We love the saying, “Sisters who write together, stay friends for life.” OK, so we totally made it up, but it definitely applies to Alyssa and Courtney Sheinmel. They grew up with a shared passion for reading and writing, and today they both have successful careers as writers. Courtney Sheinmel writes the popular Stella Batts series and Alyssa Sheinmel is the author of three novels, The Beautiful Between, The Lucky Kind, and The Stone Girl. Courtney and Alyssa stopped by Figment to talk about their new books, the perils of sharing a bedroom, and finding character inspiration from family members.
Describe your most recent novels in 5 words.
Alyssa: My most recent novel is The Stone Girl, and my five words for it are hunger, sharp, cold, friendship, and redemptive. (Does that sound like a terribly depressing read?)
Courtney: Stella Batts #4: A Case of the Meanies. Here’s the moral of the story, boiled down to five words: Not everyone will like you. (Alternate five words: Most people will like you. Or: It’s better to be nice.)
Did you both realize you wanted to be writers at the same time? Who started writing first?
Alyssa: Courtney started writing first—being the big sister, she literally knew how to write before I did! As long as I can remember, we both wanted to be writers. I have plenty of memories of us as little kids, toting around notebooks in which we jotted down story after story.
Courtney: You always like to point out that you’re the younger one, don’t you, Lyss? I like to say I taught Alyssa everything she knows; but truthfully, she surpassed me long ago, and I’m learning from her.
Alyssa: The only way I’ve surpassed Courtney is height-wise. (I’m five inches taller.)
How does your shared childhood influence your writing?
Alyssa: We grew up in a house where reading was the most important thing. Our parents always, always encouraged us to read. I think growing up in an environment where books were so important is a huge part of why I wanted to write in the first place. When I was little, I always tried to read the same books that Courtney was reading, even when they were probably a little too hard for me. And, I think the same part of me that made me want to push myself as a reader makes me push myself as a writer today. (Or maybe I’m just trying to keep up with my big sister.)
Courtney: For me, sharing a childhood with my sister is the single most important experience of my entire life, and that is why siblings play a big role in each of my stories.
Do you read and edit each other’s work? Do you ever write together?
Alyssa: I don’t read most of Courtney’s work, actually. I know her too well—I totally hear her voice in my head when I read anything she writes.
Courtney: I’m the opposite—I love having Alyssa’s voice in my head, and I read everything by her that I can get my hands on. I wish she’d share more, but Alyssa is inherently more private than I am.
Would you consider co-authoring a book together?
Alyssa: I need to learn to be a better collaborator first! I don’t like to talk about a book while I’m working on it, and I’d definitely have to get over that before I could write a book with another person.
Courtney: Ah, but we did do one collaboration together—a ghost story for a friend’s blog. Click here to read it.
Alyssa: You’re right, of course! And I love that story.
Alyssa, your books tend to be for older readers than Courtney’s audience. Why did you choose that age? And Courtney, the reverse question?
Alyssa: I don’t know if I ever really chose to write YA—it’s more that the stories I’ve had to tell so far have all been YA stories. I hope that I’ll write for both younger and older readers eventually, but so far, writing YA has been so rewarding. The books that I loved as a teen, I read over and over again. I can recite passages from them—so can Courtney. (We had a lot of the same favorites.)
Courtney: The tween voice is one that came to me pretty naturally, so I wrote four books for that age group back-to-back. Then our niece Sara (our stepbrother’s daughter) complained that I’d never written anything for her. She was six years old at the time, and wanting to please her, I wrote what became the first Stella Batts book. Now I’m working on a picture book, the next Stella installment, and trying my hand at my first official YA.
Are any of your characters based on each other?
Alyssa: Not yet!
Courtney: Oh, yes! There’s Haley in Sincerely, Sophie, who has a particular fondness for hot dog pizza, and Penny in the Stella Batts books, who has a penchant for copying her older sister—both characters I wouldn’t have been able to write if Alyssa hadn’t been around.
Courtney writes on her website that sharing a room was impossible for you as kids. Do you think you could share a room now?
Courtney: We’d never agree on what TV shows to watch, and there wouldn’t be enough room on the shelves for all of our books.
Alyssa: And we’d insist on each having our own copy of our favorite books, which would all but double the bookshelf problem.
Do you have any advice for siblings who don’t get along?
Courtney: Wait it out.
Alyssa: Ooh, that’s a good one.
Neither of you took a direct route to becoming an author. How did your journey to published author influence your writing?
Alyssa: I worked in the publishing industry for years before I was published, and I feel very lucky that I did. For one thing, I loved my job—I’m interested in almost everything to do with books and book publishing, not just writing them. I don’t know if my adventures in publishing directly influence my writing, but I’m glad I know the ins and outs of the process—that knowledge definitely helps me as a writer. And, it’s nice to know that I can juggle two jobs at once!
Courtney: After college, I went to law school and practiced law for several years. But throughout that time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I really, REALLY wanted to be a writer. When I’d been at the law firm about three years, I started working on what would become my first published book. I was still a full-time associate, so I worked one day each weekend, that was it. And I worked harder during that period, until the book was completed, than I’ve ever worked in my life—harder even than when I was studying for the bar exam. Now as a full-time writer, I look back and remember how much I’m capable of doing when I really want something. I think the experience made me into a more patient person (sort of) and a better writer.