INTERVIEW WITH LU ANN STAHELI,
Ghostwriter on When Hearts Conjoin
Lu Ann Brobst Staheli is a talented woman with a generous heart. I was privileged to meet her at a recent writing conference about the time her newest book, When Hearts Conjoin, was released. Besides having received Utah’s top honors as an educator, she has also won numerous awards for her writing. Respected also as an editor and columnist, she was tapped by Richard Paul Evans to ghostwrite Erin Herrin’s tender story about her battle to save daughters Kendra and Maliyah, her conjoined twins, while struggling to hold her family together. When Hearts Conjoin, is this dramatic story.
Lu Ann, I was impressed to discover that When Hearts Conjoin is so much more than a medical story. It’s really about relationships. Is that what you expected going into the project?
When I first took on this project I wanted to write the story of a family. I knew I couldn’t focus on the medical details because I couldn’t write about the birth or surgeries with a voice of authority. I also didn’t see how those kinds of details could be woven into the story, which I knew had to be told from Erin’s point of view. I tried to keep the medical details the things that Erin herself knew as the events occurred. Of course, I did research and fact-checking to make sure that what I was presenting was as accurate as possible.
I know you are an accomplished author and columnist. How did those different skills combine in this book?
As a columnist, I knew that I could write this book in the short turnaround time that the Herrin family needed. They had been trying to pull the book together for a couple of years and Harpo (Oprah’s production company) had been calling to see when the book would be finished at least two months before we began. I can write a column from idea to final product in less than an hour, so I looked at each scene of this book as a column. Because I’ve written scripts and several novels, I knew I could put all of these scenes together into a cohesive book that would read like a novel, have a story arc, and yet allow readers to experience the journey this family has been through.
What qualities did you see in the Herrin family that you particularly wanted to capture in When Hearts Conjoin?
Character traits are sometimes seen as bad, but in reality those that occasionally have a negative connotation might be just the ones we most need to survive. Erin Herrin might come across to people as stubborn, and that’s just what she had to be to not only bring these girls into the world, but also to work with doctors, social workers, and perhaps even members of her own family to give Kendra and Maliyah the best chance for a healthy and fulfilled life. Jake, on the other hand, seems to be a little more laid back, a sort of go-with-the-flow kind of guy. He is always there to support Erin and his children, but he let’s Erin take the lead when it comes to working to bring good things to her daughters and sons. I wanted to let this family dynamic appear naturally in the book, yet show how each of them had to mature as they worked through their relationship and challenges in parenthood.
How did all the previous media attention given to the Herrins affect the way you approached the writing of Erin’s story?
Honestly, I didn’t look at any of the media coverage until after I had the entire book drafted. If this story was to be Erin’s it needed to come from her heart, from her memories first and foremost. When I was very close to submitting the final product to the publisher, I did review all the links Jake has kept on the family website, just to see that I’d gotten details right without them. This also helped me keep Erin’s voice instead of copying something that had already been published.
Erin Herrin was very candid in discussing the stress in her relationships with her parents and with her husband Jake. What particular challenge did this level of candidness pose for you as an author?
I’ll admit there were times that Erin wanted me to write about interchanges and emotions that were raw and painful memories for her. I felt that there were important for her to have on paper at least for a while as a release. Once the memories were written, she could then let them go. So, the original draft had everything she wanted. We did most of the collaboration via e-mail, so I would send her chapters at a time with everything included, then once we had the basic structure of a chapter I would start to craft it into what I felt would be more palatable for the general public to read. I also wanted to make sure that the book didn’t rekindle old hurts or stress so many passages went back and forth between us until we came to a balance that was honest, without being provocative. I kept asking Erin to read and reread until she felt we’d said just the right thing, then before we went to press, Jake read the book twice through as well. At the book launch party, he told me that it was really hard for him to read those first few chapters, but that they did represent who he was and what was really going on in their family at the time. He’s just glad to be past that now.
I’ve read some other interviews you’ve given where you mentioned that you had to help Erin recall some of the more painful memories needed to tell this story. How did your role change or expand as you worked with Erin?
At first I was just a writer working on a book, but as I had to move into gathering details and clarifying emotions, I began to feel like I’d stepped into the middle of the Herrin’s lives a little bit. At times I’ve felt like a therapist, at others almost like a mother as I’ve had to prod Erin into talking about her feelings and sorting through the chronology of her life. I also came to the book as the expert on writing and publishing, areas Erin knew nothing about. I tried to walk her step by step through the process so that she was aware of what she might expect. She’s had lots of media attention, done interviews for both print and film, but there is still much to help her with when it comes to marketing and publicizing the book. Rick and I are both working with her on those areas.
What did writing this book teach you about yourself and your capabilities as an author?
Although I had ghost-written before in the years I worked for various members of the Osmond family, this was my first foray into writing an entire book in the voice of a real person rather than an imaginary character. I had to learn to focus on hearing Erin speak, using her way of putting words together instead of mine. There were days I thought I was going to pull out of the project. Writing with someone else can be frustrating, especially when it’s someone you don’t know well, and there were weeks that I thought the book itself wouldn’t ever be published, so it was hard to keep myself motivated. But once I actually held a copy of the book in my hands, I was ready to start on my next project.
I understand a screenplay may be in the works. Are you currently working on that project?
Because of my screenwriting experience, Rick and I have discussed the possibility of me writing a screenplay based on this book. Who better to write the story that I already know so well? However, if a film company options the book, the only thing we can really do is express an interest in having me write the first pass. Rick has been acting as my agent in this regard, so we will see what happens. In the meantime, I have four other screen projects on the docket to write, and two that were optioned this past year.
You’ve won the highest teaching honor Utah bestows. How does your writing mesh with your role as an educator?
Obviously I teach writing as part of my curriculum at Payson Jr. High School, and I teach Book Prep classes for WriteWise, a company owned by Richard Paul Evans. As an editor for Precision Editing Group, I try to teach my clients why I’m suggesting a change or encouraging them in a direction with their manuscript so that they can learn from the process. I have one client who had much to learn when I edited his first book, and I spent a lot of time teaching him the skills he seemed to need the most. Recently I edited his second book and I almost cried with joy because he had learned and applied those things that I taught him, making the second book a joy to read from the initial draft instead of many edits later. Even some of the members of my critique group have told me how much they have learned from me about being a better writer, so I guess the teaching part is just a natural thing for me.
What other projects are in your future?
I am currently working on three biography projects with entertainers Alan Osmond, David Osmond, and Jim Karol. In addition, I have two new film script projects I’m writing in preparation for a scheduled meeting with a producer. I have three novels in various stages of draft, and I have four completed middle grade and young adult novels that I’ve been shopping to editors and agents. I continue to write magazine articles and I’m getting back into writing my newspaper column as well.
From Lu Ann:
Thanks for letting me be a part of your blog, and for your kind words about When Hearts Conjoin. If people want to buy a copy of the book, they can be ordered online at http://www.utahtwins.com/. Proceeds from the book sales go to a medical trust for Kendra and Maliyah Herrin.