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!