M or F? by Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts (Razorbill, 2005). From the promotional copy: “Frannie and Marcus are best friends-brain twins, in fact. They share a love of Bollywood movies, an unbridled passion for pizza, and the fact that neither of them has ever had a boyfriend. At least Marcus has an excuse-eligible gay boys are hard to come by in their small Illinois town. Frannie is desperate to get the attention of her crush, Jeffrey, but she’s way too shy to make a move. Marcus insists that Frannie chat with Jeffrey online, but Frannie won’t type a word without Marcus’s help. In the chat room, Marcus and Jeffrey hit it off. The whole plan seems to be working! But the more Marcus writes, the more he’s convinced that Jeffrey is falling for him, not Frannie. But if that’s true, what does it mean for their friendship?
“Co-authors Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts tell the story from two different points of view-giving the reader he-said/she-said insight into troublesome issues like lying by exclusion, coming out to your family, the humiliation of minimum-wage jobs, assumptions about sexuality, living with an embarrassing grandmother, what it means to be a “perfect date,” and the ever-pressing questions: Does this guy like boys or girls? M or F? Gay or straight? What’s the deal???”
Lisa Papademetriou is the author of Sixth-Grade Glommers, Norks, and Me (Hyperion, 2005)(named one of the Best Books of 2005 by FamilyFun.com)(read excerpt) and co-author (with Chris Tebbetts) of M or F? (Razorbill, 2005). She has written and/or adapted over thirty books for children and young adults, including titles in the Lizzie McGuire, That’s So Raven, Kim Possible, and Sweet Valley High Senior Year book series. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with her husband, where she enjoys quilting, dancing around the house to eighties music, playing the guitar (badly), and drinking large amounts of coffee. Her next book, The Wizard, the Witch, and Two Girls from Jersey will be published in May 2006.
Chris Tebbetts is a writer of middle grade and young adult fiction, as well as creative nonfiction. His books include The Viking (Puffin, ongoing), a middle grade fantasy adventure series, and M or F? (Razorbill, 2005), a young adult romantic comedy co-written with Lisa Papademetriou. He lives with his husband in Hinesburg, Vermont.
What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?
LP: Actually, the publisher came up with the idea. They wanted a “Will and Grace” for high school. Then they hired Chris and me to write it. It was an arranged marriage–Chris and I had never met (or even heard of each other) before we started working together.
CT: The idea behind the story is Cyrano-inspired. We knew we wanted one character helping another to spark a romance, only to get sucked further into it than he originally intended. Then there was the gay-straight twist layered onto that. Then there was the idea that two characters (and two authors) should tell the story. All of it was a natural launching pad for Lisa and me to create a plot that was intentionally as complicated as possible, with unanswered questions and loaded situations thrown in at every turn. In a way, I was inspired by those old weekend-in-the-country farces, where someone’s always coming into a room just as the person they’re looking for is exiting through another door.
What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
LP: I guess the book took about a year to write and another to publish. Because we were essentially writing two stories that had to intertwine and eventually dovetail, Chris and I were very careful about plotting and outlining together. We each started with a character sketch of our main protagonist, worked on a skeleton plot, then hammered out an outline. At that point, I came up to Vermont and met Chris in person for the first time! We spent several days going over that outline, page by page and line by line until we felt it was right. Then we started the long haul of actually writing the manuscript. Three revisions and many months later, we finally
CT: We started the project by exchanging a long string of emails and phone calls, getting to know each other while we were also getting to know our characters. It was time well spent. After that, we created our plot together, over a weekend, and then spent about eight months playing writer tennis: I wrote Chapter One, sent it off to Lisa, who then wrote Chapter Two and sent the whole thing back to me. Once we had a first draft, we spent another weekend together identifying issues for the rewrite, and then another month in a less structured back and forth, getting the whole thing done.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing the book to life?
LP: The greatest challenge, for me, was to make sure the book had flow. We wanted it to sound like it was told by two different characters…not two different authors.
CT: Besides the logistics of collaboration, we also wanted to create a gay character whose “problem” wasn’t his own sexuality. This book was always meant to be a light comedy, so it was a balancing act to set aside some of the heavier aspects of being a young, out, gay man in a homophobic world, without completely ignoring that reality. In the end, it was much harder to combine comedy and substance than I thought it was going to be.
What were the special challenges, if any, of collaboration? Are you two “brain twins” like your alternating protagonists?
LP: That term “brain twins” actually came from our experience working together–we referred to each other as brain twins before we referred to Marcus and Frannie that way. Chris and I are on the same wavelength to a degree that is borderline freaky. There were surprisingly few challenges in working together–whenever we didn’t agree on something, we just talked it
through. I think we both accepted the fact that sometimes you have to sacrifice your beloved idea in the interest of creating a story that works.
CT: I think the major challenge was logistical-keeping track of plot details and two different, but dovetailing, arcs for two different protagonists. Any changes to one character’s story affected the other character’s story, and of course, the other writer, so the process was more cumbersome than usual. It was like going from juggling three balls on your own, to juggling six balls with a partner. Having said that, I feel the same way Lisa does: our chemistry, as friends, made all the difference. This project was a pleasure, beginning to end.
What can your fans expect from you next?
LP: I’ve got a novel called The Wizard, the Witch, and Two Girls from Jersey due out in May with Razorbill/Penguin. And, of course, I’d love to work with Chris again. We’re talking about what that will look like… We’ll keep you posted!
CT: I’m working on a middle grade novel that doesn’t have a home yet, and I’m too superstitious to say more than that. Meanwhile, I’d love to work with Lisa again, so our fingers are crossed for a sequel, or who knows, maybe something totally new.