Over the past few years, I’ve been co-writing other people’s memoirs. Although I absolutely love what I do, it does have its challenges.
First of all, I have to make sure that my co-author trusts me. I find that the best way to build up trust is to be totally honest. Recently, I co-wrote The Loneliest Boy in the World with Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin, who was the last native child of the Great Blasket and who held the unique position of being the only child among about thirty adults on the island. With complete honesty, during our first meeting, I explained the entire writing, publishing and publicity process to Gearóid, including the time involved, the expected royalties and the fact that he would be asked to give interviews to publicise the book. I told him that the book would receive much media attention, especially as he is now the only survivor of those evacuated from the island in 1953/54. This proved true and the book featured on television news reports, on radio and in many newspapers, among them the Sunday Times, Irish Independent, Irish Examiner, Daily Mail and Evening Echo. Also, to gain Gearóid’s trust, and to ensure accuracy, I promised to show him the entire text prior to submitting it to the publisher.
So too, it’s important that the writer and the person being written about get on well, especially as they must work as a partnership and spend much time alone together. Luckily for me, I took to Gearóid straight away. But I expected that it would be so. Being a native of the Great Blasket, he was bound to be easy-going and a great storyteller. I loved his sense of humour and he recalled some funny stories on the first day we met, such as how the whole church in Dunquin erupted in laughter when he tripped on his soutane while serving as an altar boy in Dunquin and how he and his friend lugged a turkey in a canvas bag for four miles from Dunquin, over Mount Eagle and on towards Ventry.
Gathering the information can also be challenging. Instead of taping, I prefer to write down the material, as I find that written material is handier for reference and easier to access. However, if the person telling the story speaks too fast, getting the information on paper can be difficult for the writer and errors or omissions can occur. Again, with Gearóid, I had no bother, as he spoke slowly, in his lovely, rich, Kerry accent.
Likewise, writing in your own style while also trying to make the story sound as if the storyteller is actually speaking can be demanding. I use simple words and ensure that the story flows, with links between paragraphs. Here again, I was fortunate that Gearóid’s informal way of speaking perfectly matched my style of writing. As a result, The Loneliest Boy in the World is an easy, uncomplicated, enjoyable read, suitable for all age groups.
Undoubtedly, one of the most important factors in writing a book is time. The writer needs time to gather the information, to research, to think, to write and to proof-read. So too, the subject of the book must have the time to reflect, to think about the next chapter and to meet with the writer to relate the information. If the person telling the story becomes too busy to devote the required time to the book, this can prove hugely challenging for the writer, especially if a deadline date for submission has been agreed with the publisher. Again, I was lucky with Gearóid, as giving time to the book was never a problem for him.
If the story becomes boring in parts, listening to it and writing it will prove difficult. Much motivation will be needed for the writer to make progress. With Gearóid, his story was captivating all the way through, especially as he recalled a huge variety of characters, not alone the islanders he had known, including Peig Sayers, but also tourists he knew, among them famous people such as Brendan Behan, Seán Ó Riada, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Siobhán McKenna and Seán Ó Ríordáin. Also, he lived in different places, as he moved from the Great Blasket to Dunquin, spent some time in Dingle, attended a boarding school in Kilkenny and later settled in Cork. So, the book is spiced with variety and moves along rapidly.
Sometimes, during the writing process, the people you are writing about may begin to doubt that their story will be of interest to others. If this happens, it’s important to reassure them, to remind them why you were drawn to their story in the first place and to explain why you believe it will prove popular with readers. In Gearóid’s case, I was always confident that his story would attract huge interest, especially as he had been part of an island community of great craftsmen, fishermen, musicians and storytellers and was able to recall in detail their day-to-day lives on the Great Blasket as well as the way they settled into life on the mainland after the evacuation of the island.
If you are interested in writing someone else’s story and get the opportunity to do so, go for it. The challenges may be many but they can be overcome. And the rewards are great. More than likely, you will end up with a lovely book on the shelves that will bring hours of pleasure to readers and you will have had the unique and enjoyable experience of hearing someone else’s life story first-hand, which is indeed a huge privilege.
(c) Patricia Ahern