Today we're excited to have as our guests the authors Susan Wittig Albert (whose latest book is the new China Bayles mystery, Nightshade) and Bill Albert.
Berkeley Heights PL. How did you get started writing as a team?
Bill. It all started on our second or third date, back in 1986. Susan was working on a Nancy Drew book, and she wrote herself into a plot corner. Over pizza, she asked me to help her out of it. I guess she liked my ideas, because she asked me to marry her shortly thereafter.
Susan. I did? I thought you asked me! (Blushes, chuckles.) But whichever way it was, I have to agree that plotting was not my strong suit when I began writing YA fiction in the mid-80s. Characters, yes. Settings, yes. Dialogue, fine. But plot was a mystery and I was clueless. It’s difficult to remember just how inept I felt back then, but I recall having a hard time developing a coherent storyline, where one thing leads to another and everything gets tied up in the end. Then Bill came along. He was a systems programmer and his mind seemed to work like a flow chart. He helped me see what I needed to do to make the story work. I’m happy to say that some of his plot skills have finally rubbed off on me. I don’t view plotting with the dread I used to feel.
Bill. Which brings up something about team writing that needs to be said right off. I’m good when it comes to keeping plots and subplots straight, but characterization isn’t what I do best, and I’m not very strong when it comes to recreating a setting. I can’t spell very well, either. (Grins ruefully.) Susan is good at doing things I can’t. If you’re going to team up with somebody, find a person whose skills complement yours, rather than duplicate them. And stick with them long enough to make it work.
Susan. For us, that’s been twenty-some years. When we got married, we decided we would make freelance writing our “real job.” Working together or with me working on my own, we wrote over sixty young adult novels, including Hardy Boys, Sweet Valley Twins, Cheerleaders, and others. Most years, we produced a dozen books. Bill used to call us the “book a month club.” And whether Bill does any of the actual writing, he always makes a strong contribution. We talk over everything together, and he always does a careful line-edit before the manuscript is turned in.
Bill. You’ll find a list of our co-authored stuff on our website, along with the pseudonyms the books were written under. Most of these books are long out of print, but some of them are floating around the used book market.
BHPL. That’s a lot of books! It must have been quite a learning experience.
Bill. Yeah. And with so much practice, we got pretty good at it. Writing books, I mean.
Susan. But we also learned about the book business. We had to learn to deal with dozens of editors, agents (over the years, we’ve had four), and marketing departments. Publishing is a business, and if writers themselves aren’t business people, the process is pretty difficult. Doing all those YA books taught us several really important lessons about working as commercial writers.
Bill. And it ought to be said that doing all those books taught us to write together, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. We started in 1986. By the time we began the Robin Paige Victoria/Edwardian series in 1994, we were feeling pretty comfortable with it. So it took a while.
BHPL. I’m curious about how you work. Does Susan write the dialogue for the female characters and does Bill write for the male characters? Or do you divide the work differently?
Susan. That’s changed over the years. When we were doing YA work, Bill did most of the plotting and outlining, I did most of the writing, and he edited. The Robin Paige series, though, demanded a lot of research, since each book included a real person—Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, Lily Langtry, Conan Doyle, Marconi. Bill did almost all the research for that series, compiling bibliographies, getting the books, studying them. Then he’d come up with a main plot and subplots—
Bill. Oh, yes, subplots! We used eight to ten points of view in every book, including our main characters, Charles and Kate Sheridan. For every point of view character, we had a subplot. It was kind of like playing chess on a 3-D glass chessboard.
Susan. Bill would create the plots, we’d write—he’d write one scene, I’d do another, and we’d trade. We read aloud to each other every day and revised as we went along. He was usually responsible for Charles’ scenes, and I’d do Kate’s.
BHPL. You’re using the past tense? Why?
[Bill and Susan exchange looks, and sigh.]
Susan. Because we’ve decided to stop writing the series. It was entirely our decision—in fact, our editor tried to talk us out of it. But the research—
Bill. It felt like the research had taken over our lives. And there are other things to do in life than write. I miss writing with Susan, but I’m not sorry that Robin Paige has retired. Death on the Lizard was the last book.
Susan. It was a hard decision. I wrote a long piece about it on my blog, explaining all the whys and wherefores. But we still work together as a team. I’m continuing the China Bayles series and the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter. Bill reads every book and always makes good suggestions. Also, for the past six or seven years, he’s acted as our literary agent—which is a job all by itself. He negotiates our contracts, keeps track of royalties, and handles the business end of things.
BHPL. As you look back, what has been the best part about writing together? The most difficult part?
Susan. For me, the best part is watching Bill’s mind in action. [Smiles.] I like all parts of him, but I love to watch him dealing with story material, pushing it into shape, organizing it, coming up with new possibilities. All of which means, of course, that there’s less work for me.
Bill. I’ve enjoyed the travel. We’ve been to England quite a few times—not just pleasure trips (although there’s always that), but working trips, where we did research on the sites where the Robin Paige books were set. Traveling together is the fun part of the job.
Susan. The most difficult part? For both of us, I think, that would be working through a writing project without letting the disagreements slop over into the other parts of our life together.
BHPL. How do you do that?
Bill. [Mysteriously.] We follow the 80-15-5 rule.
BHPL. Which is?
Bill. Well, when one of us raises a question, the other will consider and say, “Yeah. I should have thought of that.” That happens about 80 percent of the time. About fifteen percent of the time, one of us may not be convinced, but agrees that the other has made the most points. And in the remaining five percent, one of us realizes that the other has a strong emotional investment and backs down. [Grins.]
Susan. And then we move on. Really move on. Life is too short to spend it keeping score.
BHPL. Do you have a favorite book out of all the ones you have written together?
Susan. Mine would have be Death at Blenheim Palace. Bill and I visited the palace and Woodstock and took a lot of photos. I really enjoyed doing the research and weaving the history of Blenheim into the plot. It’s interesting (as well as sad and a little frightening) to see how that huge place has affected the Marlborough family. As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our dwellings, and our dwellings shape us.” Churchill understood: he was in line to inherit the palace, if his cousin’s wife (Consuelo Vanderbilt Marlborough) hadn’t produced “an heir and a spare.”
Bill. I guess mine would be Death at Rottingdean. The book featured Rudyard Kipling, who was living in Rottingdean—a village on the southern coast, near Brighton—and writing the novel Kim. For me, this book was a great example of the fun of tying together unrelated and unexpected research details. I learned that Kipling’s model for Kim is unknown, and thought it would be fun to create one. I very much wanted to develop a smuggling plot, but was frustrated when I discovered that while smuggling was once common in Rottingdean, it ended over fifty years before, when most excise taxes were repealed. Then I found out that the first automatic pistol went into production in Germany the year the story takes place and wondered what would happen if one of these appeared in this small English coastal town. Finally, I happened on a paragraph on the financing of smuggling operations and saw how we could tie all these odd bits together in a plot involving German espionage and one brave boy—the prototype for Kim.
BHPL. Questions or comments, anyone? Bill and Susan will check in over the next few days to reply. So post away!
About the book drawing and Susan’s blog tour
If you’d like to enter the drawing for a copy of Nightshade, click here to register. But you’d better hurry. The drawing for the Berkeley Heights Public Library Blog closes at noon on April 14, 2008.
Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here.