When it comes to Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, writing isn't always a solo dance. Sometimes it takes two to tango! Their plié page-turner, Tiny Pretty Things, centers around a Manhattan ballet academy, with the novel following Gigi, Bette, and June, as they attempt to navigate the competitive world of dance. With a Tiny Pretty Things Netflix adaptation launching today (!!), we sat down with Dhonielle and Sona to discuss their co-author collaboration, what it's like to see their work adapted to the screen, and the inspiration behind their must-read story.
Every author has a story! When did you both realize that you wanted to become writers?
Dhonielle: Most writers always say they were born one. That they’ve always had aspirations to become an author. But I came to the profession as a reader first. I didn’t believe I had the chops to be a writer. I was a teacher and a librarian and obsessed with books. After I realized that so many of my students didn’t have characters who looked like them in those beloved books, I felt the need to step up to the plate. So being a reader turned me into a writer.
Sona: I was always writing, from the time I was little, but the first time I actually thought it could be something real was around sixth grade. My teacher Ms. Pinter was big on reading and gave us the last half an hour of the day for reading time, and we could choose whatever we wanted. She also had us write stories all the time, and was the first to tell me that there was something solid and valid in my writing. But it wasn’t till college, when I met my first real life author – and she was a brown woman! – that I really understood that I too could be an author. But I was a journalist and screenwriter first. All those endless words and pages in a novel were really intimidating. Now, of course, I tend to go way over word count.
Working with another author on a book must be a unique experience. How did you first begin writing with one another? Can you tell us more about working together? How do you stay on the same page?
We met in graduate school while getting our MFAs in Writing for Children. On the first day of class, we started chatting and haven’t stopped yapping at each other ever since. The connection was instant! We traded pages and critiques over pizza and Chinese food and talked a lot about our favorite books and the fact that we never really recognized ourselves on the page. We also talked about the kind of stories that we’d love to see kids of color in. We realized pretty quickly that we were writing the types of stories that we wished we’d seen on bookshelves as teens – high concept, unputdownable reads.
That’s how we decided to collaborate, and then we created CAKE Literary, a book packager focused on those kinds of high concept, deliciously diverse stories. The Tiny Pretty Things duology was the first series from CAKE, and a long line of fun, exciting books have followed. When collaborating, we tend to focus on our strengths – Sona is the major plotter, and Dhonielle really hones in on character and voice – and divide and conquer. And we both edit the text as a whole, so it feels like a unified voice and story. It’s fun to share the ride since writing can so often be a solitary thing.
Tiny Pretty Things is being adapted into a Netflix show! What’s it like to see your work adapted from the page to the screen?
The word is SURREAL. Being on the set was a trip, especially seeing the ballet studios and the girls’ dorms. It was like little bits and pieces of your imagination come to life, walking, talking, dancing all around you. The show is its own entity, of course, but it’s still so strange, hard to grasp. We can’t wait for the world to see this version of the story.
A good book can be life-changing! When you two are writing, what are your hopes for your readers? What do you want to make them feel with your books? What is a book that changed your lives?
Dhonielle: An entertaining escape is the promise of a book, in my opinion. I want my reader to feel like they’re stepping into a grand adventure when they enter my worlds. This experience is what I love so much about books; the possibility of imaginative transportation, something to make our experiences on this planet a little more interesting. As a former librarian, highlighting my favorite books feels like the ultimate betrayal. But a few that I’m still thinking about today: Passing by Nella Larsen, The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton, His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Ciscernos, and the latest, The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas.
Sona: The main thing for me is that the kids who never got to see themselves as the hero of the story – the way I felt growing up, pretty much – finally do realize that they CAN. I want them to be able to recognize their own experiences on the page, and to know their stories are worth telling and sharing. Asking a writer about favorite books is torture. There are just so many. But a few that left major impressions: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, Speak and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Andreson, Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier, and Bombay Talkie by Ameena Meer – the first real life author I ever met, and the first author to write a character I really recognized myself in.
Tiny Pretty Things follows the world of an elite ballet academy. What was the inspiration behind the novel? Do either of you have a background in dance?
We both danced as little girls taking ballet classes and participating in glorious recitals, but the inspiration for the Tiny Pretty Things series came from Dhonielle’s experience being an English teacher and resident adviser at a professional ballet school. When we were in grad school together, Sona was pretty fixated on the TV show Pretty Little Liars (interviewing cast as part of her day job as a journalist), so when Dhonielle mentioned her time at the ballet school – which seemed as strange and exciting as you’d imagine – we decided to collaborate on the story. The mystery element of Pretty Little Liars seemed like the perfect set up for drama in such an intense and insular world.
Dance Your Way Over to the Epic Reads Site to Order Tiny Pretty Things!