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Collaborating on memoirs (Moehringer and Agassi)

November 17, 2012

Tags: memoir, autobiography, ghostwriting, collaboration, Moehringer, Agassi

Toward the end of an interesting interview with Terry Gross about his novel about Willie Sutton, the infamous bank robber, Moehringer talks at some length about his earlier collaboration with Andre Agassi on Open. It "wasn't very different from writing my own memoir," he says. "When you're writing a memoir the trick, I think, is to treat yourself as a character — to distance yourself from yourself. You write about yourself in the first person, but you think about yourself in the third person. That's the only way you can gain any perspective, any clarity, and keep the dogs of narcissism at bay. And then when you're writing someone else's memoir, you do just the opposite. You try and inhabit their skin, and even though you're thinking third person, you're writing first person, so the processes are mirror images of each other, but they seem very simpatico."

The "first thing that we did," says Moehringer, "was we started a long really wonderful conversation about his life. It worked like therapy. I did - I sat in a straight back chair and Andre sat on a couch and I had a pad in my lap and he really, he dug deep, and together we found patterns and themes in his life. But it did get to the point where I was really worried that I might make some suggestion or render some analysis that would leave him, you know, helpless to Steph and the kids.

"So I started reading, like, Freud and Jung and giving myself this crash course in psychology. And - but he thought that was hysterical, but I was really worried that, I mean, he was digging so deep that I wouldn't be able to get him, you know, back to surface."

Janet Maslin, in her review of Open, Agassi's memoir written in collaboration with J. R. Moehringer, writes that he "uses his writing partner in the same way he uses his tennis support staff: as talented individuals in a universe where he, Mr. Agassi, is the one and only sun. (He said that he offered to put Mr. Moehringer’s name on the book, and that Mr. Moehringer declined.)" (Agassi Basks in His Own Spotlight, NY Times, 11-8-09)

Agassi approached Moehringer after reading his memoir, The Tender Bar, proposing that they collaborate on his memoir. “I wanted to see my life through the lens of Pulitzer Prize winner,” said Agassi. Moehringer resisted, knowing how bad athletes are about providing the material needed to write a first-rate memoir. This was clearly not a problem. They had something like 1,100 to 1,200 pages of transcript to work with, which they dug through together to find themes.

The Times had run an earlier story about the collaboration, by Charles McGrath, which also offered insight into memoirs and collaboration: A Team, but Watch How You Put It (NY Times, 11-11-09). Working from transcripts from 250 hours of interviews, the process felt partly like psychoanalysis and partly like Gilbert and Sullivan.

Thanks to Kevin Quirk, for calling my attention to Terry Gross's interview.