Francine Pascal on Cocaine Overdoses, Teenage Sexuality and Those 'Perfect Size Sixes'

As a lonely, overweight kid, I'd yearned to be like the trim, blond teen twins of "Sweet Valley High." So when I got a chance to interview Francine Pascal, creator of the formative series, there were a few things I knew I had to ask her.

Jun 1, 2011 at 12:02pm | Leave a comment

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Emily: What do you think it is about "Sweet Valley High" that really captivated young women?

Francine: I think that one of the great appeals was the fact that it was a girl driven. At that time, most everything that had romance was the Sleeping Beauty complex which is the fragile girl waiting to be kissed to be awakened.  Now with Sweet Valley, those girls, the twins, were in charge of the action and I think that was an enormous appeal to it. I also think that they liked the stories because ... it was a fantasy kind of high school -- nobody ever went to it, including me!

Emily: So how did you come up with the idea?

Francine: About 1978, I tried to sell a teenage soap opera but they said it was "too pink." Little did they know that "pink" was going to be the “green.” But I had in my mind a teenage soap opera of some kind, and about 1982, I thought about doing it for books. 

Emily: I have to ask you, why “a perfect size six”?

Francine: At that time a size six was…I wasn’t a size six…I was size eight and happy at it. Oh, It was just along with the fantasy, you know. Perfect. The operative word was perfect, in everything that those girls did. Now when they briefly tried to update the books and turn it into a four, that was a mistake, pay no attention. Nobody was watching and they slipped that in. But the person who slipped it in probably was a size four.

Emily: I was an overweight child and every fat girl that I know has never forgotten that perfect size six!

Francine: Oh! I’m sorry! For the overweight girls, I gave them Robin. There’s no question about it, she was very overweight. And I don’t have to tell you about it if you were a fan, you know that when she lost the weight she turned that sorority down anyway, and now she appears in the new book, it’s years later, and she’s in the catering business and she’s a few pounds overweight, but she’s happy.

Emily: Nobody called her perfect though!

Francine: Nobody called her perfect, but her life is good. Nobody’s perfect anyway. She’s closer to real.

Emily: Was it fun to get to write some actual sex in the new book [Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later]?

Francine:  Yes! And some people are a little bit disturbed at Elizabeth, but I say to them, “Would you say that a 27-year-old doesn’t have the right to have an orgasm? Come on, get real, you’re not in Kansas anymore!”

Emily: My first sexual awakening was to one of Jessica’s near-sex scenes in the original Sweet Valley. Is it okay if young girls are discovering masturbation while they read Sweet Valley High?

Francine: (laughing) That’s okay with me! Most everything is okay with me, if it’s moral, and ethical. I’m against any kind of censorship; I’m a New York liberal. Anyway, I feel fine about that, and nobody was corrupted by my dangerous liberal New York philosophy.

Emily: How come there’s so much drug and alcohol abuse in Sweet Valley?

Francine: Well. Some people have drinking problems. I didn’t think that affected most of the important characters. Enid did have a bout with it. But she recovered from it. She wasn’t my favorite person. She never was. Even when she was good. I didn’t like her. I mean I felt like Jessica, “Get off my property!”

Emily: You know you really scared a whole generation of girls away from cocaine, too, with the Regina storyline [in "On the Edge"].

Francine: One of the best things I ever did. In fact, when I did, people wrote in and said “Oh how could you do that to Regina? Couldn’t you have picked someone less important? Someone we didn’t really love?” And I said “That’s exactly why I chose her. She is a good person, and this is what happened to her.” We’re not knocking off some fringe character nobody cared about. And I spent all that money having her disability cured. Schlepping her to Switzerland or wherever!

Do you know how many times I have heard people say, “That made such an impression on me!” I practically get goosebumps when I think about that. That, and also the fact that this series turned girls who had never been readers, who’d never been to a library, into avid readers.  And I used to get thousands of letters and fully a quarter of them said, they started, the same first line “I used to hate to read." Wow!

Emily: That’s great.

Francine: You always talk about wanting to make a difference, I really think that Sweet Valley High made a difference to many, many girls, who turned into millions who might never have been readers and who might only be captive of television. Now reading to me is power. And if I’ve empowered anyone I’m delighted. I’m proud and pleased. Oh I sound too grand. Modest that down a little, will ya?