Hop on the rug with us – and find out more about how NYT-Bestselling writer Claribel A. Ortega lives life well.
RL Stein, Judy Blume, Francine Pascal – as a child, Claribel A. Ortega voraciously devoured books by the best YA authors. And while she enjoyed the titles she was reading – the scary adventures of Goosebumps, the real-life predicaments of adolescents, the drama at Sweet Valley High – she never quite felt like she ever saw herself in the pages she read.
“They all just felt so far away from where I was, as a young Dominican-American growing up in the south Bronx,” she says. It was a feeling that would go on to fuel her interest in becoming a writer herself, and create the kinds of stories she so desperately wanted to read as a young woman.
Before becoming an author, Ortega studied journalism, and took on a job as a small-town reporter, in Dobbs Ferry, upstate New York. It was while working that she got the idea for what would be her first book. “It just sort of came to me, which is sort of how my ideas really work,” she says. “When people ask me, ‘What inspired you to write this book?’ It's usually just an idea out of the blue. At the time, I was commuting to work, and I was having a really hard time at that moment because I had gone through a loss in my life.”
Ortega’s brother had passed away from cancer. She was dealing with grief and found it difficult to function. “The story came to me, and the character was sort of a combination of all of the things that I was feeling and going through, and it just happened to be in a magic setting,” she says. So she started writing and researching and never looked back.
“I just sort of took off,” she says. “And from that moment it was like, this is something that I can do that no one can take away from me because it's something that I'm creating. When you're dealing with loss, that can be a really powerful thing.” As she explains it, writing, and finding her voice, was a way to fight back against the helplessness her loss and grief left her feeling.
From rejection to a best-seller
The book didn’t end up selling but it did land Ortega an agent – and more importantly, gave her the confidence to continue on as a writer. “It’s really important to foster your own self-confidence, be your own cheerleader in publishing, because there are going to be so many setbacks,” she says. “The number one thing that you have to have when it comes to being in any creative field is flexibility. Because things are always going to change.”
And they did. Her second book, Ghost Squad, which also dealt with the feelings brought about by her brother’s death, went on to find a devoted audience. Described as Coco meets Stranger Things with a hint of Ghostbusters, the supernatural fantasy earned Ortega spots on NPR’s Best Books of 2020 and Good Morning America's Summer Reading Squad lists. It's also going to be made into a movie, written and directed by Brenda Chapman.
80s references abound in Ghost Squad, in tribute to Ortega’s youth, but it’s the way she incorporates her Dominican heritage – the lead character Lucely Luna’s last name means ‘moon’ in Spanish – that make the stories uniquely hers. “It really depends on the book, because with the new book that I have coming out in April, it’s a little bit different. There are splashes of my culture and my heritage, but it's more story-driven from a place of my imagination and things that I wanted to say about the world we live in, told through the lens of the fantastical.”
That new book is Witchlings, a series Ortega has that begins coming out in April. “It's a magic world, with its own magic systems and laws and authority and culture. It does have inspiration from our real world but Witchlings is a completely secondary world. It’s modern so there are cell phones and all of that stuff, but, there's also prophecies and witches and oracles. It’s way grander, way bigger, than anything that I've written before. And I'm really, really excited about it.”
Of ghosts and going on walks
Feeding an imagination as active as Ortega’s requires her to keep doing the thing she loves, next to writing. “For me, continuing to read is really important,” she says. “There are other ways also,” she adds. Although writing can be a solitary process, Ortega believes going out into the real world – taking walks, listening to music, watching movies – can spark moments of inspiration for her. “For newer writers, you may want to immerse yourself in this world of writing all the time and books 24/7, but unless you have real world experiences to pull from, I don't think that the writing is as rich as it can be. At least that has been my experience,” she says.
Concept artwork for the upcoming Ghost Squad movie, courtesy of Scholastic.
Ortega shares what she knows in articles she writes and through the podcast she co-hosts, Bad Author Book Club. But the 37-year-old is also still learning. “We have been lucky enough to interview some really exceptional authors on the podcast,” she says. “One of my favorite pieces of advice comes from Holly Black, when she told us that jealousy can be a good thing because it can teach you what you want. There's a lot of professional jealousy that goes on in publishing where you compare yourself to other people. But, when taken through that lens of not feeling sorry for yourself, when you realize somebody has something that you aspire to, and seeing how you can work towards that, is so powerful.”
Keeping her eyes on her own path has led Ortega to where she is today, and when she’s in the zone, writing, nothing can compare. “There's something amazing about being able to create a world and to know that readers are some day going to be able to enter that world as well. And to hear back from them about the things that resonated with them is such a great feeling, especially when helping them in some way,” she says. “When the words are just flowing out of me, I just feel happy. I feel happy and fulfilled, because it's something that I love to do and I get to do it for work, and I couldn't ask for anything else.”
Feature and standing photos are courtesy of Clarinet Orchestra and David Castañeda.