When my sixth coauthored book was published, I celebrated by writing my coauthor a poison pen letter so delicious that my agent and my husband made me promise never to mail it.
Like my other collaborations, this one began with good spirits and lofty hopes. The author, a psychologist, knew my work and had sought me out. He wanted a partner, not a ghostwriter, he said, someone to not only parry his ideas but contribute ones, too. For two years, we worked together beautifully. But no sooner was the last citation typed than he unceremoniously dumped me, insisting he'd done the heavy lifting by himself, and that I remove my name from the book. “I can't believe it!” I told my friends. “I'm like the wife who put her husband through med school only to have him divorce me for a young and beautiful nurse.”
“Don't give in,” they advised, and I agreed—after all, my fingerprints were on every sentence. But then the author resorted to threats, as bullies do, claiming he'd withhold my share of the money. Sure, we'd signed an agreement. But if I hired an attorney to sue for what I was contractually owed, would I be better off? I knew from previous experience that an attorney would urge me to settle before charging for services rendered, because of the high fees involved. And at this late date, prolonging my relationship with this person was more toxic than simply severing it. So I caved. And toward the well-written book I now felt like a parent who'd forfeited her custodial rights.
As lousy as this was, it was much less acrimonious than my previous collaboration, during which the minor celebrity who'd hired me to write her book (“I want it to be original, fresh, not your typical Hollywood memoir”) took a chunk of my advance money to hire another writer, one who would get “right” what I couldn't. That's when I retained an attorney (who told me to settle)—and a therapist. As for the book, you never heard of it. It sank like a stone.
I suppose you could say my career as a serially monogamous collaborator was, like a second marriage, the triumph of hope over experience. “What did you expect?” asked my writing buddies. “You can't write a book with someone else.”
Call me crazy, but I think you can. There were moments during each of the collaborations of profound, at times surprisingly eerie intimacy. To coauthor books is to get into other people's heads. You have to listen so intently that their words take up residence in your own neural pathways. Expressing the inchoate thoughts of others, being present as they plumb memories and desires, you begin to understand how they make sense of the world, their pattern of associations, the logic of their metaphors.
It's this almost unnatural closeness, I think, that ends up dooming the projects. My collaborators and I crossed a boundary. This became clear when someone came to interview the aforementioned celebrity whose book I'd helped write, and I realized I anticipated her every answer.
Not many people can cope gracefully with that kind of intimacy, especially when it's unexpected. Threatened, they lash out. The celebrity blamed me for not getting her story “right” when she'd never taken the time to figure out what she wanted; in fact, the idea for the book wasn't hers but her agent's. I tried pointing out that to write a book that rose above the level of accessory—which is what she continued to claim she wanted—requires much more attention than stringing together a litany of amusing anecdotes. That's when she became angry—and nasty. “You're not capturing my voice!” she accused me. The problem, sadly, was that I captured it all too well.
That celebrities behave badly behind closed doors—even those who aspire to the title of feminist icon—isn't news. But there's something about being offered the opportunity to write a book that turns even meek psychologists into divas. These two experiences cured me; my collaboration days are over. It's a shame, really. I'll miss forging deep connections with a person I hardly know, as well as the brief chance to escape from the isolation that's endemic to a writer's life. I'll miss the psychological and artistic challenge. I'll even miss writing those poison pen letters.
|Rosalie Warren is a pseudonym for a New York-based memoirist, short story writer and essayist who has also coauthored seven books.|