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Co-Authoring a Memoir With a Grammy Award-Winning Artist: A Q&A With Rachel Wenrick

February 4, 2014


For most writers, publishing with one of the largest publishing houses in the world is the ultimate dream. For Rachel Wenrick, associate teaching professor of English at Drexel, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In January, HarperCollins released “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music,” a memoir by Grammy Award-winning singer Angélique Kidjo and co-authored by Wenrick. And while publishing with an international star like Kidjo is certainly very cool itself—authoring a book that’s commended by the likes of Bill Clinton, Bono and Alicia Keys…well, that’s even cooler.

Rachel Wenrick

Q: Your role as co-author of “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music” seems almost serendipitous. Can you explain how you were selected for this project?
A: Just before coming to Drexel, I was teaching at Ithaca College, my alma mater. One of my students there, Julia Abramoff, went on to become an editor at HarperCollins. When she got the Kidjo book proposal, she thought of me.

Here’s where the kismet part comes in: my husband, Cyrille Taillandier, who teaches in Westphal’s music industry program, is a recording engineer. He already knew Angélique and her husband, Jean Hebrail, who is a musician and producer. Cyrille worked on albums with both of them in Paris and in New York and later they became neighbors in Brooklyn. But when Julia pitched the project to me, she had no idea I knew Angélique. And when Julia said she had a writer in mind to collaborate on the book, Angélique had no idea it was me. When we made the connections, no one could believe it.

But this web of connections also made it hard because the project touched all these pieces of my life—my work as a writer, as a teacher, my husband’s work, and his longstanding friendship with Angélique and Jean. There was a lot at stake.

Q: So what made you want to tackle the project?
A: Angélique’s life so far has been amazing, so I knew it would be interesting—to say the least. But she’s also a woman of great character and integrity. There is no challenge she backs down from, no opportunity to speak her mind that she lets pass. I wanted to know what that felt like, to move through the world that way, always.

Q: What was it like to co-author a memoir?
A: Daunting. When you’re writing from your own perspective, or from that of a fictional narrator’s, you have total freedom. You work hard to get it right, whatever that means to you. But being trusted with someone’s life story, you have to work hard to get it right, whatever that means to them. It’s an extended exercise in fidelity, both to the person and to the story.

And since Angélique is known for her voice, both as a singer and as a humanitarian, the challenge of getting her voice right on the page was another motivation.

Q: What was your writing process?
A: It was a long process, and a very collaborative one. When Angélique first thought about writing a book, she sat down with her husband and they spent hours recording as much of her story as they could. Those interviews were transcribed. She and Jean are both fluent in French and English, but their first language together is French, so the transcription then had to be translated. Marjolijn de Jager, who is known for her literary translations, did that work over the course of several months. As the translation came in, I conducted research. I also spent a lot of time with Angélique, talking, looking at family photos, listening to music together.

Then I had to work on a way to knit all of these pieces together. I proposed a structure that would use chronology, but would also allow for temporal shifts, honoring how, in African culture, the stories of the past are always swimming within the present. Ending the book at the beginning was a reference to the rainbow serpent, the self-devouring snake of Angélique’s Fon and Yoruba cultures. Once we had the structure, we had a working draft.

At this point, Khushbu Patel, a senior psychology major, joined the project as my Humanities Fellow for the summer. She did additional research and transcription, but her most important role was as our first reader. I asked her to read the draft and annotate it with the questions she would ask Angélique if she could. I did the same. Next we spent a long day with the draft laid out on an 8-foot table, going through it piece by piece, looking for gaps, overlaps, and opportunities to go more deeply into the narrative. Her perspective, both on the manuscript and on the writing process, was invaluable. The book would not be what it is without her work.

We then spent a couple of weeks going through the draft together with Angélique, asking her these questions. The goal for this stage was to begin shifting the story from the reporting of facts to the revealing of insights.

Once we had another draft, Angélique and I began working on the manuscript even more closely together, making comments and revisions in track changes. There were hundreds of comments in track changes—long exchanges on the how and why of a particular paragraph or line or word. Through the entire process, Julia, our wonderful editor, was reading drafts, asking questions, and offering suggestions. That cycle of reading and revision continued until we finished the manuscript this past spring. At the end, Angélique and I were turning chapters around to each other overnight, each concerned that the other was happy with our revisions.

Q: What did you learn through this process? How did it impact you as a writer/professional/professor?
A: As a professor, I learned I’m a better teacher when I’m writing. My brain is more flexible, more open, more energized. I make connections—between texts, to my students’ work—that I wouldn’t if I weren’t trying to do the same thing myself.

Writing this book also reaffirmed my understanding of how people are more the same than we are different and that language, literature, music, and art are ways to explore that sameness and difference. Angélique and I have completely different life experiences. For example, she had to help me imagine what it was like to perform at Carnegie Hall, or to visit a refugee camp in Uganda’s Lira District. But there were times—talking about the births of our daughters, the deaths of our fathers—when it felt like we had inhabited the same space and no explanation was needed.

Q: What was the hardest part of the project? And the most rewarding?
A: Angélique has been interviewed countless times, so she is used to telling her story. She also comes from a place where history is based on oral traditions. It’s in her nature to tell the same story the same way, so that it becomes committed to the common memory. She’s also an incredibly hard worker and she works very, very fast—in the studio and everywhere—which is great, but writing is not an efficient process.

So the hardest part was asking her to go back over stories she had told before, and to go back to painful memories of difficult times and sit with them. To slow down and describe not just the details about how something looked, or sounded, or felt, but also what things meant to her then, and mean to her now.

The most rewarding thing was then watching her make new connections, have new insights, come to new understandings about her life.

Q: So what’s next? Any plans to work on another book/memoir?
A: One day, my grandmother handed me a box of letters and said, “My husband and I wrote these to each other when we were, you know, young.” The way she said “my husband” instead of “your grandfather” immediately intrigued me. We all think we're the first generation ever to be young and deal with the life’s great uncertainties, right?

The box also contained letters from her brothers. Her brother Joe’s plane had been shot down in the South Pacific in WWII, but it was nearly twenty years, 1963, before his body was found in New Guinea. Another brother, Eddie, survived the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach and later married Joe’s widow. Joe’s ghost—he was the handsome one, the boxer—haunted the family, especially since decades passed before they knew for sure what happened to him. And it seemed like Eddie never could forgive himself for living, even to the end.

Everyone who wrote those letters is gone, so now I’m writing to discover their stories—and, by extension, my own.

Read more about Wenrick's work with Angélique Kidjo in DrexelNOW.

Rachel Wenrick received her BA in English from Ithaca College and then went on to work in international public relations for film and TV. After a couple of years in LA and New York, she entered Columbia University’s MFA program in writing. It was then that she first began teaching, in a program for at-risk high school students.