Have you ever dreamed of writing a memoir but didn’t know where to start? Perhaps you have an enthralling personal story to share but have no idea if it’s marketable. Or you’re wondering how to organize your hard-earned business wisdom into a book. Or maybe you’d just like to write a few humorous essays to send to family and friends. Memoirs come in all shapes and sizes, but there are several universal truths all powerful narratives have in common.
In this webinar, acclaimed novelist and memoirist David Goodwillie explains — and simplifies — the often daunting process of writing and selling a memoir. What are the rules of the genre? How “true” do memoirs have to be? How do you go about writing honestly about the people in your life? And what’s the best way to get started? We’ll talk about craft: balancing the vagaries of real life with the necessity of a narrative structure, the tricks of dialogue and exposition, and the ever-important role of revision.
Then we’ll unlock the secrets of selling your book. What are editors looking for? Do you really need an agent, and what’s the best way to find one? Can you write a proposal, or should you have a finished manuscript? And how do advances work? We’ll also touch on foreign sales and optioning your book to Hollywood. Finally, we’ll turn the discussion over to you, and David will answer any questions you may have about memoirs and the process of creating them.
Read below for a full transcript of the conversation.
Natalie Johnson - My name is, and there we have the prompt. So my name's Natalie Johnson. I'm vice president of Relationship Manager, Training, and Development. And thank you all for joining us today as we talk about the art of self, how to write and sell a memoir. I have the pleasure of introducing our guest speaker, David Goodwillie. David Goodwillie is the author of the novel, "American Subversive", a New York Times notable book of the year, and the memoir, "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time". I really like that title. Goodwillie has written for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Newsweek, and Popular Science, among other publications. He has also been drafted to play professional baseball, worked as a private investigator, and was an expert at Sotheby's auction house. So clearly, he has lived a life and has plenty to talk about. Before we start the session, just a quick housekeeping note. You are welcome to submit questions during the webinar. We just ask that you use the Q and A icon at the bottom of the screen. We will try to answer as many of the questions as we can during the live talk. Also, this event is being recorded, and the replay will be posted on the First Republic website. During the webinar, please fill out the form posted in the chat, if you would like a complimentary signed copy of David's newest book. And the link is there, so please take a moment and fill that out. And with that, let's dive in, David.
David Goodwillie - Great. Thank you so much for having me, Natalie. It's a real honor.
Natalie - Absolutely. So David, could you start off by telling us a bit about the genre of memoir writing itself, and how does that differ from autobiography?
David - Sure. So contemporary memoir is a fairly new genre. People weren't really writing memoirs in the way we think about them in 1950, or even 1980. If you wanted to write the truth or a true-ish book based on life experience, you were writing autobiography before that. Think about, like, Ulysses S. Grant, or presidents, or celebrities. Writing a full accounting of their life from childhood to retirement. Or Winston Churchill's memoirs. It was just a full sweep of a life. And kind of what happened, it was really the 80s and into the 90s, is people started treating true stories, like novels, like fiction, in that they wanted to tell the truth in a story, but they wanted to spice it up and have suspense to it, and have elements of fiction in it. So you have a real narrative arc, you have a story, and not necessarily an accounting of facts as you would in an autobiography. And most importantly, it didn't have to include the full sweep of a life. It could be an aspect of a life. It could be about a certain job. It could be about one relationship. It could be about a lost weekend. It could be about one smaller segment, whether it was time wise or whether it was about a specific person, about a specific thing that happened in a family. And so, it became a much more condensed idea of the truth. And so, a few of these books got published in the 90s. I'll list a few that people here may have heard of. Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes", which was about his saga through a segment of his life back in Ireland. "Out of Africa", Tobias Wolf's, "This Boy's life", Mary Karr's, "The Liars' Club".
These were all bestsellers, but these were all aspects of a larger life. And that allows you to really create drama, and create suspense, and create an almost fiction like novelistic story, but you're still telling the truth. And, of course, the biggest element of memoir, is that you are telling a true story, and it is as honest as you can be. And we'll get into that a bit later, what constitutes truth, and how memory works when you're trying to write about things that happened in the past. So that is what contemporary memoir is, and it has become a huge genre. If you go into any bookstore now, in front tables, you'll basically see a fiction shelf, and you'll see a non-fiction shelf, and half of those nonfiction books are going to be politics and business, and the other half are going to be memoir. And people love true stories because there is a certain, if it's told well, a true story just has natural suspense to it. You're invested in the characters, and knowing that they're real characters is, like, a huge, huge thing. It adds that certain kick to a story. And if an author can write a story well where that suspense is palpable, it just becomes that much more intriguing as a book.
Natalie - So here's a question. How do I know if my story is even suitable for a book or public consumption? Like, I might think everyone wants to hear my fashionista story, but how do I distinguish if that's accurate or not?
David - Yeah, that is a very, very good question that gets to the heart of why people write or want to write. Everybody has a book in them, or thinks they have a book in them, including myself. My first book was a memoir, and I started writing it at age 30. I finished and got it published, I think, at age 33. It was called "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time". And I had accomplished nothing in my life. I was young. I had just gone from job to job in New York City after college. And I had this burning desire to write, but I didn't have any confidence. I didn't know anybody in publishing. I didn't know quite how to do it. And at the same time, I just knew that I had something I wanted to say. But who wanted to, like, listen to it? Who wanted to hear it? What made my story special at all? And the answer is, not much, except for I had the confidence and I had this idea that, like, maybe there was a story in not being famous, or not having started Google, or not having, like, done some great thing yet. And the story was about trying to get over early failure, and trying to figure out what we should be doing, and what means something in this day and age of just kind of general confusion, and what it's like to be young in your 20s and not really having that thing that you're great at yet. And that became the story. And so, the episodes or the chapters in the story were these jobs that I was bumbling around trying to find meaning at. Whether it was Sotheby's auction house, or whether it was minor league baseball, or whether it was, what other ridiculous things did I do? I was a private investigator for a while. And each of these things kind of is inherently interesting for somebody to read about, just because I had that inside view of these things. But I still wasn't, like, successful at anything. And that, in itself, became the story, because the story became trying to be a writer.
So you don't have to be some wizard on Wall Street. You don't have to be a professional athlete, you don't have to have accomplished anything great. It certainly helps if you do, because then you have a natural built audience of people who want to know how you did it and what it was like. If you're an actress, what's it like to be up there on the stage on Broadway? Or if you're a professional baseball player, what's it like to be in center field for the Mets? Like, whatever it is, is inherently interesting. But if you can tell a good story, anybody will read it. If you can write it and if you can figure out a real suspenseful narrative arc to that story, that, in itself, becomes part of what makes that book interesting. So the truth is you don't have to have done anything great, but you do need a good story to tell, and you do need to be able to tell it well. And you have to think about a few things. You have to think about the publishing industry itself, if you do want to publish it, what editors you're looking for, and what would make it a really good book. You have to think about what you're writing about, and the people you're writing about, because, obviously, you're going to be writing about yourself, and you're going to be writing about real people in your life. And you have to think about truth in that perspective, and what the people in the book are going to think about you writing it.
Truth is a very tricky thing. It's a very subjective thing. My truth might not be my father's truth or my mother's truth, or whoever you're writing about's truth. And are you going to be comfortable with that being out in the world? And today, we'll be talking about memoir which you want to publish. It is different than diaries or journals. Let's just assume that you're writing a story to have it be read by a general audience at some point. So are you going to be comfortable with that general audience, and comfortable with the very idea that the more kind of sticky stuff you put into a book, the deeper you dive, the more interesting the book is going to be for the reader, and the better the book is going to be, almost always? The more you leave out, because you're afraid to delve into a sensitive topic or talk about people in your life in a sensitive way, the blander the book is going to end up being. And so, that is a very, very difficult kind of line for the writer to deal with. I know when I wrote my book, I wrote a lot about my parents and their divorce. And I'm sure, I know a lot of it was not something they were expecting to see in the front of Barnes & Noble. And I know that my parents would have a very different reaction, they would write it in a very different way were it their books, even though all three of us could be telling what we would think of as the truth. And so, you have to think about those issues in your real life, because you're telling the truth, and you also have to think about it in a more commercial way, and is this a sellable thing, and the issues that are involved around that, one of which is being honest. Because you don't want to write stuff that's not true and have that be found out in the editing process, because that is not a good thing. And we'll talk about that a little later too.
Natalie - Okay. So with that, I mean, is it possible to have any fictionalized elements based on real events in your memoir? Or even further, is there a line between novel and memoir that you can talk about a bit?
David - Yeah, that's a really great question. It gets to the heart of, like, what truth is in writing. Obviously, we're dealing with memory, and memory is a very, very shaky thing. And just the idea of memoir itself means that we're going to be talking about the past. And it could be a year ago, but it could be 50 years ago. And your, I guess, responsibility as a memoirist is to get to the, not necessarily truth in a factual way where, like, you remember every single thing that happened on a specific date at a specific time in a specific place. But what you are responsible for is getting to the essence of the truth, the essence of a person you're writing about. Whether it's yourself, or whether it is a family member, or a friend, or a sponsoring AA, whatever it is, you are writing about that person and the essence of that person in terms of your subject matter. So say, let's see, what's a good example? Like, say you're writing dialogue. Memoir is like novels, where you're writing scenes, you have dialogue, you have description, you're going back and forth between it. There isn't as much distance as there would be in most nonfiction where you're writing about a specific topic This is the U.S.'s relationship with China over the last 20 years, and here are the different aspects of it. It's a much closer, much more emotionally resonant thing that we're talking about with memoir. And the closer you are, the more resonant the book is going to be, the deeper you delve into emotional issues into psychology, into just the marrow of life kind of, the more resonant it's going to be in the writing itself. So, with that, comes the issues of how you write the truth. So, say you're writing a dialogue scene, you're not going to remember dialogue that happened at it dinner party 10 years ago. But you want to include that scene. So unless you had a tape recorder, which none of us carry around, I hope, because that would be a little weird at parties, but you're going to have to remember that scene as best you can. It's not going to be word for word. But people understand when they're reading memoir that it is not journalism. You don't have a tape recorder on the table.
You're not interviewing somebody. You're remembering something as best you can that happened years ago. And as long as you capture that scene as best you can, you can use elements of fiction to get there. You can use dialogue to further, even if somebody didn't specifically say something, you know what they meant when you were there. And you remember coming out of that dinner, or whatever it is, or that party, and you remember something about that conversation that has stuck with you years and years later. So as long as you can capture the essence of that, you can write that as truth. I mean, kind of with quotes around it, "truth". And the reader's going to know that you are not, you didn't have that tape recorder, and you're not doing it line for line from memory, and that you are using elements of fiction to recreate a scene. And that can be true in, say, you're writing about a dinner that takes place at Balthazar, a popular restaurant in downtown New York, where I live. You'll probably remember the table you were sitting at or something close by. You might not remember the waiter exactly, but you might remember something the waiter said to you that was funny, that stuck with you all these years later. You might remember the dress the person you're with was wearing, but you don't remember that it was Prada, or Gucci, or something. But you can say it was Prada or Gucci to kind of make this seem more interesting and more enlivened, and use those fictional things to make that seem more interesting. So that is when fact and fiction become a bit blurred with memoir. And that is a crucial thing. What you cannot do is lie, right out, straight out. You cannot say something happened if it didn't happen. What you can do is recreate something that happened in the best way you can remember it. And we'll talk about research a little later, which is also a very important part of this, how we remember and how we can recreate the past as best we can. But these are lines that you need to figure out and be comfortable with yourself in terms of what the truth is and how you're going to best put it on the page.
Natalie - Got it. So with that truth, and some of this is from questions in the chat, but what if you're going to talk about something or an event that you might personally be ashamed of, or if you're going to talk about a personal or vulnerable story that maybe you don't want your name associated with. What are your thoughts on including those types of content? And then also, thoughts on, should you use a pen name or your actual name?
David - Yeah, this always happens when I do one of these. The questions from the people watching are much better than the questions that I've written down myself. So you're going to have to figure out how comfortable you are with writing the story you want to write, and how comfortable you are with talking about the people in that story. And that is a huge part of memoir writing. Because it's one thing that puts something on a page and be like, "Oh my gosh, my father was abusive when I was growing up." Something very difficult that is difficult to recount, but at the same time, is the essence of what you're trying to talk about. And so, the more difficult something is to talk about, often, the more interesting it's going to be on the page, and the more it is the essence of your story. Because a lot of memoirs are redemptive stories. Something terrible happened to you or something terrible happened to somebody else you know, and you got through it, and persevered, and became a better person for it. But without the first part, without saying what the bad thing was in the past that happened, the rest of it isn't going to matter much, because you don't have that initial, you're not capturing that audience with the initial difficulty. One of the reasons memoirs become very, very popular is because, as a society, we have gotten much more open about difficult issues. 50 years ago, you're not going to talk about abuse. You're not going to talk about divorce. You're not going to talk about, in public, issues of racism, issues of sexism, issues of gender. All these things have moved incredibly to the fore now, that we are much, and it's still very difficult, but much more comfortable talking about, and that is all around us in society now. This is the kind of stuff of memoir.
This is the difficult stuff that people are putting on a page and making stories incredible and interesting to read. If you walk in or read the New York Times book review on weekends, and the memoirs are, they're all about death, and loss, and recovering from these incredibly traumatic issues that have happened to the writer or somebody the writer knows. So that is what makes something so interesting, the fact that you're reading something incredible or difficult, and that it actually happened to the person. But the problem with that is, as a writer, that's difficult to write. And it's difficult to get into that stuff, and it's difficult to know that you're going to be not selling someone down the river, but you're going to be, like, really getting into uncomfortable territory with people you care about a great deal. And that is the writer's responsibility in terms of talking to those people beforehand. Your original question was about using fake names, whether for yourself or for the people in the book, I would say, as a writer, you use your real name, because it's your story. You're not going to write a memoir unless you're a famous person or some dissident who could still get in trouble with something politically. Like, the whole purpose is that it's your story. And so, if the reader doesn't know who you are, it's not going to resonate as a story as much as unless there's a real reason, a life and death reason to not use your name, which happens all the time. But usually, for normal people, you would use your name. However, you can absolutely use made up names for people in your book, whether it's friends, whether it's family members. In fact, when I wrote my memoir, which was my first book, it's called, "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time," which a lot of people can relate to, there were some very difficult scenes with friends and family in that book.
And I asked all my friends whether they wanted me to keep their names or use a different name. And I'd give them the relevant chapters that they were in. And it was about half and half. Some were like, "Hey, I did this," or "I'm proud of this," or "This is difficult to read, but I did this thing, and I want you to re use my real name." And some were like, "Yeah, no, I'm not that comfortable with this. And actually, will you not put me in the book at all?" And so, you'll have this great kind of, and obviously, it depends on how bad the thing is you're writing, or how difficult it is to relive, how comfortable you are in public, or having your name out there in public. Because of course, in this age of Google and social media, anything, if I put your real name in a book, it's going to come up on Google, like, as soon as that book gets published. So these are things you need to think about. But absolutely, you can use different names. And people do it all the time in memoir. The one thing you have to do is say that you are doing this. So in the acknowledgements, or sometimes there's an author's note in a book, where you'll say exactly what you did to make the reader comfortable with the story you're telling. Yes, scenes were recreated. Sometimes scenes are condensed. A relationship happened over three years, but you broke up twice and got the back together twice. Well, that's a bit difficult to put in exactly, so just say you were in a relationship for an X amount of time. And yeah, that's not exactly true, but for storytelling purposes, as long as it doesn't affect the truth of what you're trying to get at, it's okay to do. And people understand that, as long as you say, "Some of this has been condensed, some names have been changed," and are very honest about it. And almost every memoir you pick up, there's going to be some kind of note explaining how the truth was changed a bit for that book.
Natalie - Got it. So you gave us a couple of nuggets about what we should think about doing if we're going to explore writing our own memoirs. Is there anything else that you could share about the process of memoir writing, and does the process change based on the audience? For example, what if you're just writing this as a record for your family or future family to be passed down to, does that change the process at all?
David - Yeah, absolutely it does. Again, I'm kind of talking about A, book length work here, and B, longer work with the idea of publishing. But I'd say the majority of memoir writing is people recollecting their lives or aspects of their life to pass down to friends and family. I have a bunch of friends and parents of friends who write kind of, I guess, what we would still call blog posts, that are remembrances of the past. And they have this audiences online. And once a month, they'll send out a kind of a newsletter or blog about this happened. I remember this person or this situation. And that is memoir too, of course it is. And you can, again, you're going to be dealing with issues of truth and issues of writing about people that might not be comfortable with what you're writing about. But memoir doesn't necessarily mean getting published by Random House or Simon & Schuster, it also can be a much smaller audience. It can be for an audience of one, but usually yourself. But usually, that would be kind of more diaristic stuff. And what makes memoir, part of, I guess, the definition of it would be that you're writing to be read by others. And that because of that, you're also revising, you're making the writing sharper, you're aware of other people that are going to be reading this, and it's not just diary thrown together at six in the morning when you wake up and remember a dream. It's stylized, and it's meant to tell a story, and it has an arc to it, and it's going someplace.
You're starting here, point A, you're trying to get to point B. It's a suspenseful telling, whatever that story is. It can also be a shorter form. I mean, we all know who David Sedaris is. He writes memoir, memoiristic essays, I would guess, and he collects them in book form. But he also publishes each one in the New Yorker, or whatever magazine he's publishing it in. And that very much is taken from real life. Just because it's 10,000 words instead of a hundred thousand words, it's still a memoir. And he's still dealing with the same issues that a book length story would be. He's writing about his family all the time. He's writing about his husband all the time. And these are issues that I know he, in fact, he's more of a comic writer, but he's constantly talking about, "Oh, my sister's going to hate it when she reads this." So he is putting that issue into the story and making it part of the story. And as a reader, you're kind of intrigued by A, the story he's telling, but B, what are these people who are actually in the story going to think when they're reading the story as well? So it adds another kind of layer to what he's trying to do. So it doesn't have to be something you're aiming to publish, but in general, people who are writing memoir think they have a good story, and often do have a good story to tell, and want a larger readership for that story.
Natalie - So thinking about the readership or even the publisher, more specifically, how do you gauge what a publisher might be interested in considering a memoir? And also, do you think that there's more interest in failure and suffering than there is about success and sort of the high moments in life?
David - That's a great question. There are definitely, in the publishing world, like in any artistic form, there are trends that are hot in any given moment. Not just the trend of memoir, but trends within memoir. For a while, mountain climbing and outdoor heroics of, like, kind of writers like Jon Krakauer telling stories of climbing Everest. Like, everybody wanted those types of memoirs. Searching for lost gold in the Indies, whatever it is. Those kind of, like, tough guy travel, beat the odds and beat the terrible weather, and get to the top of the mountain stories were hugely popular in the 90s. Because fiction and nonfiction often mirror each other, and because it often mirrors what happens in the news, today's stories of refugee crises, and traveling, being an outsider in a new place, stories of immigrants' movement around the world. Especially in the literary world, for decades, we had the kind of John Cheever white guy in the suburbs stories. Now, the writers and readership are tremendously diverse, and we want to hear different stories. And it's become an industry where publishers want to publish work from voices that we haven't heard of, from experience we haven't heard of, sometimes from geographical places we haven't heard of. So that becomes a trend. And so, as the writer, it helps to be aware of these trends and what people are looking for, but it also doesn't matter. You can write anything, and if it resonates, if it's an interesting story, no matter what it is, you can write about trying to become an Olympic swimmer and failing, whatever it is, anything that you honestly experienced and can retell in a compelling way that has suspense, that has a point of view, that has characters, not just yourself, but the other characters in the book, that people want to read about and care about, and see what happens to them.
Sometimes it is great to have a redemptive story, but a lot of times, stories just about loss, and dealing with loss, and dealing with suffering. We've all gone through the last few years here, and I bet there's just spate of memoirs that come out in the next year or two about these crazy few years of COVID and how people survived it, or didn't survive it, or how people kind of reshuffled their lives and did different things because of it. And there's going to be a tremendous readership for that because we all experienced it. And part of memoir is reading about stuff that you yourself have experienced, whether it's okay, I've eaten at that restaurant as well, or my mother died too, and wow, this person dealt with it in this way. And I've thought of it like that. I dealt with it in a different way, but it's incredibly interesting to me. And so, it can be anything. But the more relatable you are, obviously, the more interested the reader's going to be, the more interested editors are going to be to buy a book. So it doesn't have to be on trend or on kind of stuff that's in the news that day, although that certainly is interesting to people. But what's most important and what you as a writer has to think about is the story and how you tell the story successfully, if you have a good one.
Natalie - Got it. So with the story and telling the story, research, you touched on this a little bit earlier, but research is important. So can you share some ways that you think is the best way to gather primary research on people you're talking about or details? And then also, do you have any writing prompts that you could share with the group who might be interested in writing their own memoirs?
David - Those are good questions. So research is obviously super important. We're all working off the primary research tool, which is memory, and what we remember about whatever the time is that we're writing about, whether it's a person, whatever it is, a city that we're writing about that we lived in for a certain amount of time. But memory, as we all know, is very malleable, and full of holes, and subjective, and it comes with all kinds of caveats and issues. So you want to supplement memory with as much material as you can. If you're writing about your grandparents, say, before they die, it would help a great deal to go interview them and put some memories on tape. And it doesn't mean you're going to use the recordings verbatim in your book, but it'll give you an idea of a fuller idea of the person you're writing about. Interviews are great, letters, photographs from the past. You want to mine the subjects that you're writing about. You want to get as close to the truth as you can. And in that process, of course, you're going to discover all the stuff that we were talking about before, just before this, and stuff you were learning about your family that you didn't know about when it was a project that you were thinking about as a book, and the book never happened, but all this other stuff happened. That is so typical of what memoir can do and where it can lead, and how research becomes important to the process. Public records are a huge thing.
Obviously, crime is a major thing people like to read about and listen to, podcast, books, whatever it is, true crime. Well, public records are a big aspect of that. Social media, mining social media, going back and looking at old posts from 10, 15, almost 20 years ago now, social media has been around. Trips you took, places you went. The music of that age. Say you're writing about the 1970s, well, what were people listening to then? Go listen to those albums. You want to be in in that frame of mind. And that works fictionally as well. I'm writing a new book now that's historical fiction, set in the late 1940s. So I'm, like, going and reading about the politics of that time in Europe, and post war stuff, but I'm also, like, listening to the music of that era and reading about, and trying to watch movies from that era, and trying to kind of get a sense of the surroundings around, kind of a way that a novelist would do. Well, a memoirist should do that too, because it's going to come out in the writing because you're writing atmosphere, you're writing scenes just like you would in a novel. So all that research helps a tremendous amount. So it's not just your memory. And all of this also makes you remember more stuff, of course, as well, because the more you would have delved into a topic, the more it is going to come to light as well. So it should help in a number of ways.
Natalie - So as you were talking, a great question came in to the chat. So what are some of the nuts and bolts with this process? What do you use? Do you carry around a journal or a paper notebook and jot everything down? You mentioned tape recorders. Do you need to have everything outlined, or do you just write the first draft and see where it goes? So can you talk a little bit more about that?
David - We're assuming, like, you're writing a book here. You're going to have stuff that you're going to want to, yes, have journals. Because you're dealing with real life stuff, you're going to want to get as much from that time period as you can. You're going to have memories that come to you, whether you're a novelist or a memoirist, that' be great to be able to jot stuff down. It'd be great to have a tape recorder, great to have your little notes on your iPhone. And stuff comes to you, of course it does. But the main thing is the story. And you have to figure out not only what you want to write about, but how you're going to write about it. And again, this is, like, stuff novelists deal with too. What is your point of view going to be? Are you going to write in the first person, or second person, or third person? People can write memoir in third person. It happens all the time. How close are you, in terms of voice, how are you going to tell the story? Is it going to be a super intense close telling of something, or are you going to have some distance from your characters and from what you're talking about? These are all things a novelist has to figure out that a memoirist does too, because you're writing in a creative, non fiction way. You're writing in an almost novelistic way. And so, those things are very important too. Also, with memoir, our lives are very jagged, often boring things. Tremendous amounts of downtime happen, and then little short bursts of excitement. And what we have to have with the book is a very smooth narrative arc with a story that's set up in the beginning, stuff happens, and stuff gets resolved at the end. So those are two very different things, and it is the writer's job to make a jagged life full of kind of mundane stuff, but also full of little burst of excitement, into a much smoother story that brings the reader along in chunks of suspense, and gets us deeper and deeper into something that is going to be solved at the end, or at least revealed at the end.
So, with memoir, sometimes it is just as important to figure out what to leave out out of the story as it is to what to put into the story. Because you can get too much into writing about your own life. This happened, then this happened, then this happened. And it starts to not serve the story you're trying to tell. So the art, sometimes, comes in what you leave out rather than what you put in. Because what you put in has to be smooth. It has to further the story that you're trying to tell. Just like with a novel, there can't be a bunch of superfluous stuff that kind of is a funny little anecdote, but doesn't necessarily serve a larger story you're telling. So think about that, because that's what makes memoir a good memoir, is that kind of, like, a thought that goes into it. And so, it's not just the little mementos and little snippets of the past that you remember or that you dig up, it's how you tell the larger story, and that takes time. And just like a novel, it takes a ton of revision. It takes throwing away chapters sometimes that don't make sense. That part of it is extremely similar to novel writing.
Natalie - Got it. So what if you don't have the patience, or energy, or maybe it's just not in your wheelhouse to write your own memoir, what do you recommend? Is this a space where you see people hiring ghost writers? Is that acceptable? And then, also, if you are up for the challenge, is there a credible way to get coaching on your memoir project that you would share with the group?
David - Yeah, ghost writers, that's a whole bag of worms, as I say. A lot of people use ghost writers. Usually, you are a famous person if you do that. You're a celebrity, you are a titan in business, you have the funds to do it, but also, you don't have the time. My publisher also publishes some pretty hefty business people who are well known, who I'm fairly sure did not write their own books, but what they did is sat down with a very good ghost writer and figured out how to do the story. It happens in fiction too, all the time. James Patterson, this is going to become a shock to most people, does not write his own books, but farms them out after sitting down with an author and coming up with an outline. And the author goes and writes it and comes back, and James Patterson slaps his name in large font on the cover, and the poor author has it in tiny font, if he has it on the cover at all. With memoir, it happens all the time, except, usually, you're a famous person. You are not going to be a person like me or most memoirists who are writing about a specific thing that happened to them, and getting very emotionally involved, and spilling family secrets and all this other stuff, and then have a ghost writer do that, because that kind of, that doesn't make a lot of sense, and it's not going to serve the story you're trying to tell. But if you're, what's a good example? Andre Agassi had a great memoir several years ago that was a huge seller. And it sold so well because he had an incredibly good ghost writer.
The guy who wrote "The Tender Bar", Moehringer is his name. He wrote Andre Agassi's memoir, and did an incredible job, obviously based on interviews that he had sat down with for hours and hours with Andre. And Agassi was never, he's not a writer. He's never going to be able to tell a story like that, but he met the perfect person who got what he was trying to do. And together, they wrote this book that was wonderful that never would've existed without a ghost writer. So I'm not saying that it's necessarily a bad thing, but it's usually something that you kind of do if you're a celebrity. And of course, if you're a celebrity, if you're Britney Spears, or Taylor Swift, or something like that, there's going to be a limit to how deeply you want to get personally on the page. And so, a ghost writer would make sense in that way, because it's much more of a, not a puff piece kind of book, usually, but a lot of celebrities don't want to get too deep, obviously, into their personal lives.
Natalie - Got it. Another question or topic that's been popular in the chat is around permissions, and lawsuits, and being sued. So one, how do you protect yourself against being sued? And another question is around how much caution do you need to exercise to avoid a lawsuit? And then, what if you are trying to recollect a story about people, and you just don't know their name? So therefore, you can't ask for their permission. So, in that case, is the permission even needed?
David - Right. So this is getting to, again, the heart of memoir, which is truth and honesty, and the difficulties around that word. The first kind of great memoir time period was the early 2000s. And all of a sudden, young people like me were writing memoirs. There was a great memoir by a guy named Dave Eggers, who's still a major writer, called "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius", that came out in 1999. And he, like me, hadn't done a lot with his life, but he had this incredible take, a generational take, that a lot of people kind of could respond to about kind of coming up in this kind of weird 90s scene and not knowing what to do with one's self, and what's important in the world. And he was able to kind of capture that zeitgeisty thing and make it a generational book. And after that, like, the floodgates opened. And all of a sudden, memoir was just like novel writing. Anybody could do it if they could do it well. Then came 2006, I think, and a guy named James Frey, who wrote a book called "A Million Little Pieces" that he sold as a memoir, and it was a massive hit, and he went on Oprah. He was selling hundreds of thousands of copies, and then it turned out it wasn't true, and he had lied about the whole thing. His publisher hadn't fact checked it. Oprah dragged him back on the show. He sat there crying, and apologizing, and making excuses. He had his mother on Oprah. It was not great. And for a few years, all of a sudden, the idea of memoir changed, and memoirs kind of died for a little while. And when they were resurrected, truth and fact checking became a much, much bigger deal. Publishers started fact checking when they didn't before, really.
They just relied on their authors telling the truth. The idea of lawsuits became a huge thing that was kind of out there waiting if somebody wasn't telling the truth. And so, that is now out a part of it. And you need to kind of, especially if you're talking about people who are still alive and well known people who are out in the world, you need to tell the truth, and you should hire a fact checker, or at least go through it with the people in the book to prevent lawsuits. But then if you're being published by a major publisher, there's a good chance you're going to get fact checked as well, just as if it's a work of journalism, and you need to be ready for that. And that's a discussion you'll have with your editor when you sell the book, or even before you sell the book, because an editor has to be pretty sure that there isn't going to be problems down the road as well. So yeah, lawsuits do happen because you are kind of saying that this is truth, even if it's your version of the truth. And if you're talking about other people, say, you work somewhere it turns out you didn't work, or whatever it is, like, you can get in a lot of trouble for doing that. And so, now, the good news after the James Frey craziness is that it's a much more truthful genre that people tend to take very seriously, and it's kind of tightened its reins in that way. But again, that's what makes it so resonant, the fact that these stories are true.
And that's what makes it them so readable and so unbelievably believable, in a way. So yeah, lawsuits are a big part of it and something you need to worry about as the writer as you're writing it. But I also wouldn't get so caught up in, oh my gosh, this person's going to hate this. This person's going to sue me. This person's going to, like, I know I promised I'd never. If you go too far down that road, you're never going to write anything. You're just going to get so jammed up and so worried about every little thing that, often, I would say, unless you're outright lying, I would say just write what you want to write and worry about backpedaling later on, worry about showing people and taking stuff out later on. It's hard enough to write a long form book without being constantly worried about every single person thinking every single thing. And we already live in this age where you can tweet one thing and it becomes a huge thing. So the good thing about a book is you have control of it until you don't, until it's out in the world. But just write the thing, and then you can edit stuff out that you're uncomfortable with later. But don't worry about every sentence as you're writing.
Natalie - Got it. So let's say you finish the piece, you're ready to work with a publisher. So how do you actually sell a memoir? Where do you go? A real publisher, a self-publisher, virtual, hardback? Talk to us a bit more about that process.
David - Sure. I think I feel like if everyone's just, like, wandering around the room, now they've just run back to their computer, "This is what I was waiting for." Yeah, so selling a book is a very interesting, sometimes difficult to understand part of the process. A memoir is a lot like a novel in that, especially if you're a first time writer, or a younger writer, or you're not known as a writer, you need to write the whole book before you get an agent, before you send them off to editors, send the book off to editors. If you're writing real nonfiction, if you're like a White House reporter and you're going to write a book about some administration or something, because you have a body of work, you can write a proposal and sell the book on a proposal, get an advance for it, and then go write the book. But if you're writing more creative stuff, whether it's a novel, or whether it's a memoir, you almost always have to write the book first. Even if you have, like, a huge Instagram following, whatever it is. The editor needs to see what the book is, where it's going to go, what the story is. And it is a creative endeavor, so they have to read the writing. They can't just take your word that you're a good writer and it's going to end up great. They need to almost always read the whole thing. And that makes it difficult because you're basically writing on spec for that period of time.
So you have to keep that in mind. But when you have a book or something that you think is ready to go to send out into the world, after you've showed it to everybody who's in the book, after you've meticulously edited and edited, and fact checked, and all this stuff, and really, you get to a point where you can't even read another page because you're so sick with it because you've been working on it so long, then it's good to go. Then you want to find an agent. You cannot publish at a major publisher, and there's five of them, Random House, Simon & Schuster, or Harper Collins, a couple others, FSG. And so, you need an agent to represent your work and send it to editors at those publishing houses. And it's not just five places. You can send it to 20 places, say, because there are different imprints at each publishing house that you can send off to. So there are a bunch of places you can send. But it is an agent's job to figure out what editors or publishing houses would respond best to what you've written. So there are editors that love publishing sports memoirs. There are editors that love publishing business memoir, and have had success doing that, including my editor. There are editors that have specialty in women's issues, in civil rights stuff. Whatever it is, those are the editors that my agent, that's my agent's, every agent's job, to know what editors are looking for what kind of stuff to put together a list of editors at publishing houses and send off your book, your manuscript, to those editors specifically. Now, how do you find an agent to do that? So there are just, like, there are a bunch of top publishers.
There are a bunch of top literary agencies, each with many agents. Some are boutiquey, some have dozens of agents. Most of them are in New York City. And the good news is agents are looking for new stuff all the time. They do not make a living unless they have new stuff to sell to publishing houses for you on your behalf. So the best way to find an agent is to find the kind of book that you've written. If you've written a memoir about how to start a tech company, go to Barnes & Noble and look in the tech section and find similar books to you. Go look in the acknowledgements and find out who the agent is. Writers always thank their editors and agents first. And go do some homework and write down the names of agents that have agented very similar books to yours. And then, also, go find some books that you love reading yourself, whether they could be fiction, they could be not and fiction, and go find those agents too. Because you tend to write like you read. You tend to write the kind of stuff that you read. Even if it's not necessarily that genre, that can sometimes help too. So come up with a list of agents, write them a query letter. They always have their email, usually, online. Be very professional about it. Sometimes they say, "Send a first chapter." Sometimes they'll respond and say, "I'm not taking on new clients," but usually, they are taking on new clients. And if your cover letter's good, and your pitch is good, and your story sounds good, they're going to want see it. Every single week, except during in COVID, usually, my agent is having lunch with editors. And every lunch, those editors are saying, "Do you have anything new? What do you have?" Like, "I'd love to read X, Y, and Z." They're always looking for new stuff.
The book industry is a constant churn. And so, it's not impossible. If you write a good story, there's a great chance you can find the agent who loves it. And then that agent is going to send it to a bunch of editors. And what you want is for more than one editor to really want the book, because then you have an auction, and often, the book goes to the highest bidder. Sometimes it's not just about money. Sometimes you'll go meet with an editor who wants it, and you love one editor much more than another. You think one editor gets your story better than another editor, even though the second one's offering more money. So it's a whole combination of things that you're going to end up weighing when you end up choosing a publishing house. But you do need an agent first. That agent hopefully finds an editor that gets your vibe, knows what you're trying to do. And you'll talk about, you'll have a meeting with each editor that's interested, beforehand. And that editor will say, "Well, this is what I love about the book, but this is what I want to work on too. I think the ending is too slow. I think that we need another chapter here," whatever it is. And your writing side is going to take over your creative side, and sometimes, you're going to push back. Sometimes you're going to be like, "Oh, yeah, he's totally right." Usually, they're pretty right. Like, they're editors for a reason. And so, all of that goes into the decision of how to publish and who to publish with. But memoirs are still an incredibly hot area of the book publishing world. And if you have a good story to tell and you tell it well, there's a really good chance that you can find a wide audience for it.
Natalie - Got it. So talking about telling it well, there's a question around, do you have any tips of about honing your voice and making sure that it's in line with what publishers might be looking for, and sort of the details about creating this story in a way that people will resonate with?
David - Yeah. Voice is so, so important in writing. My favorite authors, and kind of talking about novelists here, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, David Mitchell is an English writer. I almost don't care what they're writing about. I love their voice so much, how they're telling the story. It just engulfs me. And it can be contemporary, it can be historical fiction. Whatever it is, I don't even care. Like, the way they're telling it, the voice they're telling it with, it just is alive to me. That is something you can learn a bit, but it's something a bit instinctual too, and it's something that you should be aware of. And in the beginning of the book, there's going to be a lot of kind of trial and error with finding that voice. The voice that, A, you're naturally good at writing, but B, that makes sense with the story you're trying to tell. So you don't want to have a real distant kind of like kind of voice that's when you're trying to tell a super emotional story of loss or something, or illness, or some relationship where you're just trying to get to the core of something, you want to have a real close voice. You don't want to be robotic about it, in a way that you would be, maybe, if you're telling the story of a business success or something that's relatable in a kind of larger, broader way.
The founder of Google is going to tell his successes. "Then we met with this investor, and then this happened, and this happened." That can be a more distant voice. But if you're telling something that's raw, something that's emotional, the voice almost chooses you in a way because it's going to be raw and emotional to write. And it's going to be difficult to write, but that's also what's going to make it great. And so, make sure in the beginning that you're comfortable with the voice that you're then going to carry through the rest of the book. And again, that's, like, an instinctual thing a bit, but it's also something you need to be aware of in the back of your mind. I often, like, I think there's a shelf books behind me, but I often, like, go and I'll remember a book I read five years ago, or 10 years ago. And I'll say, "I remember, like, she was doing something with the voice in the book, I think would help me now." And I'll go back and read it, and try to pick up tips or tricks that she was using, and the way she kind of remembered things, or the way she dealt with pain in a book or something like that. And it helps me as a writer as well. And so, sometimes it'll be a totally different subject, but the voice can be similar. And so, yeah, it is crucial. It's a huge part of writing, finding a voice you're comfortable with, just as finding a point of view you're comfortable with. Other stylistic things, like, some people write a ton of dialogue. Some people write a ton of description. That's kind of a more universal thing than just memoir. That's like how one writes. And there are a million ways to do it, and that's what makes writing, writing.
Natalie - Well, one last question for you. What are three of your favorite memoirs that you could share with the group, outside of the one that you wrote. But do you have any titles you could share with us?
David - Yeah, so the one that made me kind of want to write a memoir was that Dave Eggers book that came out when I was still very young in my 20s, wanting to write, having moved to New York to write, and having no idea how to do it or what to start writing. I was too scared to write a novel, make up a story from scratch, at that point, but I thought I'd lived a weird life, and some people might want to, like, kind of, I guess the point of the book was early failure's okay. You don't have to figure out your life at age 23, like our parents kind of had to, or their parents. And so, it's called "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius". I think it's just a wonderful book that I enjoyed immensely and helped me in my career. What else? Mary Karr's book is wonderful. It can be like war memoirs. We haven't talked about that. "Dispatches" by Michael Herr is an incredible book about being in a war. Just the horrors of it and the up close, personal. We're talking about how you tell a story, the voice of the story. His voice in that book is incredible. And it's not an easy read, but it's great. "Kitchen Confidential", Anthony Bourdain. One of the great New York books when I first moved here. No one had really written a book about what it was like to be a chef in a busy New York restaurant kitchen and the craziness that went along with that.
And he basically started the whole industry writing that one memoir. And countless TV shows, a whole brand out of one book that was basically the story of his life and a couple years in a steakhouse in midtown Manhattan. And I loved that book. It was just such a slice of life. I love slice of life books that have to do with lives that I don't know about. Like, they're going on all around me as I sit in New York City. That is stuff I love. So those are certainly three book that I think are wonderful. I have a good friend named Melissa Febos, who's a wonderful memoirist, who's done a ton of different things. Writes a lot about women's issues, but in an incredibly broad way that everyone can identify with. So check out her work, it's very kind of front of mind. And even memoirs like "A Movable Feast", Ernest Hemingway. Wrote this incredible book about being in Paris at a specific time. With all these classic, F. Scott Fitzgerald, it's so different than his novels because it gives you a glimpse into their actual lives beyond the page. And that's a great classic memoir for someone who wants to kind of go back in time a little bit. So those are some that definitely affected my life.
Natalie - Well, thank you so much for those recommendations, and also, for spending the last hour with us. I think that we all have learned something. And just a reminder to the audience, if you want a free signed copy of David's latest book, "Kings County", make sure you fill out the link that was just posted in the chat. Click on that link and fill out your information. Thank you all for attending. There will be a replay of this session that's posted on the First Republic website, and I hope you all have a good afternoon and evening. Thank you.
David - I want to say real quickly, Kings County is not a memoir. I wrote my first and only memoir back in the earlier 2000s. But it is a novel about New York City. It just came out last year, and I hope you guys enjoy it a lot. And thank you, Natalie, for doing this. It was a wonderful session, and I really appreciate it. First Republic is my bank, and I love it, and thank you so much for having me again. It was wonderful.
Natalie - Absolutely. Take care, everyone. Thank you.