Stories from the Frontlines
Or, How to survive co-authoring a book (with your spouse)
Pamela Scully, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and African Studies,
and Clifton Crais, Professor of History


Vol. 10 No. 3
December 2007/January 2008

Return to Contents

Prediction as the Cure
Gazing into the human body's crystal ball

The "engineers" in bioengineering

“I find it interesting that it’s incredibly difficult to define health without talking about a default position—you know you have health because you’re not sick.”

“There’s significant new ethical ground to be broken here. . . . We’re collecting a large amount of personal information. How do you protect it, who stores it, how do you store it, who has access to it?”

Defending basic science

Looking South Exploring Southern Spaces
The new terrain of Emory's multi-media scholarly journal

The Near Past
Tone and tension in writing about the modern South

Stories from the Frontlines
Or, How to survive co-authoring a book (with your spouse


Some twelve years ago, Clifton suggested to Pamela that they write a book together, a book on the life of Sara Baartman, an African woman born in the 1770s on the Cape colonial frontier of present day South Africa. She lived both a commonplace and extraordinary life on the frontier, in Cape Town, and in London and Paris, where she was exhibited as The Hottentot Venus, a supposed freak of nature and culture. Newspapers, cartoonists, and writers popularized the idea and image of The Hottentot Venus during Baartman’s lifetime and after. The conditions of her exhibition in London led to great controversy and a famous legal proceeding. She died in Paris at the end of 1815. Georges Cuvier, the founder of comparative anatomy, dissected her body and wrote up his findings in scientific publications, including as a chapter in his most famous book, The Mammals. He had a plaster cast made of Baartman’s body and bottled her genitals and brain. Sara Baartman’s remains and the body cast were displayed for many years at the Museum of Man near the Eiffel Tower. The Hottentot Venus lived many years beyond the life of Sara Baartman; indeed the legacy of that icon continues to reverberate today—from perceptions of women’s bodies to the legal status of Guantanamo detainees. (Really.)

Given Clifton’s expertise in the history of the frontier and race in South Africa and Pamela’s as an historian of comparative women’s history and sexuality in the British Empire, the idea of writing a book together made sense. At the time we had a baby, were about to have another, Pamela was finishing work on her first book, and Clifton researching his second. We decided to wait a while. In 2002, Sara Baartman’s remains finally were buried in South Africa in a nationally televised funeral attended by the state president. Books were finished, children were older—the time was right.

Our research ranged from exploring tax records in the Cape Archives to visiting ancient libraries in the center of Paris, driving on dusty South African roads tracking down Sara Baartman’s descendants, and sitting in the calm of the Public Record Office in Kew. Research in Leiden, the Netherlands, and Manchester rounded out the fieldwork. Researching was fun; it took us to wonderful places, and we met helpful and interesting people. The National Endowment of the Humanities, Kenyon College, and Denison University, and, after our move to Atlanta, Emory University supported our work. In short, researching the book was a pleasure, although navigating the French bureaucracy with bad French is not an experience we would happily repeat. We would, we hasten to add, happily return to live in Paris and improve our French.

Then came the writing. We agreed that Clifton would write the chapters on South Africa and Pamela would write the chapters on Britain and Paris, and we would hand them to each other for comments and revision. We have read and commented on each other’s work for years, we are used to working closely together, we are both historians, we both like writing. We had a good plan.

Alas! Writing a book together revealed not our many similarities, but our few, and it seemed for a while, irresolvable differences. First, it revealed our very different work habits. Anyone contemplating co-authoring a book should ask very specific questions as to their proposed collaborators’ work patterns and attitudes to rest and relaxation (yes there are those of us who believe one should do nothing for stretches of time!). In our case, we relearned what we had known all along—we have different attitudes to work. Clifton is a worker in the best early twenty-first century American tradition. Pamela is not an American by birth, ergo she absolutely does not work all the time: she reads, she walks, she talks. Envisage the resulting quagmire. Clifton comes home: “I have finished my chapter, have you?” “No.” “What? What have you been doing?” “Oh, I wrote a paragraph, did some administration, went for a walk, read a book, chatted to friends, emailed my sister.” “what?”

And so it went for three years. It is probably obvious that Clifton’s chapters were finished far in advance of Pamela’s. It might be necessary to say that Pamela thinks that the slower pace of hers necessitated fewer revisions. The jury no doubt will always be out.

Secondly, we discovered, that we were in fact writing very different books. Collaborators, sit down and figure out what it is in fact you think you are writing. In our case we discovered that Clifton was writing a book for a popular audience, thus light on footnotes and heavy on description and atmosphere (he is probably the author whose writing led one reviewer of the final manuscript, to say it is “poetic, even moving”). Pamela was writing an academic book, thus heavy on analysis, heavy on footnotes, very light on adjectives and atmosphere. For a while, the two books fought with each other. Our editor at Princeton University Press rescued us and the book. Brigitta read the book and said it needed fewer details, less description, more analysis. We complied, and she sent preliminary chapters out to readers, who liked the mix of the traditional academic and the more evocative writing style. Voila. In 2008, Princeton University Press will publish our book Sara Baartman and The Hottentot Venus:
A Ghost Story and Biography
in their academic/trade series.

So, future collaborators, it is possible to write together and get a good result. We urge you, however, to be very clear about what you expect from each other, from the book, and what sort of timeline you are working with. As for us, we have vowed never to write another book together again. We are, however, already talking about co-authoring an article—it’s a slippery slope.