Interview with Paige McKenzie and Nancy Ohlin

By: Michele Kirichanskaya
Nov 6, 2021

Paige McKenzie is a millennial hyphenate: a New York Times bestselling author, YouTuber, actor, influencer, creator, artist, and producer. Her first book series, the Haunting of Sunshine Girl, was on the New York Times bestseller list for over a month. Paige is constantly creating. Her Etsy shop, the Homebody Guild, is full of her art and designs, and she is always updating it with new creations. Paige also interacts daily with her Sunshiners across a variety of media including YouTube (where she has over half a million subscribers), Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Paige is a founding member of Coat Tale Productions, with three projects in active development. Paige lives in Portland, Oregon, with the love of her life, a seven-pound Chihuahua named Pongo. 

Nancy Ohlin was born in Tokyo and moved to the United States when she was nine. She has written, ghostwritten, or collaborated on over one hundred fiction and nonfiction books for children, teens, and adults, including her YA novels Consent, Beauty, and Always, Forever (Simon & Schuster). Most recently, she collaborated with Paige on The Sacrifice of Sunshine Girl (Hachette Books), Quvenzhané Wallis on the Shai and Emmie chapter book series (Simon & Schuster), and Chloe Lukasiak on her memoir Girl on Pointe: Chloe’s Guide to Taking on the World (Bloomsbury). 

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

NANCY: Thank you for inviting us! So I was born in Tokyo, Japan and moved to the U.S. with my mom and my little brother when I was nine. English is my second language. I’ve written or ghostwritten over a hundred books for teens, kids, and adults. These days, I live in Ithaca, New York, where my husband is a law professor and dean. Our son, Chris, is a classical pianist and lives in Chicago with his partner John, and our daughter, Clara, is a 7th grader and future bestselling author. Our family includes many cats who have all perfected the art of adorable Zoom-bombing. In my spare time, I read, cook, do yoga, play board games, and watch a lot of TV (and cute cat videos, of course!).

PAIGE: Hi there! I am a New York Times bestselling author, YouTuber, actor, influencer, creator, artist, and producer. I am constantly creating in my art studio. ​I have an Etsy shop (The Homebody Guild) with rugs, clothing, earrings. and much more! I spend most of my time being creative and snuggling my 10-pound chihuahua, Pongo. 

Could you tell us what your series, B*Witch is about? Also, how did you come up with the awesome name?

B*Witch is about two covens of teen witches, one “good” and one “bad” (those distinctions get very blurry over time) who have to work together to solve the mystery of a sister witch’s untimely death. In the world of B*Witch, witchcraft is against the law, so our witches have to practice in secret. On top of this, anti-magic hate groups are on the rise, adding to the drama and danger. There’s also a 19TH-century witch-hunter who may still be alive, although it’s unclear whose side he is on; is he with the hate groups, or is he with the witches? 

The sequel, Witch Rising, picks up where B*Witch left off, with the stakes (and peril) being even higher. There’s also a lot of complicated romantic stuff going on amongst our witches: Iris and Torrence fight over Greta’s affections; Ridley can’t get over her crush on a dead girl; Div (who happens to have a “more than friends” history with Greta) and Mira fake-date two members of the anti-magic hate group; and Binx has feelings for someone who may be a valuable ally or a very dangerous enemy … or a little of both.

The name, B*Witch, was a collaborative lightbulb moment by us and our (amazing) literary agent, Mollie Glick. The asterisk was meant to evoke the contemporary vibe of the books and was also a nod to Binx, who is a cyber-witch.

How did you two come to work together on a book series? Did you know each other prior to writing together?

We did not know each other prior to writing together, although we were definitely fans of each other’s work! Our first project together was The Sacrifice of Sunshine Girl, the third book in the Haunting of Sunshine Girl trilogy. Mollie introduced the two of us and brought us together for this book. Afterwards, we were like, “that was so much fun, let’s write something else together!” So we brainstormed ideas by Skype—Paige is West Coast, and Nancy is East Coast. We almost immediately said “A BOOK ABOUT WITCHES!” to each other, and the rest is history.

Nancy Ohlin

How did you both find yourselves getting into writing? What drew you to the Young Adult genre?

PAIGE: I have always loved YA and still pretty much exclusively read YA. My path to writing was very untraditional. My YouTube series, The Haunting of Sunshine Girl, has over half a million subscribers, and I have always told stories on that platform. I was approached to do a book about my life but that didn’t feel like me, so I wrote a novel instead, The Haunting of Sunshine Girl, and thus the trilogy was born. And now, B*Witch and Witch Rising!

NANCY: I’d wanted to be a writer ever since I was little. I started out writing poetry at age thirteen, continued with poetry through high school and college, and then shifted to fiction, very tentatively, in my twenties … tentatively because poems are (generally) short and fiction is (generally) longer and involves plots and characterization and other hard stuff that I’d never studied in school. I got into kidlit when I was hired for my first ghostwriting project, for a popular girls’ mystery series; an editor friend gave me the opportunity to “audition” for the job, and I got it! Working on those books, I realized how much I liked writing from a young POV. That led to more ghostwriting gigs for various early grade, middle grade, and YA series, and eventually, to writing my own original stories for those age groups. 

Of those age groups, I find YA the most rewarding, and the most challenging, to write. Being a teenager is so intense and complicated (understatement!), and creating teen characters, telling their stories, is equally so. I also draw from my own experiences as a teenager—my teen years were not awesome—and that’s a scary place to go. Scary but necessary … two words that kind of sum up writing for me.

Aside from B*Witch, what are some other witchy universes you love or draw inspiration from?

NANCY: I’m a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Willow and her girlfriend, Tara, are two of my favorite fictional witches. I’m also a fan of Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch books. My passion for witchy things started at a young age; when I was a kid growing up in Japan, I was obsessed with a super-popular anime character named Sally the Witch. Oh, and did I mention that I love Wanda a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch from the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Beyond specifically witchy worlds … while writing the B*Witch books, I drew inspiration from folklore and mythology from different cultures. Also poetry, feminism, and herbology … and of course, the stories and experiences of people who represent the LGBTQ+, BIPOC, AAPI, and other marginalized communities. 

PAIGE: I LOVE Practical Magic with a burning passion … the house, the characters … oh, it is just everything! I also love Stardust and, really, any universe Neil Gaiman creates. And I grew up in the 90’s, so the Sanderson Sisters from Hocus Pocus are queens!

Out of the main characters in your series, who do you find yourself relating the most to?

PAIGE: This question is always the hardest for Nancy and me! I would say Binx because of her sassy nature, and Iris because of her emotions and anxiety, which I certainly suffer from!

NANCY: I think there is a part of me in all of the characters! My top three would probably be: Binx, because she is Japanese American; Iris, because of what Paige said; and Greta, because she loves cats and nature and is very nurturing. 

Since Geeks OUT is a queer website, could you talk a bit about the queer representation/themes we can see in the book?

B*Witch and Witch Rising are very much about a (fictional) marginalized group—witches who live in a place where witchcraft is illegal—and for us echo experiences that LGBTQ+ and members of other marginalized groups may experience in the real world. We have several queer characters in the series: Greta, Div, and Aysha are bi; Iris is a lesbian; and Ridley is trans. And as we mentioned earlier, the books include several non-cis-het romances.

What advice would you have for aspiring writers? 

Read lots. Keep a journal. Draw inspiration from everything around you. Remember that a first draft is just that—a first draft—and it’s important just to get the words down; you can rearrange them later. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or take creative risks. Be kind to yourself while writing, and also remember to take care of yourself when you’re not writing; it can be easy to lose track of Life with a capital L when you’re staring at your computer screen and trying to make brilliant words happen.

Paige McKenzie

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)? 

Question: Books are usually published a year or more after an author finishes the manuscript. How do you get excited about a just-published book you wrote ages ago when you’ve already moved on to other books, other projects?

Answer: Writing a book can be intense and consuming. The two of us have been known to walk around our respective houses speaking in our characters’ voices, to get the dialogue right; we’ve also been known to cry (and cry and cry) while writing emotionally difficult scenes. So once B*Witch and Witch Rising were done and delivered to the publisher, that “all-in” commitment had to be put behind us so we could move onto new ideas, new stories.

So it can be hard to get our heads back into a newly published book, like Witch Rising which just came out, when the creative experience that went into it happened long ago. But. When we recently revisited Witch Rising to talk about it with readers and to prepare for book events, we were drawn back into the intensity of its creation, the all-consuming vortex, all over again. We remembered how much we loved our characters. We cried at the same emotionally difficult scenes. It’s truly a wonder and a blessing to be able to pick up our book and relive its magic again. And again. And again.

Are there any other projects you are currently working on and at liberty to talk about? 

NANCY: I’m currently working on a middle grade novel about a Japanese American girl growing up in Ohio. It’s kind of funny, kind of dark, and definitely very real. It deals with fitting in, friendships, family, racism, and #MeToo. And Star Trek. And cats. 

The pandemic year has been a weird one for me in terms of creativity. On the one hand, I’m so focused on staying safe, keeping my family safe, and worrying about the world, that I don’t have a lot of mental and emotional energy left over for writing. On the other hand, writing is the one place where I have the freedom to imagine different, better worlds. Also, there’s something comforting about writing (and reading and watching) stories about characters whose problems are ultimately solve-able and manageable. 

PAIGE: I am constantly working on things, whether it is a rug in the studio or an interview for Geeks OUT! Currently I am putting myself through school, with only about a year left. And I am trying to get more detail in my rugs, so wish me luck! 

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/ authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

There are so many wonderful LGBTQ+ books and authors that we could name! Definitely at the top of our list would be books by: Phoebe North, Katherine Locke, Alex London, C. B. Lee, Adib Khorram, Tessa Sharpe, NoNieqa Ramos, Bennett Madison, Robin Talley, Eliot Schrefer, and Bill Konigsberg. 

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