It was time to tell Dad, time to break the bad news: Your daughters are dummies. They were 11 years old, Brianna and Brittany Winner. You couldn’t tell them apart — even their sadness was identical, mirror images of gloom. They walked into their father’s office, sat down, and said this: We’re idiots. We will amount to nothing. Nothing.
“We had to inform him,” Brittany explains. “We had to inform our parents that they had had defective children.”
“ ‘Hey, listen, Dad, we’re stupid and we are never going to accomplish anything,’ ” Brianna adds, finishing her sister’s thought. She does this often — it’s kind of what these two do.
“Our lives were meaningless,” Brianna continues. “We were very upset twins.”
But Dad had an idea — he has lots of ideas. He even creates art of mermaids and dinosaurs and such. You two — who were born 11 weeks prematurely, whose dyslexia was so bad that it was difficult for them to learn how to tie their shoes — are going to write a science fiction novel!
“I wanted to put the most unbelievably hard challenge in front of them and tell them they could do it, let them experience all the doubt,” their father, Jeff Winner, recalls. “Take on something that is the most difficult thing you could do at your age, given your circumstances, and that’s create a 90,000-word book. And then, ultimately, when it was done, they would have this product of their minds.”
Challenge accepted; challenge met.
At 12, the Winner twins completed their first sci-fi novel, “The Strand Prophecy,” which would win eight writing awards, including an IPPY prize, and three Independent Book Publishers Association’s Benjamin Franklin awards.
At 13, they self-published the book, getting it on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, Borders and other retailers across the country.
At 14, they were given their first booth and panel at Comic Con International.
At 15, they were recognized as prodigies by the World’s Council for the Gifted and Talented and launched their own nonprofit, Motivate 2 Learn, to help other kids with learning disabilities.
And they did it on their own, working outside the traditional publishing industry long before the dawn of the e-book era, years before the indie “50 Shades of Grey” series sold more copies than the population of Germany and France combined.
“They were independents before ‘independents’ was a cool term,” says New York Times bestselling sci-fi author Todd McCaffrey, who has collaborated with the Winner twins on more than 20 books. “They were first pushing stuff back in 2008; they were really on the cutting edge.”
In the decade and a half since their careers began, the Winner twins have written over two dozen books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, become fixtures at comic conventions around the world, hosted award shows, strolled countless red carpets and even been pitched their own reality shows. Oh, and did we mention that Brittany is legally blind, having lost much of her vision overnight, unexpectedly, four years ago? The odds seem to be continually stacked against these two — but Winners never quit, right?
“For us,” Brittany explains, “the way that we got through the blindness was writing.”
Of course it was — and notice how she said “we.”
In a number of ways, the Winner twins embody the true promise and power of storytelling. For them, storytelling isn’t just about escaping reality — it’s about confronting it. Getting bullied, feeling stupid, slowly losing the ability to see? Frustrated, denied, aggravated by the hand you’ve been dealt in this world?
Well, then, sit down at your parents’ dinner table and create a world of your own.
Fifteen years ago, that’s just what these two did.
A Task for Superman
They’re two voices who speak as one. Brittany and Briana trade sentences rapidly, without pause, as if they shared the same mind as well as the same face. Think of a basketball passing drill in which two players run the length of the court, whipping the ball to one another after each step while never breaking stride. That’s kind of how they talk.
The two may look the same — a petite 5 feet tall with raven-black hair draping down upon what is often the same dress — but their personalities distinguish them from one another. Brittany is the kind of room-brightening extrovert who can make new friends while standing in the checkout line at Albertsons. Brianna confesses to be a bit more shy, more prone to get lost in thought than her Type A sister.
“Everyone teases me and calls me a space cadet,” the latter says. “Out of the two of us, I’m the one with ADD, so I’m a little creative tornado at times, and she’ll make sure I stay still — and then I make sure that she doesn’t become a Grumpasaurus Rex, a stressball.”
Currently, they’re particularly aglow, as Brittany and Brianna Winner have just stepped into what is maybe their favorite place in the world outside of their imaginations: a comic book store. They come here often, the luxe fantasy emporium Torpedo Comics, owned by System of a Down drummer John Dolmayan, whose bass drums decorate the room alongside life-size Silver Surfer statues and a massive Millennium Falcon suspended from the ceiling.
Places like this, that’s where it all began for these two.
Born 11 weeks premature in Orange County, Calif. — at which point their mother, Iggy, who worked in real estate, became a full-time mom — the twins battled severe learning disabilities as kids and struggled mightily to read, even though their intellect was never in question: They say they spoke in full sentences befrore they were a year old and possessed a college-level vocabulary in the first grade.
And so their father turned to Superman to help out.
“If reading is your challenge, and you’re an auditory learner or have ADHD or whatever it might be, then having a book pushed at you and just saying, ‘Open it, read it,’ is a really bad way to do it, in my humble opinion,” Jeff Winner says of his daughters’ reading struggles in the classroom. “So that was the genesis of going to the comic book store.
“Because the words were in bubbles, it was easier for their eyes to track it,” he says. “And also because there were all kinds of drawings and phenomenal art, it was visually interesting. They were actually telling a story, and some of the words in there were complicated words and complicated concepts for someone in the fourth grade.”
“We learned how to read off of comic books,” says Brianna, who estimates that she’s read more than 500 graphic novels this year alone. “The thrill of walking into a comic book store every Friday night was a joy that I will keep with me forever.”
A ‘Prophecy’ Fulfilled
When it comes to discussing the writing process, to bringing her characters to life, Brianna likes to talk footwear.
“We don’t want just want to get in their shoes; we want to know what the shoes feel like,” she explains. “You want to walk around in the shoes; you want to feel the blisters.” The twins are big on the small details: For example, they’re both avid cooks, and when writing about a character from a given region or ethnicity, they’ll research recipes and make food indigenous to that character’s culture.
“This is a traditional Siberian recipe that has to do with frozen fish — they eat it raw,” Brianna says, brandishing her tablet to share a Pinterest page she’s made that’s full of Siberian clothes and food as she begins envisioning a new story. “I want to put that in there, for a scene. This is a fried meat patty.”
In this instance — and many others — the line between the Winner sisters’ lives and their art becomes blurred, if not negligible.
Take “The Strand Prophecy.”
On the surface, the book revolves around an exoskeleton-enhanced superhero, Strand, whose possesses no real superpowers, just guile, smarts and a conflicted, boulder-heavy heart as he navigates a time when evolution has been supercharged. But really, it’s about two tween girls who felt very different from all the kids around them, attempting to come to terms with those differences through words on a page.
“The entire book was supposed to be a celebration of differences,” Brianna explains, “and how everyone becomes who they are with time, our desire to overcome our weaknesses and be superheroes, to help others, to show people that — no matter how different or scary they seem like — we’re all human.”
Fairly heady stuff for a pair of fourth graders.
They wrote the book using Dragonspeak voice-to-text technology, hashing out plot points during long conversations with Dad, who read Stephen King’s “On Writing” book and got hip to the causational approach to storytelling: “You don’t plan the whole thing out and then detail everything,” Jeff Winner explains, “you just start going at it, and then as things happen you let the story kind of tell itself. I knew we would be able to get through that, because all the things that were happening around them were natural points to turn into metaphors and create this fantasy world around.”
Working on “Strand” — every day, often for hours on end — gave the twins a newfound sense of purpose at a time when they were getting badly bullied at school. “That became the highlight of our lives,” Brittany says. “That’s how we got through each day, because it was a very bad year. I’d look at the clock and think, ‘Three hours, two hours, one hour … when I get home, I can work on the book.’ ”
They didn’t think of it as something to publish. “It was just a passion,” Brianna says. Nevertheless, upon the book’s completion, they entered it in various writing contests — and started winning, eight awards in all. And so they printed up some copies of “Strand” on their own and secured a booth at New York City’s BookExpo American trade show.
“Within a day or so, they were over at the Barnes & Noble booth schmoozing the buyer for Barnes & Noble,” Jeff Winner remembers with a chuckle. It worked. He placed an order. Borders, Books-A-Million and other retailers did the same. “That was it — boom! ” Winner says. “All of a sudden, they were off to the races.”
From Hollywood to Las Vegas
The two girls began to feel as if they were living just as many lives. “We started to gain a level of fame and notoriety,” Brianna says of how things changed after the release of “Strand.” “We were in school, and we were being made fun of. Then, on the weekend, we’d be going to a convention, being interviewed and signing autographs.”
The Winner twins soon switched to home-schooling and became a hit on the comic con circuit, drawing lines 600-700 fans deep waiting to see them. By the time they were 16, they had to hire security guards to accompany them to the conventions. “We get grabbed,” Brianna explains. “It’s really unsafe.”
Sometimes adoration breeds its inverse, though: The photogenic sisters have faced their share of sexism because of their looks.
“The second we turned 18, the haters said, ‘Oh, people only buy their books because of the way that we look,’” Brittany says. “We were so confused, because that happened literally the month after we turned 18.”
Still, their careers grew steadily — then living within driving distance of Hollywood, they’d get invited to red carpets, host The Geekie Awards and field offers for reality shows.
“We started off, everyone wanted to make us Disney girl-type of things,” Brianna says, “but then they saw that we wrote sci-fi books. We got a lot little older (and got comments like), ‘Oh, you should be on reality television, where you guys can do catfights on camera.’ ”
“We’ve had meetings where they wanted us to fight over the same boy,” Brittany adds. “We’re like, ‘You know we’re authors, right? We’re not going to do that. It’s not who we are.’ We’ve said ‘No’ a lot.”
One person they said ‘yes’ to was Todd McCaffrey, son of famed sci-fi author Anne McCaffrey, with whom he’d written a number of books. After meeting the twins at a writing competition where they were all celebrity judges, the trio hit it off, collaborating on the “Twin Soul” series, which now numbers 20 books.
“What attracted me to working with them is that they’re incredibly intelligent,” McCaffrey says. “They’d worked together as twins pretty much since before they could babble, and so they didn’t have an ego issue. There’s a lot of writers out there that if you were to talk about collaborating with them, it would be hard. I had already collaborated with my mother, so we’re able to leave our egos at the door.”
All three of them — and the twins’ parents — have since relocated to Las Vegas.
It was Brittany who first started coming here in 2016 to be with her ex-fiance. She subsequently talked the rest of them into moving to town.
And then one morning, Brittany woke up and couldn’t see.
A Medical Mystery
Back at Torpedo, we’re in “the vault,” the shop’s high-end room where comics can cost more than your car.
Brittany Winner spots her favorite superhero: Daredevil. “I liked that he used his cane, and then he was blind,” she explains of the Marvel character who lost his vision when he was a boy. “It’s so funny now because” — she taps her white cane — “he made us cool. I never thought I would be blind. The first cane I ever bought, because I didn’t know what was going on, was actually a Daredevil cosplay cane. It didn’t work very well.”
Brittany has had vision issues since she was a kid — even if she didn’t really know it at the time.
“You push through it during the day, and your eyes burn by the time you get home from school — I mean, they burn,” she says. “You feel like there’s a pound of potatoes on your head.” Still, nothing prepared her or her family for that day in 2017 when she went legally blind overnight while on a trip to Las Vegas.
“We were so scared,” Brianna recalls. “We didn’t know what to do. My parents looked at each other — I looked at my dad — we’re like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ We’re all freaking out as silently as we possibly can.” In an instant, the twins’ lives, their careers, were turned upside down.
“Think about it: We had it all,” Brittany says. “I mean, we’re walking red carpets every week. We were flying around the country and the world.”
“We had a TV show with contracts that we just walked away from,” Brianna notes.
But they’ve adapted.
They continue to use voice-to-text technology, but they talk out their stories more, reading everything out loud, which they feel has improved their writing, added depth.
“With what we’ve gone through over the last few years and what Britt’s gone through, it’s deepened our understanding of life and mortality and what it means to be human,” Brianna says. “With that came deeper, more nuanced stories and characters and villains.
“You gotta use all that pain, funnel that into your work,” she continues. “It’s not an easy process; it’s an emotional process — and if you’re crying a lot, then you know it’s going to be good.”
Brittany has undergone genetic testing, endured what seems like endless hospital visits and continues treatment, but she still has yet to receive a clear diagnosis of what’s behind her blindness. “I’m a medical mystery,” she says.
And her condition is worsening. “Whatever I have is coming in spurts,” she explains. “I lost a bunch rapidly in 2017, and now it’s happening again. So now I wake up every morning, like even this morning, and I have less vision than I did yesterday. Before, it really wasn’t bad as it is now. I thought I knew what it was — it was dark and blurry and fuzzy. Now, it’s nothing. It’s just gone.”
The Magpie Takes Flight
The “catio” is where the magic happens.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in the screened-in enclosure in the back of Brittany Winner’s house.
Across the table where the twins currently sit prances Kiwi, an outgoing, visually impaired hairless feline whose flesh feels like the skin of the fruit in question, hence her name.
“This is like the cat version of myself,” Brittany explains. “We both have the same amount of vision. We both run around and are not afraid; we run into the same things in the house.”
This is where the twins conduct much of their full-time writing career these days. A pond filled with turtles and koi fish bubbles in the background. “In ‘Strand 3,’ there will definitely end up being koi fish,” Brittany says, alluding to the forthcoming novel in the series that got them started.
“Heck yeah, there will be koi fish,” her sister echoes, underscoring that whole art-imitates-life thing.
It was here that the twins finished their historical fantasy novel “The Magpie’s War,” the first book they completed after Brittany went blind, released in February.
A collaboration with Todd McCaffrey, the book once again is informed by the twins’ lives.
Set in the shadow of World War I, “The Magpie’s War” explores themes of coming to terms with unimaginable horror and loss, both of loved ones and of one’s innocence on the journey to adulthood.
At 26, Brittany and Brianna are all grown up, though they’re still getting used to not living together, not being around each other all the time, as they each have their own place with their respective partners and reside an interminable 25 minutes apart. Brittany eloped last year and, at press time, planned to stage a traditional Jewish wedding in October — her wedding “flowers” are constructed of pages from “The Strand Prophecy.” Brianna is engaged and will probably get married next year.
They’re also still getting acclimated to balancing work with Brittany’s ongoing health issues.
In February 2020, Brittany developed COVID-19 and had a severe stroke. It was physically devastating. “There were numerous times when she was on her deathbed,” Brianna says. Brianna retrieves a book of poetry that she published at her sister’s behest following her stroke.
“I was in bed. I said, ‘Brianna, I don’t know if I’m dying, but I’m not dying without you publishing that book,’ ” Brittany recalls.
“This one’s about you being in the hospital,” Brianna tells her.
“I wrote it at the moment where I thought that she was dying in the hospital,” she explains. “I was writing poetry next to her because I knew that’s what she would have wanted me to do.” She opens the book and starts reading.
“You don’t walk through the shadow of the valley of death …” Brianna begins “… without something following you out,” Brittany finishes, two voices continuing to speak as one.
“We’re doing the same thing that we did 15 years ago all over again,” Brianna continues. “It’s pretty emotional, because we realized that the struggles we had in childhood were only foreshadowing the great battle that we would face together in adulthood.
“But we have each other,” she notes, “and we have our writing.”
Money to Motivate
The thing was almost as far out there as the science fiction novel that produced it: Brittany and Brianna Winner’s first royalty check. They earned it after self-releasing their 2008 debut, “The Stand Prophecy.” The two never thought they’d be published authors, and they certainly didn’t think they’d make any money from what they did write.
“When we started, we didn’t care about money; we didn’t care about anything,” Brianna recalls. “We wanted to write, create and help people.”
But there the check was.
So, how to spend it?
“We said, ‘What do you want to do with the money? It’s your money,’ ” recalls the twins’ father, Jeff Winner. “They said, ‘We don’t want other kids to go through what we did. We want to help other kids.’ ”
And so the twins used the proceeds to launch their own nonprofit, Motivate 2 Learn.
Having struggled with severe dyslexia, they sought to educate others about learning disabilities and how to overcome them while teaching creative writing techniques.
“We came up with this idea together to go to schools,” Winner says. “Them doing presentations in front of auditoriums full of kids where they would talk about their book, but then they would also talk about their disabilities.
“They would talk about their ADHD, OCD, whatever problems they had,” he continues, “and then ask the kids in the audience, ‘What kind of problems do you have? And by the way it’s OK if you have them. It’s just like having glasses; it’s just another thing. There’s nothing wrong with you.'”
Since launching Motivate 2 Learn a little over a decade ago, the twins have taught their creative writing method to over 250,000 people. They’ve also won a pair of Pinnacle Awards from the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration for their efforts.
“It’s the girls saying, ‘Look at us, look at our book, look what we did, look at how much we were able to accomplish,’ ” Winner explains. ” ‘We were told we were dumb, but that’s not the case. And that’s not the case with you.’ ”
Contact Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram