Like daughter, like mother - what happens when you write together

Published on: 03 March 2017 Author: Robbie Hunt

We asked Michaela DePrince and her mother Elaine, co-authors of the bestselling Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina, to talk about writing together.

Michaela was born in war-torn Sierra Leone in 1995. Her parents both died during the civil war, and she was sent to an orphanage.

Later, Elaine adopted Michaela, and they started a new life together as a family in America. 

Michaela's memoir of becoming a star ballerina from being an orphan in Sierra Leone is now told in a new book for younger readers, Ballerina Dreams (Faber & Faber). 

Here, they talk to us about what it was like to tell this story together and write as mother and daughter. 

What's it like writing with your mum/daughter?

Michaela: I enjoyed writing with my mother, but I honestly must admit that I had the easier part of it. When I was very young, I would tell my mother about my life in Africa, and she would write it down in a notebook and transfer it into her computer files.

When it came time to co-author books with my mom, I didn't remember too many details about my earliest life. However, I read all of my mother's notes.  Consequently, my memory was refreshed by what I had told mom years before.

Mom and I would talk about everything, and I would call her often to discuss any new memories, thoughts or feelings. I had horrible typing skills, but mom is a terrific typist, so she would write what I told her. I was really just a kid of 17 when we began writing Taking Flight. Mom had to play the part of a mother, and keep me focused.

Elaine: The writing of Michaela's memoirs is something that began long ago when she was quite young. If I hadn't interviewed Mia and Michaela about their early childhoods in Sierra Leone, and written it all down, we wouldn't have had a lot to work with. Once we decided we were going to write Michaela's memoir, the responsibility fell on me to locate those files in my old computer, and then convince Michaela to work with me on it.

At first, she agonised over not being able to remember her earlier life, and she didn't want to write when she was so busy dancing, but eventually we made it work. Michaela enjoyed sharing old anecdotes and feelings that she remembered from her past.

How do you write together - do you have a process? Do each of you have particular tasks?

Michaela:  My task was to read the notes that Mom took when she interviewed me as a small child. My other task was to share my feelings and my thoughts about my future. Sometimes I wrote these down and sent brief emails. Other times, I would call mom, and she'd type while I talked.

Unfortunately, there was no order to what I had to say. One second, I'd remember a mother in the ballet school who was mean. Then I'd talk about dyeing leotards and tights.

Elaine: After my conversations with Michaela, I'd analyse what she had told me the night before. Then I'd put the different bits of information into separate chapters that I had set up in the manuscript. Sometimes, in one night, several chapters might grow by a couple of sentences. On other nights, only one chapter might explode with information.

Once the manuscript was coherent and relatively complete, I would submit it to our agent. I was the one responsible for changes and editing.  Michaela was a dancer and I was a writer. It would be expecting too much of Michaela at that early stage to have her immerse herself in the minutiae of editing and polishing.

What's the best thing about writing together?

Michaela:  I think that the best thing about writing together was having all my mother's attention for myself.

Living thousands of miles from home, dancing, I was often homesick. Writing helped me feel better.

Elaine: To me, the best thing about writing together is that we got to remember so many of Michaela's memories, many of which made us laugh.

Elaine, did you always read to Michaela when she was a child?

Elaine: From the earliest times that Michaela was with me, we would sit on the sofa at night, or around the kitchen table at night, and I would read to Michaela and Mia.

Then, when Mariel arrived two years later, she squeezed in too, and I read to all three little girls. But I wasn't the only one to read to them. Their dad read to them every night before bed, too.  

Take a look at our favourite picture books about mums

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