Writing YA: An Interview with Patricia Henley & Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Written by Natalie Lund

Earlier this fall, I found out that Patricia Henley and Elizabeth Stuckey-French co-authored a young adult novel, Where Wicked Starts. I’ve always loved reading YA, but I was especially excited to hear about this publication because Henley and Stuckey-French have both been a part of my education as a writer. My first year in Purdue’s MFA program was Henley’s last before she retired from the university to move closer to family. I was fortunate enough to have her for a semester of workshop, and I remember her encouraging us to write the story only we could write. Stuckey-French, though she doesn’t know it, also taught me. Back in 2003, my first year of college, a textbook she co-authored with Janet Burroway and Ned Stuckey-French, Narrative Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, helped me to understand fictional time and point of view. I now use the most recent edition of this text with my own students.

I asked Henley and Stuckey-French to discuss their new novel, Where Wicked Starts, the young adult genre, and their partnership for Sycamore Review.

Natalie Lund: What sparked your desire to write a young adult novel as a team?

Patricia Henley: We wanted to hangout together. We have so many obligations and we’re workaholics. So we had to find a way to work and be together.

Elizabeth Stuckey-French:  We wanted to have lots of fun writing something. (And we did!) Also, when we were growing up we both loved girl sleuth books and wanted to write our own.

NL: How does team-writing a novel work? How did you go about it?

PH: My memory may be a bit fuzzy on this. But I think we adopted our chosen personas right away.  I wanted to be the younger sister (Nick) because I have always been the big sister. (I have seven siblings.)

ESF: We first discussed the plot and characters in a general kind of way, and of course we modified it as we went along. We alternated chapters and points of view, sending them back and forth.

NL: How did you ensure that the chapters would be consistent?

PH:  I wrote the first chapter, she wrote the second, and so on. We did not get ahead of ourselves in the novel. I couldn’t wait to see where we were going when I received a chapter from Elizabeth.  She was full of surprises.

ESF:  We wanted to feel free to go down dark alleys while writing if we encountered them, so we didn’t try to control the drafting process too much.  I loved it when Patricia had things happen in the novel that I never would’ve thought of. When revising we worked out inconsistencies.

NL: How did you communicate with each other if things needed to change?

PH: We talked on the phone. We did spend one week in Mississippi together, ostensibly brainstorming plot. But I think maybe we spent more time walking on the levee and listening to the blues than we did talking about the novel.

ESF: We were both very open to changing anything the other wanted to change. Neither of us was overly attached to what we’d written. So that made everything easier.

NL: How did you revise?

PH:  There was one big initial revision. We started out writing for ‘tweens.  Our editor at Lacewing said it just wasn’t us. That we needed to write for an older readership and let ourselves go. In order to revise for an older audience – for 14 year olds and up – we revised chapter by chapter on our own and then conferenced on the phone. At that point we thought it through page by page.  At least that’s what I recall. We should have kept a journal of our process!

ESF:  As Patricia said, the major revision was allowing the darkness in the novel to emerge rather than taming it down.  Our editor, Andrew Scott, suggested this, and it was exactly the right advice.

NL: Did you read any young adult texts—either as research or as inspiration for your writing?

PH: Right before the book’s inception I had been reading the Alexander McCall Smith series that begins with The #1 Ladies Detective Agency. Not young adult, I know, but I realized how delighted I had been by the amateur sleuth genre as a girl. And I read John Grisham’s book for ‘tweens Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer. Of course, I loved the Nancy Drew books as a girl.  And I’d read some John Green and Rainbow Rowell. I wish I’d read more as we were writing. I might not have been so nervous about the sexuality.  I mean, YA is loaded with sex! I heard John Grisham on NPR, talking about his book for ‘tweens, and he said that his agent told him to let himself go. “Anything goes but –necrophilia.”

ESF:  I relied on my memories of the books I’d loved as a young teenager–Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden.  Books by Beverly Cleary.  And Mrs. Mike and Go Ask Alice, and okay, Valley of the Dolls. I also read around in the YA books my daughters are reading. But I didn’t want to read a bunch of contemporary YA books while I was writing because I feared that doing so would paralyze me with self-consciousness.

NL: What, in your opinion, makes a novel young adult?

PH: Having characters in that age group seems to be the chief characteristic.

ESF: There’s a lot of overlap, from what I’ve seen.  It often seems to be the publisher’s decision.  In other words, a marketing decision.

NL: How much did you think about the conventions of the YA genre as you were writing?

PH: Very little. I fretted a bit about foul language.

ESF:  I don’t usually write novels in first person, let alone first person present tense. But evidently most YA books are written that way.  It actually worked very well.

NL: What drew you to using the investigation of Mr. Creep and Bony as a backdrop to a story about adolescence and the shapes families can take?

PH: At first we were just concerned about the investigation of the crime. But very quickly we became interested in the characters’ lives.  I have an interest in blended families and how they make it work or not. And the shapes of contemporary families are fascinating.  In our culture we are creating family connections in new and amazing ways.

ESF:  A woman who appeared on Oprah told a story I found fascinating – I heard about this from a friend, didn’t actually see the show. But here’s what I remember: While on a trip this woman stopped at a convenience store and encountered an older man and a young girl there.  When observing them she had the feeling that something was wrong between them, but she drove on home, which was two hours away.  The next day she couldn’t shake the feeling, so she drove back to the store and started asking questions.  It turned out she was right and uncovered a very sinister situation, which I won’t go into here.  But it would’ve been so easy to ignore her intuition, something all of us do regularly. Patricia and I wanted to write about some girls who act on their intuition, even though most everyone they meet thinks they are nuts.

NL: You use a lot of contemporary teenage idioms (YOLO, peeps, cray, etc.) and reference specific technologies in this novel. Did you worry about the novel becoming dated—especially with as quickly as language and technologies change?

PH: Anytime you write fiction there’s that concern.  Or make a movie. Look at that huge portable phone Gordon Gekko speaks into in Wall Street.  So, yes, the story takes place in 2010.  That’s obvious. There have already been changes.  I’m told that adolescents no longer use Facebook.  But I think there’s a timelessness to the emotional aspect of the story.  Alice Munro has a great story, one of her earliest, titled “Red Dress, 1946,” about a girl’s first dance. If you read that story you can imagine a similar emotional core in the life of a teenage girl today.

ESF: I didn’t really worry about it because if it’s first person present tense, the characters need to speak the way kids spoke at that time. I did try to make sure that the meaning could be understood even if you weren’t familiar with the slang.  But what caught me up was trying to keep track of what was being done and said in 2010 and what teens are doing and saying now.  My daughters helped me with this, but I probably made some mistakes.

NL: Did you discover aspects of your current or past selves in Nick and Luna’s stories?

PH: When I was in my teens I had that same sort of awkwardness about my body that Nick exhibits.  I hated gym. Hated undressing in front of the other girls. Hoarded my Easter candy. Worried about being fat. So I can identify with Nick in that regard.

ESF:  I identify with both of them. Also, I am currently obsessed with true crime shows and figuring out how to identify evil people.  That’s one way I’m currently like Luna.

NL: Do you have any advice for writers of literary YA fiction (as opposed to fantasy/sci-fi YA) in terms of breaking into the market? People they should seek out? Things they should read?

PH: We are newbies! I’m not in a position to give advice about the YA market. Check back with me when we’ve published a few more Nick and Luna books. About reading, I’d say, read the prizewinners.  There’s so much out there, it’s hard to decide what to read.

ESF:  My advice to new writers is to write the kind of book you’d love to read. Don’t concern yourself too much with categories.  Also, by the time you try to follow a trend, it’s already too late.  Be original by writing the book that appeals to you in every way.