A Serious Scholar's Secret Past as a Sweet Valley High GhostwriterS

In a lengthy, worth-your-while essay, Amy Boesky reminisces on the six years she spent ghostwriting Sweet Valley High books. Boesky was a poet and a graduate student in literature at Oxford before she attended a life-changing dinner party and was introduced to SVH creator Francine Pascal.

After writing a sample chapter, Boesky was hired, and went from being immersed in the poetry of John Donne to becoming wrapped up in the word of the Wakefields. If you've ever wondered how the ghostwriting thing works, Boesky lays out the details:

Francine created the story plots, which arrived in my mailbox in manila envelopes and, when I took them out and studied them, read like long, free-verse poems. Eight or nine pages of single spaced directives that laid out exhilarating and implausible fables of duplicity, innovation, risk, and triumph. My task was to turn these into "chapter outlines," adding my own subplots, mailing them back to my editor, and waiting for his approval. Once I got the green light, I worked with the precision of a Swiss clock.

One might think that with her high-minded Ivy-league and Oxford education, Boesky could find Sweet Valley High vapid or banal; instead, she fell in love with the characters and their adventures.

Sweet Valley High offered the lure of another world. I liked having a space so refreshingly different from scholarship — so resolutely light. On bad days, when my advisor hated what I'd written and I was dispirited and sick of academic posturing, I liked pulling my desk chair up and conjuring a diaphanous world where nobody cared about Donne or Milton. Never heard of them! Do they go to private school? Ghostwriting these books became an escape hatch for me, a place I could shoot down to from my customary cloud cover. It was the sky jump and the parachute and the soft-focus destination, all in one. Why would I ever give that up?

And while she felt that there was a version of herself that was just like Elizabeth Wakefield — "the earnest, responsible one" — she also felt very close to the other twin:

I loved Jessica Wakefield. I loved her even as I tried to help sustain her in prose. Even knowing that Francine had created her, and not me. I loved her wit and her subterfuge and her ballsy disrespect for every rule and convention that I'd so deeply internalized I could only write about her in neat, hour-long sessions, eye on the clock.

And:

Maybe the Elizabeth in me was the one signing the contracts, fitting the writing in so it wouldn't disrupt my "real" life-my life as a graduate student. Forcing myself to sit down at my desk. But it was the Jessica in me that did the writing. And kept coming back for more.

It's interesting: Even though SVH started in 1983, spawned over 180 books and is still going, in a way (don't forget: Diablo Cody's working on a movie) this kind of teen fiction isn't considered "serious," and has its detractors:

My friends — the ones who knew — were mixed about my ventures. Wasn't I prostituting myself? How did these "little books" — it took three or four to add up to a Vintage classic in heft — relate to my "real" writing?

But whether it's SVH, Twilight, Fifty Shades or Harry Potter, there's something to be said for easily-consumed escapist stories. There's power in lightness, in fun, in fantasy. Even the author herself, as a serious scholar, found it irresistible:

I wanted, as long as I thought I could risk it, to stay in the pastel, exclamatory world of the light and the popular, the world of fast cars and faster verbs, the world where difference was traded for sameness and the blondes triumphed and the eyes sparkled and the parents stayed married and the brother stayed away "at college" and the paralysis was curable and anything and everything could be resolved by the final chapter.

The Ghost Writes Back [Kenyon Review]