Claribel Ortega is the author of the upcoming middle grade novel Ghost Squad, a story about friendship and fantasy, and is the cohost of the podcast “Write or Die.” She recently talked with us about her exciting debut, her path as a writer, and all things kidlit. Ghost Squad is available for pre-order right now!
Your debut novel Ghost Squad is due out in April of next year and is being described as “Coco meets Stranger Things with a hint of Ghostbusters.” I’m assuming it’s pretty safe to say that 1980s Americana influenced your writing for this piece in a slight way – where does the appreciation for this time period come from?
As a second generation immigrant, pop culture was both a source of absolute confusion and also fascination for me. I’d say the influence comes from a couple of different things. I grew up in a super religious and strict household, so I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of things my peers watched. The things I did get to see, like Ghostbusters for example, were because of cousins or my older brother being rebellious. I’m the youngest of four, and I desperately wanted to do everything my older brother and sisters did. I never lost that curiosity for the things everyone around me was watching or talking about so as I got older I dove into things like The Goonies, which I didn’t get to see till I was a teenager, and I spent much of my high school years watching TV and film from before I was born or when I was very little. I was obsessed with things from the sixties as well for some reason, but I’ve always been a nostalgic person, even for nostalgia that doesn’t belong to me. I’ve always loved the feeling I got watching things like The Goonies where kids got to ride their bikes on their own and have adventures. Growing up in Hunts Point in the South Bronx I was very much not allowed to be on my own, so the idea of that was so exciting to me. Those movies and tv shows really touched me and ignited my sense of adventure and made me long for friends as loyal and funny as they had. When I write now, I try to convey those feelings, and just pour all the things I love into my writing.
In Ghost Squad, two best friends, Lucely and Syd, must recruit the help of Syd’s grandmother to help reverse the spell they cast which awoke malevolent spirits – an exciting plot which is sure to be a page turner. When thinking of the MG audience to whom this is aimed at, what about this book do you think they will be most surprised about when reading?
I am not sure what will surprise them to be honest! I hope that the kids who read the book and have never seen themselves in a book like Ghost Squad are excited about it. They might be surprised but that makes me sad to think about because it would just mean these kinds of books are sorely needed and not available to our kids.
On Mondays, you cohost the podcast “Write or Die” with fellow YA writer Kat Cho in which you two discuss the realities of becoming a writer and working as one. What has your path as a writer been like?
It’s been rough, but not as long or challenging as a lot of people before me, so I also know I’m very lucky. I started writing with publication in mind around 2013, mostly because I was dealing with the grief of losing my brother and needed an outlet. I worked on the same book for three years and got really involved in the online writing community during that time, made many friends, learned a lot and made a lot of mistakes. I have definitely grown as a person because of all those experiences. I’ve also been hurt and taken advantage of but those were all learning experiences too. Like when a “small publisher” called Winslet Press offered to publish my first manuscript and the owners turned out to be the authors “signed” to the press working under pen names. That was a rollercoaster ride. After that whole ordeal, I got my first agent in 2016 and went on sub for the first time. That did not work out, so I left and got my current agent in 2017. That same year we sold Ghost Squad. Now I have that, a graphic novel tentatively titled RIZOS with First Second coming in 2022, and a whole bunch of other things I am working on in the meantime. It’s been hard, especially dealing with depression and anxiety, a full time job, a small business, the podcast and all my projects throughout all of it, but I’m cutting back and taking better care of myself now. I definitely think my path is still a bit bumpy, but getting to write for kids has been the greatest honor of my life. Figuring out how to balance that with my self-care is just part of it.
With a following of more than eleven-thousand people on Twitter, social media plays an important role in how you as a creator connect to your readers and listeners. In your opinion, how has social media influenced the book publishing industry?
Both great and terrible things have come from the online book community. A lot of the strides we see being made in kidlit are because of the people brave enough to speak out about harmful books and practices within publishing. There have been people at the forefront of that fight for many years though, before social media as we know it now existed, it just feels amplified because of the nature of Twitter. It has become increasingly difficult to know who actually cares about issues and who is weaponizing call outs for their own self gain, though which does unfortunately happen, too. It can be hard to have good faith conversations about issues online, but I also think those conversations, about the difficult issues, are so important and they can’t end with Twitter. They also can’t end with authors of color being run off social media for speaking about hot button issues, which has happened way too many times. I think all of those difficulties are part of the growing pains of a community that is trying super hard in many areas to be progressive and make change and I hope it can evolve so that all of the authors of color we’re trying to support and protect actually feel safe and supported. Aside from that, I think many authors are using Twitter especially to grow an audience before they’re even published, which is so fascinating to me. People share snippets and make memes about their works in progress and build these small communities of super loyal friends and potential readers that support their journey to publication which for QTPOC like me can be so powerful. It can take years before you get any sort of outside validation, and while I do believe you need to be your own best advocate, that’s not easy or possible for everyone. Not to mention we get so much more rejection that having that community around us can be the difference between making it in this industry or not.
In addition to your writing and podcasting, you also offer coaching and consulting services for writers. For the most part, what’s the most common advice you are asked for?
People want to know how to connect with other writers & the book community in general, organically. It’s almost never about sales which is great because directly selling books on social media is incredibly challenging without a network. What sells the books and what gets you those opportunities as far as social media goes, is a network and reach and to get that you have to engage authentically with people. Of course, there are also people who engineer those relatable and funny content tweets to go viral, and I have no idea if that works for people to be honest, but the path is different for everyone. It all depends on your personality and how you can best engage with others. For me it’s a combination of jokes, honest advice, and compelling visuals. That won’t work for everyone, so you just need to find what works best for you. There is no one size fits all advice in publishing, everyone’s path and approach can be different.
The stories of immigration and racism but also the stories of fun and adventure and friendship and magic that just happen to have characters that look and speak like we do. We won’t have true equality in publishing until we have many books in all genres to choose from just like our white counterparts do.
With your debut novel coming out soon, it’ll add itself onto bookshelves of works by Latinx writers. What are your thoughts on the current Latinx presence in the MG genre and where do you see it five years from now?
There are so many authors doing incredible things for Latinx MG, including Daniel José Older, Celia C. Pérez, Ibi Zoboi and more. I’m so grateful for everyone who has fought the difficult battles that even made it possible for authors like me to have a seat at the table. In five years, I hope that roster of Latinx books in all kidlit age categories grows. The 2018 Diversity in Children’s Literature graphic showed only 5% of children’s literature depicted Latinx characters. That number is way too low and I hope that changes come in the form of more Latinx publishing professionals getting into the industry and getting the support they need, and more Latinx authors having the chance to tell all of our stories. The stories of immigration and racism but also the stories of fun and adventure and friendship and magic that just happen to have characters that look and speak like we do. We won’t have true equality in publishing until we have many books in all genres to choose from just like our white counterparts do.
What does love look like to you?
For me, love means compassion. Sometimes we don’t realize the smallest of kind words or gestures can make a huge difference in someone’s life, especially if they’re struggling. It can be easy to get wrapped up in our own issues and goals but taking a moment to reach out to someone, to tell someone who is publicly going through hardships that you’re rooting for them, to comfort a family member or friend or a stranger, and making their life just a bit better in your own way, that is what love means to me. It’s a bit of selflessness and awareness, and those interactions can literally save someone’s life.
This interview was conducted by Andy Lopez.