Open Mic Blog

SPOTLIGHT: Jane Congdon

Posted on March 24, 2014 at 10:50 AM

                                      Jane Congdon and Joseph Barnett
                               Co-Author Lessons

Jane Congdon


“I would not say ‘fret’ under penalty of death.” My brother was reacting to my wording in the latest chapter of Mr. Joe, the memoir we were writing. My ability to absorb the critique and Joe’s ability to offer it in the first place were signs of our progress.


My job as co-author was to help Joe bring his story to the page. It was not a story I knew.


Joseph Barnett and I were strangers, having spent most of the previous forty years apart. As children we had been united against a common enemy: our alcoholic mother. Ours was a house of secrets; otherwise, I would have known that my little brother was haunted by our grandfather’s ghost; that he was claustrophobic, yet often crawled under the dirty laundry to hide; that in his teens he repeatedly ran away.


Both of us left our West Virginia village in 1966, going in different directions and missing most of each other’s lives until a brain tumor reunited us in 2006. As we embarked on the book project, Joe’s life unfolded on my computer screen. I came to know my brother again through the haunting, challenging, life-affirming story of a school custodian known as Mr. Joe.


Every writing journey is different. Here are highlights and insights from my six years co-authoring Mr. Joe: Tales from a Haunted Life (Bettie Youngs Books, 2013).


1. Have fun.


“Have fun” is one piece of advice that’s empty if you can’t follow it and unnecessary if you can. Initially I listed it last--a postscript--but it is the most important, because the challenges will come.


Writing Mr. Joe was an adventure of discovery and bonding for my brother and me as we shared childhood memories and learned about one another as adults: workers, parents, and grandparents. We surprised ourselves by being more alike than different. We did have fun. Today we live near one another and are the best of friends.


2. Nurture your relationship.


Thanks to the Internet, some co-authors may never meet. Because Joe and I sat across a desk from one another, it was imperative for us to create a safe working atmosphere, one in which we could comfortably express our feelings. That took time. We were family, but our relationship had gone dormant, and two polite acquaintances cannot write a memoir.


3. Understand your contract with one another.


What are your obligations as a co-author? A publishing contract will likely be a boilerplate document emphasizing the publisher’s interests.


Joe and I created and signed a COLLABORATION AGREEMENT specifying our responsibilities, the order in which our names would appear on the book cover, the division of royalties, and our joint commitment to participate in the various stages of the project. Our publisher amended it to our publishing contract.


I could have been a ghostwriter, a “with,” or an “as told to.” Joe and I reasoned that neither of us could have written Mr. Joe without the other, so we chose equal billing; to us, the title identifies the main author.


4. Find your process.


How are you going to work? Do you have the tools you need? Will you have to change your schedule? I used to get up at 5:00 a.m. and write; with Mr. Joe, work began later and required me to get dressed and put on makeup.


Through trial and error, Joe and I found a process that fit our skills. His sharp memory counterbalanced my need to write everything down, and my writing experience offset his desire not to type a 91,000-word manuscript. He told his story aloud to me, and I typed it. We met in coffee houses or in one of our homes. During our sessions my job was to keep up with Joe and capture his voice. Afterward it was to massage the material into a readable narrative while retaining that voice.


A memoir is a merger of good writing and the truth. Truth can be lost to word choices, and one of my challenges was to repress my wild desire to string pretty words together in my own way.


5. Acknowledge your fears.


Writing with another person can bring up all kinds of worries. Will the workload be divided evenly? Will he or she come through? Will the finished product meet or exceed expectations?


Joe worried about other people’s reactions to his revelations, for example, that he had seen ghosts. His other expressed fear was that my writing would smother his story and it would become my version of his life, which was unacceptable.


My fear was that he would chicken out. I had to condition myself that the work might come to nothing. I hated the idea of stopping for many reasons, one being my fear that we would face a lawsuit for breaking our publishing contract. I kept that one from Joe.


6. Buckle up.


Co-authors can have totally different experiences writing a book. Sometimes your book jerks a knot in you.


Joe went through the wringer reliving his darkest moments from the past, times he had managed to forget until we dredged them up. His torture was often relentless. Mine lasted only three weeks.


We had a huge procedural issue and didn’t know it. As the stories spilled out of Joe, he assumed that only what he said during “work time” would go in the book. I assumed that he would censor himself; thus, anything he told me was fair game. The result of our clashing assumptions was disastrous. In an early draft sent to readers, I unknowingly included material my co-author presumed confidential. The trust we had built was nearly destroyed, but we did recover. The upshot: a signature line was added at the end of every chapter, and no chapter was final until Joe had signed his approval.


7. Hindsight is 20-20.


There is no predicting where the adventure of writing will take us. Only afterward do we see the whole story.


Mr. Joe was published in 2013. None of our fears came true. The bonds of family were stretched, but they did not break. In the end our voices merged on the page; Joe likes to say that he can’t tell where he stops and I begin.


One day when we were still working on the manuscript, Joe said, “I don’t care if we throw it in the fireplace when we’re done.”




“I suggested a book because I knew it would take a long time, but I didn’t think we’d really write one,” he said. “I did it because I wanted to spend time with you.”



                                   *    *    *


Jane Congdon and Joseph Barnett are members of West Virginia Writers, Inc. Natives of Glen Ferris, West Virginia, both now live near Cincinnati, Ohio. After retiring from a thirty-year career as a textbook editor, Jane published the memoir It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother, and Me (2011, Bettie Youngs Books). Mr. Joe is her second book and Joseph’s first. It's available in paperback and e-book formats from Amazon and Barnes & Noble online.

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Reply Eddy Pendarvis
5:14 AM on March 26, 2014 

It's good to see your face in the photo and read what you've written, but I'm most happy to be able to tell you again how much I liked and refer to your memoir It Started with Dracula. I've mentioned it in several workshops, and I recommend it to anyone who has fond memories of Bram Stoker's Dracula or who likes travel literature!

Reply Jane Congdon
5:41 AM on March 26, 2014 
Margaret, thanks so much. Mr. Joe includes a chapter about our collaboration on the book as well as one of our early adventures after being reunited--a trip out West. I think Mr. Joe turned out to be a nice blend of past and present, especially the way it fills in the blanks about Joe's life when our family was scattered to the winds.
Reply Jane Congdon
5:51 AM on March 26, 2014 
Eddy, it's so good to see your post! Thanks so much for mentioning the Dracula book to others. I so appreciate your spreading the word. Sometimes I wonder if the title we chose was the best one to attract a general audience. Not everyone is a Dracula fan, I've found, and many don't realize that the book is not scary or gory. It's about me--a woman of 59 who decides to go to Transylvania and finds reminders of home.