“We will need to like each other.” That was from Debbie Deegan, just one part of a series of emails arranging when and where to meet in order to discuss the notion that I would help her to write a book laying bare the 14 years since she first brought the troubled lives of a scattering of Russian orphans into her heart and home. Yes, we would need to like each other, in order to work closely and translate those years, as much as possible in Debbie’s words, into a coherent narrative arc.
I had a feeling I would like her. Friends of mine did, and I trusted their judgement. I had seen her on various TV shows over the years, and always admired her direct, articulate style. Anyway, I am naturally predisposed towards people who actively seek to help others. Too many of us are bleeding-heart ineffectuals who lament and deplore, and do nothing.
Even so, I presumed writing a book with Debbie would be a nightmare. I mean, what else could it be? I envisaged various possibilities – we would meet twice, I would have all of 10,000 words of copy, and suddenly there would be nothing more to say. That was my biggest fear. But I also found a place for the possibility that she would lead me a merry dance, cancelling meetings, refusing to be available. Another scenario consisted of Debbie changing her mind about everything once she saw the finished copy, wanting to rewrite the entire book 24 hours before deadline.
This was to be my first experience of ghost-writing, so both of us would be fumbling through the unknown; the possibilities for problems seemed considerable. In fact, the experience was so good that it can’t all have been beginner’s luck.
We conducted our interview sessions in blocks of two hours, and by the end of the first of these, I knew we would get a book out of those 14 years. This is because where other people might see a series of events, connected and unfolding in linear fashion, Debbie sees stories. She creates characters out of the people around her, and wonderful stories out of the things that happen. There is never any problem finding drama and intrigue to sustain the interest in Debbie’s tales. Thank God!
I figured I would admire Debbie for the work she has done, but I wasn’t prepared for quite how intense that admiration became (I know she will hate me saying that!). Working with Debbie for those three months gave me an insight into why she has been so successful in the pretty-much-impossible world of charity fundraising and admin. She never gets tired, her concentration is excellent, her decision-making seamless – constant small decision made without fuss, big ones tackled calmly and methodically. Without being an impossible perfectionist, her standards are high, and her ambitions for everything she decides to do are lofty. By which I mean that Debbie never sees a reason why she can’t do something she wants, she just keeps looking for the ways in which she can.
All those things worked in favour of producing a book we are both very proud of with minimal fuss, on a very tight deadline. But if I was to pick out two things that made working with Debbie – trying to think like her and write like her for a short space of time – a wonderful experience, I’m going for her warmth and sense of humour. They are the reasons why Debbie has dedicated so much of her life to helping children who badly need it, and the reasons why she has survived and thrived in doing so. They are also what makes her a delightful companion and a woman of substance.
To Russia With Love is available in all good book shops – read Debbie Deegan’s article for writing.ie to find out more.