Co-Authoring a Book with My 20-Something Daughter
Was I endangering a precious relationship just for the sake of a writing assignment?
In August 2010 I wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine called “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” that took a new look at young people between the ages of 18 and 29 who seemed to be stuck in adolescence, either unable—or uninterested—in taking on the responsibilities of adulthood. Was this period a new rite of passage? Or sheer self-indulgence? The article hit a nerve and went viral, becoming the #1 most emailed NYTimes magazine article of the year and the most-shared article on Facebook. Inevitably, publishers soon asked me to expand the article into a book. “Only with my daughter,” I told them.
I was interested in writing a book to explore issues I couldn’t examine in only one article—the decisions young people make about schooling, careers, marriage, and children, and to what extent their experiences were the same as the experiences of previous generations. But what really interested me, I must confess, was the chance to work with my 20-something daughter Samantha, one of my favorite people on earth who is objectively—ask anyone!—a delightful person and a more than competent journalist who (unlike her print-oriented mother) has mastered the new media, first as online news editor of The New Yorker and now as the online editor of The New York Times Magazine.
Samantha, now 28, and I were accustomed to doing things together, starting with the mother-daughter book club we formed when she was in fifth grade and kept going until she graduated from high school. When publishers approached us, we were both volunteering at Girls Write Now, a local mentoring program for high school girls, and we’d also just started a co-ed book club. And, of course, we had similar careers, and were already traveling in many of the same professional circles.
Samantha was game, but she worried that her friends would think it was a little bit weird to be willing to work so closely with her mother. She also worried that people who didn’t know her would think she was getting a chance to write a book that she hadn’t earned.
I worried, too. Was I endangering one of the most precious relationships of my life just for the sake of a writing assignment? Any co-authorship is fraught with occasional resentments, insecurities, and power plays. “Where two people are writing the same book,” Agatha Christie once said, “each believes he gets all the worries and only half the royalties.”
To complicate things, ours was a book about 20-somethings, making Samantha the in-house expert. I would have to defer to my daughter’s insights—an important task for any mother, but especially tricky for someone with a fragile writer’s ego like mine. (Luckily, Samantha has more of an editor’s ego, which is made of sterner stuff.) And on top of that, our subject matter would occasionally veer toward the personal. Could either of us reveal our true thoughts about work, love, family, and—God help us—sex, while the other was metaphorically peering over her shoulder and reading the early drafts?
Samantha and I outlined the book together, sitting side by side in a coffee shop in Midtown. After that I did the bulk of the writing and she did the bulk of the editing. Our original plan had been for me to write a draft in a “we” voice, and put it in our shared Dropbox for Samantha to edit and youthify. But it soon became clear that the “we” didn’t sound like either one of us, so we shifted gears. In the end, I wrote the book in my own voice, and Samantha wrote inserts—which we set off in a different typeface—in which she commented on my narrative and added her own perspective.
In the chapter called “Love and Marriage,” we switched roles: Samantha was the main writer, with inserted comments from me. Since Samantha is single, she told me she didn’t want me to write the marriage chapter, afraid that every study I quoted would feel to her like an unspoken criticism. As she wrote in the book, “I’d rather feel that my singledom is being silently judged by some distant scholar than by my mother.” And I don’t have any direct experience with 20-something dating, anyway, since I’ve been married to the same man since I was 19.