By Lindsay Jamieson
Lexa Hillyer is not only the author of the poetry collection, Acquainted with the Cold, and four Harper Collins YA novels: Proof of Forever, Spindle Fire, Winter Glass, and, her most recent, Frozen Beauty, but she’s also the co-founder of Glasstown Entertainment. While pursuing her own writing career, Hillyer and her partner, The New York Times bestselling author, Lauren Oliver, transformed their original publishing collaboration, Paper Lantern Lit and e-book publishing imprint, The Studio, into Glasstown; Hillyer remains at the helm. As their mission statement reads, “Glasstown Entertainment is an all-women, 360-degree media and content company based in New York and Los Angeles, dedicated to powerful, relevant, voice-driven story-telling across multiple platforms including book, film, and television.”
The Coachella Review recently sat down with Hillyer to discuss her fifteen-year career in publishing, the evolution of Glasstown Entertainment, and her latest novel, Frozen Beauty, which was released in March of this year.
The Coachella Review: I’m fascinated by your career trajectory, how your love of poetry, perhaps the least commercial form of writing, led you to not only become a publisher and novelist, but also a movie producer. You were an English major in college—what was your initial post-graduation goal?
Lexa Hillyer: It’s strong to say I had any goals at all (laugh), but I guess it was to get a job in publishing—it wasn’t to be a writer. Poetry I loved. I thought that maybe I would work as an agent and represent poets, maybe I could discover new poets if that could be a job. So I had that fantasy when I moved to New York. But then I stumbled into an interview for a young adult (YA) editorial assistant position [At Harper Collins]. At the time, I knew very little. My boss had edited The Princess Diaries. She would constantly joke, after the fact, that she hired me because she was worried that no one else would. But she also said I was the only one who didn’t seem officious and obnoxious (laugh). But what I discovered was that, because I did a lot of theater at Vassar, I was very into act structure and interested in the movement of action on the page. I apprenticed with her for a few years and ended up working with more debut writers, getting my hands dirty with the structural process, so I got to see the underbelly of how a book gets taken apart and put back together. And I was editing novels, but I thought, who would ever want to be a writer if they’d been an editor? They see every ugly piece of it. From a process perspective, but also from the experience of what it is like to be published and how it can be scary and heartbreaking and frustrating at every step of the way. I felt like I’d seen so much. I did not want to ever be a novelist. Writing poetry was my escape. I didn’t think I would publish my poetry—I was just doing that for fun. Then, a few years later, I was working at Penguin, and my first boss, who had moved to Scholastic, threw me a bone. They did a lot of IP [Intellectual Property] at Scholastic, and she asked if I would want to ghost write a book. So I wrote a paperback original. It was a great learning experience. I didn’t promote it or act like it was my book. I did it like it was a homework assignment or an experiment. In retrospect, I could have really turned it into something.
TCR: Why didn’t you?
LH: I was cautious and I still wasn’t emotionally in the headspace of wanting to be a published author.
TCR: That was before you published your book of poetry, Acquainted with the Cold?
LH: Yes. Then I decided to pursue an MFA in poetry, and even then the goal was loosely to publish a manuscript, but also to make connections with other poets who would hopefully help me to continue to grow in that craft. I did think maybe eventually I’d publish a manuscript of poems and having an MFA would help me achieve that. Because by that point I had been writing a lot of poems—I didn’t know what the hell to do with them. My MFA project was Acquainted with the Cold.
TCR: When you got your MFA, were you still working in publishing?
LH: Yes, I was still editing at Penguin. I did a low-residency program because I was getting into my thirties and I didn’t want to uproot my whole life. I wasn’t married or having kids yet, but I didn’t like the idea of throwing away what I had built in New York and ending my publishing career. I wanted the security blanket of having that job. But then, when I was going into the second year of my MFA—I graduated in 2010—I had this idea of starting this company with my friend Lauren.
TCR: How did you and Lauren meet?
LH: She worked at Penguin, too. She was the assistant there when I moved over. We bonded and we actually worked on some internal IP together at Penguin. I was hired to create concepts for paperback originals. It was a lot more work than acquiring a book that’s already done. It’s more work and less payoff and there’s less likelihood that you’ll get marketing dollars—you’re just publishing paperbacks hoping that one of them will go viral. Lauren and I worked together on a few different concepts. She is a genius and took to it really well. She left Penguin in 2009 to write the rest of her first book, Before I Fall. But she was bored just being an author and she missed working with other authors. I was frustrated doing all of this paperback IP editing, and so we thought: What if we start our own IP company? That’s how the idea was born. Ironically, I did the low-residency MFA so that I could hang on to my job at Penguin, then I left Penguin two months before graduation so that I could start this company.
TCR: But you may not have come to that same conclusion had you not done the MFA. The way you did it yielded this great collaboration with Lauren.
LH: Absolutely. And in fact, if I had gone off to a fulltime MFA program for two years, the likelihood that she and I would have incubated this business together is probably much lower. Paper Lantern was definitely born out of work we did together.
TCR: Was there some way that Paper Lantern Lit would be unique?
LH: I can’t claim that we were the first book packager or book producers because there are other companies that do that, there just aren’t that many. And because I worked in commercial YA fiction, I happened to see it in a way that a lot of other people don’t.
TCR: Would you explain how book packaging companies work?
LH: Packagers are IP companies that work with writers to create books or series and sell them to publishers. But we wanted to do it in a fresh way. We wanted to come up with book ideas. We wanted to create a company that was focused solely on the creative and then own the rights to the concepts. We wanted to be able to work with authors and cultivate writers who might have a hard time knowing how to pitch their own ideas and how to get in the door. And we believed we could serve publishers in a way that a lot of other companies might not because of our experience. A lot of agents have never worked in a publishing house. A lot of authors, of course, haven’t either, so we had this advantage in terms of understanding the mechanisms of publishing.
TCR: What were some of your first titles?
LH: The very first project we sold was called Fury. It was a trilogy. We sold it to Simon and Schuster in an auction. It was one of those hit-the-ground-running moments and it was super exciting and it was validation that this could work. That was back when the foreign market was a lot more robust too, so we had really strong buys from the UK and Germany. All of a sudden we were in business. We went from the two of us sitting on the floor of my living room saying, “This could be a cool book,” to selling our first proposal and having to put three novels together.
TCR: And neither of you had been published as authors yet?
LH: That was the year Before I Fall came out. Lauren had just published the book and it had just hit The New York Times bestseller list right before we launched Paper Lantern. While we were working on the company, she was also promoting the book. The book was this big hit and … that then got a lot of people interested in what we were doing as a company.
TCR: You’d also written IP novels, so you knew the business from that perspective too.
LH: Yes. Also, when I was at Penguin, I pitched ideas and plotted them out and hired writers to write them for Penguin. I had been on both sides of in-house IP. And I had worked with outside packagers too. So I had a much broader sense of these businesses than other people might.
TCR: When did you publish your first YA novel, Proof of Forever? How did that come about while you were so busy with Paper Lantern Lit?
LH: I sold Proof of Forever in 2013. We’d already been running Paper Lantern for three years. It actually started out as a Paper Lantern idea. I kept saying, “The idea is so character driven—it’s about this connection between these four girls—we have to really put our hearts into these four characters in order to be able to hand it off to a writer.” I was spending all this time incubating on that project, so I realized I should probably just write it myself even though I was still pretty terrified to write my debut novel. I was like the surgeon going in for surgery: I knew too much about how this works and so somehow was more scared than confident. But I did have all these advantages because I was already so connected. I feel bad sometimes when I tell my publishing journey story because I know so many people are struggling to find their way in and I was already on the inside and had been for many years.
TCR: But the karmic flip side is that part of the original concept of Paper Lantern was to help writers that didn’t have another way in. You paid it forward within the mission of your first company. Was this at at the same time you forayed into publishing original titles yourself with The Studio?
LH: Yes. By the time my book came out in 2015, Fifty Shades of Gray was breaking records and people were going e-book mad. I liked the idea, because once again, I liked the idea of being able to do things creatively that couldn’t be done before. When I worked at Penguin, we were limited by being one imprint. When we started Paper Lantern, I still felt that we were limited because there are certain kinds of content that are harder to sell for YA. And at the time we weren’t really doing adult yet, and there were a lot of sort of cuspy things—college age stories and edgier YA content. We felt like traditional publishers were still unable to wrap their heads around how to publish that content, but we knew readers wanted that content, so e-books seemed like a great way to become a publisher. All of a sudden, we had to start doing things that we hadn’t had to do before, like typesetting and designing covers and all of these other mechanics of publishing. I think our biggest challenge in The Studio was that we were missing a powerful marketing arm. We were naïve, hoping we would stumble onto a lucky recipe, or that social media alone could make that business work. I think in retrospect, the power of the physical book is that you have marketing in the form of books existing themselves and people browsing them.
TCR: How many e-books did The Studio publish?
LH: The Studio published like thirty or forty titles. I’m proud of us considering we only had a couple of editors, hustling, trying to figure out how to manage all of these freelance typesetters and copyeditors and proofreaders and cover designers, and putting all the pieces together to actually make the books. Even if they weren’t physically printed, there’s still a lot more infrastructure that we didn’t have to deal with when we were selling directly to publishers.
TCR: Why did you decide to rebrand as Glasstown Entertainment?
LH: The growth from Paper Lantern into Glasstown began early on. In 2012 we had a first-look deal with Fox 2000. That was our first big foray into trying to sell our rights to Hollywood. That relationship was amazing and we learned a lot. It was very exciting.
TCR: Did they ultimately purchase any titles?
LH: No. What we learned was that we were pretty passive in the whole thing. It was amazing to be flown out there to take all these meetings, but ultimately we realized that we were just this catalog of IP and that it was hard to create uniqueness and get people excited about any one project. In meetings we were like: We can do whatever you want. We can pitch you an idea right now. We can fix something of yours. There’s almost the curse of having too much, and we realized that the best work happens when there’s passion behind it. It’s not: Can you have good ideas? We have a thousand good ideas. But can you really package and produce, put together a team, a vision, get people on board who really want to do it? We wanted to have an LA office, but we just weren’t ready. We didn’t have the bandwidth to grow. It was actually kind of heartbreaking, but we essentially shuttered The Studio in part so that we could give way to this new kind of growth. We felt like we had a good reputation in LA as Paper Lantern Lit, but our reputation was as a clever book company, and we wanted to be seen as producers. So we felt we needed a rebrand to get that point across, that we’re not just these two crafty girls who started our own book company, we’re a legit production company, and we’re legit content creators, and that content can take any format, so step out of our way (laugh). So we relaunched the company as Glasstown in 2017 and then Lauren officially moved to Los Angeles.
TCR: Is the first produced Glasstown project the Amazon adaptation of Lauren’s book Panic?
LH: Yes, the first project that actually went through production is Panic, but we have a whole slate. We signed a two-year deal with Amazon in summer 2019 and have already sold one book to them for TV development, I Hope You Get This Message. The pilot will be penned by the author, Farah Naz Rishi. It’s now been three years as Glasstown, and I think we’re still nuancing how both sides of our business can play off of and inform each other.
TCR: You can do so much with the ability to publish a book and option the film rights under one roof.
LH: Yes, exactly. We want to be sure that we’re actually leveraging that synergy. But at the same time we do constantly run up against the blessing/curse that we have too many ideas and we need to stay focused on finding the right partners for each project so they can actually happen. It’s a different business model. You need to juggle a lot more balls to get anything done.
TCR: How many books have you either packaged or published since you started Paper Lantern Lit/Glasstown? And what are some of your most successful titles?
LH: It was well over sixty titles for PLL/The Studio and at least another twenty-five or so more since we converted to Glasstown, though not all of our recent sales have published yet. Sara Holland’s duology, Everless, was a big hit for us. Bonfire by Krysten Ritter was also an indie and international bestseller and did really well, got excellent praise across the board. Our Unicorn Quest trilogy has been an incredibly strong and consistent property. We have high hopes for Hush by Dylan Farrow and Shine by Jessica Jung, both releasing this fall.
TCR: So let’s talk about your new book, Frozen Beauty. I love your use of multiple points of view.
LH: I’m attracted to telling story as a tapestry, like layering in different elements and information from different viewpoints, and that’s just not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people think using multiple POVs is “cheating” because, if you’re true to a single lens, then you’re faced with the challenge of how to get information across that the character might not have had access to, and if you throw in another POV then you’re somehow cheating. But I think that’s a very simplistic way of understanding how to use multiple points of view. The reason I’m using multiple points of view is not so I can conveniently slot in information that I didn’t know how to put on the page, it’s so I can explore different emotional realities.
TCR: You also used all these different forms of writing: the diary entries and poems, text messages—you wove them all together so well. Is that something that you always do?
LH: I am attracted to telling a story through multiple lenses—it keeps things interesting for me. I have a little bit of a mathematical brain so part of it is organizational. I like compartmentalizing pieces of story, whereas when you’re writing a single POV, it feels like running a marathon—no matter where you look, there you are. There’s something refreshing about being able to shift modalities and tone, within a consistent larger narrative structure.
TCR: I knew from the onset of the book that the mystery is how Kit died and who killed her. When I came upon a point of view that I wasn’t expecting, I wondered why this character warrants a chapter in their POV? How is this character involved? It worked well.
LH: With a mystery, the tension is generally held by withholding information and if you have too many points of view, you’re bound to give away too much, so it’s actually more challenging to tell a mystery when you’re allowing readers into multiple characters’ motivations. You have to be able to get close enough to the characters and yet be strategic enough to withhold information in a way that creates tension, but doesn’t create annoyance in the reader. If you could easily have the character think it or do it, but you didn’t write it in because you didn’t want the reader to know yet, then it’s inauthentic to what the character would actually be thinking or doing. You have to be true to the character, but at the same time still corral everything in a way that the character isn’t bumping into information that you don’t want them to reveal yet.
TCR: It’s so intricate—how organized were you when you started writing?
LH: Not a ton. I had the sense of the trajectory for each of the girls, but I do tend to do very structural revisions, so in some ways I get more mathematical about the puzzle pieces after the fact. There is something to be said for intuition. I think it’s nice to be able to shift tones as a way to create tension and suspense, and then trick everybody by switching to something else, and then come back. Some people I know will write all the chapters in one character’s POV first. Or write all the poems first. It was not like that at all for me. I really did write in the general order that you see, and then I went back and rearranged things that didn’t work. I think this book, of all the books I’ve written, is the most close to me because I grew up with sisters and I pulled a lot of themes from the kinds of books that I grew up reading.
TCR: Which sister are you?
LH: I’m the oldest. I was the Kit in a way. So I killed myself off I guess, not that I was the “golden child,” but I think in some ways, all younger siblings see their older siblings as a golden child whether it’s true or not. I wrote poetry as a teenager and young adult and it’s a way in which I process my emotions, so I liked the idea of a found poetry book—it felt like a less forced way to get poems into the book. People have asked me, since I’m a poet, if I want to write a verse novel or write an entire story in poems. I like them as little capsules. I like the idea of using them like mixed media in a novel more so than creating an entire novel out of verse.
TCR: It is great the way the poems are part of the narrative. Sometimes readers glance over anything on the page that isn’t strictly prose, they see a poem or a quote, but don’t read it carefully. But in Frozen Beauty, the poems are critical to the story. You have to pay attention to the information in the poems. Also, they allow Kit to come back from the dead.
LH: Yeah, I give her a voice and also—this is the narcissistic aspect of writing—I was really intrigued by this idea of all these old unpublished poems from my youth. I did use a lot of my poems as inspiration for Kit’s poems. Most of the angst-written poetry of my youth were these unreciprocated love poems, poems about the self, and all these things that you go through as a teen, so I thought that would be relatable, but obviously in a more honed, contextualized way.
TCR: I thought it worked really well. Even with all the points of view and the “mixed media”: diary, poems, phone transcriptions …. Plus two time lines—I was never confused.
LH: It’s so funny, when you say it out loud like that, it sounds like more than I should have bitten off, but at the time it didn’t seem like it would be that complicated to me. Again, the hardest part for me with that kind of thing is when you go back and try to revise it, because even if you intuitively remember where you are in any one person’s timeline, once you start to strategically play moments off of each other and have to move things around, then you start to run into all of those challenges of consistency. On top of that, with this particular book I wasn’t just revising for logic, I was basically revising for genre.
TCR: Were you in sync with your publisher on that shift?
LH: My stance when I first wrote it was: This is not a mystery, this is definitely not a thriller—this is the story of sisters and loss. That’s it. And then I was sort of convinced both by the publisher (laugh)—and of course my commercial instinct—that something was missing. Even if the book’s primary goal is to move me and make me feel things and examine relationships—even if that is the primary goal and even if it succeeds in that, I still, as a reader, want to be catapulted forward. And these genre devices are useful in making that happen, so I found that I actually embraced the mystery/thriller genre a lot more than I originally intended to when I went back to rewrite it. There’s also a distinction between mystery and thriller. With mystery, what propels you is really the puzzle solving, and with a thriller, what propels you is that there’s a lingering threat. I was juggling that too.
TCR: You mentioned to me that Frozen Beauty was meant to be the second book in your two-book deal after Proof of Forever, which is also contemporary YA, and that you had already written that first draft before you sold the fantasy duology Spindle Fire and Winter Glass. Do you think the shift in the market while you were writing the duology influenced your publisher to encourage you to rewrite Frozen Beauty as a mystery/thriller?
LH: Yes. It was like, okay, how can we actually use what we have here and make it more commercial and tighter and make it more of a comp to One of Us is Lying? Like I said, at first I was much more resistant. But then I re-read it and thought, well there are a lot of ways in which the pace is lacking, or I haven’t really landed on this, that, or the other thing. I knew it needed a rewrite, so I just kind of embraced the challenge.
TCR: Now that you’ve finished both two-book deals and re-branded Paper Lantern Lit into Glasstown Entertainment—all while having your first child—what are you planning next?
LH: I’m not working on any personal projects right now. I have some ideas and I’m sure I’ll write books again, but because of this whirlwind of the four books, it’s nice to take a break. I feel like with Lauren out in LA, I’m really running the show in New York now, and it’s been tough to do that when my focus is pulled in so many directions. And not just my focus, but my emotions. You’re much more vulnerable when you’ve also got your own book coming out—it’s a lot to emotionally and psychologically divide. There is the invisibility of being the editor. You can’t quite point to any one piece, but all the pieces together, you’ve had a hand in. It can be very freeing. You don’t suffer the same heartbreak that you do when it’s your own book. You don’t have to go out and give everyone the hard sell and self-promote. It’s so much easier to promote and network on other people’s behalf. I think there’s a lot of pleasure and freedom in that and I’m happy to put my creative energy into the company. And that’s not just spin, that’s really how I feel.
Lindsay Jamieson published her first novel, Beautiful Girl, with Paper Lantern Lit under a pen name, Lida James. She has sold/optioned screenplays to Davis Entertainment, CBS, and producer Adam Merims, and was a contributing writer on Jed Weintraub’s feature film The F Word. Currently, she’s the fiction editor at The Coachella Review and writes for several online publications while pursuing an MFA at UC Riverside, raising her two teens, and snowboarding whenever she can.