What It Was Like To Be A "Sweet Valley High" Ghostwriter
Amy Boesky, a professor and author, spent much of her twenties writing Sweet Valley High books. She recently published an essay explaining that it was way more complicated than you might think.
If you were ever a fan of the Sweet Valley High books, then Francine Pascal was your pastel spirit goddess. Of course, it's now completely obvious that the series — which began in the early '80s and produced a total of 181 books — could have never been Pascal's sole undertaking.
There's a decent chance the woman penning your bus ride reads may in fact have been Amy Boesky. In the Winter 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review, Boesky has penned an intriguing essay about her time as a SVH ghostwriter. You can and should read the whole piece here, but here are just a few fascinating revelations...
How does one get hired to write for "Sweet Valley High"?
Well, it would appear Amy Boesky fell into it after a chance meeting with Pascal at a dinner party. At the time, Boesky was in her early twenties, had just finished a masters degree, and was miserable in her job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house. When she talked about her writing aspirations, Francine suggested Boesky try out.
There was a whole protocol for trying out. I wrote a sample chapter, and the editors must have liked it, because I got hired to write Book 16: "Rags to Riches." (Given the state of my bank account, the irony wasn't lost on me.)
On the writing process and guidelines...
An outline was provided to the writer:
Francine created the story plots, which arrived in my mailbox in manila envelopes and, when I took them out and studied them, read like long, free-verse poems. Eight or nine pages of single spaced directives that laid out exhilarating and implausible fables of duplicity, innovation, risk, and triumph. My task was to turn these into "chapter outlines," adding my own subplots, mailing them back to my editor, and waiting for his approval...
But she had to make sure to stick to certain rules:
Writing for Sweet Valley High, I wasn't supposed to be original. Or different. My job was to pick up somebody else's thread and follow it: just write the story. Spice it up with dialogue, add a toss of a blond curl here, a sparkle of a blue-green eye there. Create a subplot and weave it through the narrative.
A secret life.
Writing for SVH provided financial support, and she mastered the genre:
For the next five years, Sweet Valley became my other, hidden life—at night, on weekends. Over vacations. The whole time I was getting my PhD, I wrote more or less every other book in the series, alternating with another "principle" writer whom I never met.
When Boesky once visited a group of middle schoolers to talk about the books...
They couldn't figure out why I had a different name from "Kate William," the "writer" whose name was on every book's inside cover. Every book said the same thing: Created by Francine Pascal; Written by Kate William.
On the unexpected gratification:
Here's another thing: the books reminded me I could write.
It wasn't one side or the other of the arguments that fueled me. It was the addictive nature of audience. Knowing (for good or bad) that I was being read.
Ghostwriting these books became an escape hatch for me, a place I could shoot down to from my customary cloud cover. It was the sky jump and the parachute and the soft-focus destination, all in one. Why would I ever give that up?
And some thoughts on why she stopped:
It wasn't invisibility that ended my gig as a ghostwriter. In fact, in some ways it was the opposite. I was afraid of exposure. My twenties came to an end. I got my PhD. I was lucky: the year I was on the market, there was a spike in assistant professor jobs in English literature, and I ended up with some choices...
For me, the books promised writing: easy, paid-for, publishable writing, over and over again. You can do this. And then, for whatever reason, I couldn't. The endings unraveled, thread by thread, and I was left (finally) with that uncanny other option: "writing under my own name." Such a funny concept, really, to reclaim what was mine to start with. A name.