Between them, Francine Pascal and Cecily von Ziegesar have defined generations of adolescent girls’ lives with their respective, hugely popular, teen- lit series, Sweet Valley High and Gossip Girl. Pascal’s series featured identical twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield living the all- American dream in fictional Sweet Valley, California. Jessica was the mischievous, flirtatious cheerleader, while sincere, hardworking Elizabeth wrote for the school newspaper and got her sister out of trouble. Soon after the first book came out in 1983, the series took over the New York Times bestseller list and a Sweet Valley empire, which would come to encompass 616 books (and a best-forgotten sitcom), was born.
In 1999, one of the editors on prequel series Sweet Valley Junior High was 29-year-old von Ziegesar, who reviewed storylines and even wrote one of the books. But Sweet Valley’s era was drawing to a close, and the editors were asked to brainstorm ideas for a new series. Von Ziegesar looked to her own teen years at a prestigious Manhattan private school and came up with Gossip Girl, a series (and subsequent TV show) about wealthy teenagers who did what Jessica and Elizabeth never did – they had sex, took drugs and got away with it.
While Gossip Girl is still a cultural force, Sweet Valley is undergoing a resurgence. Pascal releases e-serial The Sweet Life this summer (the final installment in the now 30-year-old twins’ lives), and Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody is writing an 80s-set Sweet Valley High musical movie. Dazed brought the authors together in Pascal’s lavish Manhattan apartment to discuss writing landmark teen fiction, crazed fans and how to deal with porn spin-offs.
Cecily von Ziegesar: So, did you spend any time in California?
Francine Pascal: I hadn’t been to California before I wrote Sweet Valley High, I just wrote it from movies that I’d seen. And when I did go, I was shocked to find it was exactly how I’d imagined it.
CvZ: Well, there isn’t really a lot to it... But maybe that’s just a New Yorker’s perspective (laughs)
FP: Exactly! I feel the same way!
CvZ: Every time I go anywhere else, when I come back, I’m like, this is the only place that makes sense to me. Where did you grow up and go to school?
FP: Jamaica High School in Queens, which was really classic! After we’d lived in the city, my parents decided we’d move to the ‘country’. I hated high school – how’s that?!
CvZ: But you had a prom, all those things that I didn’t have?
FP: Yes, but instead of the formal prom clothes, I wore a short beige dress! I couldn’t wait to get out of high school and get into college. But I wrote a humorous kind of gossip column in the school newspaper, that I eventually had Elizabeth write. I used that school for so many Sweet Valley High stories. And you took your New York high-school experiences?
CvZ: And I kept it in NY. (laughs) I went to such a tiny little girl’s private school. We all wore uniforms, there were only 36 girls in the graduating class. I craved the John Hughes movies version of high school... I mean, even having a locker! Having a swimming pool and a prom, people driving their cars from their suburban houses, or whatever. We always want what we don’t have.
FP: Exactly. But both of us have used it perfectly! (laughs)
CvZ: When I was writing Gossip Girl it was sort of a reaction to Sweet Valley High – I didn’t know that suburban California world, and I wanted to set it somewhere I knew. The things that happen in Gossip Girl are just the realities of teenage life.
FP: For me, high school is just a microcosm of the big world, but with so much more drama, excitement and danger. They’re very isolating years.
CvZ: They’re also the formative years. I feel that I’m exactly the same person as I was when I was 16.
FP: I know what you mean – it’s the pinnacle of idealism. You really believe in friendship, love, betrayal, honour, loyalty. Those things really matter.
CvZ: It’s so funny that you say that, because I edited your books when I started working – so I’m your protégé! We were having a plotting meeting and the editorial director said, ‘What do you think these books are about?’ I said, ‘Well, they’re about loyalty.’ And everybody started clapping! (laughs) How do you remember everything with all of your storylines?
FP: I have fans who know every single thing, and if you paint the bedroom the wrong colour they go crazy. You’ll find that too – you think you own it? You don’t own it, they own it! There are adult women who ask me questions about the twins when I meet them.
CvZ: Well, they live them. They’re the only books that girls really cherish and they read every one!
FP: In the beginning, there’d been no series where the girls lived and created the action. They were in charge. They weren’t waiting for boys to kiss them to wake up, and that was the greatest appeal.
CvZ: When Gossip Girl was first published, we’d hardly printed any...
FP: But it filled a need, because Sweet Valley High had its time. And it was a long time. I thought, ‘Oh well, there’s always going to be more teenagers, this will go on forever,’ but my agent said to me, ‘No there won’t!’ And she was right. They were ready for the next level, and that was Gossip Girl.
CvZ: It’s funny because my agent said the same thing. I was like, ‘Oh yeah? When?’ But the TV show keeps the interest. Have you ever had books banned, or anything?
FP: Yes, but not Sweet Valley. And what about your books?
CvZ: They’re always banned. But school librarians say, ‘They won’t read anything, but they’ll read your books.’ (laughs) It makes me feel good, but it also makes me wonder.
FP: Sweet Valley High has come in for a lot of fun poking. I do it myself, because it really is white bread. When something is like a Sweet Valley, it’s not a compliment, really.
CvZ: But they were the books that everybody really wanted to be reading.
FP: I did a tour in England and Ireland and at one Catholic school they all took Sweet Valley books out of their desks!
CvZ: With Gossip Girl I guess I was reacting to what you call ‘white bread’. I thought, ‘Well. I’m going to write about the girls who swear all the time and do everything we wish wasn’t happening.’ But they’re still good kids, they just misbehave the way all teenagers do.
FP: Yes, I mean, it’s the 21st century, But still I know just from talking to you that you keep the same values, loyalty, honour, truthfulness, love. All those marvellous, important things. But they’re better dressed!
CvZ: (laughs) And they live on the Upper East Side. But even readers from a small town somewhere in the midwest write to say, ‘This is exactly like me and my friends.’ And I’m like, ‘Really?’
FP: Sweet Valley High was in 25 languages all throughout the world, and I used to wonder, ‘How are they going to relate to two Californian girls in Japan?’ But they’re universal. You think liking the boy you can’t get doesn’t happen in Japan? And they love it in the Philippines! They still love it, they haven’t woken up!
CvZ: Is that your biggest fanbase, in the Philippines? Mine is Brazil. I’ve started tweeting recently and all my followers are Brazilian – I’m huge in Brazil. Maybe I should spend more time in Brazil!
FP: After the first 12 Sweet Valley High stories I thought there couldn’t be any more plots left in the world – but I had to have them every month! So I had everybody working on it – like my brother (Michael Stewart), who wrote Bye Bye Birdie and 42nd Street. I had this very successful playwright thinking about what Elizabeth and Jessica would be doing next month!
CvZ: I remember while editing Sweet Valley Junior High, when I was jogging I’d be worrying about Elizabeth and Jessica.
FP: The most popular one was Jessica. People identified more with her than with Elizabeth. It was probably a precursor to Gossip Girl.
CvZ: Well, I didn’t identify with Elizabeth – she was too good.
FP: No, I loved Elizabeth! She was all the things I wanted to be. She’s the best friend you could have.
CvZ: Well, Serena is that in Gossip Girl, and I used to think ‘Oh God, she’s so boring, I don’t know what to do with her...’ She’s too good! Beautiful and smart.
FP: I still have the problem. Because Elizabeth tends to be less interesting, so I have to do things so she doesn’t become too goody-goody.
CvZ: There have to be plenty of girls that identify with Elizabeth, too, it’s just that you hear more from the Jessica fans – they’re noisier!
FP: A friend of Molly’s (Pascal’s grand- daughter) was at a bar the other day, and he sent us a picture of a girl with the original Sweet Valley logo tattooed on her back.
CvZ: You are kidding me!
FP: I know! Isn’t that horrible! I don’t want to encourage it.
CvZ: It’s bizarre, why would you want that on your body? But if one person has that, she’s not the only one. There must be some sort of Facebook group for those people.
FP: Well, my publisher even found Sweet Valley porn sites... Two girls – it’s a natural progression!
CvZ: Oh God, I don’t even know if I have that. I should find out!
FP: My publisher shut one down and I had my lawyer shut the other one down, but there are probably 20 more... Right now I’m down to the last novella for The Sweet Life. But after that I’m finished! That’s enough. I want to write about people in my own world.
Follow Karen Orton on Twitter here @AaronKorton