Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke have been best friends since meeting in high school in San Diego, California. Both women earned communication degrees from Cal Poly Pomona University and went on to careers in pharmaceutical sales and television production. Liz and Lisa were living 2,000 miles apart when they began coauthoring novels. Their first published novel, Your Perfect Life, recounts the story of two childhood best friends who swap bodies at a high school reunion. The Status of All Things, their second novel, involves a character with the ability to change her life each time she updates her Facebook status. Their third novel, The Year We Turned Forty, examines the lives of three women as they relive the year they turn 40. Fenton and Steinke's fourth novel, The Good Widow, is forthcoming in June.
Writer Rhonda Havig talked with Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke about the dynamics of writing books together, how motherhood has influenced their writing and writing process, and the themes of motherhood in their stories.
Rhonda Havig: What prompted you to want to write a book together?
Lisa Steinke: Let me give you some background. We have known each other forever—since MC Hammer and his pants were considered cool. And way back then, in the ‘90s, we talked about writing a book "one day." We were freshmen in high school, dreaming as teenage girls do. Cut to almost two decades later. We were finally ready to try this dual author thing. Well, I was finally ready and may or may not have told Liz I would write a book alone if she didn't join me. (Sounds worse than it was!)
Liz Fenton: It was a bumpy start because writing a book together isn't easy. Especially when you have no template, no point of reference, no idea what you are doing. We wrote two manuscripts that didn't sell before penning Your Perfect Life. It took us a couple of years before we figured out how to write together: what our strengths and weaknesses were; how to accept constructive criticism from each other; how to handle creative differences.
Three published books later, one soon to come and two in the pipes, I would love to say we are a well-oiled machine. But, truth be told, we've now switched genres and writing suspense together involves a whole new set of rules. But we are finding our rhythm!
RH: You became mothers at different times while writing your books. How do you feel motherhood has affected the stories you write, and what impact did it have on your writing process?
LS: Liz became a mom six years before I did. And, during that time, we were writing books together. I did not understand what she was going through—how hard it was for her to have a full-time job and be a full-time mom and write books with me. I had a full-time job but was not married and did not have kids. I would like to go on record with an apology for being so bullish with her during those years. I also would like to say that I got my payback when I had my daughter and we were writing Your Perfect Life.
LF: Aw, thanks for saying that! But you weren't that bad. And we both know I need a little prodding sometimes. (I get distracted very easily!) Because we are moms, motherhood has been a recurring theme in our books. You've heard the saying, "Write what you know." We are able to pull from innumerable situations and use them in our books. Having said that, everything we write IS fiction.
RH: The main characters in Your Perfect Life were in different places in their lives when they swapped bodies after an argument at their high school reunion. Casey is single with no kids and has a glamorous career as a television personality. She finds herself having to figure out how to live Rachel's life as a stay-at-home wife and mother of two teenagers and a baby. Rachel struggles with no longer being with her family and trying to live a life of fame she never imagined having. In what ways did your own lives influence this story?
LF: In many ways! We were both about to go to our 20-year high school reunion, and it brought up a lot of feelings, as those events tend to do. We thought about how, despite knowing each other for 20 plus years, there were so many things we didn't know about each other. We explored that theme in the book.
LS: I was a new mom at that time and was able to pull from that experience when we wrote about Casey taking on Rachel's life. I had also worked in television (I was a supervising producer for Dr. Phil), so when we wrote about Rachel stepping into Casey's shoes, Liz was able to write what she was going through because she honestly had no idea.
RH: The Year We Turned Forty highlighted the interesting dynamic of group friendships. Two of the friends, Jessie and Gabriela, were dealing with opposing regrets. Jessie finds herself pregnant with a surprise baby while Gabriela begins trying to have a baby for the first time. Have you received any feedback about having characters becoming or trying to become mothers at 40?
LF: Yes, we have. A lot of women have told us they could relate to our characters' struggles with motherhood. That means a lot to us because it means we are writing women/characters who feel authentic and relatable to our readers.
LS: That's the best compliment to get!
RH: Jessie and Gabriela's friend, Claire, was in a position of making different choices the second time around as a mother and as a daughter: she had to face the turmoil of her daughter's teenage years, as well as her mother's terminal illness. Being a mother isn't just about our relationships with our children. Moms need their moms, too. How have your relationships with your mothers influenced you as mothers and writers?
LF: We couldn't agree more. Our own relationships with our moms have definitely influenced our books. A few years ago, I moved back to my hometown, and I now live practically next door to my mom. We have bonded and are closer than ever. I've realized the importance of being close to family, and this theme has come across in our books.
RH: Writing a book can be challenging when writing alone, so it is fascinating to see people who can write well as a team. How do you go about co-writing your books and bringing your characters to life? Is there a set process you follow, or do you roll with something different depending on the book?
LF: Lisa is in Chicago, and I'm in San Diego, but, even if we were in the same state, we would not write "together" in the way you might think. Meaning, we would not sit side-by-side at a computer debating the use of the word "start" versus "begin." (Been there, done that, and it was not good!)
LS: How we have chosen to handle our dual authorship is like this: I will write a chapter, then send it to Liz to edit. She will edit, then send it back to me. This process goes on until we are satisfied with the chapter. Then we move to the next. Typically, one of us is editing while the other is writing. But it really depends on the book. For instance, our current WIP has multiple timelines, so we are writing them concurrently, each of us taking one.
We talk and email and text frequently about our characters and where we see the story going. It's important to us that our supporting characters aren't cardboard cutouts. We do our best to give them depth and characteristics that pull them off the page in the same way as the main characters. The 2,000 miles between us doesn't really affect how we develop characters because, like Liz mentioned, we don't write side-by-side. The only exception to this is our annual "writer's retreat," where we travel to the destination our book is set in for research. But still, we don't share a keyboard. I have my laptop, Liz has hers. We operate no differently than when we are miles apart.
LF: Omg, I love Lisa, but it's possible we'd kill each other if we regularly wrote in the same office. We can barely share a hotel room for more than two nights.
RH: What are some of the challenges you have faced when writing together?
LF: Despite my comment above about killing each other, our challenges have been few and far between. Honestly! The biggest obstacles we encounter are ourselves. Sometimes one of us gets "stuck" and doesn't feel like she can write anything. But, when this happens, the other is usually feeling creative and on it. We're not sure how this works out the way it does, but we're thankful. If we were both in a slump, it would be hard to dig out of it.
LS: We also have a rule in place: if you wrote it, it can stay. We haven't had to utilize this rule many times because having another person to bounce things off of on a consistent basis helps us understand when something we wrote maybe isn't as "amazing" as we thought it was.
RH: Writing the book is just one part of the process. The other part is business. As coauthors, how do you handle responsibilities like working with an agent, publicity, and sales and profits?
LS: We definitely have our roles. I am in charge of our shared calendar. We agree on a timeline for when we want to finish each book, then I put the reminders in (with a lot of spirited emojis!) to keep us on track with our word count goals. I'm also in charge of booking the authors/books for our "best books of the month" posts.
LF: I have a sales and marketing background, so I'm in charge of our giveaways, handle our marketing, create the images we use, and place our Facebook and Instagram ads. I'm also the technically savvy one of this team. If we need something fixed on our website, I'm the (wo)man. We both collaborate on running our social media sites and talking to our agent and publicists.
RH: Your first three books were published by Atria books. Your newest book, The Good Widow, will be published by Lake Union Publishing. What was the reason for this switch, and how did you go about making this decision together?
LF: It was not an easy decision, but we felt it was best for us moving forward. Our first three books are women's fiction, and we were craving a change to suspense. We switched genres, so it made sense to switch publishers.
LS: The most important part of this decision was being sure we were on the same page, that we were listening to each other and hearing each other. It took us a while to come to a decision, but, once we did, we were very happy with it. We are so thankful to Atria for giving us our start and loved everyone we worked with there. Lake Union has been a great new home for us, and we look forward to our journey with them.
RH: The Good Widow will be released in June. What can we look forward to in this story, and what other projects do you have in store for us?
LS: We are overcome with excitement about this novel. It's the story of Jaqueline "Jacks" Morales who has been in a flawed yet stable marriage for eight years. Until the day she gets a knock at the door and two police officers tell her that her husband is dead. But that's just where the problems begin because James was supposed to be in Kansas, not Maui, and he most certainly wasn't supposed to be with another woman who also died in the crash. You can look forward to a suspenseful story full of twists and turns that still has our women's fiction signature on it. Bestselling author Deb Caletti said it best: "This is not the story you think it is."
LF: We are currently writing a book about four women who go to Mexico, and one of them disappears. Told over a week-long period and skipping between three timelines, the pieces of the puzzle of what happened to the missing woman will slowly fit together. And, in the end, we hope you'll be saying, "I never saw that coming!"