The art and craft of living in other people’s brains

By | November 11th, 2013 | No Comments

Music legend Quincy Jones’ autobiography is one of many publishing projects Mulcahy has worked on as a writer, editor and self-described “book doctor.”

This post is sponsored by the Miami Writers Institute.

Early in her career, Patricia Mulcahy wanted to be an investigative reporter. “But I came of age in the post-Watergate era and everyone wanted to be an investigative reporter,” she says. “I couldn’t even get a job writing obituaries!”

While she didn’t end up battling Woodward and Bernstein for Pulitzers, she did go on to a successful career in publishing, becoming editor-in-chief at Doubleday, where she worked on the New York Times Bestseller Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones among many other projects. More recently, Mulcahy collaborated with Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson on a book about the extraordinary life of a woman who made national headlines after she attended Barack Obama’s first inaugural at the age of 105. For her latest project, Making Masterpiece, Mulcahy collaborated with PBS television producer Rebecca Eaton, whose credits include Downton Abbey and House of Cards.

Starting on Nov. 20, Mulcahy will be conducting a three-day workshop on collaborative writing called “Telling Someone Else’s Story” at the Miami Writers Institute (full details). Ahead of the workshop, Mulcahy told me about “living in other people’s brains” and the guitar-slinging collaborator of her dreams.

What’s the difference between “ghostwriting” and “collaborative writing”?

PM: I would say a collaborator usually gets credit, and a ghostwriter doesn’t. That is a very basic difference between the two. Though I have done ghostwriting once or twice…I prefer to be a collaborator. Having done it for a dozen years now and had some success, I believe I should get some credit. Now let me stress, that’s if you’re really writing the book with the person. I also do what I call “book doctoring” where I’m kinda coaching a person through a book, but they really do the bulk of the writing themselves and I’m acting as a coach and editor.

How does the collaborative writing process start?

PM: There are so many different ways to go about it….You have collaborations that involve two equals who are working in a journalistic capacity. You have novels that have been written collaboratively. The kind of collaboration I do comes more from having been an editor. It usually starts where the publisher or sometimes the agent calls and says, “My client has a book idea. Would you considering working with them?”…I think any kind of collaborative work is also good training for writing in general. Some of what we’ll be doing [in the workshop] is about listening, observing — things that are very important to all writers.

How did you establish the relationship with your collaborators?

PM: In the case of Ella Mae, she had been at the inauguration and was seen on Gwen Ifill’s PBS program by the pubisher of Penguin. And he thought she was so compelling and so wise and noteworthy that she might have a book. So he called me up and asked if I would go meet with her. So I went out to visit her at her retirement home in Cleveland and I talked to her about her life, I met a couple of her friends. I always ask people initially, what do you have that you’ve written down? Do you have any journals? Do you have any speeches that you’ve given? Do you have recognition from family? And Ella Mae had some interesting material because every time she hit a birthday mark, like 90 or 100, she had gotten all these testimonials and thought about her life and had given a speech. So there were things to go on. And so I wrote up a proposal with her for the publisher, and they gave us a contract. And then I just continued to go out and visit her, and talk to her friends and people who went to her church and generally try to figure out what her life story would be.

In a case where you’re going around to people who know the subject and gathering materials and doing interviews, the comparison to journalism is very evident.

PM: That’s true, you need to be able to interview and take the relevant quotes out of transcripts and make the whole thing come together.

In a recent essay, you reference novelist Colum McCann’s concept of “radical empathy, the art of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.” How do you achieve radical empathy?

PM: In my case, that comes from years of editing novels. I’ve become adept at living in other people’s brains….[For example, with the Quincy Jones autobiography], I started to think in the cadences of the way he talks. It was so interesting the way you can get into someone else’s speech patterns, ways of thinking, ways of talking after you’ve been around them enough. To me that was partially aided and abetted by years of reading stories.

What do you do when you and your collaborator disagree on the importance of a part of the story, especially when it comes from that person’s own life?

PM: In the end, a life has to satisfy that narrative that’s going to sell copies, to be frank. You have to find a middle ground that makes the subject feel that you have gotten to the heart of their story. You look for what you call, in Fiction 101 classes, the narrative arc, the place where the real drama of that life comes into perspective. You can’t put everything in one book…you don’t have to have every moment of your life in one book. You have to find the high points, the things that really make a coherent story. Because life can’t strangle art. If you’re going to make an artful book that’s going to put your story out in a way that people will really flock to, you’ve got to let some things go. And that is not easy.

How do you decide which collaborations to take on and which ones to pass up?

PM: Collaborations are intense. You have to have a real interest in the material, and you have to have some kind of chemistry with the person. You can’t not get along on some level because the best books, just as they feel joyful to read, you should have fun putting them together. If every stage of the game is a struggle and a torment, that’s going to wind up coming out on the page.

I try to take on projects, whether they’re collaborations or book doctoring jobs or editing jobs, where I have a sense that I can help. So I always tell people that I have three main areas of interest: pop culture, especially music; politics, world affairs; and memoir and fiction, storytelling. Any of those areas, I’m usually able to help out….History and science are not necessarily my strong points. I have to feel I have some knowledge and some passion for that subject, and therefore I can be of service.

What are your favorite collaborative books?

PM: An interesting example of a really good read that was a collaboration is The Hot Zone, and that’s a novel. You have an interesting coming together of a novelistic talent and someone with a lot of scientific knowledge.

Louise Erdich and her husband, Michael Dorris, used to publish collaboratively before he passed away. There were always whispers, “O, who writes what?” And of course, Louise Erdich is a major talent and continues to publish on her own, and her husband had published on his own successfully.

Editor’s note: Mulcahy followed up by email to declare Malcolm X’s autobiography, which he wrote with Alex Haley, a “key collaboration for the ages.”

Last question: What is your dream collaboration?

PM: Well, it’s not going to happen, but my dream collaboration would be Bonnie Raitt. I always tried to get her to tell her story when I was a publisher…I wrote to her manager so many times, these impassioned letters trying to show how knowledgeable I was about blues history…so she wouldn’t think I was just another publisher, that I wanted it to be special. And I spent a lot of time on these letters, but there was no answer. She wasn’t interested. She has not done a book. I think her book would be fascinating. She’s a major artist, she’s had a very interesting life, she’s an icon to many female performers. I feel like everything that I’m interested in would coalesce in the story of her life.

To learn more about Mulcahy’s’s upcoming workshop on collaborative writing, visit the Miami Writers Institute website.

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