Written by Robin Marantz Henig & Samantha Henig and Originally Published in The New York Times on November 21, 2012
The science writer Sandra Blakeslee has written seven books with eminent authors like the psychologist Judith Wallerstein and the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran. But her favorite collaborator to date has been her son, Matthew. “The way we worked together was perfect,” she said about “The Body Has a Mind of Its Own,” the 2007 book they wrote together. “I said, ‘I’ll do Chapter 1, you do 2, I’ll do 3, you do 4.’ Then we started swapping them back and forth.” No anger, no fights, no stepping on toes, she insisted. Never. “Our different strengths would come to the fore. Matt is a beautiful writer, a better writer than I am, and I’m a little better on structure.”
Matt, who was then in his mid-30s, said: “It didn’t even occur to me I was doing this with my mother. It was more just neuroscience geek to neuroscience geek.”
But seriously: writing a book with your mother? Collaborating is tricky enough. Is it worth the risk of damaging the mother-child bond (assuming it’s strong enough even to contemplate such a venture)?
Apparently so, at least that’s what many of us decide — and luckily we tend to come out the other end relatively unscathed. While the mother-child relationship could in theory complicate things, it seems more often to be exactly what’s needed to make these co-authorships work. “I think it would be harder to collaborate with someone who wasn’t my mother,” said the novelist Carol Higgins Clark, who since 2000 has written five mysteries with her mother, Mary Higgins Clark. “I feel so comfortable saying this or that to her; there’s no sense of anything being critical or one-upmanship.”
Mother-child book collaborations, both official and unacknowledged, go back at least as far as the 1930s and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s spectacularly successful “Little House” books. Wilder’s daughter, Rose, played an important part in the writing of the series, though whether as editor or ghostwriter is unclear; if she was a co-author, she never got the credit. Typing Wilder’s manuscripts, Rose “reshaped and heightened the dramatic structure,” the New Yorker critic Judith Thurman wrote. “She also rewrote the prose so drastically that Laura sometimes felt usurped.” But the Wilders never seemed to address their relationship directly beyond a few passive-aggressive letters. “You know your judgment is better than mine,” Laura said in one, which accompanied the draft of Book 4, “so what you decide is the one that stands.”
As with Rose and Laura, not all mother-child writing teams are overt. The team that wrote the best-selling “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” Arlene Eisenberg and her daughters Sandee E. Hathaway and Heidi E. Murkoff, got along partly because they played down that they were related. “If you start bringing in the mother-daughter stuff,” Eisenberg, who died in 2001, told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “you’ll never get anything done.” The younger daughter, Heidi, always referred to her mother as “Arlene” when they were working. “If I started saying ‘Mom,’ it would be very weird,” she said.
The mother-child collaboration often begins as a gesture of generosity: a parent wants to let a child weigh in on what might well be considered the child’s own story. When Anne Lamott’s publisher asked her to write a sequel to “Operating Instructions,” the 1993 book she wrote about her son Sam’s first year, her instinct was to worry about how Sam would feel, since it would be about becoming a grandmother to his son, Jax. She thought it only fair to involve Sam. “I was in the middle of another book,” she said, and not all that interested in a sequel. “But when I pitched it to Sam, he was so excited. He wanted Jax to have the same experience he had” — growing up the subject of a detailed, loving account of his infancy, in Sam’s case, in a book that remains in print.
For Barbara Kingsolver, the motivation to include her older daughter, Camille, in “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” stemmed from a similar urge: not to co-opt her child’s story. The book, published in 2007, is a memoir of life on a family farm in Virginia, and Kingsolver wanted Camille to contribute because she had shared in the experience. Her agent wasn’t happy with the idea. “She’d seen co-authorships damage a lot of relationships,” Kingsolver said in an e-mail. To avoid potential pitfalls, like lawsuits for breach of contract, the agent strongly recommended financial equity, with every royalty check split evenly among the authors. So that’s the way they arranged it: one-third to Kingsolver; one-third to her husband, Steven Hopp, an environmental biologist who contributed scientific sidebars; and one-third to Camille, then age 17, who wrote postscripts to each chapter, complete with recipes. (Kingsolver’s other daughter, Lily, was too young to take part.)
Sometimes generosity can work in the other direction. Frances Moore Lappé, author of the 1971 classic “Diet for a Small Planet,” was going through a tough time in 2000, she recalled, and her son and daughter advised her to go back to her first love: food politics. “We’ll help you,” they said. Her son became distracted by other projects, but her daughter, Anna, spent a year on the road with her mother — traveling with Lappé to Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Brazil and Western Europe — which led to their 2002 book, “Hope’s Edge.”
“Of my 18 books it’s really up there in terms of my favorites,” Lappé said. “The key to the book is the voices and intense experiences of the people we met — and the fact that we had access to that is a reflection of the mother-daughter team.” It helped to be related, Anna added, when they would hike into a remote village and discover the only sleeping arrangement available was a single cot.
It’s hard not to expect at least some friction along the way. Judith Martin collaborated with her daughter, Jacobina, on the 2010 “Miss Manners’ Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding.” While promoting the book, Martin said, “you could see that behind all the questions was the assumption that we’d had fights along the way.” They had to disappoint their interlocutors.
Still, there can be a tendency to fall back into mother-child roles: the nagger and the nagee. “Sam had to be nudged and goaded and bribed and threatened and whatnot to get the work done,” Lamott said, calling herself the nagging Boss Lady to Sam’s Mellow Young Artist. Deadlines Lamott set for her son came and went, unmet. And then “it was just bribes and threats and Unhappy Mommy Face and bitterness.”
But the struggle was worth it, she said. She’d be in a sweat waiting for Sam to send her his sections, second-guessing her decision to agree to such a “hopeless” project. And then magically, an e-mail would appear full of “this wonderful stuff, from his own true heart, in the words of a young and unusual man, a 19-year-old daddy. And I’d just be humbled.”
Some might grumble that the children in this arrangement have an unfair advantage, getting to write their first books not because they earned it but because they rode their parents’ celebrated coattails. Outsiders’ resentments occasionally erupt in questions from tactless journalists (perhaps someone with an unpublished manuscript in a drawer). “How does it feel to be in your mother’s shadow?” one interviewer asked Anna Lappé during the book tour for “Hope’s Edge.” To which she replied: “I’m not in my mother’s shadow. I’m in my mother’s light.”