The hard stuff [published in WQ]
Posted on June 30th, 2012
I have a reputation for doing the hard stuff. Nothing to do with drugs: I just seem to be drawn towards tackling stories that involve grief and trauma. That kind of writing takes me through some perilous terrain.
Why do we do it, to ourselves and to others? Why do writers feel compelled to pick at wounds and expose their rawness? When done well, sharing the grittiness of life and death and everything in between draws writer and reader together, makes us feel less alone. I find that readers respond most warmly to the work that has been most confronting, in terms of both subject and process. If there were no sweat and tears involved, I’ve probably missed the mark.
The first book I wrote was a baptism by fire. Sophie’s Journey is the story of Sophie Delezio, who nearly died at the age of two when a car ploughed into her childcare centre and burst into flames. Two years later, Sophie was hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing and again suffered near-fatal injuries. Sophie’s Journey is told through the voices of the people around Sophie: family, friends, doctors, nurses, passers-by who came to help at both accidents.
The second accident had happened only months before I started writing Sophie’s Journey and the events were still fresh in people’s minds. Many of the doctors and nurses I interviewed were moved to tears in describing Sophie’s treatment. Yet I didn’t want to write a book about horrific injuries and gory medical procedures. What I wanted to do was unwrap what was special about Sophie that brought her through two near-fatal situations. I also wanted to tease out what was not special about her: the qualities that we can all draw on in the face of calamity.
To achieve both of those things, I knew I had to frame my questions with great care. In working out how to do that, I came across the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (www.dartcenter.org). It’s a goldmine of resources on interviewing survivors of violence and tragedy, ways to avoid subjecting already-traumatised individuals to more suffering, and the writer’s ethical obligations in post-trauma interviews.
I also drew on techniques from solution-focused brief therapy (or SFBT), which I had used during my time as a child mentor in the UK. SFBT focuses on helping people find new ways to look at situations and stresses the importance of wording questions in a particular way. ‘Why’ questions, for instance, come across as combative and challenging. So instead of asking ‘why do you think that?’ I would ask, ‘what makes you think that?’ When you are trying to draw out painful recollections in a non-threatening way, these subtle nuances can make all the difference.
Earlier this year I worked with Rachel Anderson on Days Like These, a book based on her husband Kristian’s blog. Kristian was best known as the guy with cancer who made a heart-wrenchingly beautiful video for his wife’s birthday. Kristian passed away at the beginning of 2012, but he had set the wheels in motion for a book to be created and Rachel wanted to honour that. The publishers felt that the book needed a little of Rachel’s voice in it to provide a counterpoint to Kristian’s story, so they assigned me the task of working with her. Less than a month after Rachel’s husband had died, I sat down with her and asked her about their relationship; his diagnosis; what it is like to nurse your own husband; how the mother of two young children deals with losing her life partner.
Rachel Anderson is quite a woman. She didn’t shy away from any of it, though there were tears shed on both sides as we talked. Again I planned out the wording of my questions carefully, making them exploratory rather than confrontational. I used a lot of phrases like ‘tell me about that time’ or ‘what do you remember most about that experience?’
Although I draw on therapy-based approaches to interviewing, I am no psychologist. One of the biggest lessons for me in writing my first book was that you have to protect yourself. That never occurred to me at the time, though. It was only later when a journalist friend asked me how I was taking care of myself that it struck me: for months I had been living and breathing one of the most harrowing stories imaginable. Since then, I take special care to debrief (I have a few trusted people with whom I can download), make time to do things that will boost my spirits, and take time out for other, lighter work.
Alongside considerations of self-protection, I also have a duty of care to protect other people. When I started writing Sophie’s Journey, I decided not to interview Sophie herself. Instead I considered her family and medical team as her advocates who would speak for her. When a second edition came around, though, I did interview Sophie and her brother Mitchell. It was then two years since the second accident; the pain was less recent, and Sophie was a little older and more able to process and articulate her experiences. Even then, I asked her more about her family and everyday life rather than digging into the painful events of the past. Far from being traumatic, that conversation was sheer, hilarious anarchy: trying to have a structured exchange with a seven-year-old is like herding cats.
Sometimes it’s not the central characters that need protection, it’s the figures on the periphery. The only time Rachel Anderson held back on the facts was when we looked at what Kristian had written about putting his affairs in order, including chasing up some outstanding payments for his business. Rachel asked me to leave names out so there couldn’t be any implication that certain people were playing hardball with a dying man.
When you are writing about the people closest to you, the potential to offend increases exponentially. Often the offence is triggered by the most unexpected cue. Sophie Delezio’s parents, Ron and Carolyn, had to approve my manuscript before it went to the publishers. Of all the many things they could have baulked at, one of the very few was where a family friend described Sophie’s ‘beautiful brown eyes’. Carolyn was incensed that their good friend had got Sophie’s eye colour wrong.
Late last year I worked with model and TV presenter Chloe Maxwell on her book, Living with Max. Chloe and her husband, footballer Mat Rogers, have a son called Max who has been diagnosed with autism, and Chloe writes about that experience. The manuscript was very raw and at times intensely critical of family members, and I spent some time with Chloe working through the implications and steering a path around potential litigation. Wherever possible I cut or edited the harsher sections; some were integral to the story, though, so I ran them past the publisher’s in-house lawyer. In one or two cases further cutting and rewriting was needed, while in others the lawyer was happy to let the text stand.
As production progressed on Living with Max, Chloe got cold feet about some of the scenes describing family strife. This can happen. A manuscript looks and feels like a personal document, but by the time you reach page proofs it’s starting to resemble a printed book. The reality hits that this is no longer private: it’s about to be public property. In Chloe’s case, there were some last-minute rewrites.
Some authors fear that their publisher will go tabloid on them and push them to disclose every salacious scrap of detail about their lives. In fact, publishers are very conservative, often more so than the writers they publish. They are painfully aware of the potential for litigation and go to great lengths to avoid it. Whereas a newspaper publisher might have to issue a retraction if legal action looms, a book publisher may have to pulp an entire print run. The publishing house may pass costs on to the author, but it’s their pocket that gets hit first, so they work hard to achieve a delicate balance of avoiding litigation while maintaining the strength and colour in the story.
If you are about to embark on telling a story that goes to the edge of life and death, here’s my best advice. Be clear on your intentions. Consider your duty of care carefully. Protect yourself as well as the people you are writing about. And above all, listen: hear the other person’s story and don’t be tempted to overlay your own experience. Get those four elements right and you may create something that touches readers in the deepest way.