Alyssa Embree Schwartz, author, character development, cowriting, Fade into the Bright, interview, Jessica Koosed Etting
Jessica Koosed Etting, a Los Angeles native, and Alyssa Embree Schwartz have been BFFs and cowriters for about twenty years. In addition to their TV and film career, their four-book YA series, Georgetown Academy, has over 1.4 million downloads online.
In their recent YA book, Fade into the Bright (2021, Delacorte Press), eighteen-year-old Abby and her older sister Brooke receive a brief letter from their estranged father, telling them he’s tested positive for Huntington’s disease. Both sisters decide to undergo the required six-month pre-testing genetic counseling, then learn whether they have this fatal gene. Abby does; Brooke does not. Trying to process this information, Abby escapes to Catalina Island to spend the summer after high-school graduation with her little-known aunt.
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: Welcome to Kite Tales! Fade into the Bright is amazing! What made you choose to write about Huntington’s?
JESSICA KOOSED ETTING: Thank you! We were initially inspired to write this book after my cousin’s wife’s family went through the extensive testing process for Huntington’s disease and had to handle the aftermath of their results. Unlike other neurodegenerative diseases, you can test to see if you have the gene for HD years (sometimes decades) before you may ever have symptoms, so it puts you in the unique position of living your life though that lens, knowing with certainty you have the gene for the disease, though not exactly when it will start affecting you. Right away, we both asked ourselves: If we were at risk, would we want to know if we had the gene? (The majority of people at risk for HD actually choose not to test).
ALYSSA EMBREE SCHWARTZ: We, like most people out there, had never even heard of HD before this experience, and suddenly, we couldn’t help but start imagining a character facing the discovery that she has the gene—and the story organically grew from there.
CVZ: What’s your process for writing together?
JKE: We’ve been writing as a team for 18 years in TV, film, and books so we definitely have a groove. We do all the initial brainstorming of the story and characters “together,” which for us means on FaceTime (I live in LA and Alyssa lives in DC). We do a very extensive outline in a shared Google doc that would probably make no sense to anyone but us. We’ve been best friends for over 20 years, so at this point, we share a brain and even have shorthand for our shorthand.
AES: We always keep the last few chapters of the outline loose though because we know how quickly the story or character arcs can shift or evolve once we get into the writing. More often than not, there’s a minor character who we end up loving while we’re writing and we’ll have to go back to the outline and reframe a few things to expand their role in the story.
JKE: Once we’re finished with the outlining process, we split up the chapters, each of us writing one or two at a time, then we swap and edit the other’s draft, then swap and edit again, over and over until we’re both happy. We go back and forth like this so many times that we can’t even tell who wrote what parts by the end of it! It definitely helps that we have the same writing style and that we’ve been friends for so long. We usually know what the other one is going to write before they even start typing.
CVZ: The book is set in a remote part of Catalina Island, which is perfect for this story. How did you find this location?
JKE: The one thing we knew when we started writing this book was that we had a character who was hell-bent on escaping her life. Abby’s desire to run was extremely visceral to us. So, we needed to find a place that truly felt like an escape, something both remote and rustic where she could be cut off from the pressures and realities of everyday life.
AES: We had both been to Catalina as kids which gave us the initial idea, and the more we researched it, the more we knew we’d found our place. The island is beautiful, but unlike a lot of tourist destinations, it’s not super commercialized, especially in Two Harbors, the decidedly more quiet, less populated part of Catalina we chose to set our story in. Accessible only by ferry, with very few cars and even scarcer Wi-Fi (something we discovered firsthand when we went out for a writers’ retreat while we were drafting!), the natural terrain of Catalina felt like the perfect spot to send Abby and let her story unfold.
CVZ: Writers often get the advice to write flawed characters. Do you believe this is true?
AES: Of course! When you write contemporary fiction, you’re always hoping to write characters who feel like actual people—and people are flawed. Who wants to read about an absolutely perfect person who has nothing to learn and nowhere to go?
JKE: Yes! That said, we are obsessed with character development (it’s our favorite part of writing) and believe that a character’s traits should always feel organic, as opposed to imposing a random “flaw” on someone because there’s supposed to be one.
We always spend a lot of time during the writing process talking about our characters’ backstories, how those experiences have shaped them and which traits may have emerged as a result. For example, in our current story, Abby’s father walked out on her life when she was just five years old. So, much of her armor and her outlook on life have been shaped in some way by this abandonment. Meanwhile, her sister, Brooke, has a different set of flaws and traits, that in many ways, were her own reaction to that abandonment. Delving into that psychology helps us create characters that feel super real to us and, in turn, make them easier to write.
CVZ: How did you choose the title?
JKE: Finding the right title can be a difficult process for us and our tactic has always been to come up with the title after we finish writing. But for the first time in our writing history together, we came up with this one during the outline phase.
AES: There is a lot of darkness in the story as it unravels, but we wanted a title that felt hopeful and optimistic because, ultimately, that is the feeling we want to linger with our readers long after they finish the book.
CVZ: In closing, do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
AES: Just get it on the page! That is the hardest part for any writer. And know that your first draft will most likely be terrible. But the only way to make it real for yourself is to get it on the page.
JKE: Also, you can try our number one tactic if both of us have writers’ block. We shut down FaceTime, then each go take a shower. For whatever reason, that’s the place we’re able to untangle (no pun intended) whatever aspect of the story has us stuck. It works every time!
You can connect with Jessica Koosed Etting and Alyssa Embree Schwartz on Twitter via @LyssAndJess.
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Cover image courtesy of Delacorte Press. Photos provided by Jessica Koosed Etting and Alyssa Embree Schwartz.