I have long been curious about ghostwriting, and recently had the opportunity to speak with Cari Lynn about this topic and her work and experience over the years. She is the co-author of the recently released memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton, about the life of social justice crusader Susan Burton. As the co-author of several investigative nonfiction books on everything from sex trafficking to an insider look at commodities trading, she speaks candidly about the challenges of being a ghostwriter, the state of publishing, and how important it is for writers to take a stand. Scroll down to read our interview below!
CARI LYNN is a journalist and the author of several books of nonfiction, including THE WHISTLEBLOWER: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors and One Woman's Fight for Justice with Kathryn Bolkovac, and LEG THE SPREAD: Adventures Inside the Trillion-Dollar Boys' Club of Commodities Trading. Cari forayed into fiction with the historical novel, MADAM,(Penguin/Plume, 2014) based on the true story of New Orleans's experiment with legalized prostitution set in the 1800s. Cari has written feature articles for numerous publications, including O, the Oprah Magazine, Health, the Chicago Tribune, and Deadline Hollywood. She has taught at Loyola University and received an M.A. in Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Maryland. A longtime Chicagoan, she currently lives in Los Angeles.
She is the co-author of the recently released Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women (The New Press, May 2017) about the life of social justice crusader Susan Burton. The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof calls the book “stunning” and deems Susan Burton “a national treasure.”
To learn more, visit carilynn.net
Karin: Let's talk about ghostwriting. What was your path to this work?
Cari Lynn: Well I never wanted to write fiction. It happened because the stories find you, or occasionally you find them.
So I have a bachelor's in journalism and a masters in writing; during graduate school I started getting articles published and was working on my own book. And then this doctor, a clinical psychologist who rescues orphans, called me to say he was having an awful experience with a ghostwriter that he had hired. I have known this man since I was in kindergarten; my parents are psychologists and they had known each other. And I said, “Well, let me take a look.” I was fresh out of grad school and I thought, “Oh I could do something with this. This is great!” And we did the book and I loved doing it. It felt important, and I loved working with him.
Was it a book from the get-go with him?
It was a manual for him, mostly, because he was lecturing all over the world and he wanted a handbook for parents. So he would dictate because he was used to dictating his report for clients. But what I was interested in was so much more of the narrative element of these stories, of these children, because -- and this was the motto with Becoming Ms. Burton -- “heart first, then the head.” If you want to change minds, you've got to affect the emotions first. Because I was interested in hearing about these children, we would have a child's first name, their whole backstory and his involvement, and I would sometimes interview the parents. We called them “case studies.” So it ended up becoming a lot longer and a lot more narrative, which resonated more with the families. So that's kind of how it started.
What's the biggest challenge as a ghostwriter?
So you're working with people who have a great story but can't write the book themselves. Okay, fine. But in no other realm... Let's say you commissioned a piece of art or you're working with an architect to build a house or something. No matter how much you're involved going through the architectural designs, rarely do you hear a person say that they built the house. The point of commissioning a work of art is to say I have a work by 'so-and-so'. No matter how much input you have, the attribution is still to the person doing the heavy lifting.
Not so when you're a co-writer and that's really challenging. I understand my role and it's not about the attribution, but it's about -- I spend an hour interviewing somebody and then I go and spend 10 hours crafting that. And then I email them some pages, and they just magically appear in their inbox. If I'm doing my job well it looks easy. And as you know, it's not.
They don't appreciate it.
And then when there starts to be outside praise coming in -- the best praise you can possibly get with the subject (that's the author, I'm the writer) is, “It sounds like you, I hear you.” And that's to me the best praise I could get, we could get. But it makes the subject say, “Well what do I need her for?”
Tell us about your most recent book, Becoming Ms. Burton. What was the process like?
This one was the hardest books I've done. I had the biggest learning curve; there's so much subject matter. It was like an onion. I mean, the more layers I peeled there were more things that were interesting to me. So a lot of this was me going off and exploring other realms. Susan lives in Compton. Her homes are in Compton and Watts, and we spent a lot of time together.
How did you meet her?
So a friend of mine did a short documentary film about her. I was at a screening of this film and Susan was there, and I ran up to Susan and said, “I think you have a book in you.” I did not know that Susan had spent some time working with an L.A. Times writer and it was not a pleasant experience. Nothing resulted in it. That had been several years earlier, so she sort of had a bad taste about the whole thing.
So you knew straightaway that you were interested.
Yeah, I just had that feeling that I wasn't going to be able to let this story go. There was something very compelling about this story, the women, about Susan, her presence. She's tough; she's a tough cookie.
The other thing is... This book took two-and-a-half years. So they have to be perfectly comfortable. I say, “I am the best friend who will not go away.” And it's hard; it's true. So you don't want anyone who's reluctant or has any doubts, because it's intense. I said to Susan, “Listen I'll send you The Whistleblower.” It was the book that felt the most relevant at the time.
Knowing Susan as well as I do now, I'm shocked at the sequence of events because she got the book, she read the book, she called me. Now I go in her office and she has stacks of books. Who knows if she'll ever get to them? So I don't know what the timing was where she had a moment to receive it and look at it.
Then we met for lunch and just broached it.
How does one broach the subject?
There was zero that existed. So I said, “Let's do a sample chapter.” And then we had to figure out, okay, what's a chapter?
So at this point no one's funding this?
When you sell nonfiction book you can sell it on a proposal. That said, to me the proposals are harder than writing the book, because you really have to encapsulate this whole thing and often you don't really even know what the story is.
At the time I met her, Susan had a lot of cachet already. She was a Top 10 CNN Hero; there was the televised image of her acceptance speech on national TV. She was a Soros justice fellow and Harvard had bestowed some honor upon her. She was really making a name for herself in the criminal justice, social justice, activists' realm so that helped. And then Michelle Alexander who wrote the book The New Jim Crow, which had spent like a hundred weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, was very encouraging of Susan to do a book. She said she would hand it to her publisher and that was the right home for it.
So the plan was, I would do a chapter. We would hand it in to the publisher. If they wanted more, they'd ask for it. If it didn't happen, we'd re-group and see if we could get a grant. I would do a full proposal. We'd go through my agent, do the traditional route. It's hard to do that, and as it turned out, obviously I'm glad I did it for this. But writers shouldn't be writing for free and everybody wants you to write for free. I mean, I just had a literary manager call me when this came out and say, “Oh my gosh, are the TV/Film rights available?” We met for coffee and he said, “I have some other projects and other clients that I'd love to talk to you about.” He had a really interesting project that needed a writer -- a book. As he's going into it, I say, “This is fascinating, I'd love to do this. So before you make the introduction, we do a standard rate for the proposal.”
“Oh she's not going to pay for the proposal.”
I said, “I don't work for free. You do get what you pay for and no.” I think the more we say “no” the more they realize that writing has to be valued. When you do work for free, it's not valued. And to set up a collaboration like this where you're going into it saying that my time and my expertise isn't worth anything... even the easiest proposal takes three months. Proposals are hard, they're an art form. I've taken the time to perfect that, and yeah, to say this has no value...
The TV writer Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, has written about how he would never have been able to do this without having a spouse who is the breadwinner. I don't have a spouse; I'm the breadwinner. So that really gets me. But you often don't feel as a writer like you can say “no.” Or like you can say, “Writers need to be paid.” So that's my soapbox now, because we don't have a guild or union.
Do you keep the TV/Film rights when you work on a book?
So the publisher should never get the TV/Film rights. The author(s) should retain them. And then it depends what kind of deal you strike. So that's the thing, there's no guild, there's no standard.
So what did you work out with Susan, was it 50-50?
So with most of mine, that's what I am. That's because I am often writing about people who can't pay me. And then you're operating off the advance, which is this unknown number. So most of my stuff comes on the back end. It's very risky and I don't recommend doing it that way. But for a book like this there was no other way to do it.
I've done projects in the past that have fallen apart because that advance comes in, and to me, that advance is the publisher paying for this book to be written. If there's leftover, it goes to the to the subject (the author), rightly so. The royalties can be a different story because that's when the author, or the subject, is out there promoting the book. But it is amazing how the shift happens -- and it didn't happen with this book -- but with ones in the past where the author will be like, “But that's my advance.” And it's like, “It's actually no one's advance. It's actually the publisher paying for you to have a book, so that you don't have to pay.” Yeah, there are egos involved.
In their minds, at what point you get paid?
They think that you should be honored to do this.
It's shocking, particularly because you're so well established.
What is the standard rate for a proposal?
So $10,000 for a proposal is pretty much the standard rate, which includes one or two sample chapters, a chapter by chapter outline, a comparative works section, bios.
What's your take on publishing these days?
I'm really cynical these days. I don't necessarily think that the end goal should always be a major publisher. It's not that pleasant out there, often. I'm not exactly a huge advocate of self-publishing either. Publishing needs to figure itself out now. And hopefully they will be forced to one of these days, because it's way too long. You know publishing imploded in 2008 when Borders and Barnes & Noble fell apart. I have to say Amazon - it's like one side's the devil, one side's the angel because they have a publishing arm and they actually have much better terms for authors than the major houses. They give higher royalty rates, and the payment comes right away, you don't have to wait. But then they're the devil; they're horrible for authors in all these other ways. But I'm hoping that they'll push the major houses into being more equitable.
The publisher that did Becoming Ms. Burton is my favorite experience of all time. I love them and I've never said that. It was a group of editors from major houses who thought that they weren't doing enough 'important' books and they got together and they formed The New Press. They're a nonprofit and their model is really something because they operate a lot off of grants and there's a big connection with academia. They have a lot of Pulitzer Prize winning authors. It was a pleasure, just a joy working with them.
It's funny because when I talk to my author friends, there's a big difference in the mindset of those of us who are doing this for a living and those who have some other means of support and are doing it for the love of doing it. I have friends who will say, “I'm just happy to get a book deal. I'm just happy to get it out there.” Yeah, of course. But when you're doing it for business, it's a business. It's your job. It's like a shopkeeper saying, “Well, I'm just happy to turn the lights on in the morning!” Yeah, but you need people buying stuff. So I have to wear that business and remind myself at all times this is a business, because I think the problem is not enough writers do.
I was reading an interview with Hillary Clinton who is working on a new book which she described as, “ridiculously hard.” I mean, she'd done another book and had a ghostwriter for it. It just struck me how she was going on about how hard this “working on the book” really was.
But it is... it's really hard! Even if you just went through what Hillary Clinton went through, it's just still really hard.