| How To
Shop Talk How to Coauthor a Book and Stay Good Friends
“You should absolutely burn a penis candle before doing anything important.”
What if you only had to do half the work of writing an entire book? Sounds great—half the time, half the effort, half the uncertainty. But then again: half the money, half the credit, and you’re depending on someone else to pull their weight without pulling you down. It’s no wonder that when people try to write a book with a friend, they often wind up with no friend and no book.
We defied the odds in writing our book Basic Witches: How to Summon Success, Banish Drama, and Raise Hell with Your Coven , a book about harnessing the historical and cultural image of the witch to embrace the dangerous, unruly parts of yourself and lead a more magical life. (We even tempted fate by having an entire chapter about friendship.) After a year of pitching, writing, and publicizing, we still like each other enough to interview one another about how we made it work.
Jaya Saxena: Maybe we can start with the big question: How did we do this and not kill each other?
Jess Zimmerman: I feel like that should be a bigger question than it is, somehow. Like, in general: How do people do that, how is that possible? But it also never really felt like a danger. I guess it’s kind of like sharing a living space with someone: There’s no way it should be possible! You should be murdery within a week! But if it’s the right person, it’s actually not all that hard.
Jaya: That is a very good metaphor, I think. Because we were sharing this very intimate space together. Writing can be such a solitary process, and it can really jar you to let someone else in there.
Jess: To add to the danger level, we were actually working in the same document . It probably helped that we were on different schedules and working at different times of day. So instead of both of us being in the same space jostling each other, I would just get into the document late at night and see this beautiful new gift.
art by Camille Chew/courtesy of Quirk Books
Jaya: So much of what I liked about the process was actually that it wasn’t so solitary. It can be really intimidating, for me, to sit with my own work and not have any outside opinions on it, because then I spiral with anxiety about whether it’s good or not, or whether I just spent four pages not making any sense. And not only did we get to split writing duties, but we could be editors and cheerleaders for each other. I liked not being lonely.
Jess: Yeah, I think the most anxiety-producing part of writing a book (and I’m basing this mostly on observing other people, but you’ve done it before) is the point where you’re sitting with this immense brick of stuff that you’ve been devoting all of your time to painstakingly hewing out, all by yourself, and you suddenly decide that it’s all terrible . I’ve had that experience so many times with shorter works, and it’s even worse if you’re looking at months (or years) of effort! We were working in smaller chunks and looking at each other’s work, so we just got constant sanity checks: Okay, that was fine. Okay, that was fine, too.
Jaya: Yes, and on the off chance that something wasn’t fine, it wasn’t because one of us was a terrible person who can’t do anything right. It’s just that we got that one thing wrong.
Jess: There were even a few times, and I had more of these than you, where we could just put “HELP THIS ISN’T WORKING” in the margin and the other person would jump in and make it better.
Jaya: I loved doing that! It’s so nice to recognize that if you hit a limit, there actually was someone else who could help.
Jess: I mean I think you need an enormous amount of trust in the other person to make this work (which is also like living together!). That particular move would have been totally non-functional if I didn’t implicitly trust that if I couldn’t figure something out, you could.
And you need not just trust, but also respect. I feel like the times I’ve seen book partnerships fail, it’s because one person is phoning it in—you know, missing deadlines, doing a half-assed job, passing off all the real work, and then asking why you’re not on Oprah yet. And normally that would be me. I’m very disorganized! But I never wanted to leave you holding the bag, because you’re my friend and collaborator.
Jaya: Yes. And I think the same way it feels better when you trust an editor and all the other people that are part of the bookmaking process, trusting and respecting a co-writer is key. Because, cynically, if they mess up it’s both your names on there.
Jess: Yeah, we did discuss this in regards to our editor, too—how important it was that we trusted her instincts.
Jaya: I admit, there was a part of me that was worried because I’d get these flashbacks to middle school “group projects,” where one person (usually me) was left to do the entire thing.
Jess: Well, and my experience with group projects was often that I wanted to do the whole thing, because other people would mess it up. (Is it possible to be disorganized and a perfectionist? It is, and I am.) So basically you trusted me not to leave you hanging, and I trusted you to do at least as good of a job as I would have. Both of which are real leaps of faith.
art by Camille Chew/courtesy of Quirk Books
Jaya: I also think it helped that we spent a lot of time talking about what we wanted this book to be before we started any writing. Which you don’t have to do if you write a book alone because you’re likely just having those thoughts in your head. But we had to tell one another what we wanted and what we didn’t want, and be open to each other’s suggestions and visions. Wow, this moving in together metaphor is really apt.
Jess: It also helped a lot that we have worked together before, on smaller projects (which in this metaphor is I guess like spending the night?). In that sense, it wasn’t a leap of faith; we knew that we got excited about the same sorts of ideas, that we’re often on the same page or able to get on the same page, that we can polish each other’s work without anyone getting defensive. We just had to trust that this would all hold true for something as big as a book.
Jaya: I’m honestly curious, was there ever any point in writing the book where you thought, “god why did I decide to do this with this bitch?”
Jess: Not even a little! And I was prepared to! Not because you’ve ever been a bitch for even thirty seconds, but just because I have a preternatural (or perhaps merely natural) ability to get exhausted by people. I think part of the reason was that I really did want to, like, live up to you. So there were probably times when you texted or chatted me about the book and I didn’t want to think about it, but my reaction wasn’t “ugh why won’t Jaya leave me alone” but “ugh Jess get your act together.”
Did you? I won’t be offended.
Jaya: I didn’t! And we’re similar that way. I can get exhausted with people I love, too, but I tried to be really aware of when I was running on empty and just needed to step away from the project for a second. (Also WTF live up TO ME you’re ridiculous, I am the one trying to live up to you every day.)
Jess: SEE THIS IS WHY IT WORKED. One thing I really liked was when . . . well, okay, we should probably talk about our ritual!
Jess: We did a little ritual before we started writing, where we went to the witch store and told them what we were embarking on and what our concerns were, and they carved our initials into a giant pillar candle and picked out some scented oils for us. And we went back to your place and each held the candle and talked about our goals and desires for the project, which turned out to be a bad idea because it was absolutely covered in glitter. And the glitter was like . . . sticky. (We also got a white penis-shaped candle that we burned to invoke the confidence of a mediocre white man.)
But anyway, one of your goals right away was “to still be friends when we’re done with this.” I hadn’t thought about that. And I think it was really meaningful to identify that as an explicit goal, and to call it out and focus on it.
Jaya: It’s funny now because that’s so much of what our book deals with when it comes to spells. Our theory is that they’re this way of tricking yourself into admitting what you want. It’s easy enough to say “I want to write a book and I want us to still get along,” but everyone knows you can think something a million times and never act on it. Doing a ritual around it it sort of solidified those thoughts in a way that brought them to the forefront. And it forced us to think and talk about the things we wanted.
Jess: I think if we hadn’t done that, I would have just been thinking about the next step and the next step. How do we finish the proposal? Okay, now how do we finish the first chapter? And so on. But this got me thinking about it more holistically, as a project I was undertaking with another person, rather than a series of tasks.
Jaya: I mean also magic works.
Jess: Well obviously also that.
So I’m at the beach with my family right now, and they made me bring my author copy of the book because, you know, family. And my uncle just told me, “I read a little of the book, and I can’t tell where you end and your coauthor begins.” Which is, of course, by design! I wonder if one of the things that made this go more smoothly is that we already had similar writing voices and similar . . . philosophical commitments, I guess. So there wasn’t a lot of friction in that sense.
Jaya: Ooh, yeah. I get that question a lot too, of how we meshed our writing styles. Some of it I think is because we were editing and suggesting things to each other, so it feels so much like it came out of both of us that I honestly can’t remember which sentences I wrote and which you did most of the time.
Jess: I just assume you did the good ones.
Jaya: But I also think it pays to be flexible when writing with someone else. It mean, it pays always, especially when you’re being edited, but I learned very quickly not to hold onto ideas or sentences if they just weren’t working.
Jess: Yeah, I’ve definitely had collaborations where I feel like that flexibility is a concession , though. I think in the cohabitation metaphor, this is about us having similar decorating sensibilities. Like, Justin (my boyfriend) and I have very similar ideas about how we like a house to look, which makes it a lot easier for me to agree to stuff like, “Can we not have quite so many skulls, like, everywhere.” I still like how the house looks with not so many skulls. But if someone was like, “We are going to have no skulls and also, I don’t know, a white sofa and lots of little tchotchkes all over the bathroom,” I would bristle at that. Because we wouldn’t end up with a house that looked like I lived there, at all.
Jaya: omg no skulls, how do people live?
But yes, I think we wanted to make it feel like we both lived in this book!
Jess: Yeah, and that was easier because we had similar ideas of what we wanted it to look and feel like. (Well, I didn’t realize the degree to which we had ideas of what it should look like until they told us Camille Chew was doing the illustrations, at which point we both went into absolute conniptions over how perfect she was.)
Jaya: That was such a wonderful moment. But yeah, I don’t think you can put just any two people together and write a book, the same way you can’t put any two people together in an apartment and have them get along (flashes back to freshman-year roommate). Even if you have similar ideas and interests, there’s some underlying chemistry that has to be there.
art by Camille Chew/courtesy of Quirk Books
Jess: If people are reading this who are thinking about co-writing a book, what are the questions we think they should ask themselves?
Jaya: One of the biggest things is: What do each of you bring that this book needs? And it doesn’t even need to be an explicit “Oh this person is an expert in X and I’m an expert in Y” thing. But be honest about whether you’re doing this because you’re too lazy to write a book yourself, or because you honestly feel like it will be better if it’s the two of you. I mean, I admit it was very nice to only have to write half a book’s worth of words and still get a whole book out of it, but there was never any point where I thought it would be better if I just did it myself. Your work made me see what I did differently, and I think made me better.
Jess: Yeah, it definitely feels like a huge relief to have someone shoulder half of this immense project, but it’s only going to actually be a relief if you trust each other. Otherwise it’s probably more work, plus the resentment. And you have to split the advance!
On the flip side, I think they’d also want to ask themselves about their biggest anxieties about working with other people—like, what did you hate about middle-school group projects? If you’re not going to be comfortable airing those to the other person, you’re probably setting yourself up for tension. If you can air anxieties, you can get them addressed before they turn into grievances. I never had to worry about how to address grievances with you, because nothing festered to that degree.
Jaya: But airing anxieties was a big part of it, especially when it gets into all the stuff that comes after writing a book—editing, marketing, general logistics. You want someone you can do all of that with, too.
Jess: It would not surprise me if a word cloud of all our texts to each other over the last year revealed that the most common one was “omg!!!!” or “aaaaaaa!!!” or something like that. (Of course, not all of those were anxiety. Some of them were like “omg Camille is perfect” or “omg we finished a book.” But we definitely didn’t have to play cool at any point.)
Do you have anything else you want to say before we wrap it up?
Jaya: Maybe that you should absolutely burn a penis candle before doing anything important.
Jess: Well, I just want to say that it was very nice living in this book with you.
Jaya: Let’s live in this book forever, it’s much nicer than anywhere else.