A True Test of Friendship
Lynda Brill Comerford -- 3/9/98
In an epistolary collaboration, Paula Danziger and Ann Martin discover the challenges of co-writing
For years, authors Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin have been writing books about girls' friendships (Danziger is the author of the Amber Brown series and Martin, the Baby-sitters Club). Now, testing the boundaries of their own friendship and destroying the myth that writing is a solitary pursuit, they have joined creative forces, along with Scholastic editors Brenda Bowen and Craig Walker, to produce an epistolary novel. In Bowen's words, the collaboration "is sure to please both halves of the female middle-school population: those who relish the type of hilarity found in Danziger's books, and those who prefer the quieter, more measured style of Martin's writing."
In P.S. Longer Letter Later: A Novel in Letters (April), Martin and Danziger respond to each other as 11-year-old pen pals. Martin plays the role of reserved, well-to-do Elizabeth. Danziger is Elizabeth's outrageous best friend, Tara*Starr, who has recently moved to another town with her free-spirited parents. The book reflects the authors' close-knit relationship as well as their contrasting personalities.
At the time that Holt editor Laura Godwin (a friend of both writers) suggested that they coproduce a novel constructed of letters, Danziger and Martin, both New Yorkers, had already known each other for a decade. Their first meeting was initiated by a fan (Martin's sixth-grade pen pal), who thought the authors should know each other. Martin contacted Danziger first, and Danziger, unable to resist Martin's "really sweet voice" on her answering machine, accepted an invitation to go out to dinner.
Both authors agree that, as Danziger put it, "in ways that matter most" they are compatible: they have good senses of humor, are deeply compassionate people and are dedicated to perfecting their art as well as pleasing their audiences. In other ways, however, they are as different as their characters, Elizabeth and Tara*Starr. Ann Martin loves animals; Paula Danziger is allergic to them. Martin enjoys needlework; Danziger always dreaded home-ec class and had trouble embroidering her name on her phys-ed uniform. Martin hates speaking in public; Danziger sparkles in front of a crowd (she hosts a book-talk segment of a popular British television show). According to Walker, the first time they went shopping together, Danziger bought an antique wicker basket and "a bunch" of furniture; Martin came home with three pairs of white socks.
Providing further proof of their opposite natures, Danziger described their first meeting at Scholastic to introduce their idea of writing a book about a shy girl and her outspoken friend. "Ann was dressed in plain corduroy pants and a shirt that looked like something the Where's Waldo? guy would wear. [In Martin's opinion, the outfit was more conservative that Where's Waldo-ish.] I was wearing glitter Doc Martens, a sweeping dress and a sparkly scarf." It was immediately obvious to the editors which author would assume which character.
After conferring about the backgrounds of their respective characters, the writers began faxing letters back and forth in the voices of Tara*Starr and Elizabeth. Neither writer was exactly sure what direction the plot was going to take. Martin, like her character, was more meticulous about keeping up her end of the correspondence and meeting deadlines. At one point Danziger even received a note from Martin in Elizabeth's voice chiding her for not having written.
Although they are seasoned writers, Martin and Danziger admitted that the task of coproducing a book was sometimes challenging. Martin, always well organized, felt uncomfortable not using an outline, Danziger missed having complete control over characters, plot and outcome. Professional differences of opinion, bound to arise, were sometimes incorporated into the plot of their novel. When Martin's character pressured Tara*Starr into getting a pet, Danziger invented a baby (Tara*Starr's mother gets pregnant in the middle of the story) to "distract" Elizabeth and "get her off that animal kick." Martin, perturbed by Tara*Starr's lack of sensitivity towards Elizabeth's father -- a man who suffers a breakdown after losing his job -- was not shy about voicing her annoyance in a letter, writing: "He's sick in some way. SICK, Tara. So can't you feel some sympathy for him even though he's done a lot of wrong, bad things?"
Other "tiffs" between the writers were ironed out at intermittent revision sessions (when they helped edit each other's work) or during meetings with editors Walker and Bowen -- who were themselves close friends since the days they shared a workspace at Scholastic.
"It was never problematic having four people involved with this project," said Bowen (who has worked with Martin since the first Baby-sitters Club book). "We'd usually meet in the Scholastic cafeteria and discuss things over coffee or tea." Walker added, "It was a really unusual experience, like living the book. The authors were their characters and argued things out the way their characters would."
While P.S. Longer Letter Later is by no means autobiographical for either Danziger or Martin (both had more traditional childhoods than their characters), Elizabeth and Tara*Starr seem to flow directly from the hearts of their creators. The book, a celebration of friendship, ends on a happy note, with characters overcoming personal conflicts and forgiving each other's shortcomings. For characters and authors alike, it represents the unique meshing of two creative, witty and very different personalities.
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