Thursday 7 February 2008

Writing in company

It’s almost a cliché that the writing life is solitary. Because writing is such a personal activity, it’s uncommon to write in collaboration with others. But it does happen from time to time, sometimes with massive success. Two cousins, Fred Dannay and Manfred Lee, wrote together as ‘Ellery Queen’ and produced some of the best American examples of Golden Age detective fiction. In the present day, collaborators include husband and wife team Sean French and Nicci Gerrard, whose Nicci French novels of psychological suspense have become best-sellers. I particularly recommend Killing Me Softly, which is a chilly yet truly gripping story. Last year Allison & Busby published the debut novel of the identical Mulgray twins, while the American mother-and-son combination, Charles Todd, and a mother-daughter duo, P.J. Tracy, have produced a number of very popular books.

I’ve done quite a bit of collaborative writing myself and I enjoy it, because to write with someone else forces one to think in a fresh way – which way varies, depending upon the style and preoccupations of one’s collaborator. I’ve mentioned before finishing a book written by the late Bill Knox, and I’ve co-written various textbooks. An email from a legal publisher the other day reminded me of one of the strangest ventures I ever embarked on. About fourteen years ago, I was asked, along with two other solicitors, to produce a book called Know-How for Employment Lawyers (racy title, huh?).

The idea was that the three of us would talk together about issues, following an agenda at each meeting, and that our conversations would be tape-recorded, so that our views could be turned into a book by two young legal researchers who worked on an employment law magazine produced by the publishers. It was a very weird experience, seeing one’s words and ideas written up by two other people. I enjoyed it, because my colleagues were interesting and very knowledgeable individuals, and to our surprise we found that although we came from very different backgrounds (one of the lawyers was a partner in a prestigious City firm, working mainly for large employers, the other was a leading trade union expert, while I was the regional guy) we found that there were hardly any issues on which we strongly disagreed. The book came out in 1995 and there has never been a second edition. But now the publishers are thinking of reviving it. Whether it will happen remains to be seen, but even if it does, I doubt whether we’ll tackle it in the same way as last time.

Back to crime fiction. I’ve recently acquired a book called Ask a Policeman, a collaborative effort inscribed by one of the contributors, John Rhode, ‘In memory of our violent onslaught upon the Detection Club, 14/3/34’. I’ll be featuring it soon in the ‘collecting crime fiction’ section of my website, which brings together various examples of books and crime-related memorabilia which have caught my interest over the years. Quite apart from the inscription, the book is worthy of comment because of the unusual way in which the six co-authors, who included Dorothy L. Sayers, went about writing it. More of this another day.


Juliet said...

Hi 'Regional Guy'! (I love that - you're going to wish you'd never mentioned it!)

I've read quite a few of the 'Nicci French' books and enjoyed them very much, but having read an interview in which they said that they worked by writing separate chapters (not necessarily alternately), I couldn't help trying, all the time, to spot the 'seams'. I think they showed more in the earlier novels. It's impossible, of course, to 'un-know' that they are joint efforts once one knows. I'd love to read a book assuming that it had been written by a single author only to discover afterwards that it was a collaboration, and then look back to see if there were any discernible clues. (Like discovering that one's read a book by a 'male' writer who turns out in fact to be a pseudonymous woman, or vice-versa - in hindsight it changes everything . . . or does it?!)

Is the combination of two highly attuned intellects likely to produce a better crime novel, or is it, in a sense, 'unfair' on the reader to be pitted against not one but two other minds? It's a whole PhD subject in itself!

(PS Have you seen the film of Killing Me Softly? Sean French wrote the screenplay but it received exceptionally bad reviews.)

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! I know nothing much about law, but maybe I should give this a go if it is reissued!
I adore Nicci French's books, have read them all avidly. I also love Nicci Gerrard's books which she writes under her own name: well, I have read the first two and have the third to read on my shelf. They are not crime, I suppose you'd characterise them as "family dramas"; they are jolly good.

I have some other favourite "paired" authors of crime fiction: G H Ephron, who writes about a clinical psychologist academic detective (Peter is his first name) in Boston, the books have titles like Obsession, Addiction and so on. He lives with his mother;-)
The authors are Halle Ephron (sister I think, but if not a relation of Nora) and a chap whose name I forget, but who provides the psychology. They are really rather good.

Another favourite duo is Emma Lathen, two women authors who wrote that great banking series -- green-spined penguin era. Wonderful books.

Martin Edwards said...

Juliet - this idea of collaboration as a subject of a work in its own right has long appealed to me. If I wrote it, it would be a crime novel rather than a thesis, mind you. It's a subject that spills into issues about identity, a very fascinating area. There's a brilliant but little known novel by Hugh Walpole called 'The Killer and the Slain' which is another spin on this theme.
I did see the film, but as you say, it wasn't a patch on the book.

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, I've not read many Lathen books, but the ones I've read are good. The duo also once wrote a truly excellent article about Christie, one of the best I've read. It's in a book of Christie essays edited by Harry Keating.

I don't know GH Ephron, but Halle wrote a book about how to write crime fiction which is quite good.