When I was first asked to ghostwrite Collette Wolfe’s memoir, I had some reluctance. I’d ghostwritten a book about living with depression before for an Irish TV actress and found it to be a difficult emotional experience. So, did I want to personally enter the feelings of a woman who lost her youngest daughter to suicide?
On some level being a ghostwriter is like being an actor, you have to enter someone else’s head, to occupy and give voice to their thoughts, you have to ‘become’ them for a while. The process of ghostwriting involves hours of in-depth interviews, but interviews can only give you so much. Your subject can tell you their story and how they felt about things that happened along the way, but they rarely speak with a depth of expression. They say, ‘I felt terrible’, or ‘it was the worst thing that happened to me’, or ‘I was so happy’, and there’s very little metaphor involved.
When you come to write the book, you have to delve deeper into the person’s psyche, you have to ‘become’ her or him and dredge up literary description of feelings that will make the reader connect to the person you’re writing on behalf of for a whole book, you have to create ‘self-expression’ that will move hearts and minds.
So it's not surprising that I had worries about writing a book on behalf of a woman who lost her youngest daughter, Leanne to suicide after she was horrifically bullied. I am a father myself, and the loss of my child is one of my worst nightmares. Did I want to ‘become’ a woman who was driven to the point of almost committing suicide herself, such was her guilt and devastation over the loss of her daughter?
I had reservations, but when I first met Collette I immediately knew I wanted to work with her. This woman is not only a powerhouse of activism, fighting against bullying and standing strong with families who have lost members to suicide, but she’s a force of nature in many other ways too – in her church, with the young women she rescues, in her wonderful family, and not least in her riotous sense of humour.
During the hours we spent together during the interview process, as we went through the story not only of Leanne’s suicide but of terrible sexual abuse in Collette’s childhood and of her rape as a teenager, the two of us cried buckets and laughed uproariously. It was an experience of such depth and mutual empathy, that I think of it as one of the happiest writing experiences I’ve had in my career. The result is a book that I guarantee will make you cry buckets and laugh out loud too.
Ultimately, what I found most inspiring about Collette is how she found real hope amidst what can only be one of the worst things to happen to a mother and to a family. Her strength and determination, her ability to carry other people’s burdens, and her indomitable faith make her one of the most inspirational people I have met on life’s journey so far.
Was it hard to write Collette’s book? As Collette herself often says in her musical Cork accent, ‘I won’t lie’. There were times when I had to walk away from my desk, curl up on the floor and weep. Although I have not had her experience, I felt her grief, I mourned for her daughter, and I went to the darkest places with her. But I am a better man for it. In writing Collette’s book, I have grown.
I think ‘If I Could Hold You Again’ is essential reading. Yes, I’m biased about the writing, but I know the message at the heart of this book, Collette’s message of love, hope and redemption, is one that can bring the same to millions.
You can buy 'If I Could Hold You Again’ here. Brian Finnegan and award-winning novelist Paul McVeigh will be working to help writers at all stages of their process at the Free With Words writing retreat in Tuscany from September 7-14. If you think this might be of help to you, click here. Find out more about Brian's ghostwriting service here.