I would consider myself to be a people person, but it can still be difficult to work collaboratively with others. It’s even more difficult when you’re in a creative environment where each team member might have a different opinion as to where the project should go. As an IT project manager, I deal with this daily and I think that I am able to handle it pretty well and keep my team a performing team. However, as a writer, I’m not confident that I can handle being in a collaborative team as well. Therefore, I had jumped at the opportunity to interview a very dynamic duo in the world of writing, Jessica Alexander and Dana Melton (AKA Kirby Howell), Author of “The Autumn Series.”
Michael: Kirby, can you tell us a bit about your backgrounds?
Jessica: Dana and I met when we were freshman at the University of Alabama in our first screenwriting class. We were paired up to write that semester’s big project: a feature length script. We had so much fun writing together – we clicked immediately on both a creative level, but also a personal level. We’ve been writing partners and best friends ever since. I was a stranger in a strange land when I moved from Portland, Oregon, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama for college, and Dana fell into the role of my interpreter and guide to everything from college football (Roll Tide!) to how make grits. I moved around a lot as a kid, so it’s always exciting to me to start fresh in a new place. The South is an amazing place – I’ve never experienced such friendly, warm people in any other place I’ve lived. (The food is pretty delicious, too!) Not long after graduation, we both moved to Los Angeles to pursue careers in the television industry, which is where we currently work and live with our husbands (and a doggie and a fresh little 6 month old boy).
Dana: I’m a born and raised southerner. I grew up in Birmingham, but also spent a few years living in Talladega and Tuscaloosa before moving to Los Angeles to pursue work in “the industry.” I worked on a variety of shows during the day while Jes and I wrote scripts in the evening hoping to get our big break. Then, when the recession hit Hollywood in ’08, we found ourselves with a little more time to write, and Jes had the idea to make our next big project a book instead of a script. And here we are, 7 years and 2 (soon to be 3!) books later.
Michael: That’s amazing that you guys were able to develop such a strong friendship and professional partnership after being paired up for a school project. I find that as a writer it’s not easy to collaborate writing with another because of the different places in our writing journeys that we are in. Where and when did your writing journey begin?
Jessica: I’ve always wanted to be a writer – a novelist specifically. The thought of writing stories all day and being surrounded by typewriters, bottles of ink, and stacks of manuscripts with dried splashes of tea and coffee on them was extremely appealing to me. (Clearly, I wanted to be a writer in the pre-digital age!) I wrote my first short story in the third grade about a list-making gnat who had very clear priorities – meals came first and if one was skipped it was a dreadful thing! My writing journey went through a particularly embarrassing stage in junior high school when I wrote (PG rated) romances starring my friends and their crushes at school. (These were very popular at slumber parties.) I found a copy of one recently and Dana and I had a tear-filled laugh reading it together. (Her tears were from laughter, mine were from pure mortification. I mean, it was typed in Copperplate Gothic Bold, for Pete’s sake!)
Dana: I started flexing my writing muscles a little later than Jes. I was about 12, and during the summer, I found myself with a lot of free time. I’d always written small things, but after a particularly unsatisfying end to an episode of my favorite show at the time, I decided that I would sit down and re-write it… and then put it online. I stayed up most of the night and by morning, “published” it on a newsgroup, and by the end of the day started getting a lot of positive feedback. From there, I started writing more fan fiction, and then eventually spun into Star Wars RPG’s (yeah, I’m super cool, obviously). I remember in my sophomore year of college, telling Jes about the local RPG group I was in, and how much fun it was to collaborate with other writerly friends. Even though she wasn’t as into the genre as much as me, somehow, I convinced her to join one of my games. We ended up having a blast… and strangely started to develop a writing rapport together that I think began the foundation on which we’ve been building our writing career on for the last 15 years.
Michael: Seems like both of you figured out what you enjoyed doing at a fairly young age. And Star Wars RPG’s sound awesome! So as someone who enjoyed writing at such a young age, you must have also enjoyed reading a lot. Who are your favorite authors and how have they influenced your writing?
Jessica: At the top of my list would be Roald Dahl. He’s THE master storyteller in my opinion. I’ve never read a story written by Roald Dahl that I’ve failed to fall in love with. My favorite is Danny, the Champion of the World. I also love The Witches, Boy, and Going Solo. Other authors high up on my list include Stephen King, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and John Jakes.
Dana: My favorite author is Douglas Adams. I’ve read every word that brilliant man has ever written. He was my father’s favorite author too, and, one day when I was young, my father handed his books down to me, and I’m forever grateful that he did. Other favorites are Jane Austen, Stephen King, Robert A. Heinlein & Timothy Zahn.
Michael: Sounds like a list of great authors. And I can definitely see the influences to the genre your works are in. So living out in California and having to collaborate on your writing, sounds like quite a busy life you guys lead. What does a typical day in your life look like? And how does your writing routine fit into your day?
Kirby (collaborated response between Jessica and Dana): We both work in the TV industry (Jessica is a production accountant and Dana is a producer), so the majority of our days are spent away from our writing projects. Our books are still a huge part of our lives, so we commit to writing during most of our lunch hours. We also meet twice a week – Wednesday night and most of Sunday – to work together. It can be difficult, particularly as we’ve gotten older, gotten married, and moved up the food chain at work, gaining more responsibility and sometimes longer hours. When we were in our twenties when we first arrived in LA, we’d consistently close down whatever Starbucks we happened to be meeting at after work. The location in Toluca Lake, near Dana’s home, still has two Jessica and Dana-shaped impressions in our favorite booth!
Michael: Hard enough to find time within such a tight schedule to write, but to write it collaboratively twice a week. That is astonishing. So let’s focus on your book series. How did you come up with the idea for “The Autumn Series?”
Kirby: Jessica had a very frightening dream about an apocalyptic plague. The basic elements of this dream became the backbone of The Autumn Series: survivors hiding in subway tunnels from a dangerous group that had taken over control of what remained of LA, a single father and his young daughter befriending the main character, and a mysterious young doctor who seemed to know more about the plague than he was letting on. The story evolved as we worked with it – the main character went from an engaged girl in her mid-twenties to a privileged teenager, daughter of a famous actress. The single dad and his daughter changed into the brother/sister duo, Ben and Rissi. The whole story was made younger to appeal to the young adult age group, which was the age that we truly fell in love with reading and realized we both wanted to be writers.
Michael: So there seems to be quite a trend toward this YA Sci-Fi Dystopian genre (Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Divergent etc…). What do you think sets your YA Sci-fi Dystopian book series apart from others current on the shelves?
Kirby: The Autumn Series is different from other dystopian books out there because instead of coming into the story years or even decades or centuries after the event that changed our world forever, the inciting incident takes place in chapter one and plays out through the first book, Autumn in the City of Angels. The reader gets to witness the world falling apart through the eyes of our main character, Autumn.
Michael: Nice! That would seem to capture fans of the Apocalypse genre too. Your passion for your work is apparent, and that passion is what inspires readers. Which character in your book series is your favorite and how much of yourself is reflected in that character?
Jessica: The easy answer would be Autumn because, in a way, she’s a blend of both of us. We decided early on that we wanted Autumn to be only the best of both of us (loyal, compassionate, introspective, and someone who stands up for those that need protected). It was kind of like genetically engineering a child! Though, because it’s impossible to have a flawless character (how boring!), we also included various traits of our own that have gotten us into trouble in the past (jumping to conclusions, acting and speaking without thinking, and of course, the ever-present-in-YA-books: a dash of self-doubt. Autumn wouldn’t be a normal teenager without this trait!)
Dana: Since Autumn is taken, I’ll go Grey. Without giving away too much of his mysterious past (no, he’s not a vampire!) … I’ll say that he’s extremely worldly and well-rounded. This lets us talk about the real settings our stories are in, not only from a story perspective, but from a historical one. I find that really interesting to research and write.
Michael: Both sounds like intriguing characters. Which scenes in your book series did you have the most fun writing?
Jessica: I always enjoy a good romantic moment. The intimate scenes between Autumn and Grey were always fun to create and write. I also liked writing the big family “dinnertime” scenes, where I got to utilize all of our characters with their full range of personalities.
Dana: I tend to like the “planning” scenes that require a lot of explanation and logic. I don’t know why, but I love those. I also really like dialogue heavy scenes where you get to show off the characters and the different perspectives they all have on a given point.
Michael: Sounds like your series has a lot of heart and quite a bit of nerdy side to attract readers like me. Another thing that really makes me enjoy a book is to be able to put down the book after reading and feel changed because of it. What do you hope for your readers to take away after reading your book series?
Kirby: We hope that readers take away an appreciation for not only the conveniences we have in our lives today, but also experience gratitude for the presence of their families and friends. Autumn has just about every modern convenience torn away from her, along with her mother, father, and best friend, all on the same day. This hole in her life begins to be partially repaired by the people she meets afterward who become her new family, but something that she learns by the end of the series is that the hole inside her will always be there and she has to be okay with that. She has to learn to live with it, function, smile, be happy, and celebrate the life that she still has.
Michael: As you could probably tell, I’m probably not the easiest person to collaborate with when it comes to writing. So I’ve got to ask, what are some struggles and triumphs that you guys have collaborating on your writing?
Kirby: I think our biggest triumph is the same as any writer: getting to type ‘THE END’. It’s such a fulfilling moment. To finish a project as big as writing a novel is epic. And because we get to do this together, it’s even sweeter. It’s difficult to write a novel. But we have each other to lean on and bounce ideas off of. We’re accountable to each other as well. So many writing partnerships fall apart because the relationship doesn’t work out, the schedules don’t line up, or the drive to accomplish a goal is different. So our other biggest triumph is our writing partnership in itself – the fact that it works (and has worked for 15 years now)!
The only struggle we’ve experienced during our collaboration has been working with our calendars and trying to keep our projects on schedule. Hitting deadlines is very important to us and we try not to blow past any, though it does happen sometimes!
Michael: Wow, 15 years! You guys really are a dynamic duo! What are your hopes for this book series?
Kirby: The Autumn Series is in an exclusive shopping agreement right now with a development company. It’s being pitched around Hollywood for a film or television deal, so we’re keeping all of our fingers and toes crossed!
Michael: Well, if any writing duo can do, it is you guys! I’ll keep my fingers crossed too! What do you have in store next for your readers?
Kirby: After the third and final book in the Autumn Series is released later this summer, we’re going to get to work on our next young adult trilogy, The Wayfarer. It’s the story of a teenage girl that gets trapped in a bad foster situation and ends up running away. She accidentally finds a passage to another world, which she comes to realize is Limbo – the place between life and the after-life. She begins a quest to find and bring back the one person who can save her from her real life situation.
Michael: Sounds like you’re going to have another amazing book series! I look forward to reading the Autumn Series and also The Wayfarer series! Thank you so much for sharing with us your story!
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