This colorful day job inspired Castle's first screenplay, which won her an agent. Over the years, she wrote four more spec screenplays—"all rom-coms"—the last two with her husband-to-be. "Every single one of them almost sold," she says ruefully. "I was living this life—any day the phone could ring and my life could change. I'd built all these connections—I'd come so close. I realized I wasn't enjoying it anymore, that I was only sticking to it because I'd feel like a failure if I walked away." When she finally did, it was "liberating."
Castle began to write fiction again while producing a website for PBS Kids. The very first thing she wrote became The Beginning of After. "I love that," North murmurs, sipping her iced coffee.
Both writers adore their adopted genre. Castle says, "YA is an undiluted story, because life at that age feels undiluted. You don't see a lot of self-indulgent writing in YA."
North agrees. "You really have to have economy."
Even in outer space. North says the marvelous imagined world of her Starglass duology came "from all different places. I always wanted to write about a generation ship. And when I was 13, I did this 3-D design with trees inside, so there was that idea of raising crops and livestock on the ship."
Another piece of Terra's story was more personal. North recalls bristling at an article asserting YA books about dead parents and orphans were "over." "My father passed away when I was eight," she says bluntly. "There are kids who actually deal with this, not just Harry Potter."
The dominant Jewish culture of the Asherah "happened organically, because it's my own background." At first, North used Fineberg, her mother's maiden name, "as a placeholder. I always assumed I would change it to a better name, I guess a more Christian name. Then I thought, why? So many dystopian books are casually based on a Christian society. This is just casually Jewish." She shrugs. "At first, I was reluctant to pitch it as 'Jews in space,' but I went with it."
Most readers have found this unique angle interesting, but current events in Israel have led some toward parallels North didn't intend. "I don't see it as about Zionism, but [about] being a society in diaspora. There might be Sikh ships out there too—why not?"
Castle's family is also "casually Jewish;" the accident in The Beginning of After takes place after a Passover seder. The five teens in You Look Different in Real Life were cherry-picked by the filmmakers in part for their differing backgrounds: Keira is biracial, Rory's on the autism spectrum, Felix's Latino parents work in an orchard. "There's such a diversity of situations—the mountains, the farms, the college; people who've lived here for generations and city transplants," Castle says. "If I were a filmmaker I would totally choose New Paltz as an interesting place for a slice of life."
Though one obvious inspiration was Michael Apted's "7 Up" series, which revisits a group of English subjects at seven-year intervals, Castle also sees her fictional documentary as "a giant metaphor for social media. We're so used to sharing so much of our lives. We're creating a narrative of our lives, but is that who we really are?"
"Sometimes I feel like things haven't happened unless I Instagram them," North quips. Or write YA fiction about them?
Could be. North's main focus right now is her six-month-old daughter, but she's already starting to plan her next book. Castle is about a hundred pages into hers, which she calls "a straight-up romance." She's still on what she calls "the vomit draft, where you're literally just accumulating words on the page, going from blank pages to pages of words. The book doesn't really take shape till you have the first draft. That's the lump of clay. You can't shape anything until you have the clay."
North also writes from beginning to end, plodding through "the boring awful parts" and going back later to clean things up. For Starbreak, she threw out some 50,000 words, completely revamping the plot.
Would they ever consider switching genres? The two authors look at each other. North says, "I don't know how Jennifer figures out plots without spaceships and aliens and interstellar rebellions."