Monday, May 6, 2013

Author Interview #178: Georgetown Academy by Jessica Koosed Etting and Alyssa Embree Schwartz

Our interview today is with Jessica Koosed Etting & Alyssa Embree Schwartz authors of Georgetown Academy (Rated 4.7 stars, 58 reviews, on sale for $0.99, Book #4 in the series releases 6/11/2013). Before we get to the interview a brief book description: It’s the beginning of a new political administration. That might not mean much at most high schools, but at Georgetown Academy, Washington D.C.’s most elite prep school, January 20th means new alliances, new flings, and new places to party. While freshmen—nicknamed “interns” for their willingness to jump into bed with anyone higher on the D.C. totem pole—navigate the not-so-friendly halls of GA searching for Algebra and Bio classes, the school’s lifers have other things on their minds. For self-proclaimed D.C. royalty Brinley Madison (of those Madisons), the first day of school is all about establishing the social hierarchy and playing the part of perfect political wife to her boyfriend, the outgoing Vice President’s son. Too bad he has a wandering eye that puts Bill Clinton’s to shame. Can she keep him, and her own secret vice, in check? Ellie Walker, Brinley’s best friend, floats through the halls on the arm of golden boy Hunter McKnight (the JFK of GA). But when her ex-boyfriend, Gabe, returns to town and her Senator mother’s political nemesis is reelected, Ellie’s life starts to snowball out of control. Read more on Amazon.

Author Interview

1. What was unique about the setting of the book and how did it enhance or take away from the story?
Georgetown Academy takes place at an elite Washington D.C. prep school where all the parents are powerful politicians and where one teenage misstep can turn into scandal faster than you can say CNN. For that reason, Washington D.C. isn’t just the setting of our book—it’s also the heartbeat of our series.
Living in such an insulated high-powered world like that is bound to influence our characters, their motivations and the storylines they find themselves in. For example, the social hierarchy of the school actually operates like a mini White House (everyone calls the school gossip queen the “press secretary”).
As writers, using that setting was a fantastic inspiration because whenever we got stuck, we were able to get back to that world of D.C., find ideas in real-life stories and let our imaginations run wild of what kind of emotional toll that would take on our characters, for better or for worse! One of us lives in D.C., too, so it’s fun to pepper in real places, streets and restaurants to give it that authentic flavor.
2. What specific themes did the author emphasize throughout the novel? What do you think he or she is trying to get across to the reader?

One theme in all four books is coming of age and a lot of our characters experience that evolution in the spotlight thanks to the political fame of their parents. When most high schoolers screw up, they’re usually just gossip fodder in the hallways, not a huge headline on the Huffington Post. Other major themes include friendship (and its limits) and love, specifically pursuing it with the guy you want to be with versus the one you should be with.
Another theme of the books is that there’s always another side to the story. Within the books, we switch between our four main characters’ POV’s with each of them narrating different chapters, so you may first hear of a situation through one character and form an opinion, only to hear about it in a later chapter from a second character and change your mind. Because of the awesome software platform our publishers (Coliloquy) pioneered, we were even able to add a choice point into each of our books. At a certain spot, readers are asked which character they would like to “follow” to a specific event (and yes, readers can go back and read all four versions if they want!). It’s really allowed us to elevate this “there’s always another side to the story” theme because readers are able to see how the characters interpret the same event completely differently! Our readers have let us know its one of their favorite elements of the book, and it’s actually one of the most fun to write, as well.
3. Do the characters seem real and believable? Can you relate to their predicaments? To what extent do they remind you of yourself or someone you know?
We try to ground our characters in reality even if the situations they are in are ones that most high schoolers (and adults) don’t experience. In the case of Georgetown Academy, the predicaments our characters find themselves in are often unique to their circumstance of growing up under the national spotlight. And it’s not all bad! We loved showing the wish fulfillment aspect of it because there are major perks to having that much access to power when you’re in high school. But even if you can’t relate to the external details of the story, we still think everyone can connect to the emotions these situations evoke for our characters, such as lust, heartbreak, the boundaries of a friendship and the wrenching betrayal by someone you trust.
As far as who our characters are based on, some are inspired by political figures and children, but they all end up becoming compilations of many different people and emotional make-ups. We try to think about the situation we’ve put the character in and imagine how that would organically play out. For example, Ellie has a senator mother who is frequently a media target, which inspired us to make Ellie more guarded and self-conscious. That being said, we do often base certain characters’ attributes on people we know or even some we don’t know that we’ve observed while out and about (we’re big people watchers!). Real human traits are so quirkily interesting….and are often what end up resonating most with the reader.
4. How do characters change or evolve throughout the course of the story? What events trigger such changes?
Our characters are all pretty flawed, but every time they make a mistake, they evolve somehow whether it’s in their romantic relationships, their friendships or with their families. Some of the events that trigger the evolutions are things that could happen to any teenager (cheating on your boyfriend, for example) and other events are circumstances that could only happen at Georgetown Academy (your mom is a senator and if your secrets are exposed it could cost her votes).
As we’ve experienced through several of our ex-boyfriends, it’s really difficult to change who you are when you’re an adult. But as a teenager, you’re constantly evolving and figuring out different facets of yourself and it was great to channel that through our characters. We especially love the evolution of Brinley Madison, one of our four main girls, who in Book One is so elitist she refuses to date a guy unless his parents have Secret Service detail, but by Book Three, whether she can admit it to herself or not, falls for someone out of the D.C. power scene whose only experience with Secret Service is what he’s seen on Homeland.
5. In what ways do the events in the books reveal evidence of the author’s world view?
Our characters are all so different from each other, with wildly different opinions and world views, that we feel like there are actually a lot of different beliefs showcased, some that are similar to our personally held ones and some that are different. It’s important to us to try to do justice to all of them. However, we are both extremely passionate about women’s issues, particularly what we sometimes perceive as sexism in the media toward more powerful women, so we do try to shed light onto that. All of our characters are very pro-female!
The books also reveal our complete fascination with the human side of political children and the extreme situations they find themselves in. You see the headlines, but it’s what’s behind the headlines that piques our interest. What was is like for Bristol to be sixteen, unwed and pregnant in the national spotlight? What were those private at-home conversations like? What was it like for Chelsea when her dad’s sex life was an everyday topic on the news? And what’s it like now for Malia, when her dad jokes about her dating life to national publications? It’s those types of situations that spark our imaginations and really helped to create this entire series.
6. Did certain parts of the book make you uncomfortable? If so, why did you feel that way? Did this lead to a new understanding or awareness of some aspect of your life you might not have thought about before?
When we first sat down to write the book, we actually had a lot of anxiety. We’ve worked in television and film for the past ten years so it was daunting to start something that wasn’t a screenplay. But once those first three pages were written, we were hooked. With TV and film, you’re much more limited in what you can express—you can’t get inside a character’s head the way you can in a novel. It was incredibly liberating to be able to relay the exact emotions a character is experiencing. We had to hold ourselves back from turning in a thousand page first draft.
7. Was there a basis for your story? A previous experience? Something else?
We initially got the idea during the 2008 election while talking to a few of our friends who actually went to schools like Georgetown Academy and knew some of the political children first-hand. Their anecdotes were so unbelievable, unique and way more fun than our high school experiences, we knew we had to write this series.
One of our favorite stories, which we actually included in our book series, was how the students at these schools would always have parties at the homes of the children of the ambassadors. Why? Because those properties had diplomatic immunity, which meant that cops could not step foot on the property. In one true-life instance, there was a huge post-game party at one of these houses. At one point, the cops showed up and surrounded the embassy to break up the party and the students blatantly engaging in underage drinking, but they were powerless to do so. After waiting for a while, the cops finally had enough, got on their megaphones and said, “Congratulations on your victory” (referring to the football game their school had just won) and left them alone.
We’re pretty sure when the concept of diplomatic immunity was created, no one was envisioning it as a future loophole for teen partying! But that story was one of the first that got us really curious about exploring this world as a book series.

8. What research did you have to perform to back up your story? Any research which really opened your eyes or gave you new respect for a topic or profession?
It’s usually a pretty closed-door world, but luckily we had a few insiders! We spoke with several different alumni from schools similar to Georgetown Academy (Georgetown Day School, Sidwell-Friends, St. Albans, etc.), many of whom had powerful parents in the government or were classmates of extremely prominent politicians’ children. Their insight as to the social hierarchy at schools like this, as well as their stories helped to shape and color the series. For example, social media has definitely made it incredibly difficult for political children to have any kind of anonymity and they have to be so careful about monitoring what gets distributed even though they are only sixteen or seventeen years old. A lot of them go so far as to have aliases on Facebook so they can at least semi-participate in what their friends are doing, a detail we included in the book.
We also read every interview we could get our heads on with political children, past and present, to help us understand the rollercoaster of that kind of life. Many of our characters are loosely based on real politicians (or their children) whom have captivated us for one reason or another.
9. What is your method for writing a book? A certain amount of hours every day? A certain routine? Are you character/story builder or an outliner or some other method?
For us, it’s less about working a certain number of hours per day and more about whatever goal we’ve set to accomplish over the course of the day. So, if we have to each write rough drafts of two chapters that day, it might come easily and take us less time, or the inspiration may come more slowly and we’ll still be at it ten hours later. The only constant is that a lot of caffeine is usually involved.
When you write with a partner, having a firm outline before beginning the actual writing is an absolute must. In our case, it always begins with a concept—an idea that we just can’t stop thinking and talking about. From there, we start sketching out characters. Once we’re really firm on who everyone is, then we can begin actually outlining. It has to be in that order because we want everything our characters do to be organic. Often, plot twists and scenes come to us because we are able to ask ourselves “What would Taryn really do in this situation?” and then we have a new place to go. If you don’t know who your characters are, you’re operating from a solely story POV and that can feel forced—plot twists just for the sake of plot twists.
Our outline is the most crucial part for us, so it’s essential that we do it together, ensuring that we’re on the same page for all character and story beats. But “together” usually means over video chat, as opposed to being physically in the same room. We used to get together every single day, but eventually we realized that we were just as efficient (if not more so) doing it through the computer. And then Alyssa moved across the country making it a necessity!
Once we’ve worked out all the snags in the outline, we start the process of writing, which we do separately. We will split up the chapters evenly (“You take chapter one, I’ll take chapter two”) and send each other our work over email. Then we edit each other’s stuff and keep revising until our Type A selves are completely happy with the manuscript! Luckily, the writing always ends up being cohesive because we’ve been best friends for fourteen years and we basically share a brain (yes, we finish each other’s sentences so much that it creeps people out).
10. How do you get past writers block or distractions like the internet?
Well, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t succumb to the Internet distraction at least a few times a day. But we try to convince ourselves that it’s all in the name of doing “research” for the book. We haven’t figured out a way to rationalize online shopping while we’re working, but we’ll probably find a way.
The hope is that when one of us has writer’s block, the other one doesn’t and can come to the rescue. But if we both fall victim to it, we always try to talk it out even if we’re talking in circles for hours. Sometimes we introduce wine to the mix if the chats go on for too long. Then when all else fails, we part ways and each take a shower. For some unknown reason, we always have creative breakthroughs in the shower! It’s just too bad we can’t bring a laptop in there.
11. Favorite book from childhood.
We’re going to have to go with Kristy’s Great Idea, the first book in The Babysitters Club series. We actually bonded when we met over our love of the BSC because it was the first series we were addicted to and set us on the path to becoming writers. We also bonded over the fact we both started our own Babysitters Clubs after we read the books, but unfortunately our ventures were not as lucrative as the fictional one.
12. What’s on your desk? Can you see your desk? Describe what you see when you look around.
One of us has a beautiful, clean desk and one of us, well, doesn’t. On Alyssa’s desk, you’ll see pretty framed photos of family members, journals, neat organizing trays…and her dog Annie is never too far out of sight, usually nestled into the office chair. On Jessica’s desk, you might find any of the following items: pens that no longer work and definitely don’t have the caps attached, three mugs with old tea bags still inside, a bowl of half-eaten popcorn, random envelopes that cannot be thrown away because various “ideas” and brainstorms have been scrawled all over them, candy wrappers and unused organizing trays that were bought in the hopes of being organized like Alyssa one day. Under the rubble, you may be able to find her dog, Magoo.
Twitter: @gtownacademy

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