Dreams Do Come True: An Interview with a Sweet Valley Ghostwriter

When I mention dreams coming true, I meant for me, because in writing this blog, I constantly pull my hair out screaming “WHAT WERE THEY THINKING” and now my questions can be answered. Also, dreams do come true for Amanda Howells, who just published her first novel. Amanda (ghost)wrote the Sweet Valley University book Cyberstalker: The Return of William White Part 1. I haven’t read any SVU books, but I’m going to go ahead and declare that this may be the best book cover in the history of Sweet Valley. Maybe in the world.

Whoa. She’s like inside his head. Dear Christopher Nolan, we know where you get your ideas from. And what is she reaching for? Let’s get down to business.

Amanda Howells is a ghostwriter alum of Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley University series, responsible for such titles as Killer party, Escape To New York, London Calling, and her personal favorite, Cyberstalker: The Return of William White, Part 1. Writing as Amanda Howells, she has just published her first original YA novel, The Summer of Skinny Dipping. Kirkus calls it “a realistic and satisfying chick-lit debut,” and School Library Journal says “With a lyrical yet straightforward voice and a layered plot, this novel will live on for more than a summer.” Amanda lives in Portland, Oregon, and as you can imagine, she is very excited to go from Cyberstalker to this:

SPOILER ALERT: It’s awesome. And awesome in an awesome way, not in an awesome like motorcycle crashes and comas kind of way. I’ll be reviewing it on here in a couple of days. Let’s talk about Amanda: she’s pretty awesome. You can read more about her here. Skinny Dipping is getting lots of press and great reviews, and I couldn’t be happier for her. Meanwhile, she was kind enough to answer my inane questions.

So how did you get the gig ghostwriting?
In the early ’90s I got an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University in NYC. After graduating, a fellow student put me on to 17th Street Productions (now Alloy) which was Francine Pascal’s own development company. My friend had done some ghostwriting for The Babysitters Club and I thought it sounded like tons more fun than waiting tables. So I did a test sample for the Sweet Valley University spinoff series and got picked to be in the pool of ghostwriters from there. I had a couple of friends who tried but failed to get picked for the jobs. Some of the best writers I know were, I think, just too good and too strong in their own right to mimic someone else and spit out formula. Not everyone can write SV novels (it’s a special and yes, dubious talent).

How did it work? Did you get a docket and all things Sweet Valley?
You got an SV “Bible” with character stats (Bruce Patman: blue eyes, black hair, etc.) and summaries of plotlines. Then you got a synopsis—a couple of paragraphs—of the book you were contracted to write, and you expanded it into a chapter-by-chapter outline. Once that was approved, you wrote the book.

Did you get to write your own ideas, or was the story already there?
The story was given to you, which suited me fine. I didn’t come to the series as a fan (I got my pulpy fix via VC Andrews when I was a teen); I came to the series for the professional experience and the paycheck. And while it was great fun writing SVU novels, I liked being told what to do and just doing it. But don’t get me wrong—I worked hard on these. I was a real perfectionist about my SVUs. There’s some skill involved.

What is with the insane book cover?
I’m so in love with that cover! Elizabeth is facing down her stalker, William White, who resurfaces in a “CyberDream” experience she has when The Virtual Reality Fair comes to Sweet Valley. The plot, like all my SVU plots, was supplied to me.

Did you ever get to meet Francine Pascal? What was she like?
We were very close. I spent a lot of time with her and she gave me a gold lavalier necklace when I retired as a ghost…Gotcha! Nope, I never met her. All I knew of FP was that she divided her time between NYC and a villa in the south of France. Sadly there was no Ghostwriter Appreciation Week held at the villa. And no retirement lavalier keepsake either.

How do you feel about having contributed to important pop culture nostalgia?
It was great fun to write for a series that produced both giggles and—often at the same time—culty, reverent praise whenever you mentioned it to people at parties. I appreciate the kitsch factor of the Wakefield universe and of course, in the age of irony, a person gets props for being associated with something like that. Mockery aside, there’s no doubt SV played a pivotal role in YA cultural history. It was around long before 90210, much less Gossip Girl etc. It entertained vast numbers of teen and tween girls for decades. And that is very cool.

How did Sweet Valley affect your own writing?
Ghostwriting was really instructive for me as a young writer. It’s one thing to study creative writing, and I’d written and published a number of short stories by the time I wrote SVUs, but ghostwriting loosened me up. It taught me how to bang out a novel, work to a tight deadline, use a plot map and chapter outlines. Sure, the writing is formula, but it still works out your writing muscles. On the flip side, I had to work hard to detox the conventions of formula when writing my own YA novel. Aside from perhaps channeling a bit of Lila Fowler via a “bad girl” character, I don’t think The Summer of Skinny Dipping and the SV world have much in common. At least, I hope not.

Name your top 5 favorite young adult/teen books.
I have a hard time with top 5s as there are always more than 5… but okay, here, in no particular order:
A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry—classic oldie: timeless, thoughtful, bittersweet
Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron—since it would be too boring for me to put Catcher in the Rye in this list, I’m instead calling out this excellent coming-of-age tale, a contemporary Catcher.
The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen—she’s the reigning master of realistic YA romance. This one is a really well-told, subtle, moving love story, like all of hers.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend—my all-time favorite laugh-out-loud YA.
Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews—because I think I can be honest with The Dairiburger, and we all need some trash in our stash. Plus, repulsive as they were, I was completely captivated by the Dollengangers (who wasn’t?). It takes mad skillz (and, apparently, a dollop of incest) to create something that hideously memorable.

Share a little bit more about your new novel, and your process in developing and writing it.
The Summer of Skinny Dipping is a 100% incest-free teen romance! It is also vampire-free, werewolf-free and is basically an old-fashioned, realistic, and bittersweet love story. It’s about 16-year-old Mia, who is looking forward to a summer at her cousins’ glitzy beach house in the Hamptons. Except that nothing about her vacation goes as expected, in ways both thrilling and tragic.

The book came to me somewhere in between writing all those SVU books as well as several Fearless novels—Francine’s series about Gaia “the girl born without the fear gene. (Yes, I did just say “fear gene.”) I’d never seen myself as a YA author per se, but I just woke up one day with that title in my head. I’d always been drawn to summer-themed novels as a teen and once the title suggested itself, I decided I wanted to try and write a summery novel—but one that sticks with you after summer is over. The Summer of Skinny Dipping is very different from everything else I’d written under my own steam—I write mostly humor-driven short fiction and nonfiction under my real name, Amanda Gersh. But though I hadn’t written my own YA novel before, the story came to me quite quickly and I had a strong sense of the plot and themes even before I started writing. I have a very earnest, sentimental weepy-romantic side to me and I guess it was just ready to come out!

So, yes, the book didn’t take very long to write, but the journey to publication? Almost 10 years! More on that story here for those who are interested.

Next week I’ll be reviewing the book, and sponsoring a giveaway. Thanks again Amanda!

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26 comments

  1. Vanessa Saxton · July 29, 2010

    IHW, this was awesome! Thanks so much for tracking down a ghostwriter. She seems hysterical. I am definitely going to check out her book!

  2. The Mommy · July 29, 2010

    I absolutely love your blog and was beyond stoked to see an interview with a SV ghostwriter. Superb. Thank you for being my frequent transport back to Sweet Valley. As eye-rolling as the content goes, I still enjoy my cruise down the tree-lined streets where the beach is only a short bike ride away!

  3. Iwantyoursass · July 29, 2010

    It’s a small world! I had just added Summer Of Skinny Dipping to my library list a few days ago, with no clue she was a SV ghostwriter.

    Great interview!

  4. Mary Anne Bruno · July 29, 2010

    Amanda, I am giving you a virtual gold lavaliere for your willingness to be interviewed by ihatewheat. You must put on your stereoscopic binoculars, a la Elizabeth Wakefield, in order to receive it.

    (I just posted this same comment on your link on facebook, but I thought it was funny so I posted it again here)

  5. Mary Anne Bruno · July 29, 2010

    I can’t decide if my favorite part of this cover is Liz walking around in virtual reality or the swirly computer lasers. I know my favorite part is not that outfit she’s wearing. Stripes and some sort of flower pattern…seriously?

  6. Benita · July 29, 2010

    I had no clue that “Fearless” was a series of Francine Pascal books. It was bought by the then WB network and pilot was filmed with Rachel Lee Cook as the lead character. It did not get picked up.

    • notemily · July 29, 2010

      Rachael Leigh Cook is so not badass enough to be Gaia.

  7. imnotscared · July 29, 2010

    This was awesome! I will definitely check out her book and how did she come up with that title. I guess we can’t really blame ghostwriters anymore?

  8. Sarah Moen · July 29, 2010

    THANK YOU for the interview! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered about the ghostwriters. It’s so interesting to hear about the process.

  9. Allie · July 29, 2010

    WHOA THERE, MS HOWELLS. The important question here is WHICH Fearless books??? This is the most important question to me about YA literature ever, ALTHOUGH I will say I totally called the ghostwriter thing on that when other people were like “What? No.”

    • notemily · July 29, 2010

      YES I ALSO WANT TO KNOW WHICH FEARLESS BOOKS. Was it the AWESOME one where Gaia and Ed FINALLY hooked up, before they put pointless plot contrivances in the way of their awesome love? The series kind of jumped the shark after that. There was nowhere to go but down.

  10. Emily · July 29, 2010

    Thanks for this – loved hearing the perspective of a ghostwriter!

  11. maybeimamazed02 · July 29, 2010

    LOVE this! I’ve always wondered how ghostwriters get their start. And Amanda’s new novel sounds terrific–I too am a sucker for summer coming-of-age stories. Will definitely read this.

  12. Jen S · July 29, 2010

    Awesome, and congrats on your success, Amanda! Now I feel just a wee bit bad for mocking the writing in some of these–nah, I’ll just blame it on the outlines, and if someone feels the need to denigrate the plots, I’ll just assume the noble-yet-wounded expression of a SV teen wrongfully accused of stealing the charity money the cheerleaders raised for those revolting poor people, and whisper, “They did the best they could.”

  13. Whallie · July 29, 2010

    IHW, pure gold! I haven’t read any of the SVU books or anything by Amanda but I will now. I love the cover too. I only wish we also had a depiction by Jimmy’s cover art on this one too.

  14. Anonymous · July 29, 2010

    Wow. Seems like the SV series would have been better if the ghosties had not been given a strict formula. It’s hard to get into MFA programs, so I’m not doubting this ghostwriter’s abilities. I think it’s a shame she was commanded to write this formulaic type of story though. I wonder who masterminded the plot lines for each of the different SV spin-off series. Each series seems to stand alone without reference to any of the previous spin-off books.(ex. Olivia being raised from the dead).

  15. Neek1981 · July 29, 2010

    Going back to what y’all said about the cover, remember how silly all of the SVU covers were? These in particular:

    The Other Woman
    Wanted for Murder
    He’s Watching You
    Dead Before Dawn
    Busted
    Sneaking In
    Elizabeth Loves New York

    Also, did Liz ever lose her v-card in the SVU books? I know Mike popped Jess’s not-so-ripe cherry pretty early in the series. I kinda wish Liz would have lost it to Tom Watts. I thought he was 137 different kinds of sexy, romantic, and intellectual when I was about 13, except that his photos on the SVU covers always looked fug.

    • I hate meat. · July 29, 2010

      **SPOILERS**

      Yes, Liz lost her ‘v-card’ to an aristocrat’s son in the London series; ’bout damn time, too, IMHO.

      Ihatewheat, I just have to say, I’ve been reading your blog for about three (ish?) years now, and I’m really impressed with how far you’ve come along with it. You started with gloriously snarky book reviews of a defunct-but-not-forgotton series and now you’re interviewing authors, hosting giveaways, and writing your own stuff for other sites, all while keeping your loyal and crazy SV fans happier than Liz Wakefield in a room full of despondents. You done real good, girl, you should be real proud of what you’ve created. :D

  16. BartTempleton · July 29, 2010

    Calgon, take me away; I’m in HEAVEN.

    I bow to you, Amanda Howells/Gersh. (And obviously IHW for reeling her in). You are clearly a funny, intelligent, and well-read (to wit: FLOWERS, and I say this without an ounce of irony) woman. I will put “Summer of Skinny-Dipping” on my reading list at once.

    I *always* knew that ghostwriters in general often had genuine talent and were forced to hew to retch-worthy forumulae. There are more MFA grads than publishers are willing to publish; they have to pay their rents somehow and ghostwriting for a series, if you’re lucky enough to get the gig, can provide at least a few years of extra money.

    Actually, even series writers who use their own names (or aliases) are forced into a crappy mold for series lit.

    For e.g., I’m sure many of the other women here in their early thirties or older remember reading the Sunfire romance series. The majority of those authors (who went by their own names/professional pseudonyms) went on to, later, in the late 80s and 90s, become household names in the YA lit industry, with their own stand-alone novels conceived and written entirely by themselves.

    I imagine that although all of them are likely grateful for the plotting and pacing and other writing skills they refined as paint-by-numbers series writers (see Amanda’s interview, above), many of them are probably wishing they WERE ghostwriters…so that their names are not associated with the series books they churned out in their early careers.

  17. hungryandfrozen · July 29, 2010

    Amanda sounds fantastic. Lucky you and well done, ihatewheat! Very, very cool interview. Oh the things I’d do to get my hands on that SV Bible – it sounds like fun reading. Will most definitely look up The Summer of Skinny Dipping too :D

  18. Paula · July 29, 2010

    Awesome post! I’ve always wondered how ghost writing works so it was really interesting to read about. Thanks!

  19. Pingback: In which I Give Away a Prize and also review The Summer of Skinny Dipping « The Dairi Burger
  20. Magpie · July 29, 2010

    Thanks to both IHW and Amanda Howells for the interview! I love Amanda’s balance of genuine and ironic affection for the series. It’s also awesome to hear how these things work. I’m not going to lie: I would’ve killed to be a ghostwriter for Sweet Valley if they were still going today.

    As BartTempleton said above, I’m not surprised that ghostwriters are genuinely talented writers (in fact, from my brief research a few years back, I discovered that one SVH writer is even a professor of English). They must have had to write these books in very short time periods – no wonder some of the research and accuracy in the historical sagas was dodgy!

  21. Totally Sweet Valley · July 29, 2010

    Fascinating! would love to hear more interviews from the ghostwriters (ooh that sounds spooky!) :-)

  22. Roxanne · July 29, 2010

    Wow, that was really interesting. It looks like ghostwriting is pretty similar to writing for tv soap. The Sweet Valley series bible can’t have been very good though, with all those continuity errors in the books.

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