A group of acclaimed Central Ohio children's authors have discovered peer support is the key to navigating the peculiarities of literary life.
In 2013, Columbus author Natalie Richards found herself in an unusual situation. “I had just sold my first book,” says Richards, who writes for young adults, grades eight to 12. “And Lisa Klein cornered me in a bathroom at a conference.”
Richards knew Klein as “the consummate professor,” a Shakespearean scholar and fellow young adult author known for historical novels that refract traditional tales by telling them from a female viewpoint. “She was lovely,” says Richards.
To Richards' surprise, Klein invited her to join a small, informal, Columbus-based group of young adult and middle-grade writers. They called themselves OHYA (pronounced “Oh, yeah!”) and gathered monthly for dinners and conversation.
“I was a baby, baby writer,” says Richards. “My very first dinner happened at the same time as my very first book release. Everyone at the table was discussing a possible film deal or something like that. It was insane and very fun. But I'm thinking, ‘I have no right to be in this group.'”
Five years and five novels later, Richards is still in OHYA—and very grateful for that initial unexpected conversation. “I could not have survived the first year of my book launch without these women,” she recalls. “They knew things I had no clue about.”
OHYA flickered to life in 2010, when Klein and Erin McCahan, who seasons her contemporary young adult fiction with large dollops of humor, repeatedly rubbed elbows at events such as the Ohioana Book Festival and Books by the Bank, the Cincinnati regional book festival.
“Alphabetically, we were seated next to each other,” says McCahan. “Erin and I hit it off,” recalls Klein. Having noted several other Columbus-based young adult authors at those events, Klein proposed a monthly group, “just strictly for moral support.”
In September 2011, at La Chatelaine on Lane Avenue, the inaugural meeting included five writers: Klein; McCahan; Linda Gerber, who writes lighthearted middle-grade mysteries and young adult paranormal suspense; Edith Pattou, a fantasy and contemporary young adult fiction writer known for her mythic adventure tale, “East”; and Rae Carson, a young adult fantasy/science fiction author. A month later, Margaret Peterson Haddix, the most prolific and well-known children's writer in Columbus, also sat down at the table. In 2013, Richards and Julia DeVillers, best known for her middle-grade, girl-powered books, became members. Jody Casella, author of “Thin Space,” a contemporary young adult novel with supernatural elements, was welcomed into the fold in 2014. Shortly after that, Carson moved to Arizona, leaving the group with eight authors.
OHYA is not a formal club or a writing critique workshop or a professional organization. Despite having named the group, the members don't take the appellation seriously, often pronouncing it “Ohhhh, yeahhh,” with dramatically stretched vowels. This is not a snobby clique of mean girls. It is a soft-spoken roundtable of writers who spend their days alone at desks and coffee shops.
“With writing, you don't have a water cooler,” explains Richards, “but we do—and that's our dinners.” Casella agrees: “We don't have anywhere else to talk about stuff like this.” Gerber adds, “We talk about the industry, we share our highs and lows. I think we've all taken turns on the seesaw.”
“Some people think once you're published, you're on easy street, so most people don't understand,” says Klein. “And it feels wrong to complain about that to somebody who is still struggling or trying to get a book published.”
Over the lifetime of OHYA, the young adult publishing industry has undergone a transformation. “This genre has boomed since the early 2000s,” observes Courtney Brown, library specialist at the Ohioana Library Association. “In 2018 alone, we added almost 100 YA titles to our collection, all by Ohio writers—nearly double that of what we added in 2016.”
Glen Welch, sales manager at the Book Loft in German Village, started working there 11 years ago, “when we had four shelving units of young adult—now we have 13. Tip of the hat to J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins. They really made it explode.” Initially, the best-selling “Harry Potter,” “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” series lured readers of all ages to the YA section. After that, the hallmarks of young adult novels—strong plotting, quick pacing, sympathetic characters and, often, the fearless exploration of controversial topics—kept people reading.
“The stories are so good,” says Kris Hickey, youth services manager at Whetstone Public Library. A fan of young adult literature herself, she sees her teen patrons choosing what she calls mirror books and window books. “In a mirror book, you see your own life reflected,” Hickey explains. “In a window book, you are learning about a life experience that isn't yours. You can have one book, and for some it's a mirror, and for others, it's a window.”
Although fantasy and science fiction continue to be popular, the category is expanding into new areas. “At present, I'm seeing a lot of effort on the part of publishers to offer diverse books,” says Debbie Boggs, the store manager at Gramercy Books. Fresh young adult subgenres such as urban fiction and immigrant fiction have surfaced, as well as novels featuring characters who are LGBTQ or have special needs. “The diversity means that you can learn about what it's like to be someone who is not you,” says Hickey, “or, finally, finally see yourself in print.”
Over the past 10 years, OHYA has experienced its own changes. “First, we were just sharing war stories,” says Pattou. “We would bounce things off each other. If we were having trouble with an agent, we would ask, ‘Is this normal? Should I be pushing back?'” The writers traded professional woes over books that wouldn't sell, editors who retired and bad reviews that stung.
Quickly, though, the OHYA participants transitioned from colleagues to friends, blending the personal with the professional. Over dinner at quiet restaurants, they exchanged updates on travels and family, followed by discussions of current projects and challenges. “It's given me a placeto share good news and find people to commiserate when things aren't going well,” says Haddix. “This is a difficult job for me, a socially taxing business,” says McCahan. “It's all high or low, feast or famine. Our families can be wonderfully supportive of their authors, but it takes another writer to be supportive of what we are going through.”
It also often takes another writer to understand the peculiar quandaries of the novelist. Members might weigh the benefits of first-person versus third-person point of view or mull quirky tactics for planning plots and creating characters. “When a character comes alive and is bossing me around, that's how I know I've got it,” says Haddix. “And when I say that to an OHYA, they understand what I am saying.” Tips are exchanged, and industry information is shared. “They've expanded my book horizons,” says DeVillers. “Now I know about genres like high fantasy and fairy tales.”
On occasion, the group's friendships have led to deeper partnerships. Richards and Casella have become critique partners and close friends. “We are fans of each other's work,” says Richards. “We can just be brutally honest. I'd walk over fire for her.”
In one case, OHYA provided a doorway to international adventure. Shortly after the publication of Klein's “Ophelia” in 2006, she had exciting news for the group. Her reimagined version of “Hamlet” had been optioned by movie producers. “I was over the moon,” she says. However, she had to wait an entire decade before the stars aligned. Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts and Clive Owen signed on to play Ophelia, Lady Macbeth and King Claudius, respectively. “I liken the process to herding cats,” says Klein. “They had to get all the cats in the bag before one ran off.”
Yearning to visit the set in Prague, but with her husband unavailable to accompany her, Klein turned to OHYA. Casella piped up, “I'll go!” Together, the pair journeyed 5,000 miles to Prague, where they watched the filming of a banquet scene in a magnificent great hall “again and again and again,” says Klein. Delighted with the bustle and tickled to hear the actors speaking Klein's dialogue, Casella asked, “How does it feel to watch 500 people running around in service to your story?” Klein demurred, pointing out that Shakespeare penned the story first.
“Ophelia” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and the producers hope for a 2019 release in the U.S. “It really feels like winning the lottery to have your book made into a movie,” says Klein. “It's a fascinating process but completely out of my control.”
People outside of the group have noted the strong bonds between the OHYAs. “They are all successful because they are great storytellers,” says David Weaver, executive director of the Ohioana Library. “Some people might think they are competitors, but they're not—they're colleagues. They are supportive of each other and thrilled every time one of them has a new book being launched.”
When Richards looks back at her overwhelming first year as a published author, she has a very similar vision. “These women were experienced … and so generous with their knowledge,” she says. “Very quickly, we became friends who just happen to have the same profession.”