Audrey Coulthurst is the author of the YA fantasy novels Of Fire and Stars and Inkmistress. Paula Garner is the author of the YA novels Phantom Limbs and Relative Strangers. In their forthcoming collaborative YA novel, Starworld, teens Sam and Zoe share a common desire: to escape from reality. When a chance encounter results in the girls exchanging phone numbers, they forge a connection through text messages that expands into a private universe they call Starworld. We asked Coulthurst and Garner to interview each other about their own friendship, which evolved from an online connection, and their new novel.
Paula Garner: So, Audrey. I think over time we have honed the way we answer the question, “What is Starworld about?” But there is more than one way to answer it, and the answer I never give is: Us. Starworld is largely the story of us. Then-us, and now-us.
Audrey Coulthurst: Right. The story of us as adults, aka now-us, is one in which two wildly different writers noticed each other on Twitter, fell in friend-love, started communicating excessively and obsessively, and then decided, “Hey, we should write a book together!”
Garner: Sounds kind of ill-thought-out, right?
Coulthurst: It absolutely was, especially when you factor in that we both had other books under contract and had no business writing another book at the same time. Plus, neither of us were plotters, we were not represented by the same agency, and our debut novels hadn’t even come out yet. Still, an idea took hold and we couldn’t resist its pull—what if we had met in high school and a close friendship had unfolded in spite of how incredibly different we were?
Garner: And we somehow decided that this story should examine the most personal and excruciatingly painful aspects of our teenage years. Basically then-us.
Coulthurst: The idea does not sound wiser when you add that to the mix. Plus, collaborating is fraught with all kinds of challenges that can wear on even the strongest friendship. I am still astonished at the patience we had for each other’s quirks, like my tendency to procrastigloom or waste time writing bloated garbage, or your inability to use technology or follow any sort of agreed-upon direction for chapters we tried to plan out in advance.
Garner: And yet! We did write it, and it was a magical experience. Despite all the tears—
Coulthurst: Some of which were due to all the episodes of laugh-crying, which I’m pretty sure outnumbered the tears of sadness.
Garner: For sure. That was one of the things that drew us together at the start—the endless, uncontrollable, gasping-for-air laugh-crying. You were the most ridiculous, hilarious person I had ever met, and I couldn’t get enough.
Coulthurst: I wasn’t always sure why you found me so funny, but delighting you delighted me. Plus, your wealth of experience and knowledge about all things food- and cocktail-related intrigued me from the beginning.
Garner: Let’s not forget the power of my baking. Without my ginger-molasses cookies and biscotti to bribe you, I am not sure you would have finished a single book, ever!
Coulthurst: So true. You had countless tricks to make me work when the going got rough. You were usually the one taking initiative to keep us moving forward on all our projects, even beyond Starworld.
Garner: But I created endless extra work for you with my epic ineptness—plus my impressive ability to break documents, programs, and even computers!
Coulthurst: You truly are a marvel.
Garner: But somehow we managed, and throughout, we had the best meet-ups and shenanigans and retreats and cocktail hours—and some truly to-die-for meals. There are few things I cherish more than my photos of you licking bowls clean in fancy restaurants. And all that is the icing on the cake, which of course was the gift of writing Starworld together.
Coulthurst: Indeed. Now that the book is almost out, it’s weird to think that people we don’t know are going to know me better, because I wrote Sam, and know you better, because you wrote Zoe. Does that freak you out?
Garner: Honestly? It does, a bit. I sometimes still can’t believe that I wrote about some of the things that were so painful when I was a teen, especially when I consider how hard I was working to seem completely okay at that time.
Coulthurst: But you dealt with that head-on in the book. Zoe’s Theory of Original Defectiveness is the notion that being given up at birth meant something was fundamentally wrong with her—something that she could never overcome but felt obligated to make up for. That was you, that was your theory.
Garner: Yes. Boy, am I glad I had your hand to hold while plumbing those primal hurts. I never imagined I would publicly examine the pain of having been relinquished. Or revisit what it was like as a teen to have a mother who was sick with a disease that would take her life. Zoe’s situation was different (and better) in some ways than mine was, but still so painful. I can’t say I have any regrets about writing it, though. It was difficult, and it hurt, but it was also sometimes cathartic.
Coulthurst: It was the same for me. Writing Starworld with you gave me a safe space to work on both writing and personal things. I needed to learn to be kinder to my younger self—meeting you and writing Starworld allowed me to do that. Sam shares many of the qualities I liked least about myself in high school. I was weird, terrible at making friends, and figuring out that my apathy about boys actually meant I was a lot more interested in girls. Some of the awkwardness I had in high school never completely faded away, which was well-illustrated the first time we met in person.
Garner: That fateful Halloween night in Chicago! We really were versions of our high school selves that night. You were nervous and awkward—
Coulthurst: And you were charming and gracious, even when I ruined a perfectly good conversation by asking you pre-prepared questions, making you feel like you were being interviewed, and then stress-drank too many fancy cocktails.
Garner: Well, if it makes you feel any better, your entertainment value soared after that. Remember your visit to the men’s room?
Coulthurst: I’m not sure the men were very entertained, but I had to go, and there was a long line for the women’s room. I will never forget bracing my leg against the door and my arm against the sink trying to keep men out so I could finish washing my hands. Then I came back to the table and tipsily insisted on having the waitress take pictures of us.
Garner: Important detail: you were in my lap in those photos.
Coulthurst: Ugh, I’m always the embarrassing one.
Garner: Not always! On our Portland research retreat for Starworld, I very nearly fell into the Willamette River! Head first!
Coulthurst: True. Why did you run so fast down that treacherous slope?
Garner: It wasn’t a choice, Aud! Momentum happens! There was no way for me to slow myself down once I was in motion. It’s called physics!
Coulthurst: Good thing I was standing at the bottom, steady as an oak, to save you.
Garner: Yes. I hit you at terminal velocity and instead of my plunging us both into the river, you somehow kept us both on our feet. That’s actually a good metaphor for you through the whole Starworld process, too: steady as an oak.
Coulthurst: As you were for me. It helped immensely to have someone else there through the writing, revision, and publication process, especially since we have such different strengths. When I faltered or fell down, you’d either pick me up or kick me in the butt, whichever I needed. When one of us was struggling, the other was there to bounce ideas or even write a rough draft of a scene to get past the mental block. When a scene was wildly painful to write because it required revisiting uncomfortable or raw feelings from our pasts, the other was always there with a hand to hold. For the months it took to write it, Starworld was truly our safe haven, just as the world Sam and Zoe invent together is theirs.
Garner: Aud? I’d do it all again.
Coulthurst: I would, too.
Starworld by Audrey Coulthurst and Paula Garner. Candlewick, $17.99 Apr. 16 ISBN 978-0-7636-9756-3