Geishas with a pen

While reading today's LA Times, I ran across Tim Rutten's review of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's new book, "A Journey: My Political Life." He called it a book of "unusual interest" for these reasons (among others):

1. Blair wrote it himself, which "makes this volume unique among the English-speaking world's recent political autobiographies." This is true.

2. (Blair having written it himself), gives the book "a disarming frankness that a professional collaborator almost certainly would have manicured away, along with anecdotes that are unintentionally self-revealing."

This is not true.

Professional collaborators, like Rodney Dangerfield, can't get no respect.

This is the business I'm (sometimes) in -- and proud of it.

My name is David Rensin.

I'm a collaborator.

I like Rutten, so this isn't about him. It's about what was probably a throw-away generalization -- and hardly even the point of his otherwise fine column.

I've written 13 books, 11 of them collaborations. (I won't go into them here, but you can check my amateurishly-designed web page; to see for yourself.) I'm currently collaborating on two more books and making plans for another solo book. Not a bad way to make a buck without going to the office, and satisfy a wanderlust for exploring different lives through my writing.

I appreciate that Rutten used the word "collaborator" because too many people call it ghost-writing. I suppose if you're relegated to a "thanks to ... for helping me make sense of my thoughts" in the acknowledgments, and no name on the cover, you might feel like a ghost. But I don't think the job-descriptions are interchangeable. Ghosting always makes me picture a project a writer is hired to do, alone and with minimal input, in the name of another. It may be the next installment of a never-ending YA series, or a novel for an entitled celebrity mogul's spouse who tells the writer, "I want to do a romantic mystery about an Upper East Side or Hollywood wife whose billionaire husband cheats, so she kicks him out, and then he dies."

"Uh huh..."

"So she hangs with her girlfriends, goes shopping, and the sisterhood solves the murder. Then she meets the one-in-a-million hunk -- a stockbroker who gave it all up to serve vegan food to the homeless -- who won't ask her to give up her identity, shows her the meaning of life and fantastic sex -- and even wants to go shopping with her! Can you do that?

"Sure? By next Thursday?"

"Great. Let me see it when it's done."

Of course, that's a generalization. But you know what I mean.

In my experience, and the same goes for a number of excellent writers/collaborators I know, the partnership plays out over many meetings during which the "author" and "collaborator" discuss the project, make outlines, tape endless sessions of biography or comedy or adventure story, and put in a lot more work than the collaborator ever lets the unsuspecting "author" know is necessary. The late super-manager and super-mensch Bernie Brillstein used to love telling people that I'd lied to him about how much work his memoirs required. We spent a year figuring out what it wasn't about before we settled on what it was about. Then we spent a year writing, reading, editing, rewriting*.

Typically, we start from scratch, writing an extensive proposal designed to sell the book to a publisher. My most recent proposal runs 60+ pages. Sometimes the "author" is a big enough name, or has a "platform" that guarantees pre-recognition, and gets a deal without a collaborator. Then, after the "author" gets over wanting to go it alone, one is suggested by the publisher/agent/manager/friend. Sometimes the "author" already knows the collaborator because he/she once interviewed the "name-above-the-title," who remembers it fondly. That's partly how I lucked into my first book.

The book collaborator is also a psychologist, confidant, interlocutor, and supportive friend. We have to honest and kind. And politic. Otherwise we're worthless. We defuse fears, hang out, massage egos, play Devil's Advocate, call our "authors" on the bullshit - gently -- and pry them loose from years of being habitually cautious with the press. Although a collaborator might write for a magazine or newspaper or do their own books, WE ARE NOT THE PRESS. At the moment. (Or later because there's usually a confidentiality clause. Oh the secrets I'll never tell!)

Call us Geishas with a pen.

Then the collaborator goes home and does the typing, bringing to bear his/her inherent ability to structure a story, embody the "author's" voice in the author's own words, make it funny and dramatic and nuanced, and do all the stuff that we've learned to do well because, after all, this is our talent. It's not the "author's" occupation, otherwise he/she would write their own books instead of make movies/write songs/live on the edge/save lives/make jokes/tell an inspirational tale/do big science, etc. That's not to say that every "author" needs a collaborator; I've worked with "authors" who do a lot of writing, which I then massage. Still, it's nice to have a professional sounding board.

Regarding Rutten's suggestion that a collaborator would likely have trimmed away the "disarming frankness," I say, "No way." If anything, it's the "author" or manager or wife or agent or sibling or personal trainer who wants to excise passages that are intentionally or unintentionally too revealing. Yes, some stuff shouldn't go into a book, and some doesn't fit no matter how hard you try. And we want to protect the people we work with because every "author" wants to look good. Collaborators, however, want the goods. We cherish what makes a story consistently readable instead of a safe, predictable monotone. We want to channel hard won authenticity to the page in a way that lets everyone still respect themselves in the morning. We want to keep the "author" from making a fool of himself -- unless that's their claim to fame -- but we don't trim off the highs and lows like fat on a fine steak.

Our goal is to have guys like Tim Rutten review the book and call it "disarmingly frank."

Collaborating, for those who started out in newspaper and magazine journalism, is that wonderful opportunity to really go deep with a truly interesting subject who's probably bored to death of doling out their life tidbits over noisy hour-long lunches, in the service of promoting their latest project.

A collaborator's job includes checking his/her ego at the door, being careful not to think it's our book, and to do the best job possible. But we're not ghosts. We're in it together. Sometimes we even get our names on the cover, with certain exceptions. And since we're in it together the collaborator wants to guide the name-above-the-title author down an honest, self-effacing path. Readers can tell if you slip over the line into too much glad-handing, white-washing, self-aggrandizement, or trash-talking. You can't please everyone but you can at least see the book as a tightrope walk; the idea is to keep moving ahead and not fall off.

The result is better for it. And most "authors" would agree. On my books they've always seemed grateful for the help -- especially when they finally realize what's involved in making a book -- because I'm really interested in learning about their lives. I stay away from books I'm not passionate about; nothing's worse than waking up during a project you suspected you might hate. And I treat my collaborator as a human being, not a paycheck. You can't do this job and do otherwise. It's not a one-night-stand.

A couple of years ago in these electronic pages I wrote in an elegy to Bernie Brillstein that part of what made his books so universally admired was (in addition to his life being his life), his willingness to let it all hang out. He boldly told me everything. He started his book with an anecdote about going to a proctologist, after all. I did make many editorial and creative choices, but he had the final say. And big courage. Word of advice to prospective "authors" who hire collaborators: "Disarming frankness" in a book happens when the "author" is disarmingly frank. That stuff is gold.

Of course, I'm sure there are times when Rutten's presumption is dead on. There are hacks among us. Some of these books are more flash than substance. I'm not arguing that co-written autobiographies writers are all Pulitzer-worthy, but I am saying that they're not less worthy because the "author" had help.

And, by the way, even people who do write their own books have researchers, draft readers, and assistants who might pen a passage or two. It's always a collaboration even if the person whose name is on the cover is the one who ultimately faces the blank page.

Collaboration should come out of the closet. I'm glad that Rutten wrote what he did because it gives me the opportunity to comment on some common misconceptions I've privately grumbled about for a long time -- especially at parties when acquaintances ask if I'm still writing. (Nope. I finally threw over that losing job. Now I'm a stock girl at the GAP.)

I could go on. But I have a better idea. After serving on some fun panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books - including one in 2008 dedicated to surfing, when my oral biography of rebel surfer Miki Dora was published - I have wanted to interest the Festival powers-that-be in doing a panel about the art and craft of collaboration.

So many books are written this way, and the topic has never been explored at length at the Festival. So I'm volunteering to collaborate with my behind-the-scenes writer peers on this project for the 2011 edition. I'm sure we'd fill a hall twice because the readers want to know what really goes on, and how its done.

I think we'd change some minds about the worth of collaborative books, for the better.

If not, we always have juicy backstage gossip -- that is, if you promise not to tell anyone we told you.



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