Paul Vlitos & Collette Lyons
Collette Lyons, author, journalist and editor. Dr Paul Vlitos, author and Lecturer. Pseudonym Ellery Lloyd, author of People Like Her.
Interview conducted by Hilary Macey-Dare.
People Like Her is the debut novel by husband-and-wife team, Dr Paul Vlitos and Collette Lyons, writing under the pseudonym of Ellery Lloyd. I was interested in finding out more about the practicalities of writing a novel in collaboration with a partner (in this case a spouse). What sort of challenges did this present and what sort of groundwork did they need to cover before embarking on the joint venture? What was the genesis of the novel and how did it evolve? And then, what sort of experience did this turn out to be?
The Process of Writing a Collaborative Novel
Q: The idea of writing a novel with a collaborative partner might be some people’s idea of hell. Especially people who are married to each other. Did you set down rules at the outset that would mark clear boundaries for each of you?
PV: I think the first thing to do is to decide what kind of novel you want to write, and why. Which is actually quite good advice for all novelists, actually!
CL: And the other important thing to do, we found, was to plot things out in advance! We spent quite a long time putting together a detailed synopsis of the novel, so that we knew we were both on the same page in terms of where the novel was going, knowing who our characters were and so on.
Q: The novel’s structure allows for a clear and natural delineation between two opposing POVs (husband and wife). However, the third POV, that of the stalker, presents a greater challenge for collaboration. I understand that Paul (if I’m not mistaken) wrote most of those sections, but also that Google Docs had a role to play in giving you both unlimited access to each other’s writing. How did that work practically?
CL: That’s right – for the first draft we were quite clear on who was writing in each voice, which helped us keep the voices distinct, I think.
PV: Then once we had a complete draft we put it into a google doc, which meant we could both work on the whole document, adding and revising and smoothing and tweaking.
CL: And of course in googledocs you can see where the other person is in the document from their cursor, which lead to a certain amount of ‘oi, what are you fiddling around with in my section?’ and ‘oh goodness are you still churning away at that chapter’. But I really don’t think we could have done it any other way – there were just too many different drafts flying around when we tried to write back and forth in Word!
Q: How did you get around human issues of sensitivity, defensiveness when it comes to your spouse potentially offering criticism that has to go beyond benign feedback? Is it the same as handing over your work to an agent/editor – in other words parcelling it up in a professional frame and dispensing with personal sensibilities?
CL: Well, I have experience being edited as a journalist and of commissioning and editing other people…
PV: And I spend a lot of my working life at the University of Surrey offering feedback and workshopping work.
CL: So we have experience of giving and receiving feedback professionally.
PV: And to be honest you can probably be a bit blunter giving feedback to someone you know personally and very well and live with than you would feel the need to be professionally. There are definitely stylistic tics of my writing that Collette teases me about!
Q: You are currently working on a second collaboration, so can we assume that you both view the first one as a positive experience?
CL: It is finished! We just submitted our second novel to our UK and US editors this week! Well, I say finished – now we need to wait and hear what feedback our editors have.
PV: Definitely a positive experience – both in terms of being proud of what we produced and having enjoyed working together. I think in terms of the slightly odd circumstances under which both books were written (the first when we had quite a young baby, the second during lockdown) something I would say about working together on a book was that it did give us something to talk about at times when we were stuck at or near home a lot of the time!
Q: What have you learnt from the first novel that you are able to transpose onto your second project in a helpful way? What advice would you give to anyone considering a creative collaboration (particularly a novel, which is usually seen as a solitary endeavour)?
PV: I would say go for it! It is definitely a helpful thing to do I terms of keeping up your morale and making it easier to finish a book, having someone else to encourage you and that you have committed to working with.
CL: It is also great to be able to bounce ideas off the other person, especially with regard to plot – there are definitely twists on twists in both our novels which are there because we kept egging each other on to come up with things that would take the reader even more by surprise.
The Novel – People Like Her
Q: I understand the premise for your novel, People Like Her, was conceived poolside in on a family holiday – from that point, did it evolve slowly or were you so motivated by it that it unfolded pretty quickly? And was that the point you realised you wanted to collaborate on a novel?
CL: Yes, that was the first time we really started talking about it, a holiday with friends when we first had our baby, talking around the pool in the evenings about possible plots and chucking ideas about.
PV: I am not sure we can either of us remember the exact moment it occurred to us that we could do it together – I think probably the same time we realised you could do it in two voices. And then we did start work on it when we got back, and the first few chapters turned out pretty good – or at least good enough to keep going with it!
Q: Did you have a detailed plot set out before you started writing or did you keep it loose until you had a few chapters under your belt?
CL: We did do a full synopsis – but only after the first draft (which we didn’t quite both finish).
PV: I think we got to that point and knew we had something, but we really needed, now we knew the characters and had some key scenes in our heads, to plot the full thing – and it was actually on a longhaul flight at that point that more or less the final ending came to Collette.
Q: All of the characters are flawed – even Dan ends up making a Faustian pact with the social media industry. Was it important not to provide a glossy redemption for Emmy and Dan?
PV: Yes, definitely.
CL: I think ’glossy redemption’ is exactly what we were trying to avoid – it just would not have felt true to the people we had written, or the book.
Q: The ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel. Indeed, there is even the possibility of a prequel. Would you go to either place?
PV: Had not thought of a prequel! We’ll be sure to credit you if we do!
CL: We have discussed ways of doing it – and it certainly might be interesting to catch up with those characters in a few years’ time and see what they are all doing – and maybe what the kids feel as they are getting older about having their lives posted on Instagram…
Q: As you were writing, did you have any heightened sense of anxiety that led to perhaps a modification of your own (online) behaviour?
CL: I think we were both pretty cautious already.
PV: I think we’re both pretty conscious of online safety, and all the other issues raised by posting pictures of your kids publicly online – and the novel reflects our anxieties and concerns in quite a heightened, dramatized form.
Q: Your novel has a very cinematic feel to it, so as a reader, one can visualise this being played out as a TV drama or film. I understand film/TV rights have been optioned. As you were creating these characters (before the knowledge that it was even a possibility) did you have any actors in mind – subconsciously or otherwise? (Understand if you can’t or don’t want to go there…)
CL: Good question! Not during the writing, I don’t think… Paul?
PV: It is something we have talked about and joked about since but I certainly wasn’t thinking that far in advance at the time!
Q: The title is clever – did you have a working title or was it People Like Her from a very early stage?
CL: Not until a very late stage!
PV: The working title was something else entirely, which the US publishers in particular did not like, so we (and our editors and agents in the US and UK) put our heads together to try and come up with something and throw ideas back and forth – and, of course, googling to see if there was already a book of that title. And we went through all the possible puns about being online, and went through the book looking for possible phrases which might work as a title, and which would give some sense of the book… And as you do in those situations you end up, semi-hysterical, with a list of things some of which are just word soup! Just gibberish! Or really nice titles or turns of phrase which have no relation to the actual book…
CL: But finally after much back and forth we ended up with something we are all really pleased with!
Collette and Paul were extremely generous with their answers to my questions, giving us a tantalising and very personal glimpse into their shared experience of this creative collaboration. Their novel manages to achieve the publishing holy grail of smart, clever writing with a commercial appeal and this insight into their writing world gives us a sense of why that is so. It appears that the magic formula is a combination of hard graft, communication, acuity, humility and a good dose of humour. Recipe for a successful marriage, as well as a great novel, it seems to me.
Buy the book: People Like Her – Ellery Llloyd
People like Emmy Jackson. They always have. Especially online, where she is Instagram sensation Mamabare, famous for telling the unvarnished truth about modern parenthood.
But Emmy isn’t as honest as she’d like the fans to believe. She may think she has her followers fooled, but someone out there knows the truth and plans to make her pay…
A smart and thrilling debut that delves into the darkest aspects of influencer culture, Ellery Lloyd’s People Like Her is about what you risk losing when you don’t know who’s watching .
To find out more about Paul and Collette go to our Meet Our Guests page for more information.
Hilary Macey-Dare is a Creative Writing MA Student at the University of Surrey, who will be chairing the Creative Collaborations Talk at this year’s virtual festival.
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