Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How to Write a Memoir that Sells

I went to a standing-room-only book signing last night. What made it such a wonderful experience was that the book was written by one of my oldest friends—Marianna Riley—and her collaborator, Robert Ellis. The book is Caring for Victor: a U.S. Army Nurse and Saddam Hussein. Ordinarily, this is not a book I would rush out to buy, but with Marianna’s name on the cover, it wasn’t even a question.

Robert Ellis was an army nurse who probably spent more time with Saddam Hussein than any other American. For eight months, Ellis was responsible for the care of the army’s captured Iraqi leaders, but especially for keeping its most valued prisoner, known as Victor, alive and healthy.

Theirs was a complicated relationship. They didn’t talk politics and, in fact, communicated very little at first because of the language barrier. Eventually, though, they found areas of commonality in their lives and forged a bond. In part because of his own background—growing up in the projects in St. Louis—Ellis was able to see the humanity in a man who was thought by many to be a dangerous dictator and a murderer.

Marianna Riley is a consummate pro. She’s been writing a long time for newspapers and magazines and then as an editor and reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I have been a fan for years and, in fact, have many of her early articles in my files. She has always had the ability to make a story leap off the page. So, it comes as no surprise that she was able to capture the essence of both of these men and the nuanced relationship they shared.

Caring for Victor is a memoir writing teachers should insist our students read. It’s right up there with The Liars Club, which is among of the best. The book was published by Reedy Press, a St. Louis company, which proves you don’t have to go to New York for find a good publisher. The publicity for Caring for Victor was amazing. The event was in the papers and on every local news channel. There were not enough chairs, barely enough room to stand, and the line to get our books signed snaked around the room.

During the Q&A at the end of the presentation, Marianna talked a little about the publishing process. I had to ask, “How important was the proposal in getting the book published?”

“The proposal was everything,” she answered. “It was so important. We had our outline, and that essentially became the book.”

Since this is my blog, I’m going to take the liberty of repeating that. “The proposal was everything. It was so important. We had our outline, and that essentially became the book.”

My case rests.


Mark Scott Abeln said...

I was also there! And that quote is quite memorable. I've worked with Reedy Press and am quite pleased with my experience with them.

Bobbi Linkemer said...

Hi Mark. It was quite an event. I think I'll send a copy of the blog to Reedy Press. It's great to get an endorsement from someone else. Thank you.

1Purpose said...

I'm interested in writing a memoir. Will get the book. Thanks