One of the joys of getting back into writing circles in the past four years has been getting to know so many other talented writers. In 2015, right after Waking Beauty was published, I ran an interview with W.B. Cornwell and A.N. Williams, who were also releasing their first book. Although Ben and Millie are still in their twenties, they have racked up the publication credits in the past three years. Already their publications include A Chill in the Air and The Shadows are Alive (under pen name Storm Sandlin), and A Day at Aunt Carrie’s. They compiled and edited Heart of Hoosierland: A Collection of Elwood Poetry. They were also contributors to Poets of Madison County and Paw Prints in Verse.
Their newest release, Awaiting Dawn: The Story of Avalene, came out earlier this summer. I sat down with the pair at Logan Street Sanctuary in Noblesville to ask them about their latest endeavor. Ben is an outgoing and consistently upbeat young man. He’s full of energy and grateful to swap ideas with other writers. Millie is quieter at first, but focused, observant, and unafraid to interject insightful comments. Together the pair are ambitious, optimistic, and incredibly productive. Seeing the pair interact smoothly at the interview gave me an inkling of how they function as cowriters. At times they were so in sync they finished each other’s sentences.
Sarah E.: I love talking to local authors. What is your connection to Central Indiana?
Ben: Our great-great-great-grandmother was born here a month before Indiana became a state in December 1816. Our family were pioneers of the state, county, and Elwood, the city where we now reside.
Sarah E.: So you two share not only a literary relationship, but another type of relationship.
Millie: Yes, we’re first cousins and best friends.
Sarah E.: And that’s after surviving several books, a real test of friendship! What kind of literary works do you write?
Millie: All kinds. Under the pen name Storm Sandlin we write horror. Awaiting Dawn: The Story of Avalene is our first YA novel. We also write historical fiction and fantasy, poetry and prose.
Ben: We have separate projects as well. But yeah, we’re pretty eclectic. Imagine two collections of Edgar-Allen-Poe-inspired stories beside our children’s book.
Sarah E.: Tell me about the plot of Awaiting Dawn.
Ben: The story is set in a medieval time frame. A young princess’s family is murdered and she’s taken captive by the new king. He takes up residency in her home and gives her to his son. The whole book is about her trying to survive at her former house. It’s her palace, but it’s no longer her family. She’s no longer safe there. She’s in an abusive marriage and has a horrible father-in-law. It’s very much a story of survival.
Sarah E.: It’s like a crossover piece, fantasy and thriller.
Ben: It’s hard for people to understand how someone could be a princess and a slave at the same time.
Sarah E.: So politics are what bind her?
Ben: Yeah, if she left it would mean her life.
Sarah E.: That’s intriguing. Millie, who is your favorite character?
Millie: Starla. She is a servant in the place and becomes the only friend and companion that Avalene has. She’s a light in her life.
Sarah E.: Was her development your idea?
Millie: We created Starla together, but—
Ben: She was yours.
Millie: (Laughs.) She was my character. We planned out all the relationships between characters and plot points. And then we each took ones that were important to us and wrote the scenes.
Ben: We divide it as homework basically. You have five chapters this week. You have Avalene and her best friend. I have her and the love interest. And then we write and compare and edit together.
Sarah E.: Do you think an outside reader is able to tell who wrote what?
Ben: I don’t think so because sometimes it’s hard for us.
Millie: Yeah. I don’t remember which part we wrote.
Ben: It’s pretty fluid.
Sarah E.: That’s remarkable. But then your imaginative brains have been functioning side by side for a while.
Millie: Since we were little, we created games to play together and worlds and stories.
Ben: One thing that is bizarre is for first cousins—you really only hear about it with twins—we share nightmares.
Sarah E.: WOAH! That’s kind of cool. Not that I really wish nightmares on you.
Ben: Well, that’s the Storm Sandlin stuff.
Sarah E.: Right right. I can see the influence of the Storm Sandlin genre on this fantasy novel now that you’ve described it. It’s not as far away from your original genre as I thought.
Ben: Yeah, it’s not slasher. There’s nothing supernatural. But there is mental abuse, like you might see in a realistic horror story. It’s scary in a different way. Avalene is battered.
Sarah E.: Why do you choose to write those two genres?
Ben: (Laughs.) I guess we’re sick people!
Sarah E.: I don’t believe that.
Mille: I would say with Awaiting Dawn it’s a lot easier to answer that question. It’s because of the continued hope in the darkness, trying to fight back to the light.
Sarah E.: See, that was a good answer! When you are a reader, what genre are you pulled most to?
Ben: Historical fiction. My favorite author is Gene Stratton Porter. The first book I ever read of hers was A Girl of the Limberlost, published in 1909. That’s the birth year of three of my great-grandparents.
Sarah E.: That was my grandmother’s favorite author. She had collections of moths and butterflies pinned in boxes. And Millie, what about you?
Millie: I am typically drawn to very whimsical fantasy, anything that has that magical element. It started with Narnia.
Sarah E.: Fascinating that you, Ben, write historical fiction, and you, Millie, like whimsical fantasy, but that’s not what you write.
Ben: Well, I am a genealogist. I love anything that puts you into that time frame.
Sarah E.: It is true that the study of history ties in well to the world-building you do in fantasy. You have to invent a kingdom and which rules you’re following and which rules you’re changing. That’s sort of like being a historian. I say that because I’m a Conner Prairie girl.
Ben: Right. I think that’s cool you that.
Sarah E.: It’s pretty fun! So when I interviewed you two in 2015, you mentioned your inspiration was Alfred Hitchcock, Tim Burton, classical music, and nursery rhymes. Has that changed?
Ben: Actually L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables influenced Avalene.
Sarah E.: What’s the connection?
Ben: Anne’s not abused, but she’s alone in the world until the Cuthberts take her in. Her time with the family before is not good. It’s a story of survival. It’s incredible to see how Lucy Montgomery develops her characters. It helped me become a better writer. It’s really funny to think the process of how Anne of Green Gables came to be is similar to how Avalene came to be, which I didn’t find out til after it was published.
Sarah E.: Tell me more about that.
Ben: Anne of Green Gables started as a short story. Lucy was going to send it in to get published in a magazine and something told her, no, save it. Years later she took it out and turned it into a huge series. Well, Avalene started off as a three-part short story. When we first wrote it, it was vastly different.
Millie: That was five years ago.
Ben: We posted it on Facebook.
Millie: And on our blog.
Ben: I was reading it and said, “Millie, we need to bring new life to this.” So we removed it from cyberspace and edited what was maybe 4000-5000 words into a novel. It took—how many months?
Millie: We started last November.
Sarah E.: It just came out on Amazon June 5th. That’s fast!
Ben: We had a really great editor who is also an Indiana author named Samantha Boothroyd.
Sarah E.: I hear she’s nice!
(Note: At this point we all glanced at Samantha Boothroyd, who just so happened to be in the room and just so happens to be Ben’s girlfriend.)
Ben: She is! I’m fond of her.
Samantha: I can hear you, and for the record when I read it I didn’t know who wrote what.
Sarah E.: That’s amazing you were that smooth in your transitions.
Ben: A lot of people ask us, “How do you work with someone?” I couldn’t do it with everybody. Millie and I can even cowrite a poem, where every single word matters, and be happy with it. That’s a really rare thing.
Sarah E.: You two are a really fascinating case study. Speaking about Anne of Green Gables, you have seen Anne with an E?
Ben: I have not.
Sarah E.: You might be interested because it deals much more with her past and that she was essentially a neglected child. It’s a much more psychological treatment than she’s traditionally given.
Ben: I feel like I would betraying Megan Follows, who did the original version. But I do want to see it.
Sarah E.: Here’s a quote from you two a few years ago: “With a writing partner, there’s no such thing as writer’s block.” Do you still find that to be true?
Sarah E.: Do you ever have an artistic disagreement?
Millie: (Laughs.) That’s also a yes.
Ben: At first, if we didn’t like something—
Millie: —we’d just get really quiet. We wouldn’t provide feedback for each other. We were afraid of offending each other. But we sat down one day and had a conversation: if we’re not both completely happy with this, we shouldn’t publish it. And if there’s a different way you see this scene happen or saw this character, explain it. That’s how you know who your characters really need to be.
Ben: A lot of people will at some point work with a cowriter. It’s important when you’re doing that to have a shared mapped-out outline. You know what’s going to happen. If you write 12 chapters, and I’m writing 12 chapters that take place after that, and I discover you killed off a major character…you can’t do that.
Millie: You have to be communicating constantly to write together.
Ben: We get together twice a week for 2-3 hours for writing sessions. At the end of the session we have homework. You work on this scene, I work on that scene, then we get together and edit.
Sarah E.: How did you learn your craft?
Ben: I didn’t start taking writing seriously until high school. Then it was private. I threw a lot of it away. I didn’t see a point in keeping it. Big mistake. Then when we started working together. I had a story I couldn’t finish, she had a story she couldn’t finish. I said, “You know what would be cool? If your character and my character were friends.” That’s what started our first collaboration. I do believe writing groups are important. We both belong to The Write Idea. I belong to the Last Stanza Poetry Association. Jenny Kalahar, who I know you know, is my magical literary fairy godmother.
Sarah E.: That’s a good description of Jenny!
Ben: She’s been more of a blessing than she will ever know. I recently sent her something to proof and she wrote back, “You’re getting better and better.” The joy that came from an adopted mentor telling you that is hard to explain.
Sarah E.: So Millie, how did you learn your craft?
Millie: I don’t remember a time I didn’t write. In elementary school I would start a story and get stuck, and throw it away, and start another story. I did that through middle school. I took two writing classes in high school. One was on poetry, and it almost made me not write poetry.
Sarah E.: Oh no!
Millie: I started to think it was all rules and meter. But then I rediscovered poetry and enjoy having more freedom. I also took a creative writing course and that helped me develop my thoughts into complete stories.
Sarah E.: Upcoming projects?
Ben: We are sending out a submission call soon for an anthology called Under the Cherry Tree: Thirty Great Poets Under Thirty. It’s a nationwide search for poets between the ages of 18 and 29. It’s kind of a hard age. There’s a lot of things for kids, and that’s great, and then you’re twenty and can’t do those anymore. But in your 20s, older poets don’t take you seriously sometimes. To the teenagers we’re old, it the older poets we’re children, and so we’re trying to give a publication for that awkward age group in the literary world. We’ll feature the 30 best poets we can collect.
Millie: We’d like to publish this in April 2019 for National Poetry Month.
Ben: After that we’ll do an anthology for Indiana poets. We’d like to constantly produce works that don’t feature just us. It’s an odd concept to not be working on 3-5 publications.
Sarah E.: Anything else we should know?
Ben: Elwood’s Poetry Month is coming up in October. In 2016 Mayor Todd Jones signed a proclamation we presented him. Elwood has a Poetry month now in remembrance of a poetry day Elwood use to have in 1976, which was started by my grandmother.
Sarah E.: What can folks look forward to this year?
Ben: We are still raising money from Heart of Hoosierland. Every dime raised til November 1 all the money goes to the city—to the library and the food pantry.
Sarah E.: Thank you, this was a fun time. You all fascinate me. Last thing, how can folks get copies of your books?