How to Co-Write a Book 3,000 Miles Apart

“We communicated across the distance between America and England via books, via Dickens, trying to use our different lives in the same common purpose: In dialogue with Dickens.”

By Rosemarie Bodenheimer (RB) & Philip Davis (PD) at OUP Blog: RB lives outside Boston in the United States, PD across the Mersey from Liverpool, England. We have never met in person. We had found each other’s previous writings and ways of thinking sympathetic, in particular concerning the relation of writers and their autobiographical selves in the act of writing fiction. RB began publishing on Dickens in 1979, her book Knowing Dickens appearing in 2007. David Copperfield was part of PD’s Memory and Writing (1983), and Dickens figured largely in his volume on The Victorians for the Oxford English Literary History series in 2002. But we first encountered each other by exchanging drafts of the volumes we separately wrote for Oxford University Press’s series My Reading during 2020: one Samuel Beckett, the other William James.

What made it a real meeting during lockdown was that in each case whoever acted as reader found time and again what the writer had privately felt was his or her best or newest or most exciting place in the manuscript; the reader pointing through track changes and marginal comments to moments of sudden potential that needed or called for ‘more’, for further development. There was a wavelength. We decided to take this affinity and try to recreate it within a fuller collaboration.

Our editor at OUP had already suggested a book on Dickens. But we knew that if wanted to recapture in a different form what we had been able to do for each other in the My Reading projects, it would not be by writing separate chapters in such a book, jointly authored. What we had valued in the right-hand marginal notes provided by track changes was a form of excited interruption, adding an extra dimension to the otherwise continuous unfolding of one person’s thought process in the main body of the text.

We were not simply looking for each other’s cozy approval, any more than we prized merely opinionated disagreement, but what was most radically powerful in the process was when the reader picked up the thought of the writer, stopped it, felt and received its impact, and then gave it back again with added personal weight and a renewed sense of its living value.

…our aim was to show what goes on behind the scenes of a finished, published work, as still part of its meaning.

Often the comments were relatively raw and muted, pointing to something vital, saying wow, thinking of a related or contrasting example elsewhere, or noting that it made a difference somehow that it was this phrase or this situation and not another. This seemed to us more literary, or at least more like what literary thinking came out of, than offering immediate conceptual explanation.

It was also more like speaking, another voice, an informal accompaniment. We felt we could only try to reproduce this sense of a jointly generated spark through dialogue: that spark was what thinking felt like at its best—electric, sudden, visceral, shared across poles—and this was what Dickens himself was like.

More here.