring regular old humans for…hmmm…just about forever. Humans? Regular people? In a regular setting? How boring…not. Most of Sarah Dessen’s books feature teenage girls in the same little town in North Carolina. I’ve read every single one of them because her characters are fabulous.

So it’s not just another vampire book, or another post-apocalyptic zombie book, or another (sigh) werewolf book. It’s a real story featuring a compelling character who deals with an intriguing, gripping conflict. You don’t need to keep ahead of trends, or even worry about them, if you’re writing what you love and focusing on your own unique characters.