Q&A Session with Michael Grant

I plucked up my courage and finally sent Michael Grant (@MichaelGrantBks) a private message to ask him about his experience writing Sweet Valley with his wife Katherine Applegate (@Kaaauthor).

Shortly after, I got a response, answering my questions in full. I’m just going to be bouncing off the walls a bit here.

If you are not familiar with these lovely writers (known on this site collectively as #BestJamieSuzanne), I suggest you run out and buy all 28 of the Making Out series released under Katherine Applegate’s name, but co-written between them (or at least the first eight, thereafter ghosties happen) and the Gone series by Michael Grant, together with the new book, Monster.

So, would you like some insight on the Sweet Valley process?

How did you both get into ghosting for Sweet Valley? Did you specifically choose Twins, rather than High, or was that decided by the powers that be?

Katherine saw an ad, if we recall correctly, in something like Publishers Weekly. She sent away for the guidelines from the packager (then Dan Weiss Associates, now morphed into Alloy Entertainment). I think they wanted sample chapters so we popped those out and we were given a book to do.

Did you meet/speak to other Sweet Valley ghosts, or were you working independently of the others?

We tried hard not to even speak to editors, we had no contact with other writers.

What was the process like? Did they send exact outlines listing A and B plots, or was it more of a guideline like “Elizabeth gets her period, Jessica doesn’t” (to summarise an old favourite) and you had free rein to fill in the rest?

They send you an outline. Of sorts. Katherine is more of a rule follower than I am, so it usually fell to me to say, ‘This outline is crap, it’s half a story.’ (I was arrogant early, long before I had reason to be.) So we’d take the outline, draw lines where we thought the chapter lines might be, and then just basically make up a better outline. #39, our first, was more or less to their plan, but as we progressed we started ignoring everything but the title.

You mentioned that you were told to reference classic movies, and you prefer to reference real contemporary music/TV/movies in your own books, is there anything else you found constricting about the process? Or was it quite liberating to have to work to exacting specifications?

Referencing made-up bands and so on always irked us. I think the idea was that it would make the text timeless. It was no big strain to us, but when we started to build our own YA series we used real-world references. Which, incidentally, annoyed some people because they thought a reference to McDonalds, say, was product placement. But you can’t be realistic and exclude brand names, it’s absurd. And we wanted more realism.

How quick was the turnaround? I remember there seemed to be a new book every month back in the day.

Yep, a book-a-month. We weren’t writing all of them, of course, but still the editors needed a one month turnaround. Great training for Animorphs.

There is legend of a “Sweet Valley Bible” – a binder full of outlines from Francine, character notes, reference guides, and so forth. Is this true or internet urban legend?

The ‘bible’ for SVT was absolute crap. We wanted useful data, not past plots. We wanted to know where the phone was in the Wakefield house. (Remember: pre-cellphone.) We wanted to know where the bathrooms were and what color the walls were. In fact, when we started BOYFRIENDS/GIRLFRIENDS (renamed MAKING OUT) we created a bible that was almost absurdly detailed. The characters lived on an island, so we made up a ferry schedule and stuck to it. We had house plans for all eight major characters. One of the characters was blind, so we knew how many steps and what turns he had to take to get to every point on the island. That was a serious damn bible, the SVT bible was a waste of paper.

How did you tackle continuity in the series? It seems that the main series doesn’t reference anything in the special editions (Jessica the Rock Star makes no mention of her soloing in the choir in Super Edition 2: Holiday Mischief). With so many books, released at speed, how much importance was placed on this by the publisher?

Honestly I don’t think we thought about it.

Which was your favourite Sweet Valley book to write?

We did a couple of long-forms, a Christmas spin-off, and IIRC a scary one. Those we did without their outlines, so that was a bit more fun.

Are you #TeamJessica or #TeamElizabeth?

Katherine is team Elizabeth. I’m team Jessica.