Interviewing a Revolutionary Writer
Well, we have an exceptionally lovely treat today. An interview with our very own Heather Ostalkiewicz (clapping, applause, more clapping) So, Heather is a staff writer for Children of the Nations, a nonprofit organization that partners with nationals to provide care for orphaned and destitute children. Today, Heather is going to give us a glimpse behind the curtain of journalism, memoirs, and so much in between. Before I prepare my chai latte and begin the questioning, here is a snippet from Heather’s COTN page: “As a writer I am speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves. I write my stories to inform and inspire partners who want to help the children in Africa too!”
Sammie – Okay, Heather Lou, let’s do this thing. Tell us a little bit about what it’s like to write for a living.
Heather – (laughs) I had this fantasy of what everyday writing would feel like/look like, but of course it’s not like that. Figuring out the day to day has been challenging. But I have a joy now, which is something I haven’t felt before in a job. Because, although I consider myself an artist, I believe words are my medium. And God wants me to use words in different ways. In this case, I believe he wants me to serve children who have nothing. (pauses) I don’t think I’ve ever been interviewed before. I’m always the one interviewing people!
S – Interviewing an interviewer. A daunting task but let’s continue. What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
H – I’d say finding the best way to communicate the needs of the children and the absolutely inspiring way that people meet those needs. I think words are a difficult profession because our society is losing their attention span. So there’s a great need to master your words. (laughs) And I’m really working on that… in case my editor read this. (grins)
S – I agree. So how does it feel to be brilliant?
H – (laughs) Some people are brilliant, I just know I have to work hard… The other challenging aspect of my job is remembering who I’m trying to help. The children we’re serving are halfway around the world, not in front of us. So it’s helpful to have an imagination, to recall where I’ve been and what it’s like for them.
S – It must be difficult staying connected to the children you write about. How do you manage this?
H – The most obvious way is getting to see them. (big smile) I’m going to the Dominican Republic and Haiti in May with a team, and I’ll be meeting the children there, interviewing them, and writing stories about their lives.
S – How grand! Okay, back to staying connected…
H –I don’t live near the kids we serve. So when I’m putting an article together, I’m trying to ask questions that will bring me and the reader closer to understanding our impact on the children’s lives. Which literally means, in many cases, saving lives.
S – That’s incredible. Okay, so what is the most thrilling part of your job?
H – Hands down, it’s hearing the stories from the people here in America that are doing heroic things for the children. And it’s the most simple ideas, but they’re God given and the impact is tremendous. For example… just so I’m not being too abstract… there’s a woman in Texas who realized the children needed shoes. This would prevent serious injuries and disease. So simple. The first year her town really got excited, and she raised thousands of pairs of shoes. The next year they raised 8,000 pairs.
S – Did you ever think writing stories like that would be your day job?
H – (laughs) No. I dreamed about being an international journalist, but by the time I graduated college I figured it was just a pipedream.
S – Why do you think that is? What happened to make your dream seem unattainable?
H – I struggled with depression—for many reasons, but many of them were because I didn’t put faith and trust in a God who is good and much, much bigger than the fear and pain I was facing. So I work very hard now to make sure the time I “lost” is used for God and will gain a lot for him.
S – In college, you studied journalism. How does your work now compare with what you learned in the classroom?
H – My professor in college was an investigative journalism news hound gave us a lot of experience—interviewing, asking tough questions about tough subjects. So I feel like I have a good handle on the process. My style and my grammar need help, though. (laughs) My editor would probably agree with that.
S – (laughs) You’ve mentioned some of your struggles and flaws throughout the interview. How do you reconcile flaws with writing?
H – It’s actually the job with COTN that has forced me to reconcile the two. When I see my flaws, I get terrified, and I shut down. But I’ve got a job, and people are counting on me. So I’ve got to do something, and I’ve had to—through ridiculous and painful struggle—face my fear. Now, I see that I’ve gained some ground, which makes me very happy for every little bit. And you, Sammie, have listened to a good deal of that struggle!
S – An honor, my dear. So, let’s keep talking about your writing as a whole. I find it so fascinating that you write in two very different genres. What is it like switching from your journalist hat to your memoirist one?
H – I think the main difference is expanding fact into story form. Because people don’t want to read a news article that’s 60,000 words. Of course, if it was newsy, it would be a lot less than 60,000. I want people—because of what I’m writing—to be able to dive into my journey, my emotions, and discoveries and make them their own. A lot of people like me find themselves in books. It can be a revolutionary experience.
S – What’s a fear you have about your work? Either one.
H – I guess my memoir jumps to mind for that one. I’m afraid my book will just end up ridiculous. But, like I said, I’ve wrestled with a lot of fear through my COTN job. I’m determined to get to the other side, because the fear affects more people than just me. It’s a good motivator!
S – So what are some books that have inspired you as a writer overall?
H – My favorite journalism book would be The Pelican Brief by John Grisham, because of all the investigation. We all want to take down our Watergate. But I’ve had a love affair with books since I could read—actually, I think it started in the first grade… Also Narnia Chronicles with my dad reading to me… (head in hands) There are too many. I can’t think. I like a billion books.
S – It’s a hard question.
H – And to be fair, I have terrible taste. I read just about anything. Except for the classics. Lately, the book that I keep in the back of my mind is One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp, because she’s brilliant, and I’m trying to write a memoir too.
S – Okay, final question. Dramatic pause. What do you want to give your readers? What do you want them to walk away with?
H – For my COTN work, I want them to know that God can use their littlest talent or gift and it will have a big impact. For my memoir, I want people to hear God speak and lead them out of whatever terrible oppression they’re locked under. (laughs) Big goals.
S – Big and wonderful. Thank you so much, Heather Lou, for this honest look at your writing life! To learn more about Heather’s role with COTN, make sure to check out her staff page here. We love you, Heather! Over and out!