The Crucible of Consensus-building

April 7, 2008

A little while ago, an organization called Open Book Toronto made us their Writers-in-Residence for the month of May. It’s a great honour and we’re obviously very pleased, but the downside to the whole thing is that it requires that we fill out lots of questionnaires. We wouldn’t care so much if the information from the questionnaires weren’t going to be published online and subjected to the eyes of the bright lights of the Toronto literary scene.

It’s tough to answer questions like ‘What book do you most wish you had written?’ or ‘What three books would you give new Canadians to introduce them to the country?’ without feeling as though you’ll be judged for your choices. You want to be honest, but you also don’t want to be square, predictable, philistinian (is that even a word?), or pretentious.

Ultimately, though, the question that made us all pause the longest was the one which asked what the most challenging thing about co-authoring Kickstart was. The answer we all blurted out, almost in unison, was ‘co-authorship itself.’ Co-authoring a book was a monumental pain in the ass. Though we’ll no doubt do our best to hug, flash our pearlies, and say nice things about one another, there were times when we wanted to knock each other’s lights out – or maybe just poke each other in the eye with our uniball visions.

Co-authoring is hard, especially on a project like Kickstart, where you’re bickering over more than just style, structure, and story. Before the three of us could even begin to disagree on these issues, we were already arguing over who belonged in the book in the first place.

For those who know us, it’s quite clear that we are very different people. Our politics are different, our music and literary tastes are different, and our aspirations are different. If it wasn’t for the history we share as great friends, it’s possible we wouldn’t really like one another on first meeting.

What success means to one of us, it doesn’t mean to all. Paul might deem someone successful and interesting that the other two found an insipid, self-righteous mess. Andrew might desperately want to interview someone who Alex and Paul found a soulless self-promoter. To pinpoint who we wanted to approach for this book, we had to reach a consensus, and doing that was no easy feat.

Other conflicts emerged when it came to deciding how the book would be structured, how the stories would be told, what we would call the book, and what the cover would look like. We rarely, if ever, agreed, off the top. Every decision, from the grand to the minute, required days and weeks of bickering over e-mail, conciliatory phone calls, and returns to the e-conference table.

Writing a book as a threesome was a pain. But it worked. Somehow, our differences (and disagreements) made the book better.

Not too long ago, a bru-ha-ha erupted at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival when two of the three Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino hired as a triumvirate last year jumped ship, leaving a lonely Des McAnuff (a man with a great start-up story by the way – if you’ve got a Globe and Mail subscription) at the wheel. Marti Marsden’s (one of the two departed AD’s) chief complaint was that there was no framework for decision-making. That’s short-hand for saying ‘consensus is hard’. Which it is, especially when making decisions of real import.

But hats off to Stratford for trying, because team-work and fighting for consensus can produce remarkable results. We’re not necessarily pointing to our book as an example. All we can say is that it wouldn’t be what it is without the crucible of that process.

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