Collaborating With the Enemy

Wait a minute. This is not about treason; it’s about that misunderstood term, co-author. The title of this piece is just a smart-ass way of saying that writing with another person sometimes feels like that, even if it is not true. Of the 33 books I have written, 11 of them were with the same co-author, Matthew Margolis, which is not a bad track record, considering how few collaborations last more than one or two outings. I wrote three of my books with members of the faculty of the veterinary colleges of Cornell and UC Davis, and one was written with 57 participating experts from the Cat Fanciers’ Association. Whew! That’s a lot of co-authors. None were ever enemies but at times there were the inevitable disagreements.

I want to say from the gitty-up that all of these literary excursions were educating, satisfying, and very rewarding situations, and ones for which I am very grateful. I would not have missed one minute of it. Some situations were even life-changing. Still, writing with other people is not necessarily a dream come true or even a day at the beach. There are times when it is an emotional roller coaster ride and you really have to watch out for those breathtaking dips that curve on the loop. Writing with others can make some aspects of the work easier and some, much more difficult.

Writing a book with another person is like experiencing the routine of married life first and having the honeymoon after the divorce. Writing partnerships make some of the same demands of a…okay, I’ll say it, marriage. There are some definite parallels.

Having been married and having also been a co-author many times, I feel qualified to make the comparison, although it seems to me to be quite obvious. Writing anything with a co-author — books, articles, or seed catalogs — is like being married for a time and sometimes the relationship, good or bad, goes on past the actual work. Only a very few people really know or understand the person with whom they are involved with either in a marriage or in a writing collaboration. For better or for worse, it is a process of discovery, sometimes a process of revelation. It has always surprised and amazed me. What is necessary is the fine art of tolerance and compromise, unless of course you are convinced that your instincts about a writing point are the best ones. When co-authors collide there can be a thunder in the valley and neither time or an outside opinion can save the marriage. Temperament or ego must never prevail.

I did not start out as a writer with the notion of collaborating with anyone but I did not start out to be a dog or cat writer, either. These are things that stood in my path like a dancing bear in the forest and I had to choose whether to run, fight, or dance. Thank God, I chose to dance. The truth is that my early work as a writer was in serious fiction and drama. I had in my typewriter at the moment of truth 520 pages of an unfinished novel and a three-act drama in progress when fate placed a dog in our lives that chewed everything it could get its jaws around including my hair brush and the baseboards. A young man, just starting out as a dog trainer named Matthew Margolis, came into our apartment and into my life and turned everything inside out. I had never met anyone with his jolting energy and persuasive manner. And oh yes, I had never met anyone for whom all dogs would give up their lives. My Siberian Husky, Pete, went gaga over this man and did things for him that he never did for me. My wife and I were quite impressed.

When “”Uncle Matty”” discovered I was a writer he waged a campaign to get me to write a book with him about dog training. I resisted with all my might. I was too involved writing about a teenage girl who was mentally challenged and being abused by her uncle. It was a serious drama that had the interest of two great Broadway producers, Kermit Bloomgarden and Arnold St. Suber. I caved to Margolis on the advice of my agent who pointed out that I hadn’t yet earned a dime as a writer. It’s hard to say no to a William Morris agent.

For two months, we sat in the back room of my cold-water flat on MacDougal Street and talked our way through a proposal, an outline and a sample chapter. It was a truly painful experience for me to give up supremacy over my own creative instincts. At the time, I knew nothing about dog training and Margolis knew what seemed like everything. However, he didn’t have a clue about writing and had no command or sense of the language. He did not have at the time the organized mental process needed for writing a large work and couldn’t retrieve his own knowledge of dogs. He did not know how much he really knew, which was quite a lot. I, on the other hand, the one who had been writing since childhood and totally involved with the artist’s life, was arrogant, smug and defensive about the fact that I hadn’t earned any income yet as a writer. We were meant for each other.

I turned in the hated book proposal to my agent and promptly forgot about it. A year passed, my dog had been beautifully trained, my play was produced in a small theatre in SoHo and a sort of dullness had set in until my agent called. “”Hi. Guess what I just sold?”” My heart beat like a drum. “”My play? You sold my play?”” “”No, forget that. I sold Good Dog, Bad Dog.”” My heart sank. “”Oh, no. Am I really going to have to write a book about dog training?”” My agent laughed and said, “”You will for $10,000. I sold it to Holt, Rinehart and Winston!”” I gulped and resigned myself. In 1969, that was a fortune. Shortly afterwards, Margolis showed up almost every day for a couple of hours and we sat in my back room and hammered out a book. It was agony for both of us.

In the beginning, we forced ourselves to be civil. I was sarcastic. He was scattered. I was highly organized. He was respectful (and more tolerant than I deserved). I wanted to discuss the command “”Sit.”” He wanted to tell me about a new pasta recipe and the great bread sold around the corner. For years, I led a disciplined life of routinely working at my typewriter. He drove around town from dog owner to dog owner in his spiffy Cadillac convertible enjoying the company of new people and new dogs. Sitting still in my tiny back room was a torment for him and the more he would fidget the more impatient I became. But then we reached a turning point in the work.

It occurred to me that the best way to work with him was to turn on a tape machine, ask a question and let him talk freely about anything. My God, he knew so much about dog behavior and when he just looked up at the ceiling and let loose it all flowed beautifully. The trick was to ask guiding questions with a slight verbal nudge. I did not stop him from wandering off the subject. I sorted it all out from the tape for hours after he left. And in that way we wrote possibly the most successful dog training book in print. It is still in print in hardcover and has been since 1971. A dog owner can still find it in bookstores and in libraries across the country. It was reprinted in a trade paperback, in French, Italian and Norwegian. Several parts were serialized in The Ladies Home Journal and was a Book-of-the-Month Club ALTERNATE SELECTION. It made the Doubleday BEST SELLER LIST and sold well over a million copies. Now that is collaboration worth noting.

Matthew and I went on to write ten other books together, some of them are almost as successful as Good Dog, Bad Dog. It’s been quite a ride, sometimes bumpy, sometimes hilarious. We had a great time and so help me, the man changed my life and my career. What I remember most is all the sophomoric jokes and the laughter, first in that tiny back room on MacDougal Street and then in other places where we worked together. It was inevitable that eventually we went our separate ways. I began writing about cats as well as dogs, and loving it, and he became “”Uncle Matty”” with a large, national audience. Ah, there is so much more to collaborating, which is certainly a good thing to do if you have the patience and the desire to partner up with someone else in a creative situation. For a time we each blended our unique talents, skills and knowledge creating something different and quite apart from our own individual selves. We did things we couldn’t have done separately. That’s the magic of co-authoring. Is it worth the conflicts and the struggles? To be sure.

Mordecai Siegal’s next book will be “”I Just Got a Kitten. What Do I Do?”” published by Simon & Schuster who will release it in the fall of 2005. No co-author. His latest book is, “”The Cat Fanciers’ Association COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the CFA,”” published by HarperCollins. This feline reference book is comparable to the AKC’s Complete Dog Book. His most recent dog book is “”The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year (Simon and Schuster). His most durable books are “”Good Dog, Bad Dog (Henry Holt),”” “”When Good Dogs Do Bad Things (Little, Brown),”” the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “”I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do? (Simon & Schuster),”” “”The Cornell Book of Cats (Villard),”” “”The Davis Book of Dogs (HarperCollins),”” “”The Davis Book of Horses.”” He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers’ Association.


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