Monday, March 23, 2009

Ghostwriting--Interview with Lu Ann Staheli

by Heather Moore

One of our senior editors, Lu Ann Staheli, has been working for the past several months on ghostwriting a book. I thought it would be interesting to learn more about this process. Many books are ghostwritten—especially those you see with "celebrity authors". Some ghostwriters are acknowledged inside the pages (i.e. Glenn Beck’s book The Christmas Sweater had two ghostwriters). Others are acknowledged on the cover such as When Hearts Conjoin, by Erin Herrin with Lu Ann Staheli. Today, Lu Ann has joined us to share her journey of writing the story of Herrin family and their conjoined twins who were successfully separated.

1. From a ghostwriter’s standpoint, how do you begin a project like this? Of course, because I live in Utah where the Herrins twins were born, I had heard some of their story on the local news so I was at least familiar with who they were and some of what the girls had gone through in their short lives. When I first heard they were doing a book I thought, “Wow! What a great project. I wish that I could have written it.” As things worked out, the universe must have read my mind because last August I found myself in that very position. I was given a book outline, and few sample chapter pages, but I was told that Erin, the girls’ mother, didn’t feel the tone of what had been written was right. She wanted a more personal story instead of sounding like a magazine article. So I set to work, drafting a single chapter to get a feel for the project, choosing to write the book more like one might write a novel, using a first person narrative voice, and that voice had to be Erin’s. I hadn’t met Erin yet when I wrote that first chapter, but we sent it off to her, she loved it, and we were on our way. I met with her in October just to chat. It was a good experience because I was able to hear her true voice, begin to understand a little more about her, and to see first-hand her interaction and relationship with the girls, their sister Courtney, and her husband, Jake. The boys were not at home the day I visited. After that meeting, the real work began.

2. When creating the chapters and the flow of the book, how did you decide what information to use and what not to use? We didn’t want this book to turn into a medical procedural, yet we knew we had to maintain the story’s reason to be told. Erin wanted to insure that nothing in the book would ever delve too deeply into the girls’ privacy, so I had to weigh the information I discovered against making sure we had an accurate portrail of events, yet keeping the book more about the emotion instead of the medicine. Since we wanted to stay in Erin’s point of view, it was important to only share what she experienced, felt, and understood. There were many times I just tried to put myself in her place as I worked on the draft and let my own emotions and questions surface. The interesting thing was when I sent her the drafts she would often reply, “That’s exactly how I felt!”

3. The mother of the conjoined twins, Erin Herrin, is listed as a co-author. How did the writing relationship work between the both of you? After I met with Erin, I came home and started a draft of the book in earnest. A flurry of emails went back and forth between the two of us, details were added, I did online research to support what I was writing, Erin corrected things I hadn’t gotten quite right, sent me tidbits she had remembered, and answered my million questions, until at last we had it right. Sometimes she and I were online at the same time, so answers came quickly. Other times, I had to just write through a section and wait for her response. That meant I had to do rewrites a little more often on those sections, but as a writer, I think we all understand the need to just get words on the page and worry about revision and researching later.

4. What type of research did you find yourself doing to flesh out details? I did a lot of reading about conjoined twins in general, but mostly about Kendra and Maliyah. You’d be amazed at how much is really out there about these two little girls. Jake runs a website for them as well, and I watched several video clips of news reports about their surgery. I found online articles about the girls that even Erin didn’t know were available. I also had to learn about medical procedures and equipment. My husband is an LPN, so I asked him a lot of questions and he was able to explain things to me pretty well. Since I’ve never given birth to a child, I relied on my friends to tell me details about pregnancy, ultrasounds, labor, and nursing. Sometimes I think I heard more than I ever wanted to know.

5. When ghostwriting, what are some of the challenges you faced? And what aspects were easier than you thought? Originally I wanted to tell the story completely in chronological order, but I realized that the hook of this story was the girls, and although the family history played a key role, we needed to start with a dramatic moment, so I had to take their life story and organize it into a plot, just like I would for a novel or screenplay, a process I was already familiar with. I reviewed the chapter outline they had given me, and decided where the real story was found, to insure this didn’t become just a travelogue of events. I worried that Erin wouldn’t agree with me at first, but as the story started to come together and she could review the pages, she relaxed and felt good about where the book was headed. Probably the most difficult thing about this book was that Erin had tried so hard to shut out all the fears and bad memories from the past that she had almost blocked out some of the very details we needed to make this story alive enough to touch the hearts of the readers. Sometimes getting the chronological order just right, or remembering which doctor played what role, or sorting through details was confusing, but we hope anyone who finds an error will forgive us, knowing that revisiting this time in her life and the lives of the girls was not always an easy thing for Erin to do.

6. What types of agreements or contracts were made between you, as the writer, and the Herrin family, as the story source? I was originally approached to do this book as a straight ghost-writer, which means I wouldn’t have had my name on it at all. However, as the book progressed, and as Erin and I got to know each other via email and our in-person meeting, we both came to realize how important it was to work as equals on this project. She couldn’t do the book without me, and I couldn’t write her story without her. Erin’s original contract was with Richard Paul Evans as the publisher, and it’s through his company that all of us are being paid, so we came to an agreement that Erin and I would share the writing credits. The girls have their own share of royalties for their trust fund, so everyone wins. Erin and I have also talked about working together on a screenplay for a movie-of-the week based on the book, so that may come about in the future as well.

7. Most writers don’t have a hard time to write their own books, let alone one for someone else. How did you manage this project with your own personal projects? People often ask me how I manage to do all that I do at any given time. I don’t know. I’m a workaholic? I am always busy on something, and I have a husband who doesn’t mind cleaning house, cooking meals, shopping, and running kids around from this thing to that. (Well, let’s say he doesn’t always mind.) Because I’m an English teacher, there are times when my students are reading or writing that I can too. I don’t watch much television, and I’m usually in my home office for at least a few hours each day. I’ve gotten good at writing fast and using little pieces of time to reach my goals, although sometimes a favorite project gets set aside for something with a more immediate return. As a newspaper columnist, I learned how to write a 500 word piece from scratch to final draft form in under an hour. I’m also great at working on multiple projects at the same time, a talent that certainly came in handy as I wrote When Hearts Conjoin at the same time that I finished the screenplay for Seasons of Salvation.

Thanks, Lu Ann for sharing your ghostwriting journey with us!

Note: When Hearts Conjoin will be out May 2009.


Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Fascinating! I have a friend who is considering ghost writing a book and I've sent her a link to this post. Great insights.

Annette Lyon said...

Great interview. Having had a backseat ride for the whole process, I'm excited for the book to come out!

hi, it's me! melissa c said...

great post and how interesting. That is something I'd like to try my hand at. Someday. Not now!

I can't wait to read the book.

Janette Rallison said...

Wow, what a great story. Can hardly wait to read the book!

Julie Wright said...

I think this is just awesome. It would be fun to be able to bring someone's story to life like this. I'm excited for the book!

Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

Thanks everyone. Just letting you know the book is now back from the press and available for purchase online at or you can buy a copy at LDS Storymakers conference this weekend.

Laurie LC Lewis said...

I'm late jumping in here but this was a great post. Maybe this topic would make a good conference topic next year. Thanks, Heather, for such great questions, and thanks Lu Ann for sharing this process with us!

Just Friends said...
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