The Real Story Behind The Sweet Valley High Books

Like many bookish women, I was raised on voluminous novel series like The Baby-Sitters Club (Scholastic) and later Sweet Valley High (Random House). These books were prolific — both series began in 1983 and spanned 20-plus years into the early 2000s, making them readily available for binge-reading consumption at any point during childhood. In the case of Sweet Valley High, a whopping total of 152 titles about Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, those forever-young teenage California twins, were published. Growing up, it never occurred to me that it would have been impossible for one person to have written all of those books at the rate they were being released. So, what did publishers do to meet the demand? A trusty team of ghostwriters was assembled. Enter Katherine Heiny, a former young-adult ghostwriter extraordinaire. It was during the mid-'90s, when she was in her 20s, that Heiny penned numerous books under the guise of someone else, including the Sweet Valley High series as Francine Pascal, the Making Out series as Katherine Applegate, and many others. Ahead, take a tween-age trip down memory lane as we get the scoop from Heiny about her writing career, the evolution of the YA genre, and how she’s now, in her 40s, emerging as an author — this time, under her real name. How did you get your start as a ghostwriter?
“I had stories in both Seventeen and Sassy very close to each other. After one of those stories got published, 17th Street Productions [which is now Alloy Entertainment] called me in and asked if I wanted to write YA books for them. I asked, ‘Is it more money than waitressing?’ because that's what I was doing at the time. The first book I was hired to write was the 25th book in the Sweet Valley High series, and they asked me to write sample chapters before they gave me a contract, so I read all 24 of the previous books in a single weekend. My agent at the time thought it was a horrible idea for me to write YA books. Actually, everyone thought it was a horrible idea. I mean, this was 20 years ago when young adult was really looked down upon.” Really? Even though there’s a huge market for it?
“Back when I started, it was all about Judy Blume. She was the exception, the one good writer who wrote YA and made it respectable. You could only hope to be Judy Blume, but nobody else was. There was a huge stigma about writing YA, which doesn’t exist anymore and I’m really happy about it. I think writers like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling, these huge, talented authors, have gone far for breaking down all that nonsense about what’s a good book and what’s a bad book. It’s all about the writing now, but it didn’t used to be that way.” That’s surprising to hear because when I was young, those Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High books were all that I wanted to read.
“How old are you now?” Almost 30.
“Well, I’m 47 and when I was growing up, there was no YA section of our library. There was the children’s section and then fiction. There wasn’t anything about teenagers. It was a weird time. Telling people I wrote books for teenagers was actually a conversation stopper. People would say, ‘Oh, can you pass the salad?’ Nobody ever followed up on it with interest. Not even teenagers were asking about it. It’s not the same case today.” So, when you were hired to write these Sweet Valley High books, where did the plots come from?
“The publisher sent me an outline of what happened in each chapter, and I was hired to fill in the details. The first four books I wrote were written that way, with a five-page outline they would send me. It was like a real job. I worked my way up and got responsibilities as I wrote more books. They began giving me greater freedom. Eventually at one point I pitched my own series, but they rejected it because they felt the characters, who were 16 and 17, were too old. I always wanted to write about sex and relationships, but you couldn’t even hint at that. It had to be all about peer pressure or homework, and that stuff wasn’t interesting to me.”
That’s crazy!
“I know, I always disapproved of this. Even if the books were for older teen readers, they would say, ‘Your characters can have sex but you can’t spell it out. It can only be alluded to.’ I thought that was completely the wrong message: Everyone was having sex but no one could talk about it. It was so that the older kids reading it would know what’s going on but for younger readers, it would go over their heads.” That sounds like a confusing message.
“That’s why Judy Blume so deserves all the praise! She was one of the first authors to write about sex, birth control, and things surrounding that. I think she might have gone back and updated her books to include things like cell phones and stuff. Adapting those books for a younger generation.” Apart from Judy Blume and a few others, do you think most YA novelists wrote under a pen name?
“Well, the publisher assigned me the name Katherine Applegate [sometimes appearing as K. A. Applegate] when I wrote the Making Out series. And, Francine Pascal [of the Sweet Valley High series] was a real person. She must have been the first person to write the series. But, by the time I was writing them, it was like a spin-off of a spin-off of a spin-off. It was very remote. I never met with the creator of the series. I only worked with an editor.” That’s fascinating.
“It was the business of publishing and writing. It was very much geared toward the finished product as opposed to the process.” So, how fast were you writing these books? There were so many of them.
“I wrote about 25 books in four years. It was pretty fast because you’re only going to be 12 and 13 for two years. These books were not like Harry Potter where readers are going to come back at 30 to reread them. So, I would guess a new YA book came out every couple of months, but I don’t even know for sure. But, I will say that even though the books were paperbacks [and came out quickly], they looked beautiful. They were high quality. I never saw a typo. “At the height of my ghostwriting career, they even invited me to a photoshoot for the cover of one of the books. They had the two girls who were supposed to be the twins and there was the photographer who was known to always have Bob Dylan playing. It was his trademark. And, the twins were like, ‘What’s with the funeral music?’ He was so offended! But, the whole thing was a wonderful experience. I was in my 20s — which was such a magical time anyways — and I was making a living as a writer. Really, I couldn’t have asked for more. It was so perfect. The only downside was that it didn’t leave me any time or energy to write anything else.” How much were you writing?
“For a while I was writing one book every two months. I wrote 10 pages a day, seven days a week. If I skipped a day I wrote 15 pages for two days to catch up. It was grueling, but it was also really absorbing. I loved what I did, even though it was hard. I had always wanted to work from home and I got to do that. It was wonderful on a million levels. I started in New York and did that for two years, and then I moved to London for two years to be with my boyfriend, who's my husband now.” Was it difficult to tap into your inner teen as a twentysomething writer?
“The teenage years still feel very accessible to me. They’re such powerful years. The things that happen to you are so painful or so amazing as a teenager that I think it’s actually easier to write about those times. Even today I still write about teens. I enjoy young-adult literature when it’s done well. I read all genres too, but I especially love YA.” What other YA books did you write besides Sweet Valley High and Making Out?
“I eventually had my own series called Reality 101, but I don’t know if those books are still in print. I wrote a couple of books called Bone Chillers which was sort of like Goosebumps, ghost and supernatural stories, which were really fun to write. I also wrote a couple of freestanding young-adult novels where the publisher gave me total freedom and I made up the whole thing. It was the first time I realized what a huge favor they were doing with giving me a five-page outline [back when I first started ghostwriting Sweet Valley High]. It was the first time I ever tried writing anything that long on my own. I look back and think, ‘Oh man, that was a disaster.’” But, writing those must have helped because you came out with your “first” book in February! And, it was under your real name. How long did that take?
“I was really slow to put Single, Carefree, Mellow together. The oldest story in that collection is something I wrote when I was 22. It's a story called “How to Give the Wrong Impression” that was published in The New Yorker when I was 25. Then, I didn’t write [my own stories] for a long time — I was writing YA, I had children. When my youngest started the first grade, I had a real chunk of time every day when I could write. That was six years ago. So, the majority of stories were written in about a five-year span. Each story in the collection has a female narrator that deals with some sort of love and betrayal. And, now I’m writing a novel.” Can you tell us anything about it?
“It’s very different from everything else I’ve written. The protagonist is a man in his 50s who left his first marriage to run off with his girlfriend, this vibrant, extraverted person. Now they’re 15 years into their marriage and he’s sort of wondering if that was the right thing to do. Look out for it — it’ll be coming out from Knopf next year!”

More from Books & Art

R29 Original Series