J.E. Bright began his stellar writing career at Dan Weiss Associates Inc, going on to ghost two epic pieces of Sweet Valley High History in “A Picture Perfect Prom” and “Aftershock.” He came up with several of the earlier SVU storylines, as well as overseeing myriad Sweet Valley publications in his two years as SVH editor. He is now recognised as a successful children’s and young adult author, with over sixty-five novels and non fiction works to his name [you can check these out here]. He was very obliging with my 137 questions, and offered a hilarious, witty and insightful look at the Sweet Valley franchise. You’ll be shocked at what he reveals about our favourite series….
Photo courtesy of http://jebright.com
Had you read any of the Sweet Valley books prior to your job as ghostwriter?
Okay, to answer that I have to give the full history of my Sweet Valley experience, which may answer some questions below, too. As a Freshman studying English/Creative Writing at New York University in 1988, I got an internship at a company called Daniel Weiss Associates, Inc., who were the packagers of Sweet Valley and other book series. A “packager” is a company that creates a book, sometimes including the cover and illustrations and layout as well as the text, and then sells it to a book publisher, who then prints it and distributes it and does all the sales and marketing, etc. So DWAI was a book packager, and what they focused on was teen and middle-grade book series, including the whole Sweet Valley world, as well as many other series, like The Vampire Diaries. So I became an editorial intern two or three days a week, at 17 years old, reading submissions from people who wanted to write SV books, writing rejection letters, writing back cover copy, and doing little office jobs like filing and getting breakfast. (The first back cover I wrote was #62, WHO’S WHO?) I also read all the SVH books and maintained “The SVH Bible”, which was a giant binder with all the SVH plots, characters, places, relationships, etc., charted out. I was an intern at DWAI for four years, and it was a really fun place to work. The company was pretty small when I started (maybe 10 people), but it grew over the years and moved to bigger offices. Then I went to graduate school, studying Creative Writing, and when I came back in 1994, DWAI offered me a full-time job as an Assistant Editor. I stayed with them for another three years, getting promoted up to Editor. In that time, I was the sole editor of Sweet Valley High for two years (along with a bunch of other book series), and read all the SVH books, including those that hadn’t been published yet. I put together at least one SVH title every month. By the end, I said that I’d read more SVH books than anyone else in the world, because I’d read the ones in manuscript form, too, waiting to get published. My stint as editor covers the SVH books #115 to #137, approximately (there’s some overlap with other editors), including the Super and Magna editions that came out during that time, as well as some of the Diaries and Sagas. When I left DWAI (which had then changed its name to 17th Street Productions) to become a freelance writer, the editor who replaced me hired me to write two of the books, SVH #141, A PICTURE PERFECT PROM?, and later, the final SVH book, AFTERSHOCK. So I kind of grew up as a writer in the Sweet Valley world.
BTW, 17th Street Productions eventually merged with Alloy.com and became Alloy Media, which made the Gossip Girl book series, and now produces the TV shows Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries, and The Secret Circle. Elizabeth Craft, my co-editor of SVH when I started, is the executive producer of the TV show The Secret Circle, and was a consulting producer on Vampire Diaries. The editor who replaced me was Kieran Scott, who is also known as the popular writer Kate Brian, author of the Private series. Our editor-in-chief was Ann Brashares, best known for the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants series. Many other excellent writers have come out of the DWAI/17th St./Alloy family, too. I’m probably the least-famous one.
“ I also read all the SVH books and maintained “The SVH Bible”, which was a giant binder with all the SVH plots, characters, places, relationships, etc., charted out.”
I was surprised to hear that you came up with several of the SVU plots, having always thought that was Francine Pascal’s job. How did you create those storylines?
Each Sweet Valley book series (SVH, SVU, Twins, Kids, Unicorn Club) had a separate editor, and we would meet with the Editor-in-Chief weekly as the Sweet Valley team to discuss upcoming plotlines and brainstorm where the series were going. Then, every few months, we would meet with Francine Pascal at her amazing apartment over tea and donuts and croissants and discuss our ideas with her. Francine was lovely and cool and very aware of everything happening in Sweet Valley, and she would either accept or reject our ideas — or make up her own. She read every plot and outline, and they had to be approved by her. But I don’t think she wrote any of the outlines herself (maybe some of the very early ones). During almost the entire run of the Sweet Valley books, the plots were developed by the SV team and Francine, then written by an outliner, then given to the ghostwriter to flesh out into a book. The editorial team at Bantam Books was very involved, too, approving all the stages as well. So when I was a freelance writer, after my SVH editorial days, I wrote a bunch of the SVU outlines which were then turned into books by other ghostwriters.
Which SVU books did you outline?
Um . . . it’s pretty far back now and hard to remember. I have these SVU outlines in my files, which seems to indicate that I wrote them.
#26. The Trial of Jessica Wakefield
#27. Elizabeth and Todd Forever
#28. Elizabeth’s Heartbreak
#29. One Last Kiss
#31. The Truth about Ryan
#33. Out of the Picture
#42. Sneaking In
#43. The Price Of Love
#44. Love Me Always
Super Edition #12. Don’t Answer The Phone
Super Edition #13. Cyberstalker: The Return Of William White, Part 1
Super Edition #14. Cyberstalker: The Return Of William White, Part 2
I think that’s all of them. There may have been more. I’m not 100% sure of some of the above, too — it’s really kind of a blur now.
”Every few months, we would meet with Francine Pascal at her amazing apartment over tea and donuts and croissants and discuss our ideas with her”
What was involved in your role as SVH editor?
It was an unusual editorial role, in that the editors came up with the plots and heavily rewrote the books. Because there were so many SVH books (at least one a month, sometimes more for Super, Magna, Thriller, etc. editions) and so many ghostwriters, it was our main job to make sure the writing style sounded similar for all the books. Usually, I would develop the plot, get it approved by Francine and Bantam Books, write cover copy, hire someone to write the outline, get the outline approved, and hire a ghostwriter to write the manuscript. When the manuscript came in, I’d go through it very carefully, marking it up with corrections and suggestions, and I’d write a letter to the ghostwriter and send the manuscript back to them to make revisions. Then when the revised manuscript would come back, I’d go through it line by line and rewrite it to make it read smoothly and make sure it fit the SVH style and didn’t have any glaring content errors (that I noticed!). The books were copyedited for grammar and spelling by an outside copyeditor. Usually I had three other books series to edit along with SVH. I’d also write up descriptions of the covers, and “direct” the photo shoots, or choose images for the earlier paintings, and think up the titles.
Did you have much input into the storylines as ghostie or as editor?
Almost none as a ghostwriter. As I explained above, as an editor I was basically coming up with the storylines.
Were you responsible for any of Sweet Valley’s infamous psycho killers? [If you say Margo Black or William White, hats off.]
Sadly, I missed the creation of Margo — it happened while I was in grad school. Although I did take over the editorial for RETURN OF THE EVIL TWIN. As you can see from my SVU outline list, I was also involved in William White’s RETURN (I wrote the outlines), but not his creation (which the SVU editor came up with, I think). That psycho killer era came about in the early-’90s because we had done a focus group with a bunch of pre-teens, and they kept saying they wanted “more stalkers!” So we gave ‘em more stalkers.
With a series that spanned over 600 books [including Sweet Valley Twins, Kids, University....] how did you maintain continuity? Was there some kind of Sweet Valley bible that everyone sat around the table and checked their facts from? Or did you just become a massive Sweet Valley trivia buff?
[There are references in your books to people like Jeffery French and Sam Woodruff who hadn’t been heard of for 100 odd books..]
I do remember book, movie, and TV trivia really well, for some reason, but as I mentioned above, there was a “Bible” for every series, a binder in which plot summaries, characters, places, shops, maps, and relationships were all detailed. It was all on PAPER — you couldn’t really search a computer database or anything. We sent a copy of the Bible to every ghostwriter and outliner, and I lived with mine on my desk for the whole time I was an SVH editor. It would have been so very useful to have all these internet SV blogs in existence at the time, but our office AOL dial-up connection to the beginning of the Web wasn’t all that useful then. J
Because I knew so much SVH trivia, I wanted to put a lot of the old characters and places in my books when I wrote them . . . like little “Easter Eggs” for the most faithful readers. Sweet Valley has one of the most comprehensively detailed fictional worlds in all of media. Sometimes I think only Springfield in The Simpsons compares!
The various Sweet Valley series didn’t really overlap much — they were kept pretty separate, and had different continuities.
Did you come up with any of those awesome outfits? [Elizabeth’s backless lavender sparkly number comes to mind]
I came up with most of the outfits in books I edited (on the covers; the ghostwriters described the outfits inside) or wrote. They were fun to invent. For the photographic covers, we shot with the cast and staff of the TV show, so the official show costume designer helped pick those clothes.
Did you ever laugh mercilessly at the series or was your writing ever tongue-in-cheek? [I recall something about Lisette’s Boutique being described as “SO early-eighties”]
Oh, I was laughing the whole time. But not in a mocking way, really. Just because it was fun and joyful to write those books. Well, AFTERSHOCK wasn’t as much fun. It was incredibly sad, and I had to sit there and weep and type to get the emotions of all those funerals to come across. But I enjoy writing humor, and I hope that comes across. Especially in A PICTURE PERFECT PROM? That book cracks me up.
Did you have anything to do with the angsty “Senior Year” spin-off?
Not a thing. It was developed after I had left the company.
Was there an official PG13 rule? I remember a scene where Todd perves on Elizabeth’s white sneakers, but that’s probably as scandalous as it got.
We self-censored a lot — our target audience was about 12 years old — so, yes, PG-13 is accurate. There were a lot of discussions around the audience about how far we could go and what was appropriate. I had a screaming fight with another editor once about whether Jessica was really a slut or not! The funny thing now is that I don’t even remember what side I took in that argument. The SVH books really reflect their eras: the early-’80s ones are a little sexier, before AIDS caused the sexual backlash. The late-’80s get really message-heavy. The early ’90s are all stalkers and sexual terror as the world got scarier. I tried to bring more fun back in with my mid-’90s era, and add some glamour.
I love that scene when Todd obsesses over Elizabeth’s sneakers and is lusting after her ankle. Poor Todd — he was SO hard up.
My favorite SVH-sex-story is about one of the Vampire books, maybe TALL, DARK, AND DEADLY, when Enid gets her blood sucked by the maybe-vampire Jonathan Cain. The ghostwriter originally made that scene just about downright pornographic. Basically, Enid has a massive orgasm in it. But we had to tone it down significantly. It’s still pretty sexy and funny, though.
What was Francine really like?
She’s lovely. Very cool, smart, and nice. I have to give big props to her for creating the series and maintaining its integrity and popularity for so long. She also gave each of us on the SV team a nice gift every holiday season. One of them, which I still have, was a silver star-shaped bookmark from Tiffany’s engraved with the letters SVH.
Tune in next week as J.E. dishes the dirt on the Sweet Valley characters everyone loves and loves to hate…