Lisa Dickey is a longtime ghostwriter and author who has collaborated on seventeen nonfiction books, eight of which became New York Times bestsellers. Her clients have included celebrities such as Herbie Hancock and Patrick Swayze, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, and many others with diverse backgrounds, from CIA agents to business titans.
Many of Lisa’s collaborations focus on national and international political events. She collaborated with Roberta Kaplan, the attorney for plaintiff Edie Windsor in the US Supreme Court case that brought down the Defense of Marriage Act. Their book, Then Comes Marriage, was named a top-ten book of 2015 by both the Los Angeles Times and Ms. Magazine. In The World is Bigger Now, Lisa collaborated with Euna Lee, an American film editor and mother who was arrested and detained for five months in North Korea while working on a documentary film. Lisa also worked with Susan McDougal on her memoir The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk, recounting her eighteen months of imprisonment for refusing to testify against her partners in the Whitewater real estate deal, Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Lisa is the author of the 2017 nonfiction book Bears in the Streets, the story of three trips she took across Russia in 1995, 2005, and 2015. Bears in the Streets is an eye-opening and compassionate account of the lives of ordinary Russians whom Lisa interviewed on each of her journeys. Lisa captured their unique perspectives about their homeland and how they viewed economic and political changes over time.
I met Lisa Dickey in June 2017, when she was the guest “Writers at Work” speaker at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program’s summer residency. We spoke by telephone on August 8, 2017, both about her own book, Bears in the Streets, and about ghostwriting. While Lisa was careful to maintain her clients’ confidentiality, the insights she provided about the world of ghostwriting are invaluable to any writer interested in this field.
Judy Gitterman: One of your ghostwriting projects is Then Comes Marriage, which is the story of United States v. Windsor and the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the United States Supreme Court. The Court found DOMA’s definition of marriage as restricted to a union of a man and woman to be an unconstitutional violation of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. You cowrote this book with Roberta Kaplan, the lead litigator for the plaintiff Edie Windsor. The book begins with Kaplan’s first meeting with Edie Windsor and the story then goes back through Roberta’s life from childhood through her career as a lawyer prior to taking on the case as lead attorney. We are back in that first meeting on page 114. How do you and the subject of a book decide on the chronology of a story, and do you prepare a detailed outline prior to writing?
Lisa Dickey: I am not completely comfortable speaking about the specific book, but my preference is to have an outline, a full outline of what the book is going to be and what the chapters are going to be, before we start. That’s my preference.
JG: The legal and procedural issues involving the Windsor lawsuit are explained very clearly. I’m a lawyer, but I think the story of the lawsuit is written in a way that non-lawyers can easily understand while, importantly, the prose doesn’t sacrifice the complex legal subject matter. In other words, there is no dumbing down. How were you and Roberta able to achieve this and did it involve research on your part?
LD: Again, I can’t really speak directly to a particular book, but I will say in general, I think there is a benefit in having a person like me come into a project that gets into some kind of specific detail about a topic that the general reader might not know. I think it is helpful to have someone who serves as a layperson and can say, “I don’t think the general reader is going to understand this,” or “I think this needs to be explained more clearly.” For example, I did a book about the career of Herbie Hancock, the jazz pianist. It was the same sort of thing with him as it was with Roberta Kaplan as it was with Bob Baer (I helped him to do a book about Iran). I was able to say to them, “Look, you are experts in your field. You’re an expert in that subject, this is second nature to you, but I’m here to tell you that as a layperson, I don’t understand this, and so I think we need to explain it in a way that people who aren’t lawyers or jazz musicians or experts in international relations are going to understand.”
JG: That makes a lot of sense. That’s how you’re able to work with people over so many different areas. I’m just fascinated by it.
LD: I will say, though, that the editor for Herbie’s book said to me, “Do you know much about jazz?” I said, “No, but I think Herbie has that covered.”
JG: Roberta’s distinctive personality comes through very well in Then Comes Marriage. You’ve also ghostwritten for Euna Lee, the American journalist who was detained in North Korea for five months in 2009. Euna’s distinct voice is evident in The World is Bigger Now just as Gavin Newsom’s story about how to use technology to get people excited about and engaged in government is recounted in his own voice in Citizenville. All of these are unique voices, different from your own. Is ghostwriting something like method acting? In other words, do you need to subsume yourself in your subject’s personality and, if so, how is that done?
LD: That’s certainly the way I do it. I definitely get very immersed in the life and voice of whoever it is that I’m working with. I don’t do two books at once, because I think it would be very difficult to switch back and forth between subjects and between voices. I know there are some ghostwriters who do that, but that’s not something I’ve ever done. It is rather like acting in a way, because you just take on this voice and this person, and you kind of live it, to a certain extent.
JG: When ghostwriting, about how much time do you spend with your subject? Does it vary with each book? Do you usually do the bulk of the interviews in the beginning, or do you space them out over an extended period of time?
It is rather like acting in a way, because you just take on this voice and this person, and you kind of live it, to a certain extent.LD: The short answer is, I take as much time as the person will give me. I always tell them, the more time they can give me, particularly in the beginning, the better the book will be. And yes, there’s definitely a lot more of that kind of thing at the beginning of each project, trying to understand how they think, and what the story is, and getting all the details of it. And then later on, when there’s the actual putting of the words onto paper, it doesn’t require quite as much face-time or phone-time or things of that nature. Definitely at the beginning, I always try to get as much time as I can with the person. It varies, of course, because all these people are very busy people and, depending on what they have going in their own lives, their work lives, their personal lives, some people are able to give me more time than other people. But I always try to get as much time as I can.
JG: When you’re ghostwriting, do you prefer to start a manuscript with your coauthor from scratch, or do you prefer to start with the subject’s own first draft? I imagine this also may vary and depend on the person whose story you’re telling.
LD: It definitely varies. I’ve done anything from starting from absolute scratch to the person’s having a full manuscript and presenting it to me, to work—or rework—as the case may be. There was one time when someone gave me a full manuscript, and I didn’t think it was particularly useable in the form it was in, so I would sort of pick and choose things out of it, and then we structured the book in a completely different way. So it really just depends. It often comes down to what the client’s preference is. Sometimes people really want to write it themselves and have me help out with some restructuring, and some people prefer not to do any writing at all and just are happy to hand it over.
JG: What advice do you have for a writer who is just starting out and wants to get into the field of ghostwriting?
LD: I would say the thing that’s interesting about ghostwriting is, as you say, it’s not simply that you can be a good writer and that means you will be a good ghostwriter. It really does mean subsuming your own voice to a certain extent. A lot about being a successful—and good—writer, generally, is finding the voice. In ghostwriting, you’re not doing that. You’re finding someone else’s voice. You have to be willing to subsume yourself to a certain extent in the service of doing that. So, think about whether ghostwriting is the kind of thing you’d like to do. I discovered I had a knack for it and enjoyed it really by accident. I was traveling after college, backpacking through Europe. I found that whenever I was writing letters home I would end up writing, just by chance, similar to the voice of whatever book I was reading. So, if I was reading Hemingway, I was writing these short punchy sentences in my letters. If I was reading Dostoevsky, I was writing longer more complex sentences. It struck me by chance. I thought, “Isn’t that interesting?” I didn’t even realize I was doing it; I just sort of unconsciously was doing it. That was the first time that I thought this might be an interesting tool that I have, an unusual skill that maybe I could use somehow.
JG: After ghostwriting seventeen books, earlier this year you released your first book-length piece of creative nonfiction in your own voice, Bears in the Streets. The book describes the three journeys you took across the entire expanse of Russia in 1995, 2005 and 2015. In 1995, you first met with and interviewed a diverse group of Russians in both major cities and remote villages, and in the subsequent years, you reconnected with the same people, and got their views about how their lives had changed and how the country had changed. After so many years of ghostwriting, what was different about writing Bears in the Streets in your own voice?
LD: It was a challenge for sure. Having done ghostwriting for so long and so many different books, I wasn’t really used to taking the lead on what the voice was in a particular book. I would spend time with the person and start to understand the rhythms, and then I would start to understand how the voice would unfold on the page. And so, certainly with my own, it was a process. It was very difficult in the beginning, in trying to figure out What is the rhythm here? What is the voice? I knew I was going to do this third trip in 2015 and then try to write a book about it. […] In 2013 or 2014, I’d been living in Los Angeles and I decided to take a class in stage storytelling, where you get up on stage and spend five or ten minutes telling a story. I thought it would be very interesting to do that as an exercise, to take a class and learn the basics of how you present yourself, how do people perceive you, what is your persona, what is your voice. And the class was actually extremely helpful; I started doing stage storytelling and that was very helpful. So, when I sat down to write my own book, there was definitely a little time at the very beginning where I thought, “I hope I can figure this out, I hope I can do this.” A couple times I even thought, “What if I was my own client, what would I advise myself to do? Let me see if I can write as if I’m ghostwriting my own memoir.” It was a truly weird exercise. In the end, I spent a lot of time getting that first chapter right, getting the first chapter in the voice that I thought reflected who I was and how I wanted the book to unfold. In my experience, once you get the first chapter right, the rest of it unfolds pretty naturally.
JG: In Bears in the Streets, you recounted a number of uncomfortable conversations during the 2005 and 2015 trips. Most of the people you spoke with in 2005 and 2015 loved Putin and were angered by America’s actions in the Ukraine and imposition of sanctions. One woman, Masha, was particularly hostile, and you mention in your book that you felt like throwing the remains of your sandwich across the table when she told you she had heard that the American government was behind the September 11, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers, because it wanted to boost the stock market. What was it like to discuss these topics with your interviewees when you were on the receiving end of such different information? Did you feel for the most part that you could speak freely? If not, when did you decide to hold back?
LD: I did for the most part feel like I could speak freely, and that the people I was speaking with understood that I was there to hear what they had to say, and to a certain extent to tell them what I thought—although I would say that my goal in going over and having these conversations with these people was not to get into contentious discussions or disagreements or arguments or anything like that. My goal was to listen. There’s not that many American writers or journalists who go over and spend a lot of time talking to ordinary Russian people, and so my message to them was: I want to hear what you have to say, I want to know what you think, and I am going to report that, and that’s what I did. The lunch with Masha was frustrating because she was very, very far over on the spectrum, feeling like, essentially, everything the United States was doing was not good, and everything that Russia was doing was better. That was frustrating for me because I didn’t want to get into an argument with her. I didn’t want to be having such a contentious discussion, but at the same time she was saying things that I felt were untrue, I felt were unfair, and so that was a tricky one. But I’ll say this too, I come from a family that has a lot of members with very different political views from me, so just because she was Russian it wasn’t all that different from sitting down at the Thanksgiving table or spending time with my family and having a contentious discussion about politics here, too. It’s very similar.
JG: I think that’s happening at a lot of family Thanksgiving dinners these days. The country is so polarized politically.
And the people who are angriest, and most upset and vehement, often are the people who feel that, ‘No one is listening to what I have to say, nobody cares about what I think, nobody cares about the situation that I find myself in.LD: I do think one of the most important things you can do, if you disagree very strenuously with something that someone is saying—I think it’s very important rather than to simply say “That’s not true and here’s why”—to say very clearly to the person, “I hear what you’re saying and I understand why you feel that way.” Because I think to a very large degree, and I think it’s very true right now particularly in this country, people want to feel like they’re being heard. And the people who are angriest, and most upset and vehement, often are the people who feel that, “No one is listening to what I have to say, nobody cares about what I think, nobody cares about the situation that I find myself in.” And I try to always take time to say to people, “I hear you and I want you to know that I hear what you’re saying, and I am listening. And now here’s the reason why I’m not sure that that’s true, or why I feel differently.” But I always try to preface it with: “I hear what you’re saying.”
JG: That’s important, I think, or otherwise people are going to be so defensive they won’t hear what you have to say.
LD: That turns it more into a discussion than an argument. It’s very disarming to hear someone say to you, “I absolutely hear what you’re saying. Whether I agree with it or not, I’m listening.” You know, everybody wants to feel listened to and you can always see people’s body language change when you say that.
JG: Would you consider discussing, or have you discussed by email or phone, the current topic of Russian interference in the US election with your interviewees?
LD: It’s funny, I’m actually Facebook friends with most of them, more than half of the people I’ve interviewed. I could have that conversation with them, but I’ve tried not to do that just because it is really contentious. I feel pretty certain that they’re going to have different opinions than I do about what it is that’s going on. It’s not something I have sought out, to have that conversation and to essentially get into it with them.
JG: And they haven’t brought it up with you, either?
LD: No, they haven’t brought it up with me. We’re talking a lot about Russia in the United States right now, but we pretty much always talk about Putin and the Kremlin and what’s going on at the highest levels of government, and that includes the hacking, and all of the things going on that affected our election, and all of those various elements. What I really wanted to do with this book was talk about what is the “real” Russia, and not what’s going on between the Kremlin and the White House. A line I use when I give talks is that there’s 144 million Russians not named Vladimir Putin. Those are the ones I want to talk about. And not that their political opinions don’t matter: of course they matter. But I was more interested in, “What is your life like? What do you think about day to day?” Some people wanted to talk about politics but most people didn’t. So, it was more, “How is your life? Can you afford to do the things you want to do? Do you worry about your children?” Day-to-day things. What is it that occupies people, what do they think about? That’s what I was more interested in.
JG: In the news, there’s talk about Putin and the spymasters and Russian oligarchs, but your book really got into the roots of the Russian people themselves. That’s so important. In regard to that, I was struck by how consistently the people you met with were of the opinion that Americans did not respect them or take them seriously—for example, thinking there are bears roaming the streets in Russia. Do you have any suggestions about what actions Americans, and specifically, American writers, might take to help repair relations with the Russian people, notwithstanding this current political situation?
LD: I spoke at a conference in New York a couple of months ago and a guy came up to me afterwards and said: “I’ve been invited to go to St. Petersburg to host a roundtable discussion about such-and-such topic. But given everything that’s going on politically between our countries, I guess I probably shouldn’t do it.” And I told him, it’s the opposite. Now is exactly the time we should be going over there, accepting invitations to go to conferences, go speak, be tourists, or any of these kinds of things. I think it’s not a bad idea. The more that we are able to have connections between our people and the Russian people, the better off we’re going to be. Some people might think that’s really a Pollyanna point of view. But I can say that after spending three months in 2015, going through the country and sitting down and having dinners and talking: there’s so much connection that can be made just on a human level, and I think we have to be open to that.
JG: Have any of the people you’ve interviewed read your book, and if so, what has been their reaction?
…there’s so much connection that can be made just on a human level, and I think we have to be open to that.LD: A few people have read the book, and I sent it out to several [others], and I’m waiting to hear what they have to say about it. The ones who have read it so far seem to be pretty pleased and okay with it. There’s a few I haven’t heard back from yet. We’ll see what they have to say. A lot of them don’t speak English and it’s not been published in Russian, so that definitely makes it more difficult for them to read and understand it, so it might take a little time.
JG: Are you planning a trip back to Russia in 2025, or do you have another personal project for a book on the horizon?
LD: I absolutely want to go back in 2025. I would love to go back and see everybody again and see how they’re doing. An interesting subtext and thread was how drastically technology has changed over this whole time period of the three trips, from this very basic crude website that we did in 1995 through being able to post to Facebook and use Facetime. So I’m also interested in that thread of it. I may well do another book before I go, on a different topic. There’s a couple of things I’m kicking around. For the moment, I’ve just gotten a new client for ghostwriting so I’m back doing that a little bit.
JG: I have to say that after reading your book I’m inspired to go to Russia myself. I had no idea about these various locations you talk about. The lake with all the scientific exploration, the Jewish homeland set up by the government. I’d never heard of those places.
LD: This is the thing. I gave a talk at a university and I said, “What do you think of when you think of Russian people?” And all of the students in the class said they think the Russian people are cold, unfriendly, and unhappy. And as you can see from having read the book, nothing could be further from the truth. There were so many fun and funny moments I had with people, and so many moments of joy. Of course, there were moments of difficulty and there were moments of pain, and there was everything: the whole gamut of the human experience. But for some reason, we just think of Russian people as these weird, cold automatons, which is just not true at all. So I’m glad to hear that it piqued your interest in going there. It’s a place that has amazing history, and there’s just so much to it. Obviously, the situation between our governments is very difficult right now. But I think that’s not a reason not to go, not a reason not to engage. I think we should definitely engage as much as we can.
JG: Thank you very much, Lisa. It’s been great speaking with you. Good luck to you on your next adventure and ghostwriting project, and I’m looking forward to reading more of your work.
LD: Thank you so much, I appreciate it.
Judy Gitterman is a writer who lives in Santa Monica, California. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles and a practicing attorney. She has served as co-lead fiction editor of Lunch Ticket, and as assistant editor for writing for young people/YA.