Two Heads Are Better than One: How Author Collaboration Works? by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

We have collaborated on fourteen nonfiction books together.  People always ask “How does it work?” Our more controlling writer friends say they wouldn’t want to have to compromise or worse give in, or even worse divide the royalties in half.  Sometimes we agree to disagree, to table a conflict and get back to it later.  Part of the fun of working as partners is to sit down and hash out places in the text that don’t work and solve the problem together.  A wonderful thing happens when we create something that didn’t exist before, that resonates with both of us.


Jan says, “I am basically a loner. I like writing away in my study for hours. By myself.  But sometimes it gets lonely and I can call up Sandra and tell her that I just had a brilliant idea or I just wrote a really good paragraph and can I run it by her?  To be honest she’s the only one who’s really interested. Why?  Because we’re both alone with our computers working on the same project.  Who else would find it amusing or interesting that the dancer Martha Graham threw shoes in the studio when she felt frustrated, that the artist Alberto Giacometti hid money under his bed, or Dale Chihuly in our new book World of Glass took to his bed and watched movies when he was depressed?”


So who does what, people ask?  We generally work out the structure of a new book together and then divide up it up by chapters.  Then we pass it back and forth until we can hardly tell who wrote what.  Some of our most productive and satisfying times have been when I go to Sandra’s apartment in New York where she serves her delicious homemade bread and egg salad for lunch. Or she comes to my house in St. Louis and we lay the manuscript out on the floor with images and get an overall view.  This is all punctuated with field trips to the museum or botanical garden, which always inspires new ideas. In fact, it was at the St. Louis Botanical Garden, surrounded by Chihuly’s glass sculptures, that we first thought about writing a book about the artist.


The process begins with research. When we write about a living artist, we do an interview, sometimes two, or nowadays send an email with a question.  Nothing beats a face to face with a living artist. There are surprises.  Cindy Sherman is so petite and friendly that it is amazing that she can transform herself so skillfully in her photographs: an over the hill socialite, a clown, a frightened teenager  or a male in an old master painting.  Likewise we discovered an old video of Alberto Giacometti being interviewed in his studio. Listening to his voice and seeing him amidst both the debris and the plaster artworks in his Paris studio, we could step inside, get to know him. Three days in Seattle to interview the artist Dale Chihuly, see his glassblowing Hot Shop, visit the Boathouse where he meets clients and curators gave us an in depth feeling for the man and the way his life and art intersect. We also made a trip to Pilchuck, the glass school he founded in the woods an hour from Seattle. The Chihuly Garden and Glass House in Seattle was breathtaking. World of Glass is richer due to this firsthand experience.


Sandra says, “I am obsessive about research.  When friends and family make the mistake of asking what I’m working on my flood of information can cast a pall over any dinner table in five minutes flat.  But Jan and I gossip back and forth about Diego and Alberto Giacometti, Cindy Sherman, or Dale Chihuly – long intense conversations as if they were family members whose problems and quirks we are trying to understand and solve.  Believe it or not, we both enjoy this process. We like seeing things for ourselves.  This can mean interviews with a living artist, visits to out of the way museums to look at a particular artwork, trips to an artist’s house, touring a building, or just watching a view while the light changes, trying to put ourselves in an artist’s shoes, figuring out a world.  We travel around, usually by car. Neither of us has much sense of direction and as a result we have been lost in seven or eight states plus Washington, D.C. where we started out at the Alberto Giacometti room in the National Gallery. Sure, we could get one of those GPS systems but where’s the adventure in that?”


When we think about it, we realize we’ve written a number of books based on collaboration – Christo and Jeanne–Claude, Martha Graham who collaborated with Isamu Nogushi and Aaron Copland on Appalachian Spring, as well as the Giacometti brothers. The most amazing collaboration we have ever witnessed was our trip to Seattle to meet with Dale Chihuly and watch the teams that work with him blowing glass and then in his studio setting up his installations of largescale glass sculpture. Due to a car accident that destroyed vision in his left eye, he gave up glassblowing himself a number of years ago. Yet his teams call him maestro as he makes drawing of all his new pieces and participates by directing the glassblowing process.

In fact similar to the Chihuly Workshop, it really takes a group effort from the writing to the finished product. So we are enormously grateful to the wonderful people we’ve worked with in publishing over the years.  It all starts with the writing.  We like to think two heads make our books better.  Besides that, we’ve had a wonderful time together.


Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan are the authors of many distinguished books about art, including Action Jackson (a Sibert Honor book) and Christo and Jean-Claude: Through the Gates and Beyond (an ALA Notable book)Vincent Van Gogh, Portrait of an Artist received a Sibert Honor and has been selected as a Common Core “Text Exemplar.” Their last two collaborations, Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring and The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius, have earned starred reviews and Sibert Honors. Ballet for Martha also received an NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children and The Mad Potter was recognized as a Orbis Pictus Recommended Book. Their newest title World of Glass will be available May 12, 2020.