For writing team of Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, the proof of their creative chemistry is in the proverbial pudding—or, to be specific, in their first coauthored duology, Tiny Pretty Things, which focuses on aspiring ballerinas in Manhattan and has been newly adapted as a series for Netflix.
Now, Clayton and Charaipotra, who are also both successful solo authors, have a new collaboration. The Rumor Game (Hyperion), a novel about the diverse students at D.C.’s upscale Foxham Prep, will be published in March of 2022. Clayton and Charaipotra spoke to PW about writing believable teen characters, the damaging impact of rumors, and the excitement of seeing their work evolve.
Talk about the experience of writing together. What’s your joint creative process like, and how did you write this particular book?
Dhonielle Clayton: Just like with Tiny Pretty Things, we create a plot and took responsibility for the writing of specific characters. Since this plot was very twisty and had so many moving pieces, we were constantly reconfiguring it over and over again, then trying to make sure all the threads came through.
How do you go about crafting distinctive characters?
Dhonielle Clayton: Crafting distinctive characters all comes down to doing the deep inner work of figuring out who they are. If they were flesh and blood and real, what would bother them? What would their bruises be? How would they navigate the world? What would they be afraid of? If you figure out what makes your character tick, you can make them distinctive.
Sona Charaipotra: Like with Tiny Pretty Things, in The Rumor Game there are three very different characters living in the same world. Who they are informs their particular experience on every level, especially questions of race, class, culture, sexuality, and ability—and those intersections inform each character’s mental state, actions, and reactions. I think its these differences that make the story nuanced, layered, and realistic.
Everyone loves a twisty story about characters with secrets to be unveiled. How did you strike a balance between these juicy elements and the book’s acknowledgment of the very real repercussions of cruelty and cyber bullying?
Dhonielle Clayton: Layered beneath all of the rumors and the secrets and the characters’ bad behavior, is a real message about how big social media can become in our lives. How the swarm and onslaught of comments and attention has real life consequences. People, especially teens, often think that the things happening online are actually a substitute for what’s happening all around them in their real lives. The power of this feeling has mental health repercussions, and we wanted to open up a conversation with this book, and make it safe for teens to have conversations about cyber bullying and online cruelty using the lens of fiction.
Sona Charaipotra: The emotional impact is a critical component. It invokes empathy in the reader and makes them feel like they’re part of each character’s journey. We knew we had to tread carefully, given the subject matter. We talked to a mental health professional about the characters’ experiences and reactions, and to ensure that we were being responsible in the representations we created in the text, and shared some resources in the back pages, because we know teens are navigating this in everyday life.
With the success of the Netflix adaptation of Tiny Pretty Things, you must be over-the-moon. How does it feel to see your characters on screen, and has it changed your approach to writing in any way?
Dhonielle Clayton: The adaptation was an amazing rollercoaster ride. As writers, it’s a dream to have your book adapted, but never a guarantee. So when our fearless producers told us that Tiny Pretty Things had been set up at Netflix, we were ecstatic. We’re really excited that we got to go to the set and meet the cast and crew of the Netflix adaptation, but the adaptation is its own entity, one that lives and breathes on its own, separate from the books, though it definitely captures the essence. It’s been really surreal, like watching little fragments of your imagination get up and walk around, fully come to life. Watching an adaptation helped us continue to write more cinematically, and really use dialogue and action to do heavy-lifting in storytelling.
What’s next for you two?
Dhonielle Clayton: I have my middle grade debut The Marvellers coming out in May, and so many surprises for readers headed to the shelves.
Sona Charaipotra: My next YA contemporary, How Maya Got Fierce, is out in July, and I’ve got a few unannounced things brewing that I can’t wait