Thursday, October 7, 2010

Author Interview - Catherine Petrini - Children/YA Author

We are talking with Children/YA author, Catherine Petrini. Grab your favorite beverage and sit back to enjoy the next twenty minutes with our author. She is funny as well as informative and you won't be disappointed with her interview. So, without further ado.... 

Deanna: Catherine, thank you for taking the time to be with us. First of all, our readers would like to know what you write. I understand you have written both fiction and nonfiction. Tell us first about the fiction.

Catherine: I think I’m best known as a recovering “Sweet Valley High” author. But I have written 28 published books altogether. They are both fiction and nonfiction, mainly for older children and teens. Most have been with major publishers. The 20 novels, written under pseudonyms (pen names) were all for teen series. Eighteen of those were for “Sweet Valley High.” One was for “Sweet Valley University.” The other novel was for a well-known mystery series, but I had to sign a secrecy agreement to write that one. I could tell you what it was, but then I’d have to kill you.

Deanna: So, you write under a pen name? What made you decide to do that?

Catherine: All of my fiction has been published under pen names. Mostly, it’s Kate William, who doesn’t exist except as the alleged writer of all of the “Sweet Valley High” books, no matter which series author actually wrote them. Francine Pascal, a real person whose name also appears on the books, is the creator of the series.

Writing under a pen name wasn’t my choice; it was the publisher’s choice. And it’s standard practice when you’re writing for an existing, long-term young-adult series. This kind of book has always been done that way. For example, since the 1930s, the Hardy Boys have carried the byline Franklin Dixon, but he never really existed; various authors wrote the books under that name. The idea is to create consistency across an entire series – what we’d now call a brand identity. Readers are supposed to believe in – or suspend their disbelief in – a single, smart, teen-friendly grownup who understands what the readers want in a book.

If I had my choice, I’d write under my own name. But I knew what I was agreeing to when I started, and I really don’t mind the arrangement. I usually tell people it doesn’t matter what name is on the book, as long as my name is on the check.

Deanna: Did you create your own story lines for Sweet Valley High, or were you told what to write about?

Catherine: Not all series work exactly the same way. But Sweet Valley High’s editors would tell me what my book was supposed to be about – they provided a plot synopsis. That plot was pretty sketchy; I always found a lot of room to play around with events and to put my own mark on the storyline. If I felt that something in the synopsis wasn’t going to work, I would call up my editors to discuss it. Often, they would go with my judgment – as long as my changes didn’t complicate matters for writers who were working on the next few books. And as a SVH author, I was always responsible for coming up with my own subplots.

Deanna: What made you switch from fiction to nonfiction?

Catherine: Fiction-writing is my first love. But I’ve always written nonfiction, too. In fact, I was a magazine editor for a long time. I was writing and editing articles during the day when I started writing “Sweet Valley High” books at night. Eventually I quit my day job to write them full time. When I decided I wouldn’t accept another “Sweet Valley High” contract, it was because I was trying to complete my Master’s degree, and Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield (the main characters in SVH) kept eating my thesis. When I was ready to jump back into another book contract, I was feeling burned out on Sweet Valley. Nineteen books in seven years will do that to you! And I was looking for a new challenge. Then I had a baby. Talk about new challenges!

Every writer is different. But for me, fiction requires long blocks of uninterrupted time. If I sit down to write for an hour, it takes me much of that hour just to immerse my mind back into the fictional world of my novel. Nonfiction is much easier for me to write in smaller chunks of time, such as an infant’s twenty-minute nap. If I’d had a baby who was willing to sleep for three hours at a time, I might have written a lot more fiction when he was little. I decided instead to try my hand at some nonfiction for children.

I had written nonfiction in the past, including some books. But I’d never written nonfiction for kids. I researched the market and saw some books that impressed me. So I tracked down the publisher, called the editor, and said I was interested in writing for her. When I told her about my “Sweet Valley High” credentials, she offered me a project on the spot. Since then I’ve written six nonfiction books for an audience ranging from children as young as third grade up through high school students. Some of the topics include Stonehenge, the Cherokee Indians, Italian-American immigrants, and my most recent book, Dragons.

Deanna: You’ve written a book about dragons, but you say it’s nonfiction. How does that work?

Catherine: That does sound odd, doesn’t it? The book is really about dragon mythology. I was fascinated by the fact that so many disparate cultures from widespread regions and different periods in history have all told similar stories about dragons, even when the civilizations had no apparent contact with each other. The book describes the elements that are common to many of the dragon stories, the differences among types of dragons, the origins of dragon myths, and dragons in popular culture.

I tried to show the evolution of dragon mythology through the years. For example, the evil dragon that abducts maidens and lays waste to villages is a medieval creation. Before that period, dragons were often powerful but helpful creatures. Their image changed with the rise of Christianity, which equated Satan with serpents, including dragons. In the book, I also discuss dragons from Asia and the Americas, where dragons were generally seen as powerful and potentially dangerous, but more as a force of nature than an evil entity. Most children in the U.S. are aware of the Medieval-type dragons of the King Arthur tales and similar stories. I was excited to be able to introduce them to other kinds of dragons they may have never heard of.

Deanna: What are you working on now, fiction or nonfiction?

Catherine: At the moment I’m writing a science fiction novel for adults. It’s for the “Stargate SG-1"  book series, based on the long-running television program of the same name.

Deanna: Does that work the same way as Sweet Valley High? Are you working from a plot provided by the editors?

Catherine: No. With this type of science fiction series, the writer comes up with a plot and submits a proposal to the editor, with an outline and chapters. I have a go-ahead from the editor to create a proposal. If she approves it, I’ll receive a contract and a deadline for finishing the book. And this book will be published under my own name.

Deanna: What is it like, writing for a fiction series that someone else has created, having to use characters and settings that you didn’t make up? Doesn’t it stifle your own creativity and limit you as a writer?

Catherine: In some ways, I suppose it might. But in other ways it’s surprisingly freeing, especially if you have an editor who trusts you to make the story your own while remaining true to the characters and to the format of the series. A useful analogy would be the sonnet. If you are writing a sonnet, you have to stick to the sonnet format. You can’t decide to end your sonnet after only six lines, or to experiment with different line lengths. If you do, it’s no longer a sonnet. But within the established format, you are free to be as creative as you like.

Writing for an existing book series is also a little like writing for a television show. The characters already exist; your audience knows them and wants to learn what happens to them next. It’s not your series. You don’t control the overall direction of the plot and character arcs. You didn’t make up the main characters’ back-stories, though you can create extra characters as needed. If you can accept those terms, and if you really understand what makes the established characters tick, you can focus on exploring them further and placing them in new situations, without needing to spend a lot of time figuring out who they are.

In science fiction writing, we call it, “playing in someone else’s universe.” Unless the editor tells you otherwise, you have to leave the universe the way you found it. You’re not free to kill off a major character or to, say, burn down the high school in a Sweet Valley High novel – unless, of course, the editors have told you to. Somewhere out there, some other author might be writing the next book in the series and using that character or that school building in it. Of course, sometimes the editors DO tell you to destroy much of Sweet Valley in an earthquake and kill off a character or two. When you’re working with existing settings and characters, that’s a huge responsibility. And I can tell you from personal experience that it’s a lot of fun. I always wanted to devastate Southern California.

Another way it’s like writing for television is that you don’t own the rights to your work. My “Sweet Valley High” books are works for hire. The publisher holds the copyright, not me. I’m not free to reprint them or to write and publish books on my own that use the same characters. And most of my SVH contracts are on a flat-fee basis; I don’t get royalties for them.

Deanna: Do you read in the same genres you write in?

Catherine: Yes. But I read in almost all genres, so that’s not much of a stretch. I love young adult, or YA, fiction. I’m convinced that some of the best writing being done in all of literature is aimed at the YA market. I read literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy, historical fiction, memoir and biography, and thrillers. I don’t read much straight romance, and I generally read detective fiction only if it’s character-oriented. Most detective-fiction is more plot-oriented, which doesn’t interest me as much.

Deanna: Tell us a bit about yourself that our readers might not know.

Catherine: Many people assume that writers lead unusual, glamorous lives. The reality is that shadowing me for a week would probably put most people to sleep. I live with my husband and son in a bungalow in the Washington, D.C., area that’s begging to be remodeled. I’m Mom to an 8-year-old. I volunteer with the PTA. I coordinate a book club. I love reading, of course, but I also draw and paint – or I did, when I could find the time. And I’m an avid amateur photographer who occasionally dreams of a gallery show of my work. On the other hand, I also spend an inordinate amount of time helping with homework assignments and fishing out Cheerios from under the couch.

Don’t get me wrong: I love being an author. And I especially love spending time with other writers. Many of my favorite people are writers! But people who fantasize about life as a published writer gloss over the part about sitting alone in a room, staring at a computer screen for hours.

They also think that writing pays a lot better than it really does! Even when I was supporting myself writing books, I didn’t make as much as I used to in my day job. When my son was born, I cut way back on my writing hours. So I’m currently a part-time writer and a full-time parent. My son starts third grade soon. As he grows older and more independent, I’m adding more writing hours back into my life.

Deanna: What happened that made you want to become a writer?

Catherine: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve had other career ambitions at times, as well. But I always assumed that whatever else I was doing, I’d be writing, too. I guess it started when I first learned to read. Books opened up the world for me. When I was a kid, we’d visit the public library every week. My sisters were allowed to check out two books at a time. I was allowed to check out as many as I could fit into a big paper grocery sack. Eventually it became two grocery sacks.

Historical fiction spurred my interest in history. In about third or fourth grade I was a Laura Ingalls Wilder fanatic. I read and re-read her books, and I would play a game with myself, imagining that Laura could step forward from the nineteenth century into my time. Then I would think about which modern innovations might impress her the most, and we would compare life in her day with life in mine.

I’m still a Laura Ingalls Wilder fanatic. This summer my family visited my mother-in-law in Wisconsin. I insisted to my husband that this time, I was not leaving Wisconsin without seeing the Little House in the Big Woods site, near the Minnesota border, a few miles from Lake Pepin, and the LIW museum in Pepin. (I’ve already seen the Mansfield, Missouri, house and the Little House on the Prairie site, and someday I’d like to visit all of Laura’s other homes, as well.) We turned this summer’s trip into a real book-geek vacation. After Pepin we drove down along the Mississippi River as far as Hannibal, Missouri, and visited Mark Twain’s stomping grounds, too.

Deanna: How did your family feel about the book-geek vacation?

Catherine: My husband is a librarian. And my son is a budding book geek, himself, though still a little too enamored of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid to suit me. When the Laura Ingalls Wilder pilgrimage got to be too much for them, they left me at the museum and walked down the street to the railroad museum. And all three of us loved Hannibal, especially the tour of the cave where Twain set his storyline about Tom and Becky getting lost in the dark.

My husband is more of a nonfiction book geek. He loved it when I turned a trip to Alaska a few years back into a research tour for a nonfiction book I was writing at the time. He was happy to serve as my research assistant. In every town we visited, we spent time at a library, museum, or National Park ranger station archive, looking up local history. In fact, whenever we travel, he wants to at least take a look at the local library.

Deanna: Does he critique your manuscripts for you?

Catherine: Gosh, no. I asked him to a few times, and his comments were completely useless. He’s a smart person, but fiction just doesn’t interest him. Even with nonfiction, he has no experience with books written for children and teens. I do belong to two different writer’s groups, and I find their critiques to be invaluable.

On the other hand, my husband has been invaluable on the research end. Librarians are experts and ferreting out information. Even better, he works at the Library of Congress. The general public is allowed to go there to look at the books onsite. But employees are allowed to take books home! Now that so much information is available online and print-based books are easy to locate using online resources, I’m not making use of his check-out privileges as much as I used to. But it’s nice to know that I can if I need to.

Deanna: Tell me more about researching your books. What kind of research methods do you use?

Catherine: It always surprises me that people assume your research has to be either all online or all from books. I use both kinds of resources – and a lot of other kinds.

For example, that National Park ranger station archive in Alaska turned up some amazing resources that have never been published online or in print. I was writing my book about Italian-American immigrants, and I wanted to see if Italian immigrants had influenced Alaskan history and culture. A one-line caption on a photo in the Denali visitor center made me wonder if a man who ran a roadhouse there in the early days of European settlement might have been Italian. The park rangers were thrilled that someone wanted to know more about the history of the area. They dug out a handwritten transcript of a never-published oral-history interview from the 1920s with a resident who had known the man when she was a girl. All I’d learned from the museum was that he ran a roadhouse and market in Denali. But this woman said his business was more than that; it was the center of the social scene for all the non-Indians in the area. She remembered details the museum left out – like the fact that he always wore a red bandana and sang arias from Italian operas. How cool is that?

Deanna: What other research methods have you used?

Catherine: At a conference a few years ago, I spoke at a panel about research methods for fiction writers. One of the “literary” writers, disdainful of my YA work, questioned my inclusion on the panel at all. He couldn’t imagine that a Sweet Valley High author would do any research at all. Of course you have to do research to write fiction, any kind of fiction. For the SVH book, “A Date With a Vampire,” I did extensive research into vampire lore, including poring over some historic old tomes from the Library of Congress about Medieval vampire legends from Eastern Europe. My book was set in London, and for the city scenes, I drew on memories of my own trips there, but found much more information in travel guides and maps. (With only six weeks to write a Sweet Valley High novel, there was no time for traveling overseas for first-hand observation.)

My Sweet Valley University book, “Wanted for Murder,” told the story of the twins’ road trip across the American Southwest. I needed to know what route they would take, and what driving conditions would be like along the way. So I asked myself what Elizabeth would do. Elizabeth, the responsible twin, would surely be the one to plan the trip. This was in the days before MapQuest, so I decided Elizabeth would go to AAA and ask for a Triptych, the personalized booklet AAA creates for you of small maps that show each leg of your planned journey. I headed to AAA to do the same.

I didn’t think to mention that I was writing a book. I just asked the rep to put together a route from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon. She worked with me, page by page, until we reached the final leg of the trip. Then she told me, “I can route you directly to your hotel, if you’d like. Are you heading for the North or the South Rim?”

And I responded: “I’m not sure. Can you suggest a place where someone could drive right up to the rim and plunge off it, into the canyon?”

Her mouth dropped open, and I realized she thought I was asking for her help in planning an elaborate suicide! I had to explain that I was writing a novel with a Thelma-and-Louise kind of ending. After that, she was excited about helping.

In the same book, my characters spent some time in Las Vegas, staying at Caesar’s Palace. I called the front desk there, explained what I was doing, and asked the clerk to suggest a spot at Caesar’s for a romantic moonlight kiss! We finally settled on the gazebo by the pool. She said it was the best phone call she’d ever received on the job. Most people are thrilled about a chance to help an author research a book. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Deanna:  You are fun to chat with, Catherine. Where can our readers find you?

Catherine:  Thank you for having me here to chat with your readers. Here are a few of my sites which include more links to find me and things for my visitors to do:

Deanna:  Catherine, thank you so much for sharing with us today and tomorrow! It’s been an informative interview for sure! Readers, feel free to leave a comment or question for Catherine. Be sure to check out her website and FB page!


  1. Thank you for a very entertaining interview. I loved it. Your comments on research interested me as I have difficulty with research. I know what I'm trying to discover, but putting in the right questions be it to humans or the net, rarely gets me the answers I'm looking for. It seems I lack the right approach :-)
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Enjoyed the interview as well. I especially enjoyed hearing about the various "writing lives" with fiction and non-fiction alike.

  3. Oh my gosh my daughter read the Sweet Valley High books. She loved those books. My son would like your Stargate SG-1 book. He is Stargate crazy. LOL. He always loved dragons too. I love learning about dragons too. I still love childrens books too. Loved your interview.
    Sue B