INTERVIEW: Ona Gritz, Author of Everywhere I Look: A Memoir

Interview by Michèle Dawson Haber

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cover of everywhere I look by ona gritz showing author and her sister as children in a field with big sky behind themI read Everywhere I Look: A Memoir by Ona Gritz (Apprentice House; April 2024) in a single sitting, and I hadn’t done that in years. It is both detective story and memoir and utterly entrancing.

Ona writes with an honesty and precision that frequently made me gasp and tear up. She talks directly to her older sister, Angie as she embarks on a quest to make sense of her sister’s life as well as of her death by murder. It feels like she is writing a letter to Angie, as if she hopes that maybe, somehow, she might read it.

The form is a perfect choice: Ona wants Angie to understand that she was loved, is not forgotten, and that the way she died does not define her. But Ona is not just speaking to Angie, she is speaking to anyone who has been raised in a family shrouded in secrets, fear, and blame and believes they were somehow responsible for anything that went wrong.

Forty years after the tragic death of Angie and her young family, Ona uncovers answers to questions she has long suppressed. It is a quest that ends in the best possible way, freeing Ona from the assumptions and guilt that held her down for decades and resuscitating Angie’s life and legacy as only a gifted writer and loving sister can do. I had the pleasure of connecting with Ona a couple of weeks before the release of Everywhere I Look.

Michèle Dawson Haber: Ona, congratulations on the publication of your stunning memoir. I would describe Everywhere I Look as a quest memoir, or memoir as detective story. Although the reader understands that the inciting event is the loss of Angie when you were nineteen, it is not details of the murder that you are pursuing—these you tell the reader on the very first page—it is the truth behind your family narrative and how the identities of two sisters were formed in an environment of secrecy and resentment. When did you first realize that this was a quest that you could not say “no” to?

Ona Gritz: For a long time, I didn’t think about my sister. I put her away, deep in my consciousness until the last member of our immediate family died. In the memorial slideshow for our half-brother, who we barely knew growing up, was a picture of him with seven-year-old Angie sitting on the arm of his chair. I looked around the crowded room and thought, no one else knows who she is. Around that same time, my son and I got into an argument over something trivial, and he said he was going to run away. I panicked, remembering how my sister used to run away. I knew that kids don’t run away without good reason, but I never applied that logic to her until that moment. And then, the final thing that happened was my earlobe tore. Angie had a torn earlobe too, either from the weight of a heavy earring stretching the hole or it getting snagged on something.

Anyway, my own tear brought up all the ways she’d been harmed and marked from when she lived mostly on the streets and my reaction was so judgmental­This doesn’t happen to people like me. I’d adored my sister, so it horrified me to realize that I’d internalized the good girl/bad girl narrative of who we were in our family. Somehow, I don’t remember the exact moment, these three experiences converged. It struck me that it’s no accident that Angie’s sister is a writer; I was meant to give her a bigger place to exist than in my head.

ona gritz at art exhibit

MDH: You write the story in the second person speaking directly to Angie as if you were writing a letter. Can you talk about how you arrived at telling the story in this form?

OG: That was a very late discovery. The memoir took a decade for me to figure out how to write because it was so complex. I had no idea what to put in and what to leave out. I took Lilly Dancyger’s class on structure and it helped so much. After I did a full structural revision, I asked her to be my developmental editor. I believed she would just do a few tweaks. Instead, she told me, “I need a ton more of you on the page.” And I thought, I don’t know how to bring myself in and I don’t want to! So, I put it aside for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime, I wrote a poem to Angie.

A direct address is not an unusual thing to do in poetry. It was then I realized: I’m not supposed to write about her, I’m supposed to write to her. With that, an intimacy came into the story, this sisterhood; I could just tell her what it was like to be me in the family and tell her the things I felt ashamed of or wished I could have done differently.

MDH: The heartbreak of having loved and then lost Angie and her family is hard to fathom. After so many decades of trying not to think about these feelings, you open it all back up once you decide to go searching for answers. Did the act of writing the story soften the sharp edges of your grief in any way?

OG: Yes, it did two things. The research that I had to do about our family was devastating. I uncovered ways my parents made Angie’s life so much harder than it had to be and put her on a trajectory where she wanted to be as far away from us as possible. I also started to miss her again. Which, in its own way, was both painful and lovely, because when you miss someone, they’re with you—you’re thinking about them, you’re dreaming about them, and you’re letting yourself have those memories. It was like getting to spend time with her and, in some ways, made writing the book feel like a collaboration. That was just delicious. Here’s this person I loved my whole life and I actually got to wake up in the morning and think about her and talk to her. There’s one moment where I was seeking information and a clue just popped into my head out of nowhere. I can’t help but feel that came from her.

MDH: I’ve heard memoir teachers say there are two reasons one should never write a memoir: to get revenge on someone who has wronged you or to memorialize a loved one. Memoir, we are told, must have a broader, more universal “why.” Your book is most certainly a tribute to your sister, but it is also so much more. Can you talk more about what your aims were in this regard?

OG: Well, I’m glad that I never heard that edict against memorializing, because it might have made me question myself more. My initial intent was to let people know who she was, which is a very personal thing. And even though people are interested in those who die in that particular way, it was important to me to write it in a way that wasn’t at all salacious. But as I learned more about what happened to Angie in our family, the trust that our parents and parents generally had in the juvenile justice and foster system, and the history about how girls were treated in these detention centers—I felt I had something to share that I hadn’t come across in other literary memoirs.

In the sixties and seventies, if a parent couldn’t deal with their kids, they were allowed to essentially have them arrested. These children—maybe they were running away from impossible situations, maybe they were truants, sexually active, or maybe they were just pains in the ass—they would get sent to these juvenile detention centers and housed together with children who’d committed violent crimes, including murder. The more I researched, the more the story deepened as I uncovered it. I came to believe that this is not just an important story for me personally, but it’s an important part of our country’s history, and should be told.

MDH: Your parents were confounding and complicated beings. Your mother especially—she could be so malevolent toward your sister. That single gesture—the crisscross slap of her hands, in a “that’s done”—was probably the most damning indictment of her in the whole book, and yet somehow, the reader accepts that she isn’t a villain. Was this intentional on your part? Were you worried about how she came off?

OG: Very much so. I was very worried about it because she was a wonderful mother to me, but not to her other children, Angie especially. I didn’t want a black and white villain because I didn’t experience her that way.

At one point, I shared a draft a with a writer who was the first to tell me my four-hundred-page manuscript was shapeless. She said, “the most interesting thing to me was how crazy your mother was. I think that should be your focus.” I was horrified because that was so not my intention. I had written down in a notebook every single memory I could think of with Angie, and a lot of them included angry moments with my mother. There were nice moments in between, but they didn’t stick in the same way.

One of the things that I did to humanize my mother was to pull some of those angry moments out. I didn’t need every single example. The other thing I did was tell her story—how she was treated in her family as a child, what I knew about her first marriage, and what I came to understand about the impossible position my father put her in. Very few people are purely malevolent; most people who do terrible things have had terrible things done to them.

MDH: Within a body of literature called “criplit,” you write a lot about your experience of having a mild form of cerebral palsy, and you are deeply involved in the disability community. In your book of poetry, Geode and in your first memoir On the Whole, your experience with disability is a central focus. Everywhere I Look pulls the focus out, capturing other parts of your identity, yet your disability doesn’t disappear from view. Can you talk about what role your experience as a person with CP plays in your writing generally and in this story in particular?

OG: For a long time, disability was something else I didn’t want to think about or focus on. That really shifted when I fell in love with my second husband, Dan, who is blind and also a writer. He writes beautifully about his life as a blind person, and that inspired me to explore disability in my own work. I proposed a column to Literary Mama about my experience of being a disabled mother raising an able-bodied kid. Before motherhood, I had always thought of my disability as a physical appearance issue—I only had mild limitations, such as needing a banister or finding it hard to walk on icy sidewalks. And then I had this baby and a lot of what he needed, especially in the first year, was beyond my physical capabilities. For example, I couldn’t nurse and feed myself at the same time and I couldn’t carry him downstairs safely. By writing, I discovered my experience was universal—you don’t have to be physically disabled to feel like a completely incompetent mother. Writing that column was my first foray into creative nonfiction.

In terms of this book, I was seen by my parents as the frail one, so I got all the protection, and I thought that that was an important part of the story.

MDH: Your memoir has a very clear structure, weaving childhood, scenes from the time of Angie’s death, and your present-day exploration and transformation. Did this structure reveal itself early on, or did you struggle with how best to convey crucial information from a variety of time periods?

OG: Oh, my God, it was the hardest thing on earth to figure out this structure! When I drafted the first two chapters, I liked how the two different timelines—what I thought of as the aftermath thread and the childhood thread—worked next to each other. But the aftermath thread had this huge, decades-long gap before I got to the adult me who goes exploring. Braiding these two threads meant that adult me came really late in the book. So, I unbraided it and told it chronologically, but that didn’t work either. While working on this in her class, Lilly Dancyger said my story was crying out to be braided. She showed me that there were actually three threads and that adult me as investigator was the plumb line and not only could be but had to be brought in earlier. It was such a revelation.

MDH: You write in so many genres: poetry, children’s books, YA, essays, and memoir. Does each inform the other?

OG: I’m a poet first, it’s how I learned to be a writer. That’s been both really good and really bad for me as a prose writer. Poetry has given me a good ear. Dialogue, for example, comes easy to me because I’m always listening to the sounds of words. But poetry didn’t teach me how to structure a big, complicated story. Also, in poetry, a certain amount of restraint is an asset, and I think that is part of why I didn’t realize I’d left myself out of the memoir at first.  When it comes to choosing projects, the genres I work in don’t ever battle each other, as in this wants to be a poem; this wants to be an essay. It’s always clear to me what form I want to write in.

MDH: When one is on a quest, so much of the detective work is static: sitting in libraries, requesting archival documents, conducting online research. It’s not always going to be as riveting to the reader as it is to the quester. These parts of your memoir struck me as exactly right. Was this difficult to accomplish and did you have to cut a lot?

OG: I did have to cut a lot out because in the beginning I thought every single moment was fascinating! Once I had the trial transcripts, for example, I wanted to recreate the court experience in its entirety. This was something that changed once I brought myself more into the story. I figured out how to tell the parts that had meaning to me, and therefore had meaning to our story. A lot of things fell away after this, and the book found its shape.

MDH: Do you have an agent, or did you approach publishers directly?

OG: I once had an agent tell me jumping around in genres as I do makes me really impossible to represent. I did work with one for a time who is also a friend, but I’m  actually really uncomfortable with this whole gatekeeper system. When AWP was here in Philadelphia a couple of years ago, I went to a panel about how university presses differ from traditional presses. They’re not marketing-focused, they’re not pre-judging you by what you’ve already published, how much that sold, or what you might publish next. After hearing that, I felt I could breathe more deeply.

I knew about Apprentice House Press from a Baltimore poet friend. They’re out of Loyola University in Maryland. I sent the manuscript to two other university presses as well, but my submissions to them lived in the Submittable queue for a year. Then I got the acceptance from Apprentice House, which is a very unusual press because it’s staffed by undergraduates, so they’re all learning the book trade. There’s a professor at the helm who supervises the students and he’s wonderful. I liked the ideas behind their setup but accepted with a little trepidation. It turned out to be a really positive experience. I had a lot of creative control. Also, my design editor was amazing. A big five house would not have put out a more beautifully designed book and cover.

MDH: It really is gorgeous and perfect.

OG: Something else I like about them is their distribution. The book is available in all the places it’s supposed to be. I’m largely on my own with promotion, but that was also true of the small press I worked with for my middle grade book last year as well as for my middle grade novel with HarperCollins in 1998. I just don’t have expectations from my publishers around promotion.

MDH: What are memoirs that have inspired you?

OG: There is a book that should get a lot more attention called Bereft by Jane Bernstein, which is about her sister’s murder. Like mine, it’s very much about the psychology of delayed grief. Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance was a good model of an investigative memoir. Also, Lilly Dancyger’s book about her father, Negative Space, the beautiful memoir, Her by Christa Parravani, and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett.

MDH: What’s next for you?

OG: I have two more books coming out from an imprint of the educational publisher, Enslow Publishing, West 44 Books. They publish high-low (high interest/low readability) books for teenagers. Most of their books are written as verse novels—every page is a poem and together they build the story. I’ve always loved verse novels and so I answered their call for own voices stories and wrote a verse novel with a character who has my disability. Then the editor announced she was accepting proposals for the next season, and I had already started a novel in verse based on my memoir research about reform schools. It’s a historical novel about a fictional teenager who’s in an actual New York State reform school in 1970. That’s also coming out later in the year.

MDH: Amazing, congratulations. Three books in one year, wow! Ona, thank you so much for talking with me, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

Meet the Contributor

Headshot of writer Michele Dawson HuberMichèle Dawson Haber is a Canadian writer, potter, and union advocate. She lives in Toronto and is working on a memoir about family secrets, identity, and step adoption. Her writing has appeared in Manifest Station, Oldster magazine, The Brevity Blog,, and in the Modern Love column of The New York Times. You can find her at

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