Real, Close, True, Best – Melissa Ostrom

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By Melissa Ostrom

They meet and instantly like each other.
They meet and instantly hate each other — but grow closer eventually, though their chemistry stays prickly.
They met a long time ago — zero interest — and have run into each other off and on since, still pretty meh, but then, on a particular day, one reveals a talent, a skill. And this amazing something changes everything… ♥

Three relationship trajectories. I drew them all from books. I’m guessing they sound familiar to you, probably even cliché. Do love stories come to mind? They certainly came to mine. But I wasn’t summing up the romantic relationships in the books. In every case, I was studying two characters who become friends and noting how their friendship develops.

Passionate friendships. Complicated friendships. Necessary friendships.

Friendships are love stories, too. They’re the kind of love stories I like to write.

A couple of years ago, my agent, Rebecca Stead, sent me a letter with these words: “You have a way of creating a community on the page that is so wonderful — it makes me feel optimistic about the world.” I saved this note because it’s one of the nicest compliments anyone’s ever given me about my writing. I really do value community, and in my fiction, I try to show that through my characters’ friendships.

For instance, in my debut, the YA historical novel The Beloved Wild, my main character Harriet Winter only fully knows herself when she figures out the difficult thing she has to do for someone else: a sacrifice that will help her best friend Rachel. And in my second novel, the YA contemporary Unleaving, my protagonist Maggie Arioli, after facing a sexual assault, finds a way forward – finds hope – through others: friends who support her and friends she helps, too.

The relationships in my books aren’t necessarily easy. People aren’t easy. But the messiness is worth muddling through; the conflicts, worth resolving. Friendship is important.

These days, I have great friends, but I wasn’t always so lucky. By the time I turned fifteen, my family had moved five times. I spent a lot of time as a newcomer, observer, stranger.

I spent a lot of time wishing for pals.

Maybe that’s why, when I was in tenth grade, I decided to write my social studies research paper on the Amazons of Greek mythology. These legendary women warriors were all about female solidarity and suggested what could happen if society didn’t hold back girls. (They’d rule the world!) I liked the threat the Amazons posed, plus everything else I learned about them: their skill with spears and bows and arrows, their ruthlessness with the men who, in every land outside their own, would have oppressed and subjugated them, and their disgust for household chores. I especially admired their cohesiveness.

Fierce and loyal friendship: I needed that. Whenever we moved, I lost friends. Making new ones wasn’t exactly a breeze. It got harder as I grew older, when other kids already had their friends and didn’t need an extra one, especially a nerdy poor girl with bad hair, big glasses, and the same old clothes, day in and day out.

So often, what makes terrific books terrific is the friendships they depict. I bet you know certain novels by the mere mention of their famous pals: Anne Shirley and Diana Barry, bosom friends and kindred spirits, who fill each other with awe and admiration; Janie Crawford who shares her sad story to the patient, loving Phoeby Watson; Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy who bolster one another through life’s challenges and compete in a way that drives success and grows their mutual respect; Elinor and Marianne who patch each other’s broken hearts; and Idgie and Ruth who go to great lengths to protect each other.

When I was growing up, such books — and probably that tenth-grade research project — taught me what good friendships looked like. How true friends acted. So I was ready. I knew them as soon as I met them.

My fifteenth year turned out to be a fortunate one for me, friendship-wise. I guess you could say I finally found my tribe. Brilliant, funny, artsy, and kind, the friends I made that year are still my friends. But before I formed these steadfast relationships? I had books.

Writers hope readers will get immersed or “lost” in their books.

But I hope for something more — that my readers will relate to my characters and connect to the friendships that the characters form.

I want my readers to feel included. I want them to feel found.


Melissa Ostrom teaches English literature at Genesee Community College in Batavia, New York. Her short fiction has been published in literary magazines, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Unleaving, which explores the intricacies of shame and victim-blaming that accompany the aftermath of assault, is out now.

melissaostrom.com

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