Welcome to our newest blog series: Where Are They Now?
In this series, our editors interview past Literary Mama contributors to see what they’ve accomplished since publishing in LM and talk about their writing journeys.
Marjorie Osterhout was previously the Managing Editor and Columns Editor at Literary Mama. This month, Blog Editor Bridget Lillethorup corresponded with Marjorie over email to find out more about her experience in that role, and what keeps her busy today.
Bridget Lillethorup: Marjorie, you were the Managing Editor and Columns Editor at Literary Mama over ten years ago. Can you tell us what that was like? How did you come into that role? What did you like about working with Literary Mama? Any memories you’d like to share?
Marjorie Osterhout: My son was 2, and I was just coming out of a withering, lengthy post-partum depression when I read Andi Buchanan’s book “Mother Shock.” It slayed me. It was the perfect metaphor for what I was feeling, which was flat-out stunned by early motherhood. And it wasn’t just me!
I wrote Andi a gushing fan letter – like, firehose gushing – and she replied. We clicked personally, started reading each other’s work, and when an opening came up at LM she tapped me on the shoulder. I’d been an editor and writer before I had a baby, so landing at LM was like coming home. More than that, finding a community of mothers and writers who were opinionated, smart, scared, funny, flawed, and sexy was like water in the desert to me.
As Columns Editor, I was constantly struck and humbled by what I was reading. The columnists weren’t just writing about What Happened This Month. They were writing about their journeys as mothers in unusual circumstances. How do you raise a child when you have cancer? How do you co-parent with an ex-spouse in a Black family? What if you’re a military mom, widow, prisoner, or ex-pat?
BL: What has your writing journey been like since your time at Literary Mama?
MO: I was a travel writer for three years for Disney, which was huge fun. I was required to bring children with me (see again: Disney), which made it even better. What’s not to like about taking a teenage girl to a dude ranch? My nieces and nephews liked me a lot back then.
In a completely different arena, I’ve spent the last several years writing commissioned books for genealogy and family history projects. People tend to give them as gifts for 85th birthdays (there’s something about the number 85!), and it’s amazing to see how much peace older people feel when their stories are written down for future generations. I’ve received many tearful thank you notes. One woman even left me a candy dish in her will. That made me smile.
BL: Tell us about your latest project, “Today in Salem.” Where did the inspiration come from? What are your goals with the project?
MO: About five years ago I had a dream about the women of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. There were seven or eight of them, dressed in black, huddled in a group in front of me. They were hunched over and crying and looking away. Another woman was standing in front of them, dressed in a long white nightgown. She had gray hair down to her waist, and was clasping her hands together, begging me. “Please tell them who we are. Just tell them who we are. Please. Just tell them.” Well.
I woke up with a promise in my heart, but I didn’t know how to keep it. I made tons of false starts. The Salem Witchcraft Trials happened 300 years ago. What could I possibly write that hasn’t already been done?
I’d been thinking a lot about telling stories using social media, so eventually I landed on that as fresh way to do something new, plus keep my promise and tell a younger generation about the who the people of Salem were.
It took two years to research and write the story. I also grabbed domain and account names, built a web site, then uploaded and scheduled daily entries on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Substack, and Blog. My goal was to hit GO on Day 1, then let it run itself while I marveled at the beautiful Frankenstory I’d created. I WAS SO SMART.
It broke on Day 2. I’d forgotten that technology changes. I don’t know why the witchcraft judges didn’t think ahead and use a 9:16 aspect ratio for their documents, but Instagram wasn’t pleased. Twitter had stopped sharing with the others. Facebook throttled my page and offered to distribute it for $5 per day. Of the 1200 Facebook readers who’d signed up to read “Today in Salem,” only 20-25 were receiving it. I cried a lot that night.
BL: What has been your writing process been like for “Today in Salem”? How do you balance creativity with historical research?
MO: When my storytelling machine broke, I had a choice: to force social media to work at the expense of the story, or to honor the story and use bubble gum and duct tape to keep the technology going. I chose the latter. The women and men of Salem were real people. Their lives were so much richer and more tragic than what we’ve all been taught in school. Plus, I’d made a promise.
Without the constraints of technology, my daily entries have expanded from 100 words a day (a cozy 24,000 words for the 8-month project) to 500 words a day (120,000 for the whole shebang). It’s insane and I didn’t plan for it, but here we are.
BL: Has your time at Literary Mama shaped your writing journey in any way? Any other writing projects on the horizon?
MO: LM gave me a huge gift in realizing the beauty of non-fiction. I have a Master’s Degree in Professional Writing and Publishing, which was aimed squarely at things like marketing. But all the cool kids were in the MFA program next door. So I spent a lot of time trying to be cool and write fiction, which is just not my strength. Editing LM columns, then overseeing the site as Managing Editor, gave me a chance to read tons of gorgeous non-fiction material. LM helped me find myself, and I’ll forever be grateful.
For my next project, I’m eyeing Cynthia, a 1930’s mannequin who was invited to schwank parties, gifted diamonds and furs by high-end department stores, enjoyed a box at the Met, and was even engaged once. Can I say she was bewitching?