“It’s OK that you love each other,” Paula Danziger, who died in 2004, used to tell her best friends Elizabeth Levy and Bruce Coville. “You just can’t love each other more than you love me.”
What she loved most was being with both of them together, Levy says. Now Coville and Levy are continuing the story of Danziger's character, Amber Brown, in Amber Brown is Tickled Pink—with the blessing of Carrie Danziger, the inspiration for her Aunt Paula’s character, whom the co-authors have known since she was a preteen. Levy and Coville say it’s as if Danziger is in the room with them.
Find more Amber Brown books and others by the late, great Paula Danziger.
Did your friendship with Paula Danziger include your writing?
EL: Absolutely—and it worked! We’d talk at about 10 in the morning, and if you don’t do three pages by the time we talk again later, I won’t talk to you. Paula and Bruce would talk to each other at 5 p.m. and have three pages or else....
BC: In 1992, when Paula and I were both stuck on our current writing projects, we started a tradition of challenging each other to produce a certain amount of work each day, work that we would read to each other. When Paula and I first started, the deal was, “Have three pages or suffer unendurable shame.”
However, some years later, we both stalled out again. I said, “OK, it's time to bring back the shame.” It didn't work. We needed to add some incentive. We agreed that whoever did not have three pages the next day had to send $10 to the George W. Bush re-election fund. And we couldn't do it anonymously. There followed some of the most productive months that either of us ever had.
Who approached you about the Amber Brown project?
EL: We have the same agents, Amy Berkower and Jodi Reamer at Writer’s House. They approached me because they wanted the series to continue. I really felt it would feel creepy without Bruce. Bruce and I both loved the theater. We thought, “What if we did it as our fantasy of a 1920s play?” Whether it was a myth or not of Moss Hart and George Kaufman being in a room and writing together, or Comden and Green, it worked.
BC: In many ways it feels like a three-way collaboration, since we both often reference Paula as we're trying to work things out, whether at the structural level or in the shaping of an individual line.
How do the two of you work together?
BC: We sit facing each other, each of us on our own laptop, and often work on the same paragraph at the same time. We know basically where we're going, and we each try to work it out. Then we read them aloud and merge what we've done. It's a weird process, and it requires setting aside ego in favor of the story, but it's been working for us.
EL: Every day we’d read out what we did the day before. As Bruce and I wrote, we made Amber so honest about friendships. She never sugarcoated how sad it felt to be left out. She was so funny, but she also knew you could use that as a weapon. That’s how Paula helped me. She’d say, “You can’t use humor as a weapon, or else you have to know that you’re using it as a weapon.” I love that in Amber and in Paula.
BC: I've done other collaborations, most notably with Jane Yolen on Armageddon Summer, but never had a process quite like this. In fact, in talking with friends, I don't know of anyone who's worked exactly this way. We've also learned that, in cases where we have conflict about a line or a turn in the story, when we return to the work the next day, we'll usually find ourselves in the same place. Knowing that helps us move forward.
EL: Sometimes, as we’re writing, we might skip ahead. We give each other different things to do. I have to describe what Amber wears. Neither of us likes crafts the way Paula did.
BC: Yeah, but I get stuck with writing the crafts stuff! Which mostly gets cut anyway. But sometimes we need to write it to move forward, even knowing that it will eventually go away. For the morning reread of the previous day’s work, we take turns reading pages aloud to each other. It’s very effective. We do a lot of revising in the process, and it also gets us right back into the world of the story.
The audience for this book is one you both know well from your own books. But how did you get the voice so pitch-perfect?
EL: Bruce and I have that same sense of humor. We make each other laugh a lot. You bring your adult understanding of hurt and change to remembering what you felt like at 9. It’s the gift of the greats in our field. They never underestimated how deeply a child feels something. And also the ability to change your feelings on a dime. To me, that was the great gift of Paula. In the new one, Amber wants to ship herself in the box of toys to Justin, but then she wonders, “Could she pee in the box?”
BC: For me it was the fact that I had heard every word of the Amber books as Paula was writing them. We had so much fun on those phone calls! I was always amused that Paula liked to recount that time that I said to her of a line, “That doesn't work. Amber sounds whiny. Amber doesn't whine, you whine.”
What was the most surprising aspect of working on this project?
EL: I think there were two: that I so enjoyed working with Bruce; and how deeply Paula had set these up. It was like a long novel. You knew she’d have to deal with Amber’s mother remarrying, that Amber’s father was moving back. All the depth of family tumult was there. The funny stuff was easy, because we could reread who was the nose-picker, and Wolfman Sam with his first underarm hair and all that. The deeper part was how clearly she set up that Amber may make fun of stuff, but she never pretends that she’s not hurting.
BC: One of the things that surprised me was how collaborating in the way we did helped us work longer and harder on a daily basis than either of us usually do when we're flying solo.
EL: I can’t work more than three hours on my own writing, but we worked four to five hours.
BC: This was partly because it was so much fun, but also because we helped keep each other stay on task. And it was easier to keep at it because there was someone to talk to. One of the things that makes writing difficult is that it's such a solitary profession most of the time. But working in the same room with a good friend, making solid progress, laughing a lot, sharing memories of Paula as we did, helped keep us in our chairs.