The Burning Hearth, December 2022: Interview with Melissa Ostrom

Melissa Ostrom

Welcome back to The Burning Hearth. As always, I hope you and your families are well. As we approach the new year, I look back on 2022 with both a full and a sorrowful heart.

In the early spring, I changed my focus from writing realism flash to longer form speculative fiction. As a result, I redesigned my blog and slanted it towards the speculative as well. This year I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing, Amy Barnes, Kim Magowan, Joy Baglio, and David Naimon. I’m so grateful to them for contributing to The Burning Hearth. These interviews, along with the new connections I have made this year, are the reason for my full heart.

As so many of you know, my brother Reece passed away in June from Parkinson’s Disease. Just today, while making my bed, I thought, I should call Reece. I haven’t spoken to him in a while. And so, my sorrowful heart aches.

With much grace, 2022 reminds me that joy, like two cupped hands, surrounds sorrow, clarifying for me that we cannot fully know this life without experiencing and accepting this particular yin and yang.

I am, however, fortunate to end this year at The Burning Hearth as it began, brimming with joy! My guest this month is the lovely and talented Melissa Ostrom, who charms us all with her daily shots of her pooch Mocha, her pictures of her beautiful rural homestead, her pottery, her retweeting of fellow writers’ work, and her own writing as well. She is an open heart to all.

The Beloved Wild and Unleaving, written by Melissa Ostrom shown with one of her hand thrown mugs.

Before diving into the interview, I must give a wee bit of credit where credit is due. After interviewing David Naimon, we had a chat about my upcoming interviews. He visited Melissa’s website, and then reminded me of three lines from her “About” section, regarding her exploration as a child. I immediately remembered them.

“I dabbled in many identities. Farmer, witch, detective, ghost, doctor, mother, killer, fugitive. I tried them all.”

Not long after rereading these lines, an idea for how to begin her interview came to me. Melissa liked the idea and willingly obliged. So now, it’s time to grab a mocha (or tea or whiskey), sit back and relax in your favorite chair, and enjoy our conversation. This is Melissa after all, so snug and cozy is the only way to go. Oh, and be sure to listen to her reading. It’s soooo good!

The Burning Hearth’s interview with Melissa Ostrom

BH: After rereading those three lines from your website, I had an idea and I became curious. How do you approach your writing as a farmer?

MO: One farmer-ly activity I think a lot about when writing is composting. I like to garden and make good use of our compost pile, the mound of leaves, fruit peelings, coffee grounds, and vegetable scraps that, with the help of time and bacteria, transforms into a nutrient-rich organic matter, perfect for spreading around the plants and amending the soil. Talk about practical magic! Refuse goes in; treasure comes out. I love that.

Writers compost, too, in a way, and draw on all the things that happened in their lives, even the rotten, horrid things: They stew in our imaginations, seep into our stories, and become art. Beauty results. And nothing’s lost. Nothing need be wasted. There’s comfort in that.        

BH: Who are your favorite literary farmers?

MO: The Burdens and Shimerdas in My Ántonia by Willa Cather

BH: How do you approach your writing as a witch?

MO: I don’t think it’s any surprise we use the language of bewitchment to describe how books engage us: A wonderful story will ensnare, entice, enthrall, dazzle, spellbind, seduce, charm, beguile, and/or captivate us. Losing oneself in a good book is a mysterious delight.

Writers, like sorcerers, aim to finagle an enchantment. We set out to transport and transform. In order to compel our readers to keep reading, we need to transfix them utterly.

BH: Who are your favorite literary witches?

MO: Tiffany Aching in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and Laura in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes

BH: How do you approach your writing as a detective?

MO: I’ve never written a detective story or a crime or mystery novel, for that matter, at least not one that would sufficiently echo the genre motifs to qualify as such. But, as a reader, I often notice how really good novels, regardless of genre, possess an inexorable velocity, an undertow that tugs me onward, a hovering question or quandary or conflict, and the corresponding quest to answer or unravel or confront, all of which combines to create an intoxicating element of urgency. In short, they read like mysteries. I keep that in mind when I write.   

BH: Who is your favorite literary detective?

MO: Lord Peter Wimsey in the detective fiction by Dorothy Sayers

BH: How do you approach your writing as a ghost?

MO: I don’t see myself in that guise as a writer, but the idea of ghosts certainly intrigues me, particularly in how an apparition inextricably relates to setting. When we hear “haunted,” we think house. A ghost, though of the past, seeks a place in the present—is a presence. We can all relate to the feeling of being haunted. The memories that dog us, distract and distress us, are like ghosts. We have to find a way to live with them.

BH: Who are your favorite literary ghosts?

MO: For novels involving ghosts, I’d recommend The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and The Graveyard Book and Coraline by Neil Gaiman, but my favorite, by far, is Beloved by Toni Morrison.

BH: How do you approach your writing as a mother?

MO: I took some poetry workshops as an undergrad and grad student, but my degrees aren’t in creative writing, and though I taught writing as a secondary English teacher for over a decade and English composition at our local community college for several years, most of my life, I never thought of myself as a writer, simply a teacher, thinker, and contented avid reader.

Not until I became a mother and switched to part-time teaching did I start to take writing seriously. To some extent, this was because I finally had the time to do so. I wasn’t endlessly editing and grading essays. Though my babies were terrible nappers, they slept in late, so my early morning hours became my own. And I hoarded and savored and needed those hours, a daily duration when I wasn’t looking after anybody but myself. Writing felt like an escape and an indulgence, a splendid solitary spell. It still does.

However, the fact that the beginning of my writing life and the onset of motherhood coincided wasn’t merely a matter of finally having time to play with words. Becoming a mother awakened a creativity in me and a sense of my own power. I remember gazing at my beautiful babies and marveling, Wow, look what I made.

BH: Who are your favorite literary mothers?

MO: The experience of motherhood is integral to A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa. I’m currently reading this amazing hybrid work and what an experience! Moving and powerful, it is like nothing I’ve ever read before. 

(Reader, I would love to hear who your favorite farmer, witch, detective, ghost, doctor, mother, killer, or fugitive is from literature. If you feel so inclined, please share in the comments.)

BH: Thanks for playing along, Melissa. When we originally spoke of looking at your writing through these various identities, some of which you found didn’t apply, I suggested you do the same concerning your pottery. I found it so compelling that you discovered none of these identities applied to your pottery. I would love for you to share with readers the reasons why.

MO: I had fun looking at wordsmithing through the lens of other identities, and it felt natural, probably because writing so often comes down to that sort of thing—creating characters, donning their guises, and letting them steer the narrative according to their natures. But pottery, for me at least, is more of a wordless passion, focused, quiet, and calming. I center the clay, open the mound, raise the walls, thin them, shape the pot, and smooth the lip. Done. The process is routine, intuitive, and deeply satisfying. Sometimes, after coming in from the studio, I can’t recall what I was thinking about while throwing on the wheel but feel better, less stressed, having spent time playing with clay. When I started ceramics thirty-two years ago, I wasn’t looking for a meditation practice, but I think that’s what I got.

More of Melissa’s beautiful pottery.

BH: I have now read your YA novel The Beloved Wild along with various flash pieces and short stories, I see your posts of your home and your very cute dog, Mocha, and I eat and drink daily from pottery you made. There is an energy that imbues all these things that I cannot quite put my finger on. To say that there is a sense of grounding in it all (which there is), feels rather understated to the actual feeling that seems to transfer from all these things outward. I find an inherent beauty, a radiating forward of love, a peacefulness, in everything you do. I know that you live in the country, and I wonder if your non-urban life fosters these things. I’m curious, with what intention do you approach your work, and how does your surroundings allow you, if indeed they do, to foster that intention?

MO: Constance, this is so kind and generous. Thank you. I love living in the country, surrounded by flowers and cocooned in the woods. I spent most of my childhood in the city of Jamestown, New York, my family moving from one place to the next. But before that, we lived in the country of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I never stopped missing Carlisle. After graduating from college, I got the chance to return to more rural surroundings, when I accepted a teaching position at a high school in a little town located in Lake Ontario fruit country. Twenty-five years later, I’m still here.

Living so close to nature is a gift. Every season rewards. Just this month: the first snowfall, songs of coyotes, geese honking overhead…so much loveliness and all for free. I think you must be right. This peaceful place and its beauties that daily draw my attention and fill me with gratitude surely influence my work.    

BH: Let’s move our focus to your writing and discuss your piece “Passion” published in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine in March of this year. What a lovely, heartbreaker of a piece. As the reader, I’m running alongside Passion as she celebrates the day she turns thirteen. And then, while swimming, she:

“…heard the report of a rifle, the boom, boom from the woods, she treaded the murky water and saw herself as the sad star in a movie about a hunter who shoots too close to a clearing, the bullet that reaches a swimmer, the Passion who dies at thirteen.”

This takes the reader to later when:

“Not once did she suspect Passion could betray Passion and become the enemy under her skin, biding her time, armed with self-loathing, accompanied by the miserable dogs of uncertainty and shame.”  

And then, to this:

“Not until she was much older would she remember the time before this time, the freedom before the snare of self, the cruel captivity of consciousness.” 

There is no way to read this piece and not immediately reflect upon that moment when puberty, followed by the awakening of consciousness, let me so matter-of-factly know my childhood was behind me, and on very wobbly, unsure legs I was headed into adulthood.

I’m curious about two things:

First, what led you to the decision to name the girl Passion and to have Passion, the noun, be a character? It seems like a real writing challenge in keeping the two separate for the reader, which you do brilliantly.

MO: I wanted a name that matched the nature of this exuberant thirteen year old. She’s definitely someone who engages with her world passionately.

But I was also thinking about passion in an allegorical sense, how one’s passion (and how one experiences and views one’s passion) can change, not necessarily for the better, when one’s creation enters the world and becomes subject to praise, criticism, scrutiny, and judgment.

Fourteen years ago, when I began writing devotedly, the activity was such a solitary endeavor, like a secret, magical and empowering. Eventually, I decided my work was ready to be shared and set out to publish my stories and novels. I met with success—and had many, many encounters with rejection. Not every agent, editor, or reader will love or even like what we write. Rejection and criticism come with the business. I’m certainly grateful some of my work has found an audience, but I suppose part of me misses those practice years, when publishing was still a farfetched dream and I wrote without self-consciousness. It was “the time before this time, the freedom before the snare of self.”

Second, is this moment from your own life, still close at hand? Was it easy to draw from your own awakening to write this piece, or (because I know you have children) was it more immediate and inspired by witnessing your child(ren) experience this developmental moment in time?

MO: I do see this developmental moment unfolding in my household, as my kids, at twelve and fourteen, change, sometimes startlingly swiftly, and navigate their changes. They’re becoming less mine and more their own people, with private lives, public personas, and so many opinions, concerns, aversions, and interests that they seem to be collecting like marvelous materials gathered for the sake of building their futures.

My kids are deciding who they want to be and how they want people to see them. This consciousness of being seeable is important—we’re social beings who need to be noticed, long to belong, fear invisibility, and dread exclusion—and yet tricky because it’s important and so terribly outside of our control. How people see us is up to them. If people see us is up to them. “I don’t care what people think,” we say. Oh, but we do, we do.

My kids seem to be handling things okay, probably better than I did at their age. Their experiences make me remember my own. “Passion,” in part, sprang from a mixture of my memories and my observations of what’s happening in my children’s lives.    

“Passion” read by Melissa Ostrom

BH: You are a writer, a potter, and a mother. In dealing with the reality that there are only 24 hours in a day, how do you organize your time so that you can attend to your personal trinity?

MO: Well, I think it helps that I’m an early riser. I get a lot of reading and a little writing done in the wee hours of the morning. But more than that, I manage to be productive because I married a sweetheart who values my happiness, supports my creative endeavors, and handles half of the household chores. Laundry, for instance. I’ve never even run our washing machine. My husband is an excellent partner.  

BH: You and I have talked about the joy of the writing process, even when our work is rejected. Please, share with readers what you find to be the most enjoyable aspect of writing.

MO: Hands down, my favorite thing about writing is getting lost in a fictional world. Time passes, but I don’t sense its passing. I forget where I am and who I am and barely notice myself typing or composing. The narrative seems to be creating itself.

BH: As many of my readers know, I’ve been doing a deep dive into Ursula K. Le Guin this year. I have two UKLG questions I would like to ask you as we close out your interview.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s book with David Naimon, Conversations on Writing, he says to her:

 “You point out that it is a strange phenomenon that grammar is the tool of our trade and yet so many writers steer away from an engagement with it.”

She responds by saying:

 “…we were taught grammar right from the start. It was quietly drilled into us. We knew the names of the parts of speech, we had a working acquaintance with how English works, which they don’t get in most schools anymore.”

She ends her answer with:

“We’re not equipping people to write; we’re just saying, “You too can write!” or “Anybody can write, just sit down and do it!” But to make anything, you’ve got to have the tools to make it.”

To her point, I recently, taught a workshop to adult aspiring writers, and when I suggested to a woman that she might want to pay attention to how often she ended sentences with prepositional phrases, she told me she didn’t really get into studying grammar and she didn’t know what a prepositional phrase was. She displayed no interest in learning what one was or why I had suggested that she pay attention to her overuse of them. She was, however, very interested in knowing if I thought her story was publishable.

Knowing that you are a former high school English teacher, I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

MO: Grammatical writing is accessible writing. It facilitates an immersive experience. Readers, safe from tripping over fused sentences and dangling modifiers, can slip easily into the narrative. Boobytrapping this entrance with blunders isn’t wise or respectful.

Also, having a command of rules and conventions can boost a writer’s confidence and give them the pluck to play with language and know when they should bend or break the rules. 

BH: You shared with me that you used to teach Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” This short story packs a mighty punch. I’m interested in why you chose this story and how your students responded to it.

MO: I agree. It does pack a punch.

The story unfolds on the first day of summer in Omelas. The people of this city, anticipating the delights of their summer solstice festival, seem to be enjoying the best kind of life, peaceful, cultured, democratic, and sophisticated. However, the reader soon discovers this society can secure its utopic conditions only by perpetuating the misery of a single individual, a child, no less, one who is kept in a state of filth and isolation. Certain citizens, after learning of this hideous stipulation, feel compelled to relinquish their blissful state and leave Omelas.

The story seems to challenge the reader: Would you stay in Omelas for its endless pleasures if you, too, knew its utopic status required this heartbreaking condition? Or would you leave? If you stayed, would you try to effect change? How do people justify injustice? Is injustice ever justifiable?

My students really got into this story. It invites important discussions about scapegoating, fairness, and real-world problems, like how the affordability of our luxuries so often depends on the sufferings of underpaid, overworked laborers elsewhere.

BH: Before signing off, how about sharing with us your favorite thing about winter? Assuming you have a favorite thing about winter.

MO: Oh, Constance, I love so much about winter, especially how it makes me sensible to comfort. The snow falls, icicles fringe the gutters, and a frigid wind blows, but inside my little red house, the fire crackles in the woodstove, bread bakes in the oven, and a hot coffee sits close at hand. How nestled a snowy day makes me feel. Add to the coziness a good book and a darling companion, furry or otherwise, and I am completely happy. 

Melissa Ostrom is the author of The Beloved Wild (Feiwel & Friends, 2018), a Junior Library Guild book and an Amelia Bloomer Award selection, and Unleaving (Feiwel & Friends, 2019). Her stories have appeared in many journals and been selected for Best Small Fictions 2019, Best Microfiction 2020, Best Small Fictions 2021, Best Microfiction 2021, and Wigleaf Top 50 2022. She lives with her husband, children, and little dog Mocha in Holley, New York. Learn more at or find her on Twitter @melostrom. 

Melissa and Mocha

Thank you for stopping by The Burning Hearth! I had so much fun interviewing Melissa. I hope you enjoyed getting to know her better.

I wish you all a safe and warm winter solstice. However you celebrate this time of year, I hope it is filled with laughter and friendship, and may 2023 be your best year yet!


Constance Malloy

2 thoughts on “The Burning Hearth, December 2022: Interview with Melissa Ostrom

  1. What a beautiful interview with one of my favorite writers and potters!


    1. Rebecca, Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Melissa is such a lovely person and I’m so honored she agreed to be interviewed! Constance

      Liked by 1 person

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