I'm thrilled to be interviewing Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen today on their publication day of An Anonymous Girl. Greer is the coauthor of An Anonymous Girl and The Wife Between Us, both of which she wrote with Sarah Pekkanen. Formerly an editor at Simon & Schuster for twenty years, Greer has written for The New York Times, Allure, Publisher’s Weekly, and other publications. She received her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. Greer lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children.
Sarah Pekkanen is not only the coauthor of An Anonymous Girl and The Wife Between Us with Greer Hendricks, but she has written eight other novels, seven of which Greer edited. A former Capitol Hill journalist, Baltimore Sun reporter, Bethesda Magazine contributor, and on-air correspondent at E! Entertainment Network, Sarah lives with her three sons in a suburb of Washington DC.
Welcome to Greer and Sarah. Thank you both so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Greer Hendricks: Thank you so much for having us. We’re super excited to be on here.
Zibby: Greer is here with me. Sarah is on the phone. Right, Sarah?
Sarah Pekkanen: Yes, in the car on the way to New York.
Zibby: Can the two of you tell listeners what your latest book, An Anonymous Girl, is about?
Greer: Sure. I think I'm going to do a little more of the heavy lifting and talking just because I'm sitting here nestled next to you. An Anonymous Girl is the story of Jessica Farris who’s a makeup artist in her late twenties in New York City struggling to make it, as a lot of young women are. She hears about this psychology study that's being offered at NYU. She sneaks into it thinking she’ll make some easy cash and it’ll be kind of like Myers-Briggs, answer a few questions. Then she walks into NYU. She sits down in front of this computer screen. These questions start to creep across the screen. It seems as if the psychiatrist conducting the study knows what she's thinking and knows what she's hiding. She gets lured into this study. Then the psychiatrist says to her, “Would you like to take it to the next level and do some real-life morality and ethics experiments?” Then it goes from there. That's when Sarah and I usually say, “Bom, bom, bom!”
Zibby: [laughs] How did you guys come up with this idea?
Greer: On the heels of our first book, The Wife Between Us, it was really important to us that we have a follow-up that was as strong. We spent months talking about what we wanted to write about. Some of the key elements, we knew we wanted there to be a real immediacy to the story, which is why we chose to write sections of it in the second person. We felt, hopefully people will agree, really brings in the reader and that you feel that you're answering the morality and ethics questions that Jessica is answering as well. That was one thing. We had both studied psychology. We have a deep interest in that. Some of the really fun parts of the book were researching those psychology experiments and psychological theories behind it. I would say those are basically the two key elements that we wanted to explore. We wanted the book to be same, better, or different. It’s not a follow-up to the last book, but if you've read both, you know that there's that similar page-turning quality, and relatable female protagonist in distress, and conquering things.
Zibby: I loved the second-person element to it.
Sarah: Good. I’d just add to what Greer said, when it comes to our ideas, what we really do is, as Greer said, we spend months talking for hours every single day. We’re sending each other newspaper articles, clippings, photographs of somebody saying, “Does this look like our main character? Does this look like Jessica or Dr. Shields?” We spend those months talking every single day for hours and hours. We generally amass a big file of the ideas that we want to incorporate into the book. We outline some characters. We talk more about the plot. It really is a very slow building process.
Greer: Our favorite two words are “What if.” What if this? What if that? We do egg each other on a bit. Wouldn't you say, Sarah? The crazier the better. I'm like, “I got chills. That's good. Let's add to that crazy subplot.”
Zibby: How did you two first meet? How did you meet, and then how did you end up working together?
Greer: Prior to becoming a writer, I was a book editor for twenty years at Simon & Schuster. One day a literary agent, Victoria Sanders, sent me a debut by a woman named Sarah Pekkanen. I read it in one sitting. I loved it. I was at a point in my career where I was looking for -- I joke -- marriages, not one-nights stands. I wanted long-term relationships with my authors. Victoria brought Sarah around because I wasn’t the only editor in town who was interested in her book. Sarah and I immediately hit it off. I persevered and acquired her debut. We worked together as an author/editor team for seven books, right, Sarah?
Greer: Then I decided to leave corporate publishing. I wanted to try something new. In the back of my mind, I wanted to write. I wasn’t really telling anybody. Over our time together, Sarah and I had discovered we had a number of uncanny similarities. We both had studied psychology and journalism. We both had played field hockey in high school. We were both terrible cooks. We both have brothers that we’re really close to who are both named Robert. We had developed a friendship. I was close with a lot of my authors. What Sarah and I had was really special. I confessed my secret to her that I wanted to write. Sarah, what did you say?
Sarah: I said, “Hey, let's write a book together.” It was a totally, spontaneous, impulsive thought. From my background, I had done everything from wire service reporting to newspaper writing to magazine writing to short stories to novels. I had been playing around with screenplays in my spare time. I loved Greer. I loved working with her. I didn't want to lose our collaborative relationship or our friendship. I was also eager to do something a little bit different. The timing, it worked out beautifully for both of us.
Greer: At first, I paused. Why does she want to write a book with me? She's written all these books on her own. I had this idea that maybe I should try to do this alone. Then I thought, “This is crazy.” I've written a couple of articles. I've edited hundreds of books, but I've never written a book. I have no idea what I'm doing. This could be a master class in learning how to write.
Sarah: I felt like I was the lucky one getting to work with Greer.
Greer: It’s like a really great marriage. We’re kind of sick together. I'm showing Zibby our necklace. Sorry, people who can't see this online. I had these made for us. The first one represents the first book colors. Then there's the second book. It’s our forever friendship and that I'm never letting her go.
Sarah: Greer surprised me with this necklace. It’s a gold chain. There's a circle that's gold. That represents the circle of forever friendship. Then there's a little blue stone in the circle that matches the cover of The Wife Between Us. A few weeks ago, she gave me another beautiful gold circle with a red stone that matches the cover on An Anonymous Girl.
Zibby: That's so great. I can't wait to see over the years, this necklace will become so heavy. Your neck won't be able to --
Greer: -- That's the dream, from your mouth.
Sarah: That's what we want.
Greer: Basically, I said yes. Then the question for Sarah and I was what are we going to write? Like Sarah said, she’d been writing more like women's fiction, for lack of a better word. That's primarily what I edited. What we did was we both went to our bookshelves. We took down all of our favorite books from the past few years. Sarah’s in DC. I'm here in New York. There was a lot of overlap. Certain themes emerged. We realized most of the books that we really like, they were psychological in nature with strong female protagonists. We pretty early on figured that we wanted to write a psychological thriller.
Then the question for us became how are we going to do this? We really hadn’t thought about the logistics, which I think was actually a good thing. I might have gotten a little nervous about how are we going to do this? Our first meeting was in New York City. We wrote these fifteen, twenty, horrible pages side by side. They're so bad. We found them last year. We thought they were brilliant. They were really bad. We knew we couldn't sit side by side every day because of our geographical distance.
My daughter, who was thirteen at the time, said, “Hey, Mom. There's this new-fangled technology called Google Docs and Google Hangout,” which embarrassingly, we didn't really know much about. She set us up. That's how Sarah and I work. Every day when our kids go off to school -- Sarah has three boys and I have two kids -- we sit down at our respective desks at around nine o’clock. We work until four. What's particularly great about that is that there's an accountability. If I was alone in my apartment, I'd get up. I'd do some laundry. I'd have another cup of coffee. I would get really distracted. When you're on the phone with someone, you can't check Facebook or Instagram. You're in it. That's contributed to our productivity, don't you think, Sarah?
Sarah: Absolutely. We work straight from nine to four. We, at this point, are pretty much eating lunch on the phone while we’re working. I’ll hear a crunch and say to Greer, “Oh, you're opening your seaweed. It’s eleven o’clock. I know your schedule so well.” In the off hours, we both get up super early. That's when we go into the document individually and do little tweaks in suggestive mode, word changes, maybe do a little bit of individual writing. Somehow, it works out beautifully. Because we are both working moms, as all moms are, we understand that occasionally a kid’s going to be home sick. We’re going to have to work around that and take a ten-minute break while you go tend to your sick kid or there's a dog barking in the background.
Greer: Hey! Don't throw Cooper under the bus. That's my dog usually.
Sarah: Now, I have a dog who barks. I used to have an old lab who was deaf and never barked. Now, I have a little dog who’s more of a barker. It works. All of our similarities pay off. We really get the other one on so many different levels. There is a hundred percent support that we both feel. Our writing is a very safe place. We say there are no bad ideas. Then we throw out a hundred bad ideas and we laugh about them, but we’re laughing together. It really is a rare thing, what we have.
Greer: Except that I know when I'm going down a bad track. Here’s Sarah, she’ll say, “Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.” That means, “Maybe go and do a different way.”
Sarah: Greer gets really quiet. After she gets quiet, I'm like, “Hello? Are you still there?” She's like, “I'm thinking.” Is she thinking good or bad? It’s like Jeopardy waiting for the answer.
Greer: The other thing we do continue to do is get together. We used to meet in each other's cities for one night. Now, we meet in Philly for two nights. That's where we try to do a lot of our plotting or at this point, writing, whatever it is that we’re doing. Usually, one person will bring giant Post-its. We white board and stick them all over the walls. This is where one of our differences comes out. Sarah likes it messy like Carrie Mathison in Homeland. It’s like crazy person. People can't see, but I'm twirling my finger around my ears. I'm going around straightening up behind her. I can't concentrate like Sarah. We try to do our plotting.
Sarah, do you want to tell the story about your big mistake in the hotel? That was in DC.
Sarah: So we never have enough time. We could be working together for one day, for five days, whatever it is. We’re always working right up ‘til the last minute. Greer had come to DC. This was before our Philly trips when we would take turns visiting each other's cities for a night. We had Homelanded the walls. I had it very messy. It was wonderful, all kinds of things all over the wall. Because we write psychological thrillers, there are some words up there like “knife or gun,” or whatever it was. I think there was a word --
Greer: -- You can't say it on this podcast.
Sarah: It’s a family show. My job, because Greer was throwing things in her suitcase and racing to make her train, was to take down the Post-its. I always photograph them, so I’ll have a record of them if something happened. We got distracted by something, who knows what. The Post-its remained on the wall of Greer’s hotel room. Of course, she had checked in under a credit card or real name. I can only imagine when the poor cleaning lady came and saw this crazed, violent, weird, Homelanded wall. Greer’s still allowed back into DC. They haven't banned her yet, so it’s okay.
Zibby: I was waiting for some arrest to happen or a security team to --
Greer -- That would happen in one of our books. It didn't happen in real life, thank god, not yet anyway.
Zibby: That's so funny. You guys are so lucky to have found each other for so many reasons, the friendship, the collaboration.
Greer: We are grateful for that every day. We often get really mushy. We do express a lot of gratitude for each other. At this point, we’re coauthors. We’re business partners as well. We are building a brand. We’re very aware of that. We’re also deeply close friends. We say we start writing at nine. The truth is, on some days, we just have to chat and catch up on things before we even start writing. There might be something going on. It affects the writing process. If you're having an issue with one of your kids or whatever the topic is, it affects the day. It’s important to let the other person know your frame of mind. We both don't have sisters. We feel like we’re like sisters to each other, in fact, to the point where we don't look alike in person, but I feel like we start to look alike like pets and their owners or something. My mom will look at pictures now. She’ll do a double take and can't tell us apart at times, which is funny. I don't think anyone would've said that five years ago.
Sarah: No, but I do think we look alike now. We always get the, “Are you sisters?” Part of that is for some bizarre reason we show up wearing nearly identical outfits all the time. When we were in Philly, we both had a grey and black striped sweater and black pants on. We were wearing, both, chunky, creamy turtlenecks the previous time in Philly. It’s really strange.
Greer: Even for your trip, Sarah, when I said, “This is what I'm going to wear the launch and this is what I'm wearing to the TV thing,” you were like, “Of course.” She had literally picked black leather pants and a flower dress. The flower dress especially, I own one flower dress. It was whacky.
Sarah: Hilarious. Wow. Also, I wanted to follow up. I think part of the reason that we do feel so grateful for what we have is that we started a whole new career at the age of fifty. It was such a big, scary leap for both of us. Greer, for you to leave corporate publishing -- yeah, you had a lot of freelance editing jobs and consulting and things like that lined up. I was still writing solo books. We had our comfortable space, but we left that to take this big leap together and to try to write something new and do something kind of daring. Having each other to hold hands with as we did that and then having it really succeed beyond our wildest dreams, at this point in our life we know this is something we’re intensely grateful for. Having the support of another woman who is a sister means so much to both of us.
Greer: We say we’re better together. In fact, Sarah got us T-shirts that do say “Better Together.” Sarah at least had written some books on her own. I'd never written. I could never have done this on my own. There's a great, magical chemistry between us. I don't think it’s that common. Our process is unlike any other writing duo I've heard of. Most coauthors, they either will write a chapter, send to it to the other, and the other ones revises it, or they’ll each take a character. We don't know anybody who is on the phone together all day literally writing sentence after sentence together. It’s unusual.
Sarah: Greer, you edited The Nanny Diaries author for the Nanny Returns, and Liz and Lisa who write thrillers now too. A lot of people have said to us, “I couldn't do that. I'd kill her.” We’re like, “Oh, my god. It makes us closer.” We can't imagine not doing that.
Greer: I think I would just sit there. I would write a sentence. I would question myself every day. Is this the right plot? Sometimes we just decide to make a decision. Is it the right decision or not? There’s someone to say go for it or yes, so we can at least be moving forward. The other thing is if something's not working, if it’s not working for one of us, then we both say it’s not working. If it’s wrong for one person, it’s probably wrong for other people out there. It’s really important to us that we’re both really happy with the plot twists, the ending, even word choices. We’ll deliberate down to a specific word. What's the right way?
Zibby: You turned The Wife Between Us into a screenplay?
Greer: We’re working on it right now. There's different writing tools for screenplays. We were held back in the beginning because we couldn't write literally together. We don't know how to do it otherwise. Now, we found this program WriterDuet. It’s not quite as seamless as Google Docs, but it enables us to work together. We've written the first act of the screenplay. We got notes from the studio. They like it. They wanted some revisions. Are we allowed to say this, Sarah?
Sarah: I think so. I think we can't name the names who have been recently attached.
Greer: It’s going well. It’s fun. It’s definitely even more of a challenge. If writing a book was a challenge for me, the screenplay is a whole other level. This is where we've got such a great partnership. Sarah is -- adventurous isn't the right word. What's the right word?
Sarah: Impulsive? Instinctive?
Greer: All of those things. I'm a little more cautious.
Sarah: You're more analytical. These are our differences, but those work to further what we’re doing, right?
Greer: Hopefully. It seems like it. So far, so good.
Zibby: I'm running through in my mind, which friends can I now write a book with?
Sarah: It’s so much more fun. Oh, my gosh. Pick a friend carefully. I don't think I could do this with anybody other than Greer. It is so much more fun to share this with somebody. We’re touring this month. We’re going to fourteen cities. We’re going to be together. We’re going to go jogging around new cities, and working on our next book together, and have meals together, and share in all of this. Absolutely, find the perfect friend to do this with.
Greer: It’s also someone that you have similar work styles. That's so key for us. If I was working with someone who didn't have kids, they would never understand when I'm like, “I have to leave early to take Alex for a doctor’s appointment.” You have to have the same kind of values and the same level of ambition. If one person doesn't want whatever it is as much, that would be really frustrating.
Sarah: And the narrative instincts. We love the same kind of books. We always have.
Greer: I don't think either of us have a big ego. There's never this battle of “I was right on this point or that.” It’s truly like this great marriage. We rise together. The better Sarah is, the better I am. It’s a great partnership.
Sarah: Like you said earlier, I could never write this kind of book on my own, absolutely. It takes both of our brains. We do feel like our brains are one and one equals three. It’s not just our combined brains. We achieve more. I'm a writer, not a math major. I tried to explain that formula I just came up with. Better together. It all comes down to better together.
Zibby: Now that you've achieved all this together, and both of your individual careers, do you have advice to other people starting out? Anything else about choosing a collaborator carefully, or elements to include in a book, or anything more philosophical? You guys are such experts at this now.
Greer: I would say in terms of what you choose to write, make sure it is something you really, really love and feel passionate about. Writing a book, you spend a lot of time. We go through those pages again and again and again. It can't just be this idea that you think is going to sell. It has to be something you really want to dig in and spend however long it takes to write. For the coauthor, for the collaborator, and any business partner -- you might say, Sarah, it was impulsive. We had known each other for seven or eight years by the time you proposed to me. It wasn’t as impulsive as we make it seem. What about you?
Sarah: Right. That's a good point. Part of it, there's a little bit of an element of luck. You need to do your research. I knew I wanted Greer as my editor when I was writing my debut novel. I told my agent, “Please submit it to Greer,” which she had been planning to do anyway. That was mainly because I didn't know Greer at all personally. I knew the authors that she worked with, Jennifer Weiner and Lauren Weisberger and all of these amazing writers that I admired. I did my research. The fact that we happened to get along so well personally was luck.
I would say one thing in terms of writing. Something that helped me tremendously and that Greer and I are doing now with screenplays is to really break down a book you love. Take out index cards. Break down every scene. Have one card for every scene. When you experience a book as a whole, you get swept up in the story. If you can break it down analytically and figure out how the author did it, that's something that has helped our writing and our plotting.
Greer: That's good advice.
Zibby: That is good advice. What's coming up next for you guys?
Greer: We’re working on the screenplay. Anonymous Girl is going to be, knock on wood, made into a TV series. We’re attached to be executive producers. That's fun. We’re working on book three. We can't even tell you the title because we don't have a title. We have a bunch of bad titles. We’re working away, which will be another psychological thriller, strong relatable female protagonist, page-turner qualities. That's what we’re doing. We’ll be on tour in January. Look at our websites, everyone out there. Go find us on tour so we can meet you.
Zibby: That's so awesome. Congratulations. I'm so rooting for the two of you. I feel like you're this ideal couple, ideal friendship. It’s so wonderful to see. It’s really awesome.
Greer: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
Sarah: Thank you so much.
Zibby: Of course. Thanks for comin’ on. Take care.
Greer: Bye, Sarah.
Sarah: Bye, guys. See you soon.