In which I get to talk with authors Jen Sternick and Tom Wilinsky

Tom Wilinsky and Jen Sternick are the authors of Snowsisters (Duet Books/Interlude Press, Feb 15, 2018), a young adult novel about… well, I’ll let them tell you (they will).

Tom Wilinsky: We’re very excited to be having our debut novel published! Jen and I have known each other since our freshman year in high school, but as writers, we’ve only known each other for two-and-a-half years. We spent our high school years in Massachusetts, but moved around and apart starting in college.

Jen Sternick: Now, we live in separate states, but not too far apart. I’m in Rhode Island and Tom is in New York. I have a husband, two kids and a cat. Tom has a partner and a cat. When we first met, we started talking and passing notes—very high school—and we’ve been doing the same thing ever since.

Alysia Constantine: You two write together as a team, so I am fascinated by you. You are like some bizarre chimera and I want to put you in a cage and stare at you. But, like, one of the nice new “environment” cages that the zoos have now, not the iron-barred depressing cages like the Bronx Zoo had when I was a kid. I mean, I’m not cruel, I’m just fascinated and I want to watch you in a simulacrum of your natural habitat. Is that weird? What kinds of reactions do you get when people find out you’re a writing team?

 Jen:  Well, apparently co-authors are bizarre, because that’s the thing we get asked about the most. But we love to talk about co-authoring, and we’ve never written any other way, so stare away!

Tom:  When we meet other co-authors, they tell us they get the same reaction. People are fascinated with how two people write as a team.

We discuss all the time how much easier we find it to split the tasks of writing, editing, revising and managing social media, not to mention keeping up with reading YA literature. Did we mention drafting? Snowsisters is the first book we’ve had accepted for publication, so we are learning as we go, but there hasn’t been a step in the process yet that we haven’t found easier to manage with a partner.

Jen:  We love the back-and-forth of collaborating. We find it both confusing and amusing that other authors think writing is a solitary exercise

Alysia: How did you start working together? WHY did you start working together? How did you two kids meet?

Tom: Jen and I have been swapping books, observations and strong opinions since high school; paper notes we passed in study hall gave way to letters in college, which gave way to emails and texts. A few years ago, Jen started sending me short fictionalized pieces about significant and everyday events, a daily journal of her trip to Provence with her mother, meeting up with a high school friend after several years, and others. I sent a bunch back and it was fun to share, compare and discuss our writing

In 2015, I read Heidi Pitlor’s The Daylight Marriage, a gripping novel written in two perspectives. The structure of the book was so clear that I thought we could do it. I tentatively told Jen in an email that I thought we could and she picked up on it immediately. She often tells me to stop pulling my punches!

Jen: When my son came out a few years ago, I was at a loss for what kind of fiction to give him to read. It’s embarrassing to admit this now, but the only novel (really a short story) I came up with was Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. My son loved it, but when he asked for “a rom-com for gay boys” I knew I needed to help him find more positive representation and I had no idea where to look. Teachers and librarians had limited suggestions. Tom had some ideas, but many of them were from years ago, and not particularly uplifting.

Tom and Jen:  We both started voraciously searching for and reading LGBTQIAP+ young adult fiction and comparing notes.

Once we decided to write our own book, it didn’t take much to settle on creating a book that we were still having a hard time finding–one focused not just on coming out, but on being out, as a young person. We wanted to explore the questions we knew queer kids had: How do I find someone like me? What does having sex mean for me? How do I handle prejudice and ignorance in others? What will my life be like? And we wanted to write happy endings. In the past two years, it’s amazing how much this genre has exploded in quantity and quality. We’re very excited to contribute to it.

Alysia: Because there are two of you and I am assuming you do not have some sort of Matrix/bumblebee/cultish hive mind, I’m assuming you have two different voices. How do you blend things so that the finished novel has a consistent voice

Tom: Hey, I’m a beekeeper–don’t knock the hive mind!

Jen: Each of us has the initial responsibility to write from one character’s POV. But by the time we are done editing and revising, it’s often hard to tell who wrote what. And sometimes I’ll have an idea that I want to write down that needs to be told from Tom’s character’s voice. But I always ask him to edit the voice to read the way he wants it to. On our weekend talks, we go over what each of us has done and what we need to do next. Tom works through new scenes and identifies what does and doesn’t match our storyline. We adjust either the scene or the outline accordingly.

Tom: It’s important to us to have distinctive voices in a story. I think it drives characters’ personalities and I know it helps me to understand them. That being said, right now we are working on a manuscript with three POV’s and we will probably split them by gender–since two are female and one is male.

Alysia: Could you please give us the elevator pitch for Snowsisters? What’s it about?

Tom and Jen: High school students—Soph, who attends private school in Manhattan, and Tess, a public school student who lives on a dairy farm in New Hampshire—are thrown together as roommates at a week-long writing conference. As they get to know each other and the other young women, both Soph and Tess discover unexpected truths about friendship, their craft, and how to hold fast to their convictions while opening their hearts to love.

Jen: That’s the elevator pitch. But honestly, Snowsisters is about a lot more. It’s about young women writers finding their voices. It’s about girls meeting girls who seem very different from one another but turn out to share many, many things. It’s about the magical quality of love in the snow.

Tom: All of the main characters and virtually all of the minor characters in this book are women. They are cis and trans, gay and straight. We wanted to center women’s voices, and except for three very minor characters, we managed to do so. We’re pretty excited about that as well.

Alysia: Why did you want to center women’s voices? The conventional wisdom is that men’s stories sell better than others, and so there’s pressure to produce stories for/about men/boys at the expense of other stories. Personally, I love the shift you’re doing, and I don’t think the economic incentive to exclude women’s voices will go away until there are more stories for women, girls, and nonbinary folk to sell to non-cismale readers. It’s probably a chicken-egg problem.

That old coming-out narrative most of us over 30 know by heart is less and less common among younger folks nowadays. (And anyway, that “coming out” thing always struck me as false, as if you do it once and there’s one big moment of revelation–I still come out, even though I’m “out”—in every new situation, with every new person I meet, I have to decide whether or not I shall “reveal” myself as queer. How tiring.)

I guess all that is to say: seems like it’s time for new narratives.

What was writing it like?

Jen: We confess that Snowsisters is not our first novel. Our first novel is a gay YA romance set in a summer camp. It has not yet found a publisher. After we finished it, Tom suggested writing something in women’s voices. At roughly the same time, Interlude Press put out a request for short stories with winter themes.

Tom: The timing was perfect. My niece, a junior in high school, had just come back from a writing seminar in Vermont. Although that took place in May, I could see it happening over President’s Day Weekend. Jen and I had been discussing how much YA LGBTQIAP+ romance seemed to feature boys and that was another reason to try writing one for girls. I’ve been a city person for most of my adult life, while Jen has mostly lived in small towns.That led us to a “city-mouse-country mouse” theme, which fit with the “opposites attract” trope Interlude was looking for.

I think it took us about sixty days to write Snowsisters, the short story. We were pretty reductive in our writing. There was a lot to include and not much room for extra characters.  

Jen: After we submitted Snowsisters, we got a call from Interlude asking us to expand the story to novel-length. We agreed without having any idea what we were getting into! It took another four months to push the story out in all directions. It was very difficult. Every time we added another chapter it messed something up that we had established earlier in the book. There was lots of finicky editing which I am not patient with. If I had been working on my own, I would probably still be at it. Tom really pushed the project to where it needed to be for resubmission.

Alysia: How do you do writing? Do you do the actual putting-words-on-pages alone and plot together, or do you put the words down together as you go? Are you in the same room? How often do you confer? I’m looking for a picture of how you two write something as a team.

Tom: I live in New York and Jen lives in Rhode Island, but I travel regularly to Massachusetts to attend to my elderly mother, so when we first discussed the idea of co-authoring, we arranged to meet for brunch on a rainy Sunday in June 2015 in Providence, and talk about our first novel. Don’t let Jen tell you she’s not methodical–she was the one with the notebook and pen. I just blabbed out potential situations and directions while Jen imposed some order on the chaos. I don’t remember who suggested it first, but we wanted to each take a character and write that character’s voice in the first person.

Jen: We talked in general terms about what we wanted to write, settling on a novel about young gay people meeting other [young gay people], not a coming-out novel, a survival tale or a downer. Then we bounced back-and-forth about where to set it and what the main characters would be like. We came up with individual and group nicknames for the characters. That was fun–it brought them to life. We talked a little about a story arc, but we didn’t have unlimited time.

Tom: In fact, the waitress asked us to leave! It was okay, though. I needed to get back home and I think Jen was excited to start writing. A week later, I sent Jen a first draft of something, the main character’s opening statement of identity and goals. Jen liked it, but then she did me one better. She wrote a short adventure chapter, one in which the two boys met and misunderstood each other.

Jen: Ideas for scenes and story directions pop into my head all the time.  Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a good one or a nagging concern. It is not uncommon for me to text Tom from the grocery store something like: “a high schooler who wants to be a drag queen wins a guest appearance on his favorite show!”

Tom: Once we have a general outline, we decide who is going to write what and when. I usually write on weekends, when I can spend several hours at a keyboard. We talk on Saturdays or Sundays–both when we’re really trying to get something out. We do our scenes and chapters on Google Docs and share with each other once we’re ready. Google Docs works for us because we can both have access to the work at the same time and it’s simple. When we’re working on drafts, we use “suggested” for editing so that it’s clear what is new and who is inserting or removing text.

We email multiple times daily about our work. We also talk by phone weekly for at least an hour-and-a-half.

Alysia: How’d you develop your team-writing style? Was there trial and error? Were there things you found that didn’t work for you?

Tom: We started with two POVs because that seemed the easiest way to do it with two authors. We’ve largely stuck with that. Initially, we had pretty long Google Docs, but we found it slow to use as manuscripts grew. So we switched to individual documents for each chapter

Jen: One thing we learned that fascinated me was how our different genders affect writing opposite sex characters. When we write boys’ voices, Tom will correct my approach, and tell me boys would be more aggressive or more confused in certain situations. In Snowsisters I did the same, applying a girl’s perspective to his words.

Alysia: Do you find the same issues apply to writing characters who are not like you in other ways (say, of a different ethnicity or social class or age)? What do you both think about the more frequent use of “sensitivity readers” in fiction? Did you use one for Snowsisters?.

 

 

Tom:  It’s harder going writing characters who differ from us profoundly. One obvious example is Orly, the trans girl who attends the writing conference in Snowsisters. In our earliest drafts, we wrote around her, gave her less dialogue, and instead concentrated on the two main characters’ reactions to her. Our editor noticed it immediately and recommended that we engage two sensitivity readers. This was very helpful! Not only were they able to give us a sense of what it was like to be Orly, they were able to suggest scenes and plot developments which gave Orly more of a voice. That helped us to flesh her out.

 Jen:  It was important for us to have trans representation in Snowsisters. The Young Women’s Writing Conference should include all young women, not just cis ones. Bringing Orly to the conference and then setting out the conflict created by Chris allowed us to address not only Orly’s issues, but broader ones like revealing yourself, being revealed or deciding not to reveal.  We ended up using four sensitivity readers for the book in total, which helped with voices, and ensuring accuracy for both the cis and trans characters.

Alysia: Is there ever a point when one of you wants to go one way and the other wants something else? How do you solve that?

Tom: I think we’re pretty good at resolving our differences. We talk it through. Some things are pretty minor. Generally the person who has the initial responsibility for one character’s POV gets final say on the content in that character’s section. We always try to negotiate the more important things. And sometimes we’ll ask for an outside opinion–one of our sensitivity readers, our editor, a family member.

Jen: We made an agreement very early on that we wouldn’t let writing get in the way of our friendship.  And we’ve learned that things get revised so much during the editing process that you can always revisit parts that you weren’t crazy about earlier, and sometimes they look different later on.

Tom: And we know that, even if we disagree, no one is doing it with bad intent. That helps us compromise.

Alysia: What do you think writing with a partner gives you that you don’t get from writing on your own?

Jen: Someone to catch my typos and correct my grammar instantly! No, seriously, writing with Tom gives me courage. I come up with all kinds of crazy plot ideas and he either thinks they’re really great, or he says, “I’ll think about it,” which lets me know I probably need to tweak it or change it. That’s invaluable. It keeps me from spinning my wheels. Both of us bring different strengths to the work. And we have to agree before we send anything out into the world. So we both know at least one other person thinks it’s worth reading!

Tom: Jen is very good at troubleshooting. Our story arcs need it because I’m logical, by which I mean flat, in my thinking. She’ll come up with something a character ought to do and then we brainstorm about how to do it, who describes it and where it fits into the storyline. She also knows when the story line lacks excitement.

I suck at revising the storyline!  I’m stronger at editing and making sure voices are distinct. This is one of the ways we balance each other out.

Jen: I know Tom hates making changes! He’s the type of person who puts the furniture in a room and thinks it should never change.

Tom: Also, the pictures on the wall.  Why would you want to change them?

Jen: He usually comes around after having some time to wrap his head around a change, though. And if he doesn’t, we figure out a compromise. On the flip side, he’s much better than I am at fixing language, grammar and punctuation. (True fact: He did all my grammar homework in tenth grade. I never really learned the rules of grammar.) He’s also very good at careful editing, which I hate.

Tom: We also balance each other out in terms of managing anxiety and stress. If one of us is worried about attending an event, or how a chapter will be received, the other one is usually able to calm fears or suggest strategies. Getting a book published takes a lot of work, a lot of persistence and a lot of time. Sharing all of that makes it much easier.

Alysia: That’s a really good point—when I think of writing with someone else, I think about it as being more work, but you’re talking about how the load is lightened. I can imagine how much stress and fret it cuts out when you have another person in it with you. 

 

The obvious questions: what’s great about writing together? What’s hard? What hurdles are there?

Tom:  Great: ideas, feedback and support at all times during the process and the excitement of getting a chapter from Jen and seeing what she’s done with it. We love our characters enough that it’s fun to see them pushed around. Hard: Sometimes, I’m nervous about how she’s going to react to a piece I’ve written.

Jen: For me the greatest moments are when we get together in person and we work through a plot point or an outline or a problem. Our most productive moments come when we are in the same location–rare, since we live far apart–tossing ideas back and forth while one of us takes notes on the computer. I always come away from those sessions excited and re-energized to get back to writing.

What’s hard is meeting short deadlines with editors when we need to agree on how to proceed. I think I hung up on Tom three times one week because I was so busy at work when he needed an answer. He ended up having to do most of the work, which didn’t make me feel good. Luckily I trust him completely to make the right decisions.

Tom:   Okay, also hard living up to that trust!

Alysia: What do you really like about Snowsisters? What’s your favorite thing?

Jen: Right now one of my favorite things about the book is the cover art. Our art director did an amazing job of mixing so many themes–color motifs, the girls’ writing, snow. She took all of these complicated elements and turned them into a simple, striking image that really captures Soph and Tess and their world. It’s beautiful. I’m also in love with the last chapter, but I can’t tell you details without spoiling it! Let’s just say I really like how and where Soph and Tess ended up.

Tom: I like the girls, even the one who isn’t that likable. I think they came out believable and appealing, warts and all. I’m very proud of how we developed the primary secondary character, Orly, which took research, interviewing and a ton of back-and-forth. I hope people like her.

Alysia: I love that cover, too. I love the color, and the silhouettes.

OK, is one of you more public than the other? I’ve learned the hard way that nowadays most writers must be out there. You must do public readings, sign books, talk to people, be on social media… how do/will you two handle this? I’m trying to picture a reading, for instance: will only one of you read? Will you guys read together like a weird cult chant? Will you trade off paragraphs? Will one of you read while the other acts it out with puppets?

Tom: We’re both used to public speaking for our jobs, so it doesn’t really intimidate us. Jen strongly identifies as an introvert and I test as an extrovert, but I think we’re fairly balanced about how public we are. We haven’t quite figured out how to manage readings, but we will probably each take a voice and read a couple of different sections.

Jen: Puppets would be fun!

Tom: What I hope for from readings is hearing from readers about their reactions.

 [I was able to attend Tom and Jen’s book party a while after this interview took place, and can tell you what they did: they each assumed the voice of one character to read–since the novel switches between the two girls’ voices, it seemed like a natural choice.] 

Alysia: Longhand, typewriter, Dictaphone or computer?

Tom and Jen: Computer. So that we can share.

Jen: Although I often take notes and make to-do lists longhand in notebooks. If we’re together Tom takes a photo of it so we both have the same information.

Tom: We took typing together in high school, so we’re both keyboarders.

Alysia: Bad habits while you write? (Before I quit, I used to have to smoke while writing, or at least have a cigarette burning in an ashtray. I can’t drink and write, but some people I know do. I still hold my breath while writing for some reason. Maybe the lightheadedness helps…)

Jen: Hmmm. I’m not sure. Probably internet surfing. 

Tom: I know Sondheim finds vodka helps him to write lyrics, but I wrote all of Soph’s poetry stone cold sober.  I write at a dining table in front of a window and watch birds at the feeder.  It works for me, but I end up very stiff-backed!  I completely neglect my partner, cat and all other obligations when I do this.

Jen: You pace when we’re talking, both on the phone and in person. Constantly. I don’t know if it’s bad, but it’s a habit.

Alysia: I used to have a poetry instructor in grad school who said that most people walk and pace in iambic pentameter, which is the natural rhythm of English speech, so pacing makes some sense. Taking a walk while composing sometimes helps me, too.

Do you have outside (non-novelist) jobs? What do you do?

Tom and Jen: We’re both attorneys.

Tom: I have a commercial practice in New York.

Jen: And I work for state government in Rhode Island. I used to be a criminal prosecutor.

AC: I feel like there’s a lawyer joke in there somewhere. There’s a long tradition of lawyer-writers and doctor-writers (I always think of William Carlos Williams, who was a country doctor as well as a poet, and who wrote his poems on prescription pads).

 

 

Alysia: Being a lawyer of any kind sounds like a rather intense career, rather busy. Why in the world would you add to it by writing non-lawyer stuff, too?

Tom:   It’s really a different type of writing and communicating than we do as lawyers, a very refreshing difference. Legal writing is full of constraints—factual constraints and legal structure. Writing a novel is more free-form.

Jen: Part of it is that we both really love to read fiction.  riting is an extension of that love.  But I’ve always found writing to be a helpful way to organize my thoughts and feelings. And it’s a lot more creative. As lawyers, we’re not supposed to make anything up. With fiction, we do a lot of that!

 Alysia: How would each of you describe the other?

 Jen: Tom is probably the most loyal person I’ve ever met. He never wants to let anyone down.  He’s a very traditional Virgo–likes to think things through, likes to set a path and follow it. That’s helpful because I’m much more scattershot in my thinking and my work. He grounds me, whether we’re writing, or just friending. He’s done that since we were fifteen.

Tom: Jen is passionate in everything she does. She has great loves and beliefs. She’s also an extremely thoughtful person. I don’t just mean considerate, she puts thought into everything she does. I find this very impressive. When I have a problem, I go the refrigerator. When Jen does, she thinks it out. That doesn’t seem scattershot to me at all!

I’m not sure what the adjective for this is, but I’m always interested in Jen’s reaction to things.

Alysia: Speaking of that zoo environment I’m going to put you in, is there anything special you’d like me to put there for you? Typewriter? Laptop? Pets? Pillows? Case of Yoo-Hoo? What do you need in order to write?

Tom: My orange tiger cat, Newky. And some small ground mammals safely outside the cage to keep him happy.

Jen: A space heater, my Ipad and absolute quiet.

 

You can find Snowsisters at http://www.interludepress.com, or at major online booksellers. You can’t miss it–it has a hot pink cover. 

 

 

  

 

 

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