Writers on Wednesdays: Margaret interviews Joan O’C Hamilton


Joan O’C Hamilton hit the ground running as a journalist.  Shortly after graduating from Stanford University, she joined BusinessWeek, where she developed the biotech beat, worked as the San Francisco bureau chief and wrote a column about Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom.  From there, as she explains in her interview, she moved into co-authoring books by such movers and shakers as former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and Kamala Harris, current California attorney general. ~ Margaret Young

Joan  in Malawi, 2012, interviewing women farmers

Joan in Malawi, 2012, interviewing women farmers

MY: I was once told you made a really early start as a journalist — in that as a high-school student in San Francisco, you decided to cover the Dan White trial. Is this true — and if so, what was it like and were you born with that kind of gumption?

JH: I did do that but there was gumption beyond my own involved.   I went to ICA [editor: Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco] in the Mission District.  Dan White had a lot of connections to our school – many of his female relatives were alums, and he had actually been our graduation speaker the spring the same year he shot Mayor Moscone.   ICA girls worked at the “Hot Potato” which was his business at Pier 39.

I went to the trial because we had an incredibly cool and wise Dominican nun who taught our government class, and she sent us to watch the trial one afternoon as a field trip.   I saw a television reporter there named Joyce Shank who covered the trial every day, and so after I wrote my story for the school newspaper, I sent it to her in a self-addressed stamped envelope and told her I wanted to be a reporter and asked if she could she give me some feedback and criticism.  A few days later I got a multi-page, handwritten letter back from her going through the story paragraph by paragraph with great advice.  And then she called me to talk about it and asked if I’d like to babysit her 5 year-old son.  Long story short: She became a huge force in my life, encouraging me in journalism, recommending me for jobs, connecting with me at Stanford when she or other Channel 7 reporters needed help on a story.  She just died a couple of years ago, unfortunately.  Joyce was my first mentor even though I was much more comfortable working in print than TV news, and we became very close friends.

MY: For many years you were a correspondent for BusinessWeek, focused mostly, but not entirely, on biotech. Then you made a switch to co-authoring memoirs by well-known movers and shakers such as Meg Whitman. How big a transition was it?

whitman.COAUTHORJH: The transition was not something I planned.  I did do biotech and many other subjects, including wine, retailing, sports, and industrial design.  But the last beat I covered at Business Week was writing a satirical column about the “dot-com” lifestyle in Silicon Valley.  The column led to book projects with dot-com entrepreneurs, then an agent, and then things snowballed when I ended up ghostwriting a NYT [editor’s note: New York Times] bestseller for someone I can’t name.
 I loved magazine journalism and had a ball writing that column, but I had two young children and the book opportunities arose at the same time Business Week ad sales went into a death spiral and most of the columns were axed.  The flexibility and new income from books was terrific.

Fortunately, I discovered that I was good at writing in other peoples’ “voices.”   It turns out a lot of reporters who try to work with people on books have trouble with that.  They are so used to an objective voice and it is really difficult for them to channel the author.  Also, with my news magazine background, I can create a structure to convey complex material quickly, and I can advise my clients with some authority on what readers need to understand and connect to a message.  If you’re trying to sell a mass market book, it can’t read like a speech to a trade group or your customers or employees where everybody knows the same buzzwords.

MY:  Is it difficult when the client’s point of view differs from yours?

JH: Frankly, no.   I will only work for clients who are truthful and sincere and who I respect.  That becomes clear very early — some people lie and exaggerate to an astounding degree and I have walked away from a number of projects.  But I don’t pick clients on the basis of my agenda or politics or point of view. Writing these books is an intense process; it’s like signing up to go on a year-long cruise with someone so you better like and respect him or her.  But you don’t have to agree about everything.  I’d much rather work with a smart person with a good sense of humor with different views than mine, than with some humorless self-promoter whose voting card matches mine line for line.  Besides, sometimes I learn something that changes my mind.

MY:  You still free-lance for magazines — do you see yourself doing a long form journalism book at some point instead of memoirs?

JH: It’s possible. Actually, I don’t think of myself as working on memoirs per se—Kamala Harris’ bookSmart_on_Crime was a myth-busting book about crime, and Meg Whitman’s book was about the values she thinks are important for success.  I am just finishing a project that tackles a huge global issue with my client’s new ideas for reforming the status quo.  All these books are told through the eyes of a particular person, but they aren’t chronological narratives; they have the goal of inspiring people to do something or think differently.

Journalism is my first love and gave me the skills I’m using today.   I have been a contributing editor at Stanford Magazine for over 20 years and I get to write feature stories about an incredible variety of subjects and people, from psycholinguistics to profound battle injuries to private chefs.  Every once in a while I dig into a subject that makes me consider if it could make a good book, but I also wonder if I would get weary of working one subject like that for a long time.  It’s a pretty lonely business and the best of those non-fiction books can take many years to write with uncertain financial prospects, especially these days.  I have great respect for those who do them.

In my book work today, I do not approach it as a journalist.  I enjoy bringing an important mission or worthwhile set of ideas to life for someone who is busy doing what he or she does and does not have time or perhaps the writing experience to do the book efficiently alone. It’s fun to be part of a team in that sense.    I’m blessed that I have worked with very intelligent, principled people who are trying to make the world better.   Kamala Harris and Meg Whitman, for example, are extraordinary, inspiring women.

MY: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about book writing?

JH: I think my answer only applies to my strange little corner of non-fiction book collaboration.

I am always surprised by peoples’ perceptions of where books come from or how they are written.  So many people (typically ones I don’t end up working for) underestimate how difficult the book process is.  Some successful people assume that because they want to say something, people automatically want to read it.  They forget that publishing a book means selling a product.  I’ve had prospective clients hand me a six-inch stack of clips and speeches and background papers as if I can then just go off and reorganize all that and then we’ll drop in a few quotes and be done.  That won’t work.  We are asking the public to buy these books, and we need to sell them the opportunity to be smarter and wiser. You can’t just repurpose a stack of speeches or annual reports or tell the same story the same way you tell it at cocktail parties.  I sometimes tell my clients, “You can’t build an ocean liner by lashing together 100 speedboats.”

Books need to be built to last and we’re competing with a jillion other information and entertainment options. In the writing we need to sell an engaging, rewarding experience, and we need to manage the energy and surprises to keep the reader turning the pages.  We’re working with a long lead time and I can’t let the author stick his or her neck out with risky predictions or over-reactions to the news of any given day. And just because we have more space we can’t just prattle on forever and go into mind-numbing detail. The reader will bail out.

Often the interesting connective tissue of books involves motivation—why someone made a decision and what he or she wants next.  Many prominent, busy people aren’t used to their staffs or employees asking them WHY they did something or how they FELT about it.    But those emotionally charged factors can be important in terms of what we put in and leave out.  My clients are surprised sometimes at the background and subject matter we need to cover even when we decide not to use that material.

MY:  Journalism and publishing in general have been turned topsy-turvy in the past several years. What would you tell your daughter if she said she wanted a career like yours?

JH: It is tough out there (yes, a penetrating glimpse of the obvious).  Some of the best journalists I know have had to change careers.  In terms of advice, I think as a young person you need to show that you’re willing to work hard and that you want to learn.  It’s very important to make personal connections so that professionals a few rungs up the career ladder WANT to help you.  That was invaluable to me.  I know how important it was when my friend Joyce encouraged me and I have tried to do that for several young journalists over the years who showed me they were really serious about the business.  I’m proud that one went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.  Journalists are very competitive but we’re also very passionate about our work and the need for good reporting and we like to help young people who have a fire in the belly for it.

I have to say it bothers me that journalism schools are still charging a fortune for masters degrees in a field with fewer and fewer jobs.  There is a magazine class at a very prestigious journalism school that I speak to every year. It’s always over-subscribed with a waiting list.   I ask:  “Where do you all see yourselves working?”  And they invariably say, “I want to write investigative features for a national magazine,” or “I want to write cover stories for the New York Times magazine.”  It’s the same answer I would have given in 1983 when I left Stanford, but the opportunities to do that are nothing like they were then (and it wasn’t exactly an easy goal then).  I hope for their sake journalism will rebuild itself and find a sustainable business model so all this training and talent doesn’t go to waste.

By the way, I have two daughters and neither is interested in becoming a reporter or writer.  One is going to be the world’s greatest pediatric nurse; the other wants to be a math teacher, which, given my own math dysfunction, is cool and miraculous to me.
First Little Free Library -schoolhouse

Note from Ina: Thank you to the writers who have given of their time and experience to talk with guest blogger Margaret Young. For queries on the Writers on Wednesday series,please contact Margaret at Writers
On Wednesdays [all one word] {insert “at” sign} yahoo and then .com ~ ina at IOB

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One thought on “Writers on Wednesdays: Margaret interviews Joan O’C Hamilton

  1. Pingback: Inspirations, exhortations, and announcements. | in our books

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