As the world reacts to Prince Harry’s first memoir, Liadán Hynes talks to three publishing experts about the niceties and ethics of navigating writing about real people.
Sophie White has written a weekly column for the Sunday Independent for over 10 years. “It was pretty much always about my life. For the first eight years, it was a cooking column called The Domestic, so there was a recipe and an anecdote about the food and its relationship to my life. Then in 2021 I started a column called Nobody Tells You… that is often about my life though it’s nice because I can also talk about broader issues.”
As well as her fiction novels, including recent bestseller The Snag List, she has also written two books of creative non-fiction. Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown, written in 2016, is a part-memoir-part-cookbook about the nervous breakdown White had at 22. Corpsing: My Body and other Horror Shows, is a collection of essays published in 2021. “I have also drawn on my own life experiences here and there for my novels,” White adds.
She describes the genesis of her first creative non-fiction book. “With Recipes I was very lucky in that a publisher was interested in my cooking column and invited me to pitch them an idea for a book. I felt really strongly that I had this quite specific story I wanted to tell about my past drug use and the nervous breakdown that I’d suffered. I wrote the book in 2015 when I was 29 and had a toddler. I knew I would be writing things in this book that I had never written about publicly before: obviously the breakdown and drug use but also my dad’s illness and suffering from post natal depression and in among it all the recipes that I love.”
White recalls being nervous in the run up to the book’s publication in 2016. “I was anticipating a lot of judgment around the drugs aspect of my story. What I wasn’t anticipating was that people would focus on the one chapter I’d written about my dad’s illness – early onset Alzheimer’s. I think I was a bit underprepared on that front and definitely made mistakes. I spoke to a journalist over the phone about the book and despite my expressly saying I didn’t want to focus on my dad, the article came out with a vile headline about him that was just horrendous. I was really shaken and felt so guilty that I’d done that to him. It was a real violation and really rocked me. I also experienced some trolling on twitter which is why I left the platform soon after. I knew that I couldn’t keep writing about my life, if I started to think too much about the bad faith reactions.”
Her process when writing in non-fiction is to hold nothing back in the first draft. “There can be nothing off limits in that first version. I am very much of the belief that most creative non-fiction is a portrait of a life not a photograph. It is a factual account but one that has been heavily mediated by the author who will always be, purely by dint of subjectivity, an unreliable narrator.”
“When I write about other people I try to be respectful but honest. I ask them to read the piece and they have full power of veto. I am lucky (or unlucky!) that I don’t have a big family – it’s mainly my mother and my husband who I run things by and they are both incredibly generous in their willingness to let me write about them. And actually to this day there has only ever been one veto and it was about something quite innocuous funnily enough.”
White describes having red lines around her children, in her writing. “When I mention them in my work I aim to never be specific. I employ broad brush strokes as I wouldn’t want to invade their privacy. The one thing that I really grapple with is if I am being honest about my life at the expense of their privacy. It’s something I wrote about in Corpsing – the idea that by writing about my alcoholism, I was exposing them as being children of an alcoholic and was this an overstep? When it comes to my children I grapple a lot; I am a full time grappler. I think I will have made some mistakes for sure and that’s something that I will have to live with when the time comes. I can only hope that I raise them to be empathetic and I hope that ultimately my work will empower them to never hide their true selves and know that they will never meet judgment from me.”
If you write non-fiction, then chances are you have been asked the question “is it very cathartic?” As if you are in fact engaged in a form of diary writing, or journalling, to use common parlance.
“I think sometimes people think non-fiction or memoir is like a ‘dear diary’ kind of thing and it’s easy to forget that the writer will have shaped and crafted the narrative often over years. It’s not simply a case of relating events in your life, it’s creating a separate piece of art with these events as the material,” White points out.
Author Emily Hourican has written both memoir, fiction, including her best selling series about the Guinness family, and worked as a ghostwriter.
“As a ghost writer, your fundamental duty is to represent the story of the person that you are ghostwriting for. If they are telling you a story in which their parent, or sibling, doesn’t come out looking great, that’s their responsibility. They need to either be ok with not clearing it, or they need to clear it. But that said, I think that you would always have in mind, what does this person want? And if what they want is not to alienate their family, then you are the extra pair of eyes and ears in the room going, well just so you know, that story makes it sound as if, for example, your mother was neglectful. And maybe you want to qualify it, to give some context to it?”
She describes the duty of care of a ghostwriter. “I do think that there is a responsibility to not just go for the jugular on everything, but to say, just think about this, are you sure you want to include that? Do you want to soften this?”
“Anything that constitutes people’s recollections and memories, particularly childhood, which is quite far away, so it’s an impression rather than a piece of gospel truth. That needs to be considered quite carefully, and I think you’re not being fair if you don’t do that. People don’t always know how things sound,” she adds.
Naturally, when you spend the amount of time with someone a ghostwriter does with their subject, a bond forms between you. “You want the best for them. You are thinking how do they come out of this, how do they go forward after this. Have they done things that they’re going to find it hard to come back from? And if they want to do them, that’s absolutely fine, but do they understand that this is what they might be doing.”
Ciara Doorley is the Publishing Director of Hachette Ireland. She describes what first draws her to a potential story, when working in memoir.
“First of all I think it’s a unique perspective on something. The other side of it is, when you write about something in a personal way, that there are universal themes in it. I think that’s what attracts people to memoirs, seeing a reflection of their own experience.”
Often with memoir, an editor is working with someone who has experienced trauma, and is now writing about it.
“So there is a high level of sensitivity. Because they’re in a position where they’re reliving it, in a way , and they’re examining the feelings that they had with it. Sometimes they end up processing, in a deeper way, what’s happened to them.”
You are reliving past experiences that you wouldn’t necessarily be thinking about on a normal day to day.
“So there’s dealing with that emotional aspect of it with the writer, and then there’s preparing them for the fact that it’s going to be in a book, and the questions they might be asked by the media. It’s just making sure that the person writing it is really prepared, and also is supported. I think that trust between the publisher and the author is huge.”
Usually an author has an idea of what they want to write, she explains, but as a publisher, she feels you are always mindful of ensuring they will not regret putting something into their book.
“Because this is something that is going to be around for years.”