Photography by Laurel Golio
Francine Pascal is an American author best known for her magically-addicting book series Sweet Valley High. Besides creating Sweet Valley, Francine has written several other books and screenplays for both young adult and adult audiences. At 78 years old, Francine isn't planning on quitting anytime soon. GAL visits her New York City home to learn more about how she created such a successful series and what she's currently reading.*
*yes, we were totally shrieking with fangirl love when we were granted an interview with her!!!!!!!!!!!!!
GAL: What book did you fall in love with that made you a life long reader?
FP: A book called The Wandering Jew by Eugéne Sue, who is a French man. At that time in my life I was reading The Red and The Black by Stendhal, but The Wandering Jew is what really hit me. It’s a big book. It’s actually a couple of volumes. It’s written in the middle 1800’s. I was so taken with the stories. They were so wonderful – they never stopped. They have never stopped holding my mind. I loved that. In fact I still love it.
GAL: Do you re-read it?
FP: I do! I bought old copies of it. I think it would make the best PBS series, I really do. I wrote to them once but heard nothing. I started to put together an outline of what it would look like. I never finished it. It never went beyond that. I just think it would be terrific. Fabulous characters, and nothing but excitement. It takes place in France. It’s very good and exciting.
I think that that’s the reason, or the inspiration that I had found for writing. Also, my older brother is a playwright. So you can see, it was in the family. In most families, it would probably be a dream that would never happen. But in my family – that’s what you did. You write, you make money. He was a good deal older than I – he was actually doing what he wanted to do and was making money at it. It was extraordinary and it was possible.
GAL: Did you have parents who were creative and supportive of your creativity?
FP: Supportive. Not creative. My father was a businessman, my mother was a housewife. They played golf and were involved in charitable things but no, they weren’t creative. They did support their children marvelously though. They really did.
GAL: Are you generally a re-reader?
FP: No, I’m not much of a re-reader. I will say that I have, well, this is a little strange, but here we go: about 7 or 8 months ago I read Trollope for the first time. Unfortunately, it became an addiction. I am still reading him. I don’t think he had time to eat! The man wrote all the time. And I’m just fascinated. I love the stories, and I’ve come to love reading about that era, which would be horrible for women, but it’s fascinating to me. Trollope is fascinating to me because of the men I see when I read the books. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll probably need a therapist.
GAL: (laughs). Seriously?
FP: I’m serious. Normally I'm a crime reader. Not too long ago I read one of the crime book authors that I usually read and I wasn’t happy with it. I did read the whole thing, but I really wasn’t happy with it, and went running back to Trollope. If I’m with people in the evening I just want them to leave so I can go back to my book.
GAL: You said that The Wandering Jew seemed to exist as a series. Is that what gave you the idea to focus on serial writing?
FP: It really hooked you in at the end of every chapter. It probably did have a great influence on my style. Quite naturally I write the end of my chapters like that. I don’t even know I’m doing it. It just happens.
GAL: Did you read Nancy Drew or Cherry Ames or Judy Bolton when you were a child?
FP: Interestingly enough, I never did. I don’t know what happened butI skipped all that. I did like fairy tales. It was fairy tales into adult literature. As soon as I could read adult books, that’s what I wanted to do. Besides that fact, there was very little option aside from Nancy Drew. If that didn’t appeal to you, then you had no other choice but to move on to adult books.
GAL: How do reading and writing interconnect for you in your work and in your life?
FP: Writing is what I do. Sometimes when I’m between projects I think to myself: what would I do if I didn’t write? I don’t love cooking. I do love eating. I don’t mind cooking, but my daughter and granddaughter are in the food industry, so I don’t really need to cook.
I’ve been using a computer since 1985. One of the earliest ones. I love it. I’ve almost forgotten how to write by hand. When I sit down to my computer, I’m solely in that world. When I do the young adult stuff, I can hear that sound. I can imitate that voice very easily. So I do like that, but I also write adult books which I really like too.
GAL: Thus writing is life and reading is life and it’s all interconnected in your daily schedule and in your activities?
FP: Yes. I am a very disciplined writer. When you write novels, you have to be disciplined. Nobody is knocking on your door every day asking to see it. I write four pages a day. I don’t write 3 and I don’t write 5. The fun of it is not finishing the sentence on the 5th page. I do the four pages. They don’t have to be brilliant. Then I resist editing them too much. It's important not to edit too much. You do have to be disciplined. My first book, My Mother Was Never a Kid or Hanging Out With Cici, is about a 13 year old girl who couldn’t get along with her mother, and through some time warp, goes back in time to become her mother’s best friend. This was done in 1974, before Spielberg ever had any idea about it. In fact, he had my book. My daughter was friendly with his wife Kate. They were going on a trip to Indonesia. Kate had a daughter from a previous marriage – about 10 or 12 – and I sent her the book. I really regret it. I really do. Nobody had done anything like that – it was a unique idea. I have never watched Back to the Future, nor will I. That was the first YA book I wrote.
GAL: Who is your favorite author?
FP: I do love crime. Grisham is good. I do go for the slightly dead authors. I have to put Anthony Trollope on the top of the list until I get rid of him. That’s where I am at the moment. I never thought I’d be so involved with the 19th century but I really am.
GAL: Do you have a current favorite reading spot?
FP: I read in bed. On the Kindle, usually. I do like the Kindle. It’s so easy on the eyes and it’s a little tiny thing. I started because when I would go to my house in France I'd take suitcases of books, and then when you run out of books you have to buy them at the American book store. It was just awful. So as soon as I could, I took my Kindle instead.
GAL: Do you have any favorite bookshops in the city?
FP: I used to. They’ve taken them all away. It's just terrible. Once upon a time there was the Coliseum on 57th Street. Now...well. I use Amazon. Amazon is incredible. As soon as you push that button they’re at the door. Until this Christmas I didn’t use it so much. I gave in this year. I was looking for a cream I used to buy in France. I found it on there. I wanted a candle snuffer. There were 67 different kinds! So I bought one and it's coming tomorrow.
GAL: How often do you read?
FP: Everyday. I can’t go to sleep unless I read. And my problem is that I’m not the best sleeper. I read all the time.
GAL: How do you choose the books you read?
FP: Trollope is really a problem. I started in the beginning of the year, just because strangely enough I discovered that I never read him. I tried one, and the nice part about it is, there are hundreds of them. Sometimes I find one that’s too much about hunting which I don't love. He does tend to go on – obviously there was no one to stop him.
GAL: What does serial writing give an audience? What are its virtues?
FP: A place to go back to. It’s pretty much like my Trollope. It’s not a whole lot different than what you have on television now with these great series. So it’s sort of grown out of that. I think everybody, not just kids, they like to come back to something familiar. They know the characters, and they have expectations. They’re involved with them. I think that’s an added pleasure to reading itself. You know when you have a book that you really like and you don’t want it to end and you can see the pages dwindling? That's terrible.
GAL: Are these papers your original manuscripts?
FP: I thought that they would be interesting for us to talk about. What I did with these books was entirely different and sometimes people say well, I created them, but I didn’t write them, which pisses me off. I’ll tell you why. Naturally, I could not write every one of them. There are hundreds of them. But I wrote hundreds of outlines for the stories. I created the characters and the plot lines and wrote what I called the Bible, which was a detailed guide. I pulled some things out just to give you an idea of how the series came to be. These are the outlines for the first twenty books. These are actually the super and thriller editions – I loved creating the stories of the family and the histories. Oh gee, I had such a great time doing it. Naturally I could do what I wanted and oh was it fun.
GAL: What power that is! To understand that you can do whatever you want in your studio or in your writing. You have to be a strong minded person and prolific creator to be able to successfully lean into that without overly self-editing.
FP: I had a very good position. I owned the whole thing! It’s not a bad place to be. It was great fun creating Sweet Valley. Let me tell you about it. The first thing I did was a proposal. I’m one of the finest proposal writers of all time. It doesn’t mean the book is going to be great, but the proposals are flawless. That I am immodest about! But when it came to Sweet Valley and how it actually started: in 1978 I had written some YA books like I mentioned before, some of which I thought could be turned into great soaps. They didn’t get picked up. The studios didn't want it because they thought it was too pink. Anyway. A couple of years later, a friend of mine was an editor and happened to have lunch with another editor one day, and came over and said “You know, he said that wouldn’t it be good to do a sort of teenage version of Dallas?”. I happened to be in the middle of something I wasn’t excited about, and thought that gee, that kind of thing sounded interesting. I started working on it and in a couple of weeks I put together this idea of the twins. Everyone is always fascinated by twins! My agent had a twin, my sister in law was a twin. Twins are very interesting. Then I began to create a life for them, a history, and a family. I needed a town, so the first thing I did was call it Sweet Apple High. Is that at all familiar to you?
GAL: It sounds familiar.
FP: You know the musical Bye Bye Birdie? Sweet Apple was the town in that. My brother wrote it! And it’s so strange that I didn’t even connect it with that play! So then when I showed him what I had written he said "No way, Francine!". So then it became Sweet Valley. The interesting thing was that of course, although I have three daughters to draw inspiration from, the lives that I was writing about were inspired by my own life, which took place a long time before the series actually takes place. It just goes to show you that the more things change, the more they stay the same. What the teenager in the 80’s and 90’s was reading about in Sweet Valley was me in the 50’s. It didn’t matter. The same way it didn’t matter that these were blonde, blue-eyed twins from outside Los Angeles that couldn’t be more white bread. And yet, they love them in the Philippines, in all these places that you wouldn’t expect them to be loved. Isn’t that interesting?
GAL: Why do you think that's the case?
FP: There’s such a similarity between girls at that age. Teenage girls just entering and passing puberty and beginning the world. There was so much that they had in common with any other girl that they could easily transcend cultures.
GAL: So that really encapsulates what I personally think ultimately decides a good novel from a bad one. In my opinion, a novel’s merit is determined by its universality. I think that’s the only way I can quantify what makes a good piece of literature. Do you agree?
FP: Yes. Everyone has to relate to it in some way – have to understand it in some way. Even more deeply than that, they have to have a gut reaction to it.
GAL: Do you still get fan letters?
FP: I’m always amazed. My first readers are now in their 30’s and late 30’s going into their 40’s. So wherever I go, sort of, womenwho are now executives, in big positions, all melt when they learn I wrote Sweet Valley. It was their teenage years and they own it – and it’s not mine, it’s theirs. I once went to this party in the South of France – you would think that it’s way off because it's in France, but there were times that I would go to a dinner party or something, and when they said my name there wouldn’t always be recognition, but as soon as Sweet Valley was mentioned, the women would just lose it! It was so nice.
GAL: Was it gratifying to receive that level of response to your work?
FP: So I used to get thousands of letters, yes. The most remarkable thing about what I received was how a quarter of them started in the exact same way: “I used to hate to read…”. And that certainly is a gratifying thing. Beyond that, I felt that this is what I was doing: I felt that I was putting life in the hands of girls. The books before had always been the sort of the Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella thing – all the waiting for that kiss. It was all the Prince, at center stage, and he was the one who did it. These girls ran the ship. They ran the action. And it was all about them, and they were the stars of it. And I thought: that’s Girl Power.
GAL: What are you currently working on?
FP: Actually, I’m doing something I have never done before. I collaborated with my brother and my husband on the musical George M! but I’ve never experimented with collaboration beyond that. With my friend Elizabeth, who mostly writes YA non-fiction books, I'm trying it out again. She had written a book about the three months between MLK’s assassination and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. Her heroine was a 16 year old girl living in Indianapolis with a black father and a white mother. It’s a love story. But Liz is a very strong non-fiction writer, so this book was giving her trouble. She wrote it and tried to sell it about 8 or 9 years ago. She couldn’t sell it. Everyone thought it was a wonderful idea, and she’s very well respected in the field, so she re-wrote it about a thousand times. I recently wrote a middle grade fantasy book about a world of lost things. The idea behind it being that you don’t lose things: nothing is ever lost. The things just leap, they don’t drop. They’re all runaways looking for a certain world. The main character is an eleven year old girl who follows her things into runaway land. It was wonderful and adorable and everything, but I didn’t have the real respect for the middle grade students. And Liz does. I felt mine was missing that element that Liz has. She really does feel that way about young kids. So, we decided to switch books. I gave her mine and she gave me hers. We’ve been working on each other’s books for about 5 or 6 months now. The most wonderful thing is that neither one of us is territorial. It’s a true collaboration. I feel total freedom in what I’m doing. I have the sound of young girls in my head, and Liz has that other element. I really don’t know how to describe it. Respect for that young heart is the best that I can come up with. We are both pleased with the results so far. I bring to it a story, and that’s my strength. Mine is called The Runaways, and hers is called 1968. I think Liz is a very special person. I don’t know that it would have worked with another person. I also have a novel that I’m working on.
GAL: What are some books that you return to for solace, comfort, and knowledge? We call that a Sanity Shelf. What would be on yours?
FP: The Wandering Jew. I can’t believe I can pick it up again but I seem to be able to. It’s the kind of thing that I don’t read beginning to end. I just read pieces at a time. I’m really fascinated by it.
GAL: Do you read poetry and plays?
FP: I used to love poetry! Until they stopped rhyming them. Here’s a list of my pet peeves: poems that do not rhyme, and short stories which I hate because they never have a good ending. All they do is set something up, put a middle in, then they go inside and have a sandwich or something. And I really don’t like tomatoes.
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it?
FP: Well, the closest thing I have to a memoir is my book If Wishes Were Horses. Only the most outrageous things in it are true.