FestivalYA – Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Redacted by Georgia Mirică

Rachel Cohn and David Levithan form a formidable team; they have co-authored six immensely popular young adult novels, three of which have been brought to life on the silver screen. Their joint list of titles includes critically-acclaimed and bestselling works such as Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Naomi and Ely’s No-Kiss List. Joined by their eager Romanian readership, the pair engaged in an animated, lively, and insightful dialogue facilitated by Cărturești through FestivalYA, the essence of which has been redacted below. 

How Did You Meet And Decide To Write Together?

Rachel Cohn: We met many years ago, through a mutual colleague. David at the time was (and still is) an editor, so we were originally introduced so that I potentially might work with him as an editor. Around the same time, his first book came out and we just started having lunches during which we were talking about more author-author things. I happened to have an idea for the book that became Nick & Norah […] and I happened to say to David that I thought it needed a male writer and asked him if he would like to do it. He said yes, which was very lucky for me, and things sort of took off from there. 

David Levithan: Yes, and Rachel didn’t know any other male writers, so I was kind of her only shot. It was fun, because I sat down to write the first chapter; all I knew was that it was about two people named Nick and Norah and that they were in New York City and they both lived in New Jersey, and that it all would take place over one night, and so, I asked myself “what am I going to do with this?” and wrote the first chapter. Then, instead of talking it over and trying to plot the story out, I just sent it to Rachel – little did I know that I would be setting the pace, the formula, for our future collaboration. This is how we write all of our books – we never plot things out ahead of time, we just have a very shaky premise and just send chapters to each other back and forth. Neither of us knows where the story is going to go, which is what makes it so fun to write and, hopefully, fun to read. 

Were You Surprised By The Chapters You Received?

RC: All the time. I always say that the best part about writing with David is also the hardest part, and that is the fact that when I send a chapter to him, I have no idea what he is going to do with it. I have a lot of expectations of what I want him to do with it, little things that I set in motion that I hope he’ll pick up on, and he usually never does. There’s always this initial disappointment, but then it’s because he goes with something completely different, that really speaks to him, so it’s both enraging and wonderful. 

DL: I’m lucky because I usually don’t think ahead, even when writing my solo books. Even from the beginning, and especially as we have continued working together, we have enjoyed throwing curveballs at each other, and find this preferable to taking a straight, narrow path. What is fun is that I genuinely don’t know what Rachel is going to set me up for any time I get a chapter from her, and vice-versa, and I think that’s part of the fun of it. Again, it can be very frustrating, but we always figure out a way to do it.

Did You Have A Writing Project Together During The Pandemic? If So, How Was The Process Different? 

RC: Well, we wrote a third Dash & Lily book that we finished just as quarantine was starting, and there were a lot of questions around if we should address this in the book, how long this was going to last, and so on – we ended up not doing it. Other than that, for me, I’m sometimes more productive because there’s nowhere else to go, and sometimes not, because I’m so distracted by the weight of all the things going on in the world. It’s a lot to process emotionally

DL: We wrapped up Mind the Gap, Dash & Lily, and then the Netflix series of the first Dash & Lily book came out around Christmas, and it was very strange for us, because we had been there, in New York, while they were filming. It was very strange to watch and have it feel like it’s an alternate universe – the universe of 2019. I’ve been writing very slowly. In fact, I only just wrote a middle-grade book, because it brought me joy every time I sat down to write it. It was just pure fun, and there were other projects that I wanted to do, but they were more serious, and there was a lot going on all around. I just thought that I would only be able to write if it’s something purely fun and not very serious. 

How Involved Are You In The Movie Adaptation Process? 

RC: Somebody that is interested in the book will approach us, and we will talk with him, and then pair him with the producers, and they put it all together and eventually sell it. With Dash & Lily on Netflix, we were there on set a lot. I wrote one of the episodes, but that was really the extent of my involvement. David spent a lot more time there, on set.   

DL: If we haven’t already established, Rachel lives in LA, I live in New York, I was lucky in that they filmed it in New York and I got to visit the characters and the places we included in the book. Because we were working back then on the third Dash & Lily book, I could be on my computer, writing a chapter, and then look up and see Dash and Lily acting out a scene in front of me, which was really amazing and really surreal, so I did get the benefit of that, and Rachel did get to write one of the episodes. She actually got to translate Dash and Lily from our novel into the screen form, which is something that I would not be capable of doing, but which Rachel did beautifully. We got to have a lot of different access points, but it is ultimately somebody else’s vision that is guiding it. With all of our movies, we were lucky in that we trusted the people who we’ve given it to, and that takes a huge weight off, just knowing that those who are making the adaptation understand what the book is about. 

What Was It Like Writing A Book In Collaboration? 

RC: It’s very fun; I often say that the hard part for me afterwards, when I go to write my solo books, that feels more like work. With David, writing doesn’t feel like work, it just feels like fun. It feels like I have this friend on the other side, and a lot of it is just me trying to make him laugh. Eventually, it becomes something more, where we’re trying to broaden it, but, initially, it’s just him and me, and we’re just trying to riff off of each other. 

DL: I think especially with Dash & Lily it was very interesting, because we have never had characters grow older before. Revisiting our character year by year, Christmas after Christmas, that’s also been very fun for us, because It has made us think about how their lives would be like, how the lives of all the supporting characters would be like. Because, at this point, Rachel and I, we’re family, and thoroughly know each other as writers, it’s really fun when we get together, not just with each other, but also with revisiting our characters. […] It doesn’t have the same weight as when you’re writing a book by yourself, because when you’re writing a book by yourself, you’re responsible for all of it, but when you write a book with somebody else, you share that with somebody else, and it’s much, much more fun to share than to do it alone. 

What Advice Would You Give To Young Writers Struggling To Find Their Artistic Voice?

RC: The single most thing that helped me was reading all the time, and that was reading all the time, reading as much as I could, but also, when you’re reading, think about it, and if you have a favorite book or a favorite character – for me, it was going through all those moments and really trying to think why did the writer make that choice, why did he use that word, why did he put them in that situation, why did I respond to it? When I was analyzing other writing in terms of my own writing and what I could learn from it, that, for me, was the biggest help. The other piece of advice is to just write. Don’t make any huge, unattainable goals; make small goals. I just need to finish one page, and then I just need to finish one chapter. Don’t think of the big picture, think of the small picture, and then all of those little accomplishments will eventually add up into one book. 

DL: I’m often asked this question and I have a number of answers, and the first one is to know that the job of learning how to write is not learning how to write perfectly at first; it is the job of learning how to make it better after the first time. Nobody’s first draft is perfect. I’ve been working with hundreds of authors and I have never seen one perfect first draft. Drafts always need work. A lot of writers put pressure on themselves to get it right the first time when that is truly impossible. The goal is to get something down, be relatively happy with it, and then to work on it, to get feedback from your friends, other writers, and to keep revising it, to make it good, rather than having it be good from the start. The second thing is that there is no right or wrong way to write, only a right or wrong way for you. Rachel and I are a perfect example of that; when it comes to some things, we are perfectly in sync, with other things, we could not be more different. Rachel cannot listen to music while she’s writing, I have to listen to music when I’m writing. Rachel can actually visualise what’s going on in a scene while she’s writing it, I can’t see a single thing when I’m writing. You will find what your writing mind will allow you to do. The last thing that I will say, referencing the question of finding your voice as a writer, the thing to always remember is that, as a writer, you are going to have many voices. There is no one voice. Try on different voices for size. And that’s one of the great things about working with Rachel – you get to explore characters that you otherwise might not think about building a book around. So, try lots of voices, don’t put pressure on yourself to get it right the first time around, and keep writing and keep reading, and that should really help you.  

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