Today I’m very excited to be hosting Maxine Schnall and Ken Salikof – the collaborative authors of Spy in a Little Black Dress and Paris to Die For as Maxine Kenneth. Maxine and Ken kindly took the time to answer a few questions exploring the concept of their series, which follows a young Jackie Bouvier through life as a CIA agent, and what the process of writing as a team has been like. Thanks to the authors for their insightful answers!
Spy in a Little Black Dress was inspired by an actual letter Jackie wrote that indicated a job offer from the CIA. What motivated you to bring the “what-ifs” of Jackie’s potential spy life into the realm of creative fiction?
Paris to Die For
Maxine: It was Ken’s idea to do a “what-if” of Jackie as a spy after learning of 21-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier’s letter to Vogue stating that she was going to accept a job offer from the CIA. After starting work on the project, he placed an ad in Craig’s List seeking a woman collaborator to develop his outline and first few chapters into a full-fledged novel. I was seeking a co-author for a mystery novel concept of my own, but when I answered his ad and read the material he sent me, including a copy of Jackie’s letter filed in the John F. Kennedy Library, I was hooked. I had always admired Jackie for giving us a taste of American royalty as First Lady in the Camelot days and for the way she handled her husband’s assassination with such incredible courage and class. The challenge would be to take the facts of her life, both known and uncovered through research, and blend them into an out-of-body existence that readers could experience vicariously along with her fictional character.
Ken: I don’t think motivated is quite the right word here. I found out about the letter and instantly the plot of the first book, Paris to Die For, unfolded in my mind. So I just started doing the research and the writing without too much in the way of forethought or deliberation. I just followed my instincts and decided to go for it.
Why do you think fictitious stories about iconic figures from history have become so popular?
Maxine: I can see why bringing historical iconic figures into fiction – Dorothy Parker, Jane Austen, and Marilyn Monroe, to name a few who’ve been done – has become a popular trend. For one thing, the character, a fascinating one with a huge built-in following, has already been established and doesn’t have to be created out of whole cloth. Plus, when you’re working with an icon familiar to everyone, there’s a lot of fun to be had when the reader knows some things that are going to happen to the character before the character does. Then there’s the additional advantage of uncovering startling facts about the character through research that give the lie to the public image and create buzz. I was surprised to learn, for example, that growing up with an alcoholic father and sometimes physically abusive mother and being in a tenuous financial position in her adoptive home differed from the wholly privileged childhood most of us thought Jackie had. And finally, there’s the “Walter Mitty factor” that draws writers and readers to the imagined lives of famous icons.
We all like to fantasize about our own lives and how they might be different, and this type of book appeals to that daydream tendency.
How has writing as a team affected the process for both of you? Is there a strong difference between writing together and writing solitary projects?
Maxine: Writing as a team was an expansive experience for me. Except for my one novel and a screenplay, most of my work before this project had been nonfiction, primarily in the fields of neuro/social psychology and marital and family life. I came into the spy thriller genre as much a fish out of water as Jackie was. Luckily, Ken was an expert in this field, and we easily fell into a natural division of labor: he handled the “guy” stuff (the action-adventure scenes, the mystery element, and the espionage angle) and I handled the “girl” stuff (the scene-setting, character development, and romance). Although our writing styles were different, we were able to make adjustments and act as each other’s editor so that the whole thing came off seamlessly in that regard.
The strongest difference between writing together and writing solitary projects is how much time you save by dividing the work in half, but you can’t be territorial about it. You do have to relinquish some pride of ownership in your work and be open to your collaborator’s vision and suggestions rather than cling to your own preferences. The tradeoff for sharing the responsibility is a loss of freedom, but I thoroughly enjoyed the brainstorming process and found it to be a spur to creativity.
Ken: Yes, there’s a big difference. When you write with a partner, you have to work hard to create a unified vision of the finished book. To insure that, in both Paris to Die For and Spy in a Little Black Dress, I created a detailed outline of the story, broken down into chapters. We then divvied up the chapters to write, and traded them off when we were finished to insure the continuity of the writing.
Spy in a Little Black Dress
Spy in a Little Black Dress is the second book in your series of Jackie Kennedy spy novels; the first taking her to Paris alongside the Duchess of Windsor and Audrey Hepburn. What’s next for Jackie?
Maxine: We’ve discussed having Jackie sent to England in 1953 to cover the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II as The Times-Herald‘s Inquiring Camera Girl, but in her undercover assignment, to prevent a plot to assassinate the Queen from being carried out.
Ken: Well, I’m currently working out the story for Jackie’s next adventure. But inspired by a photograph I came across in the course of my research, I expect that Jackie will start out rubbing elbows with Jack Kerouac and his Beat pals in San Francisco. But that’s about all I want to give away at this point.
I thought Spy in a Little Black Dress would be collaboration between two people. But it turned out that there was a third collaborator who signed on for the book – Jackie Bouvier. As I started to write this new Jackie spy adventure, I saw that Jackie wasn’t behaving as she had in the first one, Paris to Die For. She was more confident, more decisive, moved through the world in a slightly different way. And I realized that this was because the Jackie of Spy had grown through her experiences in the first book and was telling me that she was a new person now, not the Jackie of Paris, not the Jackie of the history books, but one who had achieved independent life on the page. I can’t wait to see what she’s going to come up with for her third adventure.
About Maxine Schnall
Maxine Schnall is the author of six non-fiction books and one novel, including What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger (Da Capo, 2003); a Pulitzer Prize nominee (Limits: A Search for New Values, Clarkson Potter, 1982); a former contributing editor with Woman’s Day and CBS radio talk show host; and a popular media personality with six appearances on Oprah.
About Ken Salikof
Ken Salikof is a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, an award-winning screenwriter, and an independent book editor. Ken has sold scripts to New World Cinema, HBO, Nickelodeon, and several independent producers and has edited many bestselling novels.