A Conversation with Amy Wallen

Years ago, I met Amy Wallen through mutual writer-teacher friends. At the time she was producing a spoken word series based in San Diego called DimeStories, which she also founded. Amy had published a novel and was also hosting salons at her home featuring her delicious pies (hence the name, Savory Salons). Like me, she was creating community through storytelling and I felt I'd met a kindred spirit.

Next week Amy's debut memoir When We Were Ghouls: A Memoir of Ghost Stories is being released into the world through the American Lives series edited by Tobias Wolff. In the interview below, I had a chance to ask her about the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction, how she found the keys to structure, and what advice she would have given herself in retrospect. You'll also find her upcoming readings and signings in LA and across the USA! 

Amy E. Wallen is the author of the soon-to-be-released memoir When We Were Ghouls (University of Nebraska Press, March 2018). She is the associate director at the New York State Writers Institute and teaches creative writing at the University of California, San Diego Extension. Her first novel, Moon Pies and Movie Starswas a Los Angeles Times bestseller. Amy is the creator of Savory Salons, an intimate gathering with a conversation springing from the author’s latest work. If you want to be invited, message her and she'll put you on the list!

When Amy learns her parents are grave robbers and her memory is out of focus, she tries to figure out what truly happened. When We Were Ghouls, A Memoir of Ghost Stories is about a search for family. It follows a family that has been dispersed around the world, a family who, like ghosts, come and go and slip through Amy’s fingers making it unclear if they were ever there.

"Lyrical and haunting."—Booklist

Buy the book


Karin Gutman: Tell me about your book!

Amy Wallen: When We Were Ghouls is, as the subtitle suggests, a memoir metaphorically in ghost stories. The book opens with a memory I have of my family digging up a pre-Inca grave in Peru. I soon discover my memories are not quite what I thought and yet at the same time frighteningly just as I remembered, so I start to dig even deeper into my family’s adventures. As a young kid my blue-collar family was transferred to Nigeria, Peru and then Bolivia. All of my family members, like ghosts, came and went during this time. I begin to question everything that happened, although the physical world suggests my memories are real, the stories seem unbelievable to me. The stories suggest that my family were looters, grave robbers and hideous people with no regard for humanity. The opening scene/chapter is exactly how the story came to me. I had no intention of writing a memoir, but I soon realized that’s exactly what I had to do. 
I know you have also published a novel. Can you describe the difference between writing fiction versus nonfiction?

I struggled with the transition from fiction to nonfiction. Not because I didn’t want to tell the truth, and not because I wanted to make things up (although I do find that to be more fun), but because I had a hard time with the narrators of experience and innocence. I had learned psychic distance in fiction but those characters felt more stagnant or controllable, maybe. To apply that to myself, to who I am now AND who I was then was a mind-bender for me. I had to learn compassion for my complicity, for my family, dig inside deep to admit to how I felt then versus how I feel now, or rather how I felt as I wrote the book. I say the last bit because I think even as I look at the pages now, a few years after they were written, I have a new way of looking at the story, but I had to realize that was the story I was writing then. Once it clicked, once I realized the juxtaposition versus the commonalities, once I realized that I was writing the story that I had to tell at that moment about that part of my past, even though it would be different at every stage of my life, I felt right at home in the genre of creative nonfiction. It’s a very “of the moment” genre and yet is about the past. Or at least, that’s how I came to decipher it.

What does your writing practice look like? Has it morphed over time?
My writing practice varies with my life, somewhat, but also stays the same. I believe in writing every day because otherwise I lose the momentum. But I have also learned that I can’t always make this happen because life gets in the way, and mostly I get in the way of myself.  I wanted to get another book started so it wouldn’t take me as long as it took me to write this last book. So, this time I’m writing every day but not putting on any pressure and I’m just committing to 250 words - no matter what. That’s about a page a day and so I figure at the end of a year I’ll have at least 365 pages. I usually write more than 250 words, but even if that’s all I have some days, then at least I’ve kept my finger in the pot and the momentum going. So far it’s working. I’m on page 73 and I started Dec 29, 2017 so I’m about 35 pages ahead of where I thought I’d be.

Writing memoir at times can be painful, as we go to our most vulnerable places inside. How did you take care of yourself during the process?

I’m not very good at self-care, then again, I’m too good at it. I tend to be a workaholic, but I also go to a lot of spas and get a lot of massages. As far as taking care of me as a writer, I really focus on only showing my work to the people I trust and only when I feel it’s got enough heft that the input won’t turn it to dust. I am way too sensitive and take everything that people tell me about my work to heart. So instead of trying to teach myself to be tougher, I try to find ways to receive input that isn’t going to make me quit writing, but instead will make me a better writer. Sometimes though I wish I had one of those mothers that would just tell me everything I do is perfect. 
To me, writing a memoir is about uncovering the deeper underlying truth of our experience… how did you do that?
I agree with you completely. I think I did this by doing what I mentioned above—showing drafts to only people I trust. When I say I trust them I trust that they will tell me where to dig deeper, where they want to know more, where I am being superficial. I think I also asked a lot of questions about myself and why my memories would be so distorted. I assumed that the answers were inside of me. I kept to the truth by realizing there is never just one truth—that everyone’s point of view and reality is valid. But the story I was telling was my reality and my truth wrapped up inside all those others.

What kind of feedback did you seek out along the way? Are you a part of a writing group? Did you work with an editor?
I have a very close reader and we share work. We have read each other’s books probably over 10 times. We have seen them at every stage. I did pay another good friend who is a professional book reviewer to also look at a later draft. He gave me the keys to structure. Then, after I got my book deal through the University press, the peer reviewer gave me comments that pushed the theme to a whole new level and I felt took the story to a much deeper and honest place. So yes, I sought feedback along the way, but very carefully. I belonged to a writing group when I wrote my novel and they were incredibly helpful, and I also learned the key to having trustful readers along the way. It’s not good to have the blind leading the blind, but to have a fabulous guide and teacher and a group of intelligent readers and writers—that’s invaluable, whatever form it comes in.

I am curious about what “keys to structure” you received?

It was David Ulin and he gave me the idea to start with the grave digging as the opening scene and then use the metaphor of digging up the remains of my family’s history throughout the rest of the memoir. It seemed so obvious when he said it, but it also seemed somewhat awkward at first since it changed the order of how I had it structured. Originally I had started with the grave digging, but hadn’t considered the slipping of memory and the continuation of the conversation with my parents in the current day. At first I tried to break the grave story up and spread it out, but I soon realized it was more about the metaphor, about slanting the details, than about scattering the physical scene. Again, another lesson learned about what memoir is about. But this “slanting of details” is something I really learned to the bone when I worked with Sue Silverman in grad school and from her book FEARLESS CONFESSIONS. She discusses the slanting of details, of taking the moment in time, finding the metaphors in the details and using them to create momentum and continuity to go into deeper and deeper places. So I guess I really was given the keys from many teachers and friends

How did you get a publishing deal for the book?
That’s always a question that I think every writer can answer differently, but still the same. I was seeking agents in New York since that’s what got me my novel book deal years ago. But this book was so different I also thought it may need a different kind of publisher. My NYC experience with my novel had been more about selling the book and getting it out into the world rather than about the words on the page. I wanted this book, maybe because it was so personal, to be treated with kid gloves. So I also researched independent presses. A good friend and mentor referred me to the University of Nebraska American Lives series edited by Tobias Wolff, and they made me an offer. They sounded like exactly what I was looking for and the perfect home for Ghouls. I have found the experience to be everything and more of what I dreamed of.

What has the publishing process been like?

A university press is so much different than a New York City publishing house. First of all, they only publish a handful of books a year and publish a more narrowly focused story, like the American Lives series which is basically memoirs of a variety of Americans. They also publish novels that focus on the Flyover States.  Because of the smaller focus they can spend more time on every word and detail. Before any contract is signed, the editor sends the book out to be peer-reviewed. This is when I was given the keys to the bigger question I needed to bring to the overall story. I never got this kind of depth of discussion before. This required another round of revisions, and the possibility that my manuscript would be rejected. I guess I must have done the job right. The cover was designed by an award-winning book cover artist, the editor read the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, and again even after the copyeditor had cleaned it up. All this attention was both nerve-wracking and fabulous to have such intricate attention paid to my work. I feel I learned more in this process than in any class.

How encouraging to hear that your publishing experience was so positive. Again, you mention that the peer review gave you the keys to the “bigger question” that took the theme to a whole new level. Can you share more details about that?

The first round of peer review was positive, but only recommended publication with the contingency that I needed to find a bigger overall question that threaded through the entire memoir. See above where I am considering the slanting of details. I understood what the reviewer meant and he suggested that my early question in the grave digging scene—“Are we hideous people?” which my mother keeps calling us—seems the best question. That statement hit the nail on the proverbial head for me. I immediately saw how the question, which is asked in the opening, could be asked about every scene and memory and about myself and my family throughout the whole book. It also helped me see how to edit out some scenes because they were not essential to this question. The big question helped make the memoir feel whole, feel complete. Before that, it was a conglomeration of memories. The editing was so easy with that one key question.

You say you learned more in the process than any class. Can you elaborate?

I LOVE classes and take more than the average person. I think I went back to grad school after having published my novel because I just love being in the class setting so much. The camaraderie, the friendships created, and the bonds from sharing bad drafts (being vulnerable) are essential to surviving the writing process. But as someone who works on book-length work, I have found that it’s hard to get big-picture input when a class or group is only looking at 10-30 pages at a time. I craved to have someone read the entirety to give me those keys I mentioned before: David Ulin seeing the opening scene as a metaphor for the whole story; Sue Silverman teaching me to look for the metaphors throughout, the one metaphor that repeats itself; and the peer reviewer, Lee Martin, to see the Big Question that was hidden in the grave scene and that really was the thread that pulled all the repeating metaphors together. Maybe I’m dense and should have seen all of this myself, but I think that it becomes difficult to see our own stories from a longer perspective when we are so close to them. I think classes are fantastic for providing deadlines, to give input on the prose style, the intrigue of the story and the development of individual scenes. They teach us how to write, and I am an honest believer in that as writers we never stop learning how to write.  I think Big-Picture readers are essential for the later drafts. My own frustration with the later drafts and big-picture input is why I started the 200-page workshop I do with David Ulin in my living room. I think the peer review process at the university press was ideally the best kind of reader—one who wants you to get published, wants to make your book the best it can be—not the kind that is just looking for what isn’t working, but instead looking for what will make it work.

Did you have to deal with any legalities, in terms of exposing other people? Did you have any personal concerns about telling this story?
I have not had to deal with any legalities, but I did worry about it when I was writing it. I considered using a pseudonym so that if any of the issues of what my parents did came to the attention of someone who wanted to try to cause a problem, I could avoid it. I did a TON of research on whether or not I was exposing anyone, namely my parents, to some kind of legal hassle or even jail time. I called attorneys, museums, archeologists, and of course googled every variation of negative thought I had. Everything I kept finding out was that my parents would have had to sell the artifacts they dug up in order to be arrested or even fined. But I still worry that there will be some kind of problem that will arise. My parents are in their late 80s and that would be a real drag if they were hauled off to prison. I asked my mom if she would have a problem if Homeland Security showed up at her door, and she said, “Good gosh no, I wish they’d come and haul all that stuff out of here.“

Now in hindsight… looking back at yourself at the beginning of the process, what advice would you have given Amy?
I’d tell myself to not resist whatever story wants to show up on the page, and to remember that just because I am writing a book all about myself that I’m not a narcissist, but a storyteller. And, that even though I’m writing a book all about myself, people will want to know my story if I tell it truthfully. And to be me on the page, even if 'me' is sometimes a little shit.


~ Meet Amy Wallen ~

Upcoming Readings + Signings:

February 24th, 7pm @ The Foundry (San Diego)

March 3, 5pm @ The Book Catapult w/ Jim Ruland (San Diego)

March 8th @ AWP Tampa Bookfair (Florida)

March 15, 7pm @ The Innovative w/ Samantha Dunn (Orange County)

April 26, 7pm @ Book Culture w/ Philip Lopate (NYC)

See full details



To learn more about Amy Wallen, visit:

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Publishing a Memoir Under a Pseudonym

When it comes to writing our personal stories, the question of exposure inevitably comes up. How honest are we willing to be on the page? How will others react to our stories?

This month I had the delightful opportunity to speak with MEG McGUIRE about her struggle with these very questions. Her memoir Blinded By Hope, recently published by She Writes Press, is a story about her journey as a mother through her son's bipolar illness. In addition to being a psychotherapist, Meg is an accomplished writer and teacher of memoir with five books already under her belt; she is someone whose work I admire very much. Given the deeply personal nature of this book, she chose to publish under a pseudonym (Meg McGuire). It was not an easy choice, but this was an important story for her to share; equally important was her commitment to honor and protect her son in the telling of it. 

Read our conversation below to learn more about Meg's process in making this big decision.


Karin: I remember talking with you about this book seven years ago, during the writing process. At the time you were not sure how the process would unfold given the deeply personal nature of your story for you and your family. Did you always intend on publishing it?

Meg McGuire: I think I always wanted to publish it, because I have already published five books and consider myself a writer. I felt like the material was really important, primarily because I could see how difficult it was for our family to get effective treatment for my son. He's bipolar and at that time had an active addiction. In terms of the mental health field, they either treated the mental illness or the addiction. There weren't any programs at that time treating dual diagnosis. So my experience was of enormous frustration trying to get him treatment. At the same time emotionally it was such a rollercoaster for me, dealing with the fallout from his illnesses. Writing was keeping me sane. It was enormously healing for me.

Three years ago I got an agent, Linda Langton, in New York. Linda was one of the agents on a panel at the International Women's Writing Guild in the summer institute. I pitched my book to her, and she was very excited about it because she had had a partner who was bipolar and understood the issues. What she had me do before we sent it out was create a blog. She felt like I needed to have a platform in the mental health and addiction community.

I worked pretty hard on that blog, so that when she did send the book out - and she sent it out to over 30 publishers - part of her query letter included talking about my platform and my other books. Nobody was interested in it. Part of it was that it was written by the mother. Several editors wrote back and said, “Why isn't her son writing the book,” which tremendously pissed me off, because I felt like it was my story, or certainly the family's story, and that was the viewpoint that I took.

I did ask my son if he would be interested in co-writing it with me and he said no. He also was not in any shape to be able to contribute to it. I didn't realize that then, because at that time I hadn't realized the extent of his addiction. He read the first 80 pages and did not like it at all. But he did make some corrections that were actually very helpful, because oftentimes I was looking at him through the lens of a psychotherapist and misunderstanding his behavior.

But he wasn't willing to provide feedback on the entire manuscript? 

No, he wasn't. He ended up in prison, six years ago now. I write about that in the prologue of the book. He was inside for almost four years. I sent him 40 pages of the book, and he said it was just too depressing for him to read. I imagine it was humiliating, particularly in the environment in which he was reading it.

What about the consequences for your son, say, in terms of employment? Was that a consideration?

That's a really good point. Thank you for bringing that up, because the lawyers who vetted the manuscript told me not to publish it until he was out of prison because they felt that would jeopardize his job prospects. That was when I was going to use my own name. The truth is, it doesn't matter what my name is. Anybody who comes out of prison has a horrible time getting a job, because on every application you do have to answer the question, “Have you ever committed a felony?” It has just been hell for him trying to get work. 

When did the idea of publishing under a pseudonym first arise?

Three years ago, around the time he got out of prison, I was going to pursue publishing even though it had been rejected by 31 established publishers. I had heard about She Writes Press, which is a partnership press, and I spoke with Brooke Warner who started it. She had been at Seal Press when I published an earlier book with them. She hadn't been my editor but she knew my name. I asked her if she would be willing to look at the manuscript, and she thought it was an important book. So I signed on with them. So when I made that decision, I talked to my son again and said, “Would you be willing to look at it now?” and he said, “No, I really I don't want to revisit that time in my life.” Since he hadn't read it, he didn't realize that I had used his sentencing hearing as a prologue; when he did discover that he was unhappy. So that's when we started to discuss my using a pseudonym.

Fast forward to last August, a year ago, the publicity arm of She Writes put the book out with my name on Facebook. I didn't know this was going to happen. I happened to be teaching on the East Coast, and the way I found out was, I got a very angry e-mail from my ex-husband who said basically, "How could you do this to our son? He's getting back on his feet. This can do nothing but hurt him." And then I got a second e-mail from him citing case law for invasion of privacy. So at that point I called up Brooke and said, “I need to pull the book, because I'm not sure how to proceed. I'm not sure whether I'm going to use a pseudonym or just pull the book completely.”

I met with my son and said, “We have three options here. One is, I pull the book completely. Two is, I publish it under a pseudonym, and three, we write an epilogue together.” And he said, “I'm not interested in writing an epilogue. I'm okay with the pseudonym.” So I said, “Okay, I'll pull the book now and then I'll make the decision.”

So last August I pulled the book, which was not a happy occurrence for She Writes, because they had already sent out all of the books for review. They had to recall 50 books. They were very kind to me. I have to say my experience with She Writes Press has been a pleasure. Both Brooke and Crystal Patriarche, who is the head of their publicity arm--which is called SparkPoint--said, “We understand this is a difficult decision. You always knew that this was going to be a difficult book. If you decide to come back and want to do it under a pseudonym, let us know, because we'd like to bring the book out.”

After I pulled the manuscript, I sent it to a friend who is a novel writer, and I asked her to look at it and see how I could tweak it to become a novel. She read it and said, “It's a memoir. You're either going to have to do it under a pseudonym or let it go.”

So I sat on it for a couple of months and re-contacted She Writes and said, “What will it take to publish it under the pseudonym?” And they said, “We already have it in in galley form, we just have to change your name.” We had to negotiate a whole new publicity package, so it took another six months for them to bring it out this June. It really was a hard decision because I can't use my author's platform. I have continued to write the blog, but I obviously can't put the book on the blog. In terms of publicity, they did a really nice job of getting it reviewed. Originally they said, “Oh we've got somebody from Santa Barbara News Press who wants to come out and interview you and bring a photographer along.” And I said, “I can't do that. What do you not understand about a pseudonym?”

What are your personal ethics when it comes to writing memoir? Obviously there's a legal dimension as well. 

My first question is always, “Whose story is this?” I felt like this was my story, the mother's story that doesn't get told. There are memoirs written by fathers about their child's addiction or mental illness but not by mothers. And the mother, for the most part, is the family member who has to deal with getting treatment for her child. People who are writing memoirs to embarrass family members are always wrong. But I always come back to, “Whose story is it?” If it's your story to tell, then you do have to be careful about other people's reputations. There are things that we can do. We used to just be able to change names and identifying characteristics, but that's really not enough anymore. If you can identify the person, the rule is absolute, meaning they could bring a suit against you. You do have greater latitude in writing about a public figure.

In terms of personal ethics, have you presented a responsible discussion of the other person's point of view? That gets left out a lot in memoir, and that's really something that we should all think about. If you are writing about living persons, what is your motivation? That question always has to be explored. That's why a lot of people will write their memoir and then decide at the end, “Well, I don't really want to publish this. Maybe my motivation wasn't as pure as I thought it was, maybe I really was trying to get back at someone.”

I have been asked this a lot in terms of my son, “Didn't you think this was going to hurt him?” The truth is, I didn't. Maybe that was near-sighted on my part. It could have been that I was so tied up with “What's the mother's story?” The other thing is, in writing that book I was trying to find an answer to how to treat his illness. So part of my motivation was, “Certainly I'll be able to figure this out.” Well I wasn't.

So would I do it again?

The writing of the book was tremendously healing for me, mainly because I had to come to terms with my own magical thinking, my own denial, of my own fantasy that, “Oh this time it will be different, oh this time it will be better, oh this can't possibly happen again.” I had to come to terms with that, and I think I do a fairly good job of talking about that in the book. My hope was that it would be helpful to other families, particularly to give them a language. Since there is so much stigma around mental illness and addiction, a lot of families don't talk about it and they just suffer in silence. What I have heard back from families who have walked this path is, “Oh thank God I'm not alone,” and, “Thank you for giving me language to what my whole family is experiencing.” So I feel good about that.

Once you made the decision to use a pseudonym, did it bring you closer to you son?

When I pulled the book, that certainly brought us closer. He was relieved. When I told them it was going to come out under a pseudonym, he said, “That's fine.” Whether it was really fine, I don't know. I feel like I did the most I could do and the best I could do to protect my son. That was my only concern. He has chosen not to read the book. My daughter read the book and was unhappy with me.

Why was she upset with you?

She felt like it would hurt his feelings. She's rather protective of him. 

What makes it so disturbing?

I think it's embarrassment; I mean, this is our family. There's a certain element of shame. She says she is a person who likes to be happy and she likes everybody else to be happy and she doesn't like confrontation. I would say she's the “light” part of the family; my son and I are the “dark” part of the family. So she didn't want her friends to know. It's kind of ridiculous, because all of our friends know what we've been through. But she is very private. So I tried very hard to leave her out of most of the book, and from the beginning she said, “I don't I don't want to be in your book.” So I only mentioned her twice. I was very careful about that.

Do you have any regrets? Or does the overriding call to get the story out in the world transcend any second thoughts?

It's something that I struggle with all the time. I really felt an overriding call to write this book in a way that I have not felt in writing my other books. A couple of people said to me, “Oh my God, after 31 rejections and then having to pull the book, why are you continuing to do this?” I just felt like it was important; I felt like it was an important piece for families who deal with dual diagnosis. I was reading the paper the other day; fifty percent of deaths right now are from addiction. Drug overdoses killed roughly 64,000 people in the United States last year. It's a worse epidemic than existed during the AIDS epidemic. Luckily my son is still alive. But, just think of all those thousands of families that are having to deal with some of these issues. So that's why I wrote the book. In terms of my daughter's anger, I knew that we'd get through it. She was able to express to me that she was unhappy with it. She also said to me, “I don't want my daughters reading it,” which surprises me, because her daughters went through quite a bit of my son's episodes.

What was the most challenging part for you in the actual writing of the book? 

The most difficult part was looking at myself, my investment, and how my rescue attempts were ultimately a failure. Also, coming to terms with the fact that I needed him to be well so that I could be well, and I really didn't get that until I wrote it.

That's a big revelation.

Yeah, really looking at myself and how addicted I was to his recovery. Also coming from an Irish Catholic addicted family, I didn't want him to repeat the same mistakes as my family. I denied the severity of the addiction for too long.

Did you have that revelation during the writing process?

Definitely. I had to experience that shift to be able to put it in the last chapter.

To be a writer is pretty remarkable.

Yeah, I think writing a memoir is. I've been a therapist for 32 years. I think writing a memoir is much harder than doing therapy. I don't mean doing therapy as a therapist; I mean being in therapy. I just think it's an extraordinary process, and it's a great gift to us.


To purchase the book, click here.

Read more about publishing under a pseudonym in these blog posts by Meg McGuire:

Unfortunate consequences: writing memoir about family members

Choosing to use a pseudonym for my memoir


A Conversation with Cari Lynn

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




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.


To learn more about Cari Lynn, visit

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