Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan on Co-Writing, Chocolate, and the 1920s
They say that two heads are better than one, and for authors Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan, that certainly seems to be the case. These two first teamed up for 2013’s I’ll Be Seeing You, an epistolary novel set in the 1940s about two women who bond while their husbands are at war. Their newest joint effort, Empire Girls, zooms in on a different segment of American history: New York City in the 1920s. In this novel, two sisters journey to the big city after their father’s death to find their brother and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. Here, the two authors chat with Bookish about writing as a team, their love of historical fiction, and the irresistible allure of the Roaring Twenties.
Bookish: How did you decide to write books as a team? What does your writing and revising process look like?
Suzanne Hayes: These were two very different projects. The first novel, I’ll Be Seeing You, grew out of an idea for a fun writing project. I asked Loretta if she'd be interested in swapping emails as WWII wives. The whole project was almost effortless and organic. What a joy! Even the editing went easily.
Writing Empire Girls was different. We had to create characters who overlapped in our chapters. That meant we had to do a lot of plotting. I am so, so proud of this book because of the hard work that went into it. I'm a fast writer who always has quick ideas, quick corrections to those ideas, and a willingness to change course without always thinking things through. I'm also the Queen of Typos. Loretta is an excellent editor and a genius with timing. She also creates the most amazing, funny dialogue. Our collaborations always worked because our strengths meld with our weaknesses and create balance.
Loretta Nyhan: Suzy is the ultimate romantic! She has such a clear understanding of the mood we’re trying to create, and works so hard to find sources of inspiration (check out her Pinterest boards—wow!). I’m more of a stickler for historical detail: dates, facts—that’s me.
Together, we work to immerse our readers in the past without making our story feel like a history lesson. Part of the revision process involves going through the manuscript to make sure the characters run the narrative, instead of certain moments in history stealing the show. Another part of the revision process involves eating a lot of chocolate and whining to each other on the phone—but you didn’t hear it from me!
Bookish: What drew you to 1920s New York City as the primary setting for your novel?
SH: We'd just finished a project set in the 1940's, and we spoke about wanting to immerse ourselves in another time period that called to both of us. The book was originally set in 1918, but through its many revisions, was bumped up to the more lively landscape of 1925.
Also, we are writers! And I think that writers are drawn to that era and to New York City, where so many things were blossoming in the literary and artistic communities. I mean, Dorothy Parker... what I wouldn't give to have a nice long talk with her! That's the draw.
LN: The 20s are so much good fun. Who can resist the call of speakeasies, flappers, and bathtub gin? The era was also a time of great changes for women, which seemed a perfect backdrop for Rose and Ivy and their coming of age story.
Bookish: There’s some sibling rivalry between Rose and Ivy, particularly early in the book. Did you draw on any of your own experiences with siblings in writing about Rose and Ivy’s relationship?
SH: I don't have a sister... but I'm raising three girls! So I understand it from an outside perspective. The relationships that my daughters are building are complicated and fascinating. It was a gift to be able to put some of that down on the pages of Empire Girls.
LN: My sister is seven years younger, so we had more of a buddy relationship, which didn’t blossom into something more until we were adults. My aunt, however, gave birth to four girls in five and a half years (I know!), so I saw first-hand how, in sisterhood, fierce love can exist in tandem with absolute loathing.
Bookish: What is the best thing about writing a book as a pair? What’s the hardest thing about it?
SH: The best part, for me, is growing the story together—bouncing off ideas, adding layers that couldn't be done alone. It creates such a rich narrative. And I learned so much about the craft of storytelling from Loretta! The worst part is when there’s a disagreement about plot or characterization. But even then, I'm learning. So I don't really think there was a worst part.
LN: The best: getting instant feedback from Suzy. That is a gift and a joy. The worst: trying to shape a character we view differently. There is a lot of compromise involved. But you know what? The negotiation process helps us both grow as writers.
Bookish: How did you go about writing from the perspective of characters who lived in the 1920s? Was it difficult to craft their voices?
SH: I've always had a deep affinity for the 1920's. I didn't feel as if it was difficult to connect with Rose. Many of the things the women in both of our novels grapple with are timeless issues: growth, loss, redemption. And the research we did about slang and historical events that would have colored their perspective at the time was exciting!
LN: I love research. Love it. I want to know everything about a character. What does the world look like when she gets up in the morning? What does she have for breakfast? What color is her lipstick? I need a good handle on the details so they can inform my writing, not overwhelm it. Ivy is a fun-loving, impulsive, but ultimately insecure girl. Set her in the crazy world of 1920s New York, and no, it wasn’t difficult to hear her voice. Not at all!
Bookish: Empire Girls is quite different from the books you’ve written as individuals: Suzanne’s The Witch of Little Italy and Loretta’s The Witch Collector are both about witches. Have you ever considered writing about witches when you collaborate, since you both do separately? What made you decide to switch gears?
SH: It's so funny, I don't feel like it was switching gears at all. Loretta and I found out we both loved the 1940's when she helped me do some research for The Witch of Little Italy. My novels are magical and historical. The magic is magical realism. The characters that I gave the largest voices to are very similar to the characters that inhabit the Suzanne Palmieri novels. Fans of The Witch of Little Italy embraced I’ll Be Seeing You, and vice-versa. I would LOVE to collaborate on a witch book! You in, L?
LN: That would be so fun! I can only imagine what mischief our witches could get into! I do agree with Suzy; I never felt like I needed to shift gears. With every book, the character comes first, and the paranormal elements are simply part of who she is.
Bookish: I’ll Be Seeing You, which you both wrote together, is also historical fiction. Are there any historical fiction authors that you two are particularly inspired by?
SH: I'm an avid reader, and I always gravitate (and seem to write) novels that dip into different eras. Also, I love classic novels and was inspired by Hemingway, and Fitzgerald (of course!). My witch books also include historical elements. Even Stephen King dabbles in this! His short story "The Body" is a great snapshot of the early 1960's. I think The Witch of Blackbird Pond is one of my favorites... but I recently read Orphan Train and The Light Between Oceans, both of which inspired me quite a bit!
LN: Lately, I’ve been obsessed with books where the past and present intertwine, such as The Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes and Astor Place Vintage by Stephanie Lehmann. Both books left me with a better understanding of two time periods I thought I knew a lot about!
Bookish: Do you have plans to write another book together?
SH: I would love to. Sadly, right now, we don't plan on it. But the future is a wild and restless creature. So, who knows!
LN: At the moment, our focus is on solo projects, but you never know!