Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen: Better together

The two have fueled their years-long friendship with their remarkable similarities. Now, they’ve culled their editor-author relationship into a blockbuster co-writing duo.

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
Greer Hendricks (right) and Sarah Pekkanen. Photo by Bill Miles

When Sarah Pekkanen marched into the corporate office of Simon & Schuster in 2008 to meet her editor, Greer Hendricks, for the first time, she’d prepared herself for a somewhat daunting exchange. Hendricks wouldn’t be rude, no, but Pekkanen expected a typical Manhattan editor – dressed in swaths of black, peering out over her glasses, red pen waiting like a knife up her sleeve. Pekkanen had specifically sought Hendricks to be her editor for her upcoming debut novel, The Opposite of Me, as the Simon & Schuster veteran had built a sterling reputation working with authors including Jennifer Weiner (Good in Bed), Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), and co-authors Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin (The Nanny Diaries). Pekkanen, pregnant at the time of their meeting, had drafted chunks of The Opposite of Me while hunched over her laptop at Chuck E. Cheese’s, dispensing game tokens to her sons in between paragraphs. Seated at a small table at Simon & Schuster with her agent, Pekkanen was awed by the mere thought of a “fancy New York editor.”

Instead, Hendricks greeted Pekkanen with the warmth and exuberance of an old friend – though she was indeed wearing all black. Delighted with Pekkanen’s work, she proposed that the author pen a book a year, and over the next seven years, Pekkanen would do just that, writing seven novels with Hendricks as her editor. When Hendricks resigned in 2014 to pursue a new creative direction, Pekkanen was one of the only friends to whom Hendricks confided her secret: She herself wanted to write a book.

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By this point, they’d forged an unusual editor-author friendship built on uncanny similarities. They’re the same age. They both studied journalism and psychology. They both played field hockey in high school, consider themselves terrible cooks, and have close relationships with their brothers – both of whom happen to be named Robert. Even today, the writers relish these strange details. In most interviews with the two nowadays, they’re eager to mention these coincidences; their synchronicity is part of their brand. But when they first started working together, their commonalities were surprises. They spoke frequently even while living apart, Hendricks in New York City and Pekkanen in Chevy Chase, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. Pekkanen, ever one to act on intuition, thought little before springing an idea on Hendricks: “Let’s write a book together.”

In January 2018, the result of that initial proposal reaped its reward. The Wife Between Us, the first collaboration between Hendricks and Pekkanen, debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list, spending nearly three months on the list as a hardcover. Before the psychological thriller had even hit shelves, it was optioned for film by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, courtesy of the same team who brought Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train to theaters.

Now, little more than a year later, Hendricks and Pekkanen are celebrating the success of their second book, An Anonymous Girl (an immediate No. 1 New York Times best-seller) while drafting their third novel, touring the country, and, as they’re thrilled to share, crafting the screenplay for The Wife Between Us. To better understand their process, The Writer dived into the history of Hendricks’ and Pekkanen’s careers, scooping up their best tips and writing lessons from years spent – literally – finishing each other’s sentences.

Use your training 

Pekkanen grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, where her father wrote medical nonfiction for books and magazines, inspiring her to mail her own childhood manuscripts to New York publishers. Tying her three-ring binder paper together with string, she had no doubt her advance check was on its way.

When it never arrived, she went to the University of Maryland-College Park for journalism, taking numerous additional psychology courses so that she earned a bachelor’s of science rather than arts. She went on to report for outlets including The Hill, the San Francisco Examiner, the Baltimore Sun, Washingtonian magazine, and The New Republic.

Hendricks meanwhile had left her childhood home of San Francisco to study psychology at Connecticut College before landing a position at Allure. After a quick trip back to school to earn a master’s in journalism at Columbia University, Hendricks started her 20-year career at Simon & Schuster, eventually climbing to vice president, senior editor of Atria Books.

The two converged at Simon & Schuster, and, as they say, the rest is history – except that neither author could let go of psychology. Today, they’ll frequently describe themselves, in both interviews and conversation, as “curious students of human nature.” It’s one of their favorite ways to coin themselves, and it’s why both their books are shelved as psychological thrillers. They love questions of morality. They love asking why. As a result, they suggest any budding author use those inquisitive instincts as the bare bones of novel worldbuilding. The Wife Between Us centers around time and memory. An Anonymous Girl, ethics and morality. Both pull from psychological studies and questions the authors have wrestled with for years.

As the publishing industry witnesses a modern boom in suspense and thriller novels earning their own movies, Pekkanen and Hendricks say that the best way to garner studio attention is with the book’s writing itself.

In the same vein, the writers’ backgrounds in journalism serve their fiction. Pekkanen emphasizes that both she and Hendricks learned long ago how to write prose with the intrigue and discipline of journalists. As a reporter, you can’t file stories late if your muse was running behind. Your city editor will fire you before your muse gets the chance to intervene, Pekkanen jokes. Instead, you learn to face the blank page in any conditions. Pekkanen says she can work on her drafts in a moving car, a quiet room, or on the back of a napkin. Writers, especially working parents like Pekkanen and Hendricks, need to find ways to make the most of every stolen minute. So when the kids won’t nap? Head to Chuck E. Cheese’s, laptop in tow.

Find a rhythm

When the two friends set out to collaborate, they narrowed down exactly what they’d create together. Instead of digging through their files to rework forgotten manuscripts, they went first to their bookshelves. They brainstormed over the phone while pulling out their best-loved books from the past few years and splaying them out on tables. They looked for any overlaps, for similar themes and mutual favorites: Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson. What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Gillian Flynn. Jennifer Weiner. Strong, relatable female protagonists with an unreliable streak. This, they decided, was what they’d aim for.

From there, they had to develop a process. This would be essential: They’d be on the same page, literally. Unlike many co-authors who alternate chapters or characters, Hendricks and Pekkanen write every line together via Google Docs. On weekdays when 9 a.m. strikes and the kids are out of the house, Hendricks calls Pekkanen and they talk through every word. First they discuss the scene: What if she did this? What about that? This won’t work, but what is he feeling here? Then they begin writing, both simultaneously talking through ideas and jumping in to type each word. They do this for hours every day. To the shock of just about anyone who’s ever participated in a group project, they’re adamant that they never fight. They rarely even disagree, let alone argue.

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“If it doesn’t work for one of us, then it probably just doesn’t work in general,” Hendricks says.

They also attempt to meet halfway in Philadelphia at least once every other month. There, they’ll book a hotel room and spend 36 hours “Homelanding the walls,” Pekkanen says, alluding to the popular Showtime thriller series. Claire Danes-style, they paper the paint with giant Post-it notes outlining story ideas, Pekkanen slapping them on the walls while Hendricks straightens them up. Once, while outlining An Anonymous Girl, Pekkanen forgot to take down the notes while Hendricks was in a mad rush to catch the train home. She called to warn Hendricks that the housekeepers might report them to the authorities; their jottings had included a few, uh, vaguely murderous ideas. Thankfully, no police ever showed up on Hendricks’ door, and the authors are welcome back at the hotel.

Even as they juggle a screenplay, interviews, promotions, a new book draft, and a book tour, they keep to a routine. Keep your writing pure, they both suggest. They don’t answer emails or deal with business until the words are on a page. Only after the writing is accomplished do they switch to their “business heads” and fill out paperwork, rewrite copy, or answer requests for interviews. But the words are done. That’s what matters.

Make research fun

Research can be an exhausting part of the writing process, especially if you’re unfamiliar with your topic. But for The Wife Between Us, Pekkanen got to drink bourbon at 10 a.m. So it’s not all bad.

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The Wife Between Us follows Vanessa, the ex-wife of a wealthy hedge fund manager, who has since become engaged to a near-replica of Vanessa. The reader is led to assume our protagonist is an alcohol-soaked, wildly jealous spurned lover, hell-bent on destroying the life of her ex-husband’s new ring-clad amour. As it turns out – spoiler alert – the only accurate descriptor in that sentence is “alcohol-soaked.” Vanessa sinks into a deep booze-fueled depression following the collapse of her marriage, leading her to, you guessed it, drink more than a little bourbon.

Hendricks and Pekkanen, neither of them bourbon connoisseurs, decided the best way to describe the spirit was to try drinking it themselves. At 10 in the morning, Pekkanen rummaged through her shelves to find a bottle, then poured it into her kid’s sippy cup and proceeded to take small, careful tastes, describing each to Hendricks on the other end of the phone. Hendricks bent over her keyboard, eager to find the right adjective. “Is it, what, smoky?” she asked before they both burst into raucous laughter.

The point is: You can’t fake good research, so you might as well enjoy it.

Take it to the screens

When asked if the reports are true, that the duo will tackle the script for The Wife Between Us and executive produce the An Anonymous Girl television series, which has been optioned by eOne – the same company that put together Sharp Objects for HBO – Hendricks and Pekkanen respond a little breathless, and, of course, 100 percent in sync. “Yeah.

“It sounds crazy to us, too,” Pekkanen adds.

The Wife Between Us was optioned by Amblin when it was still an incomplete manuscript, but initial progress on the film was slow. In 2018, the Amblin Partners president of production, Holly Bario, reached out to the co-authors to ask if she could meet them in New York, as the duo was on book tour promoting Wife. Fresh off a plane to LaGuardia Airport, the writers changed in the bathroom, digging through their luggage for the least-wrinkled dress before meeting with the president. She had a predicament – she couldn’t find the right writers for the screenplay – and a proposition: Hendricks and Pekkanen could write it themselves, provided they presented a solid pitch. About two weeks later, they were pitching the Amblin team over the phone, talking for 20 minutes non-stop. That same day, they got the job.

Now, they write their script similarly to the way they write their novels: together, but on a program called WriterDuet. But they stress it’s important that they approach their screenplay through a different lens than a book draft. “We’ve taken it apart a few different ways and put it back together, but it is strange because it’s all visual,” Pekkanen says. “You can’t bring in any other senses. It’s just what you see…You’ve got to have the really great dialogue and…you’ve got to convey all the information visually.”

As the publishing industry witnesses a modern boom in suspense and thriller novels earning their own movies, Pekkanen and Hendricks say that the best way to garner studio attention is with the book’s writing itself. There’s something to be said for networking, but your novel is your most important selling point. Know a good thriller protagonist needs an inner demon, a personal struggle. An impending sense of dread is important to translate to the screen. And, of course, it never hurts to stuff your pages with plot twists, which abound in both The Wife Between Us and An Anonymous Girl. Make your audience question what they’re seeing, and you’ll keep them hooked on the page and in the theater.

Don’t forget why you started

The co-writers like to tease each other about their freaky “twin mind,” and, of course, it makes for stellar promotional material. But the truth is that they’re just fantastic friends. They have matching T-shirts that say “Better Together,” their unofficial motto. They bought matching necklaces with blue gemstones the same hue as the cover of The Wife Between Us, and they continued the tradition with red gemstones to match An Anonymous Girl. They ensure the other is never overwhelmed, helping with contract paperwork, technology, and even questions about the other’s kids. Their relationship is no marriage of convenience. They’re in a long-term commitment.

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When The Wife Between Us was first released in early 2018, the two women poured glasses of wine in their respective cities and called each other in anticipation of the posting of that week’s New York Times best-seller list.

“We said, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s a lot of hope riding on this book, but if it tanks, we’re going to keep going,’” Pekkanen says. “‘We’re going to stay together. That’s the only thing that’s going to be confident. We’ll keep writing together and working together.’”

When the book hit No. 2, they screamed and cried and drank their wine. Capturing this joy was and is an essential aspect of their partnership. They did the same – but together in Phoenix, with champagne this time – when An Anonymous Girl hit No. 1 on the hardcover list this January. When they first started, the authors told each other that either was free to back out at any time. But in the years they’ve worked together, they’ve found countless ways to remember why they stick around. They love getting inside characters’ heads. They love the writing. But more than anything, they love the energy they give each other. They’re convinced that every author needs this: encouragement, discipline, and a partner to sip bourbon with. Even – or perhaps especially – at 10 o’clock in the morning.

 

Lauren Puckett is a magazine editor, freelance journalist, and fiction writer based in the Midwest. Her work appears in publications including The Rumpus and 5280 Magazine, though her parents consider the family Christmas card her most important byline each year. You can find her on Twitter @laurpuckett.