TCR Talks with Helena Echlin and Malena Watrous

By: D.M. Olsen

When I found out that Helena Echlin and Malena Watrous, two instructors I’ve taken classes from at the Stanford Online Writer’s Studio, were collaborating on a YA novel, I was curious about their work. When I heard what their book was about, I was even more intrigued. A book about “mean girls with superpowers,” sounded entertaining and original. The protagonist, fifteen-year-old Laurel Goodwin, wakes up to find her older sister, Ivy, missing from their shared bedroom and is forced to team up with mean girls from Laurel’s high school to find her.

After reading the book and seeing all the amazing reviews online, I caught up with the authors, who graciously agreed to do a brief interview for The Coachella Review.

 The Coachella Review: First, I think it would be great to talk about how Sparked was written. You don’t often see two authors on a YA novel. How did the idea of writing a joint novel come about? Did it make the process easier/harder, more fun…?

Helena Echlin: It began when we went out for a drink a few years ago on a rainy, dark, Friday the thirteenth. I told Malena I wanted to write a YA novel because it seemed like it would be fun and (I naively thought) easy.

She had an idea for a novel:

A girl, Laurel, wakes up to find that her beloved older sister Ivy is missing from their shared bedroom. The next night, Laurel has a dream that she can move things with her eyes—only, in the dream, she is Ivy, and she’s chained up in an underground cell. Laurel is convinced that Ivy has been kidnapped.

Obviously, I was hooked. I started riffing. What if nobody believes Laurel? Now, she’s completely on her own, and only she can save Ivy. I grabbed a pen and took furious notes as we dreamed up our plot. The next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and wrote a scene, then Malena edited it. Before we knew it, we were collaborating.

The joy of collaborating on a novel is that you’re making up an imaginary world with someone that is just as obsessed as you are. That was a welcomed change from our lives as solo novelists. Sometimes Malena and I would be in such a mind-meld that we’d both email each other with the same idea.

Malena Watrous: Not that collaboration is always easy. The challenging part came when we’d finished the first draft and realized the book needed a lot more work and that writing a YA novel is just as difficult as writing an adult novel—in some ways, more so, because the genre restricts and pushes you to be more creative. We’re both perfectionists, so every time one thought the book was finished, the other decided another draft was in order!

TCR: Have you always been a fan of YA, either secretly or otherwise? What are some of your favorite YA books? Favorite YA writers? 

 MW: We never stopped loving the books we fell in love with when we were kids and teens, and we still re-read them. Helena’s British, so her favorites include British writers Joan Aiken, Jacqueline Wilson, and Diana Wynne Jones. I loved Roald Dahl, Lois Lowry, Judy Blume, and the novel Anne of Green Gables. As adults, of course, we fell in love with Philip Pullman, J. K. Rowling, and Suzanne Collins. We also love Lauren Oliver (Before I Fall is a huge favorite), Gabrielle Zevin, John Green, and Lauren Kate’s romantic Fallen series. One of the reasons [why] we both wanted to write YA is because of the way young readers relate to books—they fall in love with a book and read it over and over.

TCR: The book includes telekinesis, shapeshifting, fire bending (is that a thing?), and other fantasy and Sci-Fi elements. How would you categorize this book? Were these elements of the story part of what you wanted to incorporate before starting, or were they influenced by the narrative? 

 HE: I have a theory that the “big idea” for a novel comes from two things you can’t stop thinking about. They don’t necessarily seem to go together, but that’s how Sparked began. The process of writing a novel is discovering the weird hidden connections between those two things.

 MW: Here are the two inspirations: first, when I was a kid, I had a recurring dream that I could move things with my eyes. The feeling was so real that I always woke up feeling disappointed I didn’t have a power after all. When I had the dream again as an adult, I started thinking about a teen character who wants to have a power but doesn’t. How would she feel if everyone around her was getting a power—including the mean girls who torment her at school? Laurel is a girl who feels that she’s always second best, and I think many of us secretly feel the same.

The other inspiration was the 2002 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart. Elizabeth was abducted from her bedroom aged fourteen, a bedroom she shared with her younger sister. I was fascinated at the time. How could someone be abducted from her own bedroom and without her younger sister overhearing and freaking out? What would it feel like to be that younger sister—the one left behind?

HE: In the first draft, Sparked, was a supernatural thriller. But as we did countless rewrites, and our characters [became] more multi-layered and interesting, it also became a book about the relationship between two sisters and mothers and daughters and about female friendship.

TCR: I love the concept of this book, “mean girls with superpowers,” and that our reclusive protagonist has to approach these girls to find her sister. How did this idea come to about? 

 MW: When you’re a teenager, your social life feels like the most important thing in the world. Having true friends is so important, but they can be hard to find and hold on to. I switched schools in eighth grade. Having been a real outcast at my old junior high, we moved states—up to Oregon—and I seized the chance to reinvent myself, hoping to push into the “upper levels” of the social sphere. I managed to get in with the “in crowd,” but soon came to realize that being one of the “mean girls” didn’t insulate me from meanness; everyone had vulnerabilities and reasons for hiding behind their masks. I eventually learned who my true friends were, and I’m still friends with them decades later. People hide in their groups. You need to learn how to look beneath the surface of each individual—a quality that makes for a good writer, as well as a good friend.

 TCR: So, you began with a unique and compelling concept. What surprised you the most while writing this story?

 HE: We both published adult literary novels before this. We cherished those memories of how much we loved books when we were younger, but our adult novels were relatively quiet dissections of family and romantic relationships. We never dreamed that we’d have so much fun writing horror or building all those twists and turns into a thriller.

TCR: With All Hallows Eve on the horizon, it’s fitting that this book is going to publish on October 3. The novel, itself, is set around this time of year, and the town in the book is the epicenter of an ancient legend coming to fruition. Is this based on a real legend? Was there a lot of research going into the prophecy?

MW: The ancient prophecy is entirely made up, but we did borrow some ideas about the battle between good and evil from Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions, which is still practiced today. However, we reshaped them [ideas]for our own narratives, which is why the Zoroastrians in the book are described as an obscure sect whose beliefs have diverged from the mainstream.

HE: The story is set the week before Halloween and goes head-on to the night itself because Halloween is our favorite time of year not only because it’s spooky, but because it’s a carnivalesque time when normal rules are suspended; kids

can knock on strangers’ doors and stuff themselves with candy. In Sparked, like many classic novels for kids and teens, the adults are pretty useless, and the kids have to take charge. Laurel, the heroine, can’t make her hippie-dippy mom take her sister’s disappearance seriously or the town cops. It’s up to her to save her sister, Ivy, along with her friend Jasper and mean girls Peyton and Mei. It made sense to set the novel around Halloween when kids step out of their usual roles.

TCR: I saw online that your editor had you remove references to zombies? Was that tongue in cheek, or were there a lot of zombies initially? What was the issue with these zombies, and should writers avoid zombies in YA if they don’t want to get an editor fired up?

HE: We’ve never had many zombies; I can’t say more than that in fear of spoilers. What I can say is that in a book where the main character is trying to prevent the end of the world (as well as save her kidnapped sister), it’s pretty much inevitable that a few zombie references will crop up; however, one zombie was too many for that editor.

MW: I do think editors have certain elements they get tired of because they feel they are currently being overdone. For instance, after Twilight, and its many imitators, few editors are interested in books about vampires. In reality, subjects like that [vampires] are considered evergreen subjects. People always want to read about zombies, vampires, and the supernatural.

TCR: You published this novel in a unique way. It was sort of voted into existence, and it was a contest winner, too. Can you tell us a little about that decision? What was the process with Inkshares?

HE: We’d both published novels with traditional publishing houses, but we wanted to do things differently this time around—after all, we were writing a completely different type of book, so why not try something new when it came to publishing it? When editors at traditional publishing houses informed us that the paranormal romance genre was “down-trending,” we were more than happy to look at indie options.

MW: Then Inkshares, a crowd-funded publisher based in Oakland, approached us. The gatekeepers aren’t New York editors but readers, who care less about New York publishing trends and more about finding books they enjoy. These readers subsidize your initial publication costs by preordering your book. Sell 750 [copies], and Inkshares will do everything a traditional publisher does, including help with marketing and distributing the book into bookstores. When we funded the book and it was time for editing, book designs, sales and the rest, Inkshares was truly exceptional. It’s also nice that they’re not a faceless conglomerate, but a tight-knit, super-enthusiastic team of people we have come to know and really like.

We’d initially quailed at the thought of crowd-funding, but we actually loved it because it gave us a chance to connect with so many readers individually. During the presale phase, readers aren’t ordering through Amazon, but through Inkshares, which meant we had their email addresses and had the chance to thank each one. We were lucky that, on top of that, we won the Geek & Sundry Fantasy Contest. The best thing about crowd-funding is that we can still communicate with our readers directly—they can tell us what they thought of the book and be the first audience as we finish chapters of the sequel.

TCR: You are both teachers at Stanford’s Online Writers’ Studio. Did you learn anything through this process that you would like to share with future students?

HE: Write the book you want to read. Don’t worry about writing a book you think the market wants. We confess, as we dashed off that first draft of Sparked, we thought we’d sell it to a traditional publishing house in a heartbeat. At the time we began writing it, paranormal romances were selling like hotcakes, but by the time we’d finished that draft, the market was overcrowded and editors didn’t even want to look at a book with a hint of paranormal romance.

Then we took the time to rewrite the book, the kind of book we wanted to read—a book that had complicated, flawed characters, dark humor, and a sense of mystery. We got rid of some of the “paint-by-number” plot points and preserved the magical and romantic parts that had made writing the first draft such fun.Moral of the story: predicting what’s hot in publishing is as impossible as trying to guess the next hot cut of jeans. If you start writing a book based on what’s hot this year, it will be out of style by the time you publish it. Write the book you want to read, and not only will you enjoy yourself, you’ll doubtlessly be writing the best book that you can write.

Moral of the story: predicting what’s hot in publishing is as impossible as trying to guess the next hot cut of jeans. If you start writing a book based on what’s hot this year, it will be out of style by the time you publish it. Write the book you want to read, and not only will you enjoy yourself, you’ll doubtlessly be writing the best book that you can write.

TCR: This book has been getting rave reviews online. I read one review that begged for a sequel. Are there any plans in the works for that? What’s next for you two?

HE: We’ve had an idea for a sequel in the works for a long time. Now, we’ve received so many requests from generous readers, we feel very inspired to get to work. We wrote the first book not knowing if anyone would ever read it. Now, we have actual readers waiting for the second book; that makes us really excited about writing it.