How Two Authors Collaborated on a Biography

Photo of author Julia Scheeres with the quotation: To collaborate can be hard. When it’s going well, it’s great, because you’re sharing the excitement and discoveries with someone else, but it can be problematic when you start thinking, “Who’s doing more work than the other?”

Today’s Q&A is by author Isidra Mencos (@isidramencos).

The recently published Listen, World!, co-authored by Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert, is a page turning biography of Elsie Robinson, the most read woman journalist of the twentieth century, until now unjustly forgotten.

Julia Scheeres, New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Jesus Land, wrote the book in her hallmark cinematic, vivid style, providing fascinating insight on the life of this trailblazer who defied conventions and relentlessly pursued a writing career until she reached the top. Allison Gilbert provided thorough research on both Elsie’s writings—over 9,000 columns published in papers like The Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Call and Post and a memoir—and the historical context that brings the Victorian and post-Victorian eras to life in the book.

I talked with Julia Scheeres about the nuts and bolts of their collaboration, the craft choices that made this book such an engrossing read, and the lessons she gleaned from Elsie Robinson’s life and career.

Isidra Mencos: I loved your book, Julia. I understand Allison started this project, and she researched Elsie for a total of eleven years. At what point did she contact you and ask you to help with the writing process?

Julia Scheeres: Allison had failed to sell a book proposal on Elsie Robinson, so she contacted me to help her craft a compelling narrative. We were able to combine her research skills—she’s a former CNN producer—with my ability to create a narrative arc and tell a story scenically. When I started writing and I needed a very specific data point to illustrate a very specific story, I would tell Allison. For example, I could ask her, “Allison, can you find out what the divorce rate was in Vermont in 1912?” and she would find out. It’s great having a co-author because you can divvy up the job and cover the same amount of ground twice as fast.

How did you start your collaboration? Did you read the research Allison had accumulated before you started to write, or did you start by reading Elsie’s memoir and columns?

The research Allison did prior to the writing was mainly of Elsie’s works. She had Elsie’s memoir converted into an electronic format, and she also had someone help her create a database with all of Elsie’s columns, but it wasn’t specific to the book that we ultimately worked on.

One of the first steps I took was to read Elsie Robinson’s memoir. Then we spent a lot of time talking about the scope of the book: where it would start, where it would end, what each chapter would be focused on.

I am a big believer in outlines, so I outlined every chapter: this is what the chapter is about, this is the time period, these are the scenes that I want, this is the research that I need, this is the main tension in this chapter, these are the beats.

For example, the chapter on Hornitos. What was the big drama in this chapter? Well, this is when Christie, Elsie’s husband, finds out she’s living in Hornitos with Robert Wallace, and he cuts her off financially, so Elsie is forced to work as a miner to make ends meet, and at the same time she’s trying to send out freelance articles. This is my favorite chapter, because Elsie is so amazing and hardworking: she gets up in the morning, feeds her kid breakfast, walks four miles to a mine, works all day—backbreaking labor in the hot sun of Hornitos—walks home for four miles, makes supper, helps her son with his lesson plans, and then, when she is exhausted, she types up these short stories and sends them off.

Aside from the main outline with the beats of the story, each chapter had its own folder in our shared Google Drive. For example, chapter 5, “Marriage,” had many folders: a folder with a picture of Elsie’s wedding announcement; a folder with information about the house she moved into, the mansion her in-laws had; a folder with the newspaper her in-laws published; a folder on the church she went to; a folder on her son; and then there were stand-alone documents about women’s sphere, sex in marriage, academic papers about Victorian weddings and expectations; then we would go to her poems and columns to see if she had new reflections on marriage. It was pretty detailed.

How did you decide where to start and end Elsie’s story? Because the last thirty years of her life are summarized in an epilogue.

It made sense to start Elsie’s story in Benicia [where Elsie grew up] because it was so formative in forging her independent character. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood goes deep into Holcomb, the small town in Kansas where the murders happened. He talks about how it fostered this sense of trust among the town’s people, so when this horrific killing happened, they couldn’t believe it. Our towns form who we are. You were lucky enough to be born in Barcelona, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, cosmopolitan; I was born in a very rural, small Midwestern town which is very cloistered and close-minded; Elsie was born in Benicia when it was the Wild West, and she had a very free childhood. She wandered around, asked questions, talked to anybody she wanted to, the prostitute, the priest, and everyone in between.

And we knew that we wanted to end the book before Elsie became famous, because after someone becomes famous, who cares? A good story in any medium is all about somebody wanting something and then trying to attain that goal, having obstacles thrown up in their way, and getting over them or around them. The interesting part is the struggle, the tension on the page. In life, tension sucks, but in storytelling is absolutely necessary, it’s what makes us want to keep reading, keep following the story.

The introduction finds Elsie at the peak of her career, when she writes a letter to William Randolph Hearst making demands that she wouldn’t have dared make before. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to open the book with that letter or was it something that you decided later?

It came later. It was a very shrewd decision on Allison’s part to have that intro when Elsie tells William Randolph Hearst, “You haven’t given me a raise in nine years. Why not? And don’t you dare tell me that I should be grateful because I’m a woman.” It immediately shows the reader Elsie’s stature.

Reading the acknowledgments it looks like you used hundreds of sources, from historians, librarians, and others that you interviewed, to books, magazines, newspapers, and of course, Elsie’s enormous production. How did you organize this material?

We worked in Google Docs, because Allison is in New York and I’m in California. We had a huge directory in Google, everything from photographs to primary content, to research, to these obscure academic papers that we came across, that all helped us form the story. I kept having to buy more space from Google because I was running out.

Elsie’s writing is interspersed throughout the book with your own narrative. It’s wonderful because she’s a very engaging writer. I was wondering if you decided consciously how to differentiate your voice, so it wouldn’t be taken over by Elsie’s voice. And how did you go about choosing those fragments? Did you read thousands of columns or mostly the memoir?

When there was a big scene, we always deferred to Elsie to tell the story. That was one occasion where we would let her voice stand on the page. Another occasion would be her descriptions. Some of her descriptions of Benicia in the early days, and what it was like to live there when the sun went down and all the prostitutes marched up the street in their sheer dresses, and all the men would be watching this parade are amazing. Elsie was not only a journalist, she was a poet, she was a fiction writer, she was an illustrator…she had skills in so many different art forms, I was in awe. So I thought, “I’m going to step back and let her tell this.” And it worked great because she has such a distinctive voice.

And how about your voice? Did you feel like you had to choose a different narrative voice than what you used for your previous books?

Obviously we couldn’t use the same flair that you would use in a memoir, so it was a bit more muffled compared to Elsie’s, but there are ways that you can jazz up your sentences or make them sound more interesting. It was a balance of letting Elsie have her space—and she was very ebullient, she could be very effusive and wordy—and having my space, so I tried to almost go in the opposite direction and be very succinct. There were so many cases in this book when truth was stranger than fiction, that I didn’t have to work hard at it. You read the pieces about what it was like for brides in this country when they got married with no information on what to expect on your wedding night. Just finding those pieces of women’s history was fascinating and using them was enough to make the narrative engaging.

I love how you incorporate the context of the era, the place of women in Victorian times, and after the two World Wars, the history of Hornitos, the history of Benicia. You could have gone in a different direction. Say, let’s find a publisher and bring Elsie’s memoir back and write an introductory study. Instead, you decided to write a nonfiction book about Elsie, using pieces of her memoir and her columns. I wonder why you chose to do that and if it was precisely to incorporate all this context.

That’s a great point. Sure, we could have just republished her memoir, but she’d been long forgotten, so that wouldn’t have had any impact. And we wanted to incorporate her context. She overcame tremendous odds to become this renowned journalist, and that was what was interesting, everything she faced and overcame.

And another thing is that she didn’t tell the whole truth in her memoir, there were parts she didn’t include, like her love affair with Robert Wallace. She never admitted to being his lover, but all of the lawsuits [from her husband, who was suing Elsie for divorce and custody of their child on the grounds of adultery] state they were lovers. Robert and Elsie were living together in Hornitos. He was a womanizer, very sensual, and she was starved for attention. How could they not be? That’s why it was more interesting to do a biography because, as you know, having written a memoir, you choose to leave things out, you present one side of yourself to the world and if you become famous, and somebody pokes at your life, they could notice, “Oh, she didn’t write about this affair.” So, in a way it makes the story more objective. It’s a journalistic piece, it’s not hagiography. Yes, she was amazing, but she also did not disclose some facts about herself, which are fascinating.

How long did it take you to write the book?

We asked for a two-year contract because I was working on other things at the same time, but once I started writing, I wrote a chapter a month.

Were you sending a draft of each chapter to Allison?

I would upload every chapter to Google at the end of the month. She would read it and give me feedback, and we would talk about it.

How many of those 9,000 pieces that Elsie wrote did you read?

Allison had an assistant who catalogued all of her columns according to theme, so we could do a word search in this database and find, for example, wherever she mentions her son.

Do you have any plans to produce an anthology of Elsie’s best columns now that you have digitized them, or do you want to leave this for someone else?

There are no plans to do that. It would be interesting, but I’m already moving on to my next project. It feels like all this should be made available somewhere so people could benefit if they are doing research on the era or on women.

The precision of the details in the book is outstanding. It could be a movie, it’s so vividly described. Are you paraphrasing Elsie’s words or are the descriptions based on your own research?

It was a mix. Sometimes we used Elsie’s facts, sometimes it’d be reported facts from going to a place like Hornitos, Benicia, San Francisco, other times we went through old newspapers. The Library of Congress has newspapers dating back to the 1700s that you can search, like the Brattleboro Reformer. We could go through and search for the Crowells, her in-laws, and pull out all this information about their mansion. The same thing about Hornitos, Benicia. There is so much information at your fingertips, and it was during Covid, when many archives were closed, but we were able to access a lot of information online.

What was Elsie’s most inspiring trait for you that perhaps changed you as a writer or as a woman?

Her drive. I feel like I’m pretty organized and driven, I’m able to focus really well, but I’ve been improving working on my focus just because her drive was so outsized. Elsie wanted one thing, and she made it happen. She wanted more than being married to a rich guy and being set for life, which is what success meant for most Victorian women—to be a mother and the wife of a wealthy man. Elsie was bored, and she wanted more; she wanted to be a writer, she wanted to be an artist, and she pursued that goal relentlessly. She fell on her face a couple of times, like when she moved back to California, and couldn’t find enough work and then had to go work in a gold mine in Hornitos. This idea of pursuing what’s important in life, pursuing your dream no matter what, was one thing that I really admired. And another thing (spoiler alert), when her son dies, she suffered greatly but she says at one point, “You know what? Grief is a universal issue. You’re not special because you go through the death of someone close to you. Dust yourself up and get up. You can’t stop living.”

What was the most surprising thing as you were writing this book?

I didn’t know a lot of the context about women’s history. The biggest surprise was learning about Ida Craddock, the activist who tried to offer information on sexuality to women, so on their wedding night they wouldn’t be terrified and surprised about what was going on. She wrote educational tracts for men about how to respect a woman, everything that today is health education class in sixth grade or sex education class in high school. She was arrested for it, and she killed herself rather than going back to prison a second time. Hearing and seeing these stories time after time of women trying to help other women—because we’ve been a second class category of citizenship for so long—was an interesting thread. There wasn’t enough information on women’s health, and gynecology was considered a lesser kind of medicine, so women turned to other women for help, and I wasn’t aware of the extent that this had happened. A sisterhood sprung up.

Would you recommend co-authoring to other writers or would you do it again yourself?

To collaborate can be hard. When it’s going well, it’s great, because you’re sharing the excitement and discoveries with someone else, but it can be problematic when you start thinking, “Who’s doing more work than the other?” I didn’t have this issue with Allison because she’s a very hard worker, she’s a reporter, and knows how to make deadlines, so we were a good match. But I know of other collaborations where there’s always someone who’s doing more work than the other person and resentments can happen.

What’s next for you, Julia?

I can’t really say, but I’m working on something related to my Jonestown book that I’m very excited about.


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