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At first glance, the title of JaNeika and JaSheika James’ new book, Living Double, seems obvious. The twin sisters, who hail from Tampa, Florida, look identical and have made an impact in Hollywood as a writing team with such credits as Empire and the upcoming Gossip Girl reboot.
But their memoir-meets-Hollywood-how-to, out Dec. 10, is also an homage to the 1990s sitcom Living Single, a childhood favorite. Self-described military brats, the duo grew up transfixed by television, and Living Single was a favorite. Thanks to a magazine article, they discovered it was created by groundbreaking Black TV creator Yvette Lee Bowser, and her visibility led them to pursue their own small-screen dreams.
JaNeika wound up working for Bowser, whom they consider a role model, mentor and friend. They also honored Bowser by opening the book with her foreword, which comes after praise from such insiders as Gabourey Sidibe, Jussie Smollett and writer-producers Attica Locke (Little Fires Everywhere), Mike Kelley (Revenge), Karin Gist (Star) and Jennifer Crittenden (Veep). Together, they hopped on Zoom for an interview with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss Bowser’s influence on their careers, their creative process as a writing team, and what they’ve learned about themselves during a challenging 2020.
First of all, how are you doing and how has 2020 been for you?
JaSheika: It’s been very interesting and challenging in some regard. When the pandemic first started, I was in total disbelief that we were going to be in lockdown for months, and if you would’ve told me that we would still be where we are — from March until now — I would’ve said no way. It’s just so unreal to me. First with lockdown and then dealing with coronavirus, we’ve had family members affected that have passed away. Then, in the summer to deal with social injustice, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it has been an emotional toll. Collectively, the world has been experiencing trauma.
I’m so sorry to hear about your family members. Was it a close relative?
JaSheika: It was a distant relative. It was my mom’s cousin. For us, just hearing and learning that people are dying over a virus that none of us were aware of before is frightening and scary. I’m hoping that this vaccine will prevent any more people from unnecessarily dying.
Yes, definitely. Let’s talk about the book, Living Double, a title that is a reference to being twins but it’s also an homage. How did you select that title and what does it mean to you?
JaNeika: Oh my gosh, the title means so much to us. Forgive me if I get a little emotional because every time I started talking about Yvette I do. She has been such a force in our lives, not just as the person who really inspired us and making us see that [working in TV] was even a possibility for us to consider but also, later on, she became a mentor and my boss at my first job in Hollywood. It’s pretty amazing. The title is an homage to the first show that she created as the first Black woman to create and run her own TV show, but also, to have her bless our book with the foreword is a really big, big deal for both of us.
Living Single was the first time that we saw a show starring four Black women of various shades and sizes. It was also very female forward in terms of Queen Latifah playing Khadijah as an entrepreneur running her own magazine, Flavor magazine. Erika Alexander as Maxine Shaw, the lawyer turned politician and feminist. Kim Fields and Kim Cole playing Regine and Synclaire. Watching that show as teenagers, we were already obsessed with television, but that show really stood out to us.
JaSheika: We read an article about the show, I think it was in Ebony or Essence, and it said that it was created by a Black woman. That was something that we didn’t even know was a possibility.
JaNeika: We were military brats and we grew up in Germany for a couple of years. We were obsessed with TV and we didn’t really like to play with other kids because we had each other. Watching TV became our thing and our grandparents would always send us VHS tapes all the time. After watching this and reading the article, seeing that Yvette, a Black woman, created and ran the show planted the seed of possibility for us. Like, wait, we can be responsible for the words coming out of people’s mouths? You don’t have to be on screen, you can be behind the scenes. That’s what made us go down the road to pursue television as a career.
Why did you decide to write a book?
JaNeika: It was something that our friend Carolyn Smith suggested that we do.
JaSheika: We like to celebrate our episodes and we had gone home to Tampa to celebrate an episode of Empire and we invited friends and family to come watch the premiere. Carolyn encouraged us by saying…
JaNeika: She said, “You know, not everybody comes from Tampa to Hollywood the way that you guys did and that is something that could be really inspiring to people.” We kind of balked at the idea because we felt that we haven’t done enough — most creatives feel like there’s always so much more to do — but also, we’re much more comfortable behind the scenes. We’re writers for a reason. (Laughs.) We’re weird! We were very resistant to it initially, but after thinking about it and talking about some of the experiences that we’ve had, we just were like, many, we have accomplished a lot. Yes, there’s still more to do but how cool would it be to plant the seed of possibility for other young people, the next generation, in the same way that Yvette planted the seed of possibility for us.
How did your writing style shift or change from writing for TV to writing a book?
JaSheika: The book felt more conversational as opposed to what we do in TV. We were both able to hold our space [in the book]. With scripts, both of our names are on it but you never know who’s doing what because we comb over everything. She’ll do a half; I’ll do a half and then we’ll go back over it together.
JaNeika: We took a tip from Chelsea and Hillary Clinton. In their last book that they did together, they each have their perspectives. We wanted to give the reader a peek into each of our journeys because although we’re twins and have had very similar paths, we also diverged a bit before coming back together. We wanted people to be able to get both of our perspectives so they could see the peaks and the valleys and how we were able to come back together to make it work.
One of the things that brought you back together, if I understand this correctly, was the Fox writer’s program. That’s where you officially teamed up, and you gave that program a huge compliment in the book about how it is consistent and helps writers sustain a long career. How important was that experience for you?
JaNeika: Absolutely. It was extremely important. That’s one of the things that I give Fox credit for — actually investing in creative people, whether it’s directors, writers, or acting talent. They are in it for the long haul, not just year one and done or, “Let me get you for free, and then I’m done with you. Let me chew you up and spit you out and go figure it out.”
JaSheika: Now that Fox is under Disney after the merger, I hope they continue to implement what Fox was doing because it was such a tremendous benefit. Not only from our experience, but we saw it with other former fellows as well.
JaNeika: Even more fellows came up on Empire after us. It was pretty amazing. Shout out to our agent, Howie Tannenbaum at ICM Partners who was just featured on your Next Generation list [of 35 Executives Under 35], because he had the foresight early to bring us together. JaSheika was staffed on Revenge and I was not and he is the one who told us, “This is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. At some point, we’re going to get you guys back together.” I had reached out to him individually to apply to the Fox writing program and he had the foresight to submit us to Gina Reyes as a team.
What is your shorthand like?
JaNeika: I’m good with dialogue because I like to tell people, “I hear voices.” (Laughs.) And JaSheika is really good with structure and plot. Because we are sisters, sometimes it gets a little uncomfortable for people that we work with because we do have a bit of shorthand with one another that we talk to each other. We can go at it in a room and five minutes later, we’re good and able to move on. It can be a little frightening for our peers.
JaSheika: On the good side of that, we’re able to complete each other’s sentences and if there’s something that I’m pitching that I’m not able to articulate all the way, she’ll be able to rephrase it in a way that supports the idea. She’s in my head and I’m in her head.
JaNeika: It’s almost like two brains coming together — one super brain. (Laughs.)
JaSheika, there’s a section in the book in which you write about being called lazy by a showrunner, which was a shock. Can you talk more about how that impacted you?
JaSheika: I was a little shocked by that because I pride myself on my work ethic. As a first-time staff writer, I believe I was always in my head, questioning myself, “Am I doing this right? Do I have good pitches? Am I doing a good job?” I was working hard to show up and be seen a certain way, but maybe they didn’t see me in the same way. I took it very hard and in my next job, I was definitely overcompensating as a result. It wasn’t until I talked to my sister or a therapist who told me that it was a story that I was telling myself in my head. “You don’t have to hold on to that story. Release that and let it go,” they said. From there, I was able to tell myself, “I am good and I no longer have anything to prove to anyone.”
JaNeika: It’s important to share that experience, you know, because I think a lot of times, we think that once you jump into a career that everything is going to be great. That’s not always the case. She wanted to be really honest about the pitfalls but to also show that in spite of those experiences — we’ve had several — you keep going, and the dream doesn’t stop. You continue to move forward, and you can move forward and move past those moments.
JaSheika: I really wanted to make sure that was clear because so many times I can only imagine that it happens to people and they walk away from their dream. I want to share that to say, “Please don’t walk away. Please stay on your path.” You can learn from those experiences and keep moving forward. Don’t look back.
JaNeika, there’s a section in which you write about your time on Empire and how you learned so much about how staff writers contribute to plot and storylines but ultimately, much of what they write gets cut before the final version. How did you weigh what to include in terms of tips and pointers while not revealing too much behind-the-scenes?
JaNeika: In hindsight, everything is a learning experience, right? So, I’m grateful for everything that we’ve gone through on any of the shows that we worked on with past bosses because regardless of what those experiences may have felt like at the time, there are things that we learned from. You can learn what not to do when you’re in charge or what to do going forward. I’m grateful for all of it. The first time we submitted a script, that was a learning experience for me. I also remember the first weeks at Empire where you know, one day certain things are up on the board and then the next week, everything that you did last week, none of that matters now as we’re on to something else.
It’s learning that once we put something up, that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone until it’s on the page and even then, it’s still not. You never know how an episode is going to turn out until it’s locked and onscreen. One of the things that we hope to accomplish with this book — not only for all dreamers all across the world, but for young people of color looking to have an opportunity in this business — is here are some tips that you can take.
You identify as “master manifestors.” What you are manifesting now?
JaNeika: A little bit before that, I want to say it’s important to maintain your vision because I feel like you can step into things that are even greater than your own vision. For us, we have a blind script deal with Warner Bros. right now as we’re co-executive producers on Gossip Girl. Back in 2009, I never would’ve thought that we would be here. It ties back to our Dawson’s Creek days, loving that show as high schoolers.
Right now, we are looking to manifest movies. We have actually optioned a book called My Soul Looks Back by Jessica B. Harris. It is her coming-of-age story. In the ’70s and ’80s, she fell in love with James Baldwin’s best friend and she was plugged into this world of Black activists, artists and creatives like Nina Simone, Maya Angelou and just the lavishness of that time. We’re looking to turn that into a film. We have Philly Reign, a pilot that we sold to USA that we’re executive producing with Mary J. Blige, so we’re waiting to hear back on that. Just a couple of things in the pot that we’re cooking that we want to see come to fruition.
You were featured in a THR article by my colleague Rebecca Sun from 2018 featuring 62 Black female writers from the group Black Women Who Brunch as a way to spotlight the talent out there. How much has changed since that photo?
JaNeika: We’re still a work in progress, right?
JaSheika: I can say that a lot of my friends are working. A lot of those women in that picture are working.
JaNeika: But how many of them are getting opportunities to have their shows greenlit and go to series? How many of them have films being made? Maybe we can name a few on hand. There’s still so much more work to be done. We’re a work in progress but there’s still a long way to go. It’s unfortunate that something as tragic as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many countless others had to happen. But there’s something about it happening during this particular time, when we as a society couldn’t just go to work and act like it didn’t happen. We have so much more work to do but I’m very happy with the efforts that are being made, not only to diversify who’s on the screen, who’s writing behind the scenes but also the executives in charge.
How has, how have you found the shift to the virtual world in terms of a writers room?
JaSheika: It is very efficient, and at the same time, exhausting.
JaNeika: We’re extremely productive and it’s almost as if like, in a normal writer’s room, you have time to chit chat and hang out, talk about various topics like politics or pop culture but now get to work. We’re very clear and we’re moving through our episodes so swiftly but in a very efficient and well thought out way. It’s crazy how in only a few hours on Zoom, you’re drained for the entire day. I don’t know how children can be at school for six or seven hours. We’re exhausted after four or five.
Are there aspects of a virtual world that will carry through post-pandemic?
JaSheika: Yeah, absolutely. I’m sure the studios are saving money because they don’t have to rent office space and paying for lunches. They’re going to figure out a way to keep some of that going forward. If I was an executive, I would figure out a way to be more efficient but also too, it’s really cool that you can work from anywhere.
JaNeika: That is going to create a lot more access for a lot of people who aren’t necessarily in Hollywood. And also, you do not have to drive all over town to pitch, you can literally sit in the comfort of your home and you don’t have to look at people on a screen. It boosts our confidence to look at a proposal …
JaSheika: If there’s any fear that you have of speaking in front of people, it totally removes all of that.
What have you learned about yourselves during the pandemic?
JaSheika: I love this question because it’s something that we have been reflecting on a lot throughout COVID. It’s so grim, but there is a purpose to a lot of what’s happening. There’s a lot of shifts going on in the world. I feel like, for us, it’s that we are able to continue to push through despite all of the hardships of this year.
JaNeika: It’s been a difficult time, but surprisingly we’ve been able to thrive during this period. We have produced or completed more projects than we have in any year of our careers. That has been really surprising but also a blessing with the amount of work we’re doing. We’re preparing for next year and hopefully more good things to come.
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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