Undeniably, the market for YA fiction has exploded in the last few years. Hollywood is gobbling up hot books for film and television projects, and the range of titles for the ‘tween/teen market has never been more diverse.
So we were all kinds of pleased to be able to interview Caroline Says, who, along with co-authors Hobson Brown and Taylor Materne, have written the hugely successful and critically acclaimed YA series THE UPPER CLASS novels. Set in an elite boarding school, these novels explore the terrain of young adulthood in a realistic and elegant way. I was wowed by the sophistication of the trios’ prose and crafting ability, and I gobbled them up in a week.
Their next title, OFF CAMPUS, released April 22.
Enjoy our interview with Caroline Says.
Q: Tell us about your journey to publication.
CS: It was an unusual journey! Taylor and Hobson were talking at a bar in Atlanta one night a few years ago, about their own prep school experiences. They agreed that the depictions of prep schools in film isn’t really accurate. The notion of prep school comes off more glamorous, less strange and less international than it is these days. They talked about THE SOPRANOS and how HBO finally showed a specific world that has been glamorized in a dirtier, more “insider” way. Taylor, Hobson and I had all gone to the same school–Hotchkiss–and when they decided to pitch the idea, they looked me up after reading a book I’d written, to help with the writing. We wrote a 60 page treatment for TV, about six kids from really different worlds, that end up at the same fictionalized boarding school, and we tried really hard to tap into true boarding school life–with all its complexities regarding race, gender, power, wealth, and politics. We sent it out via a script agent, but my literary agent thought it would be a good teen book series too–so we sent it out via Sally Wofford-Girand to publishers simultaneously. And Harper Teen picked it up.
Q: Writing fiction is generally an individual solitary process, and yet the three of you collaborate together on your YA Upper Class series. How does that work in a practical sense? How do ensure that the authorial voice, which is such an individual thing, stays consistent? What are the strengths and weaknesses of collaborating together on a book?
CS: It’s a process with obstacles and rewards, for sure. Everyone involved needs to be ready to give a little, to be flexible. We started by mapping out this world of Wellington, the fictional school, which was a composite of many existing schools, and imaginary schools too. We literally drew the campus and town. We filled it in with teachers and students. We listed our pet concerns and themes. We eventually created a “compost pile” of ideas and personalities and stories that we then used to fill in the storylines of the four books. We did a lot of outlining before beginning, and then each took on different chapters or scenes. We would each do some writing, then collect the material, put it together, align it, and move on to the next section.
Because I like to edit and rewrite as much as I like to do the initial writing, I ended up streamlining and “coordinating” the prose. As with any rewriting, I found the quickest way to make the book hold together was cutting–cutting extra characters or scenes that seemed superfluous, as well as cutting each sentence down. By boiling it down, the prose naturally became tighter and more consistent in style.
The strengths of collaborating are that each person brings to the books a collection of memories and ideas, of points of view. In particular, we as a team talked a lot about how boys see things versus how girls see things, and hopefully this got built into the stories. We also balanced each other out, and the guys would be lighthearted when I was getting morose, or one of us would write a bunch of dialogue while another was focused on what winter looks like in New England. The weakness is the effort it takes to corral three people’s ideas and directions into one cohesive story. No matter how much outlining an author does, the joy of writing is in seeing into what unexpected places you wander while writing. But when three people wander, it can result in chaos.
Q: For those thinking about collaborating on a novel together, what advice do you have for them?
CS: Definitely be ready to be generous with each other–allowing for different ideas and themes and storylines. Everyone has a right to bring to the work whatever is in their head or heart. And be honest, too, be willing to argue and debate. We reached many crossroads where we all disagreed about what should happen, or who a character really was and how that character would behave. We have different politics and world views, and it took a lot of discussion to accomodate it all–which we couldn’t have done if we were being too polite. We ended up honoring everyone’s unqiue standpoint by working through it with candor. It helps, too, if there’s one “editor,” besides the publisher’s editor, to align the material before submitting the manuscript.
Q: You’ve all been former boarding school students at the prestigious Hotchkiss School. How much of your real life experiences inform the narrative of your stories? Are you ever worried that some of your former classmates will get upset?
CS: Much of what’s in the books comes from our own experiences. In terms of anecdotes, emotions, politics, ideas, moments. But we were very strict about making Wellington its own entity–and not a version of Hotchkiss–and even more strict about building characters from scratch, with no references to real people. We also interviewed kids at prep schools now, and friends who went to other prep schools, collecting stories and experiences, in order to get a wider spectrum of resource material. It’s a funny thing–I believe we each own our own past and memories, but how to harvest all that without violating anyone else’s privacy is something that takes diligence. It’s also easy to write a scene, and unknowingly pull on some true incident–without even realizing that the scene is coming from a memory. Our minds sometimes trick us into thinking that what we’ve written is fresh and new, when really it’s based on something that actually happened.
Q: You chose to write in third person present POV, which gives the books a literary feel. Why did you choose that point of view?
CS: We considered doing something more casual, something more about voice than a “literary” treatment of a place and an experience. But we really believed that all of these characters–again, from really different places, different socio-economic brackets, different countries, different races–each deserved equal billing in terms of the overall voice/persective of the story. We wanted each one’s voice to come out. And we wanted free reign in describing the school and the culture and the kids, which is sometimes hindered when you’re in first person. So third person seemed more appropriate. We also hoped that the books would reach readers who wanted an alternative to the first person teen books out there, not than one is better than the other, but it’s nice to have options. We talked a lot too about being true to how complex and grand and profound the experience of being fifteen (or sixteen or seventeen) can be–and doing it justice. The more literary approach helped with that.
Click HERE for part two of the interview, when Caroline talks about the current YA market, what teens really like to read, and the prospect of seeing their novels turned into television drama.