Amy Sohn, New York Times bestselling author of "Prospect Park West" and the upcoming "Motherland," took on an unfamiliar assignment between novels -- co-writing the memoir of the NFL's oldest cheerleader, Laura Vikmanis.
"It's Not About the Pom-Poms: How a 40-Year-Old Mom Became the NFL's Oldest Cheerleader--and Found Hope, Joy, and Inspiration Along the Way"
Charlie Rogers: How did you come to work on "Pom-Poms?"
Amy Sohn: I was nearing the end of writing my own novel about a working mother ("Motherland," on sale in August). I had the time and interest in doing something else. Laura’s agent put me on the phone with her and we talked for two hours. She basically told me her life story and I was very, very compelled by it. I thought that she had rebounded amazingly from a lot of hardship and I really liked the fun, wacky aspect of this very American phenomenon of cheerleading.
Over the next couple of weeks, we worked on a book proposal together and then she flew to New York to take some meetings. Suddenly, we found out about everyone in publishing who had been a former cheerleader -- more tough New York editors than you would ever imagine.
CR: What was your process for writing the book?
AS: I would fly to Dayton, Ohio and Laura would pick me up at the airport. She’d drive around, show me where she grew up -- and I would spend four to five days sitting in the passenger seat holding my tape recorder. It was very intense. The book was truly written in her car.
We had many "doorknob" moments -- like at a therapist's office -- where we'd talk for two hours, and as we asked for the check, or walked through the parking lot to her car, she'd tell me some amazing story she just remembered.
You have to shut up. That's something I learned as a journalist a long time ago. You tend, when the person pauses, to ask them another question. But the best moments come from just sitting there. Memory is such a complicated thing. Just let them get there.
And alcohol helps.
CR: It is her story, but your writing. How did you work together after the interviews were done?
AS: Early on, I was talking to a friend who is a writer and editor. I said, “How am I going to do this? I’ve never done this before.” And he said, “Ghostwriting is about inventing a voice for someone.” You're not creating a direct transcript of how she talks, but something inspired by the way she talks. You're helping someone find her written voice.
Laura wanted the voice to sound like her, and she wanted the book to sound like she was talking to the reader. So those were the two things that I had to keep paramount.
Also, my natural tendency was to be hard on the institution of cheering, because I feel very strongly that these girls are not treated well by the leagues. And it took a lot of conversations with Laura for me to realize that she really feels that cheerleading saved her life.
CR: The book covers Laura's whole life, not just cheering. How do you structure something that multidimensional?
AS: There were three or four versions of the book that we could have written. Is this an exposé about cheerleading? It is about a woman’s body? Is it about a bad marriage? Is it about being a mother? We eventually decided to focus on her personal journey with regard to body image. It has been a theme throughout her life and was a symbol of how she got control of her life back.
Most journeys toward self-empowerment are very bumpy. And even a story of becoming more empowered is complex. For example, we write about her plastic surgery in the book. We didn’t want to lie because it was part of her journey, but we also wanted to be careful because it’s such an individual issue -- certainly something that women feel very strongly about.
CR: Some of the book's characters don't come off well. What about the others who might be affected?
AS: I felt protective toward her kids. That's something that I’ve also struggled with as a mother having published extreme first-person sexual writing. Also, it is tough writing about a really difficult marriage. But, I felt like it wasn't my job to be in her private conversations with her daughters, her boyfriend, and others. It's hard because you, as the ghostwriter, don’t have to worry about destroying your own relationships when you’re helping someone write a book.
CR: You've written novels, nonfiction and now, you've collaborated on a memoir. Which do you find easier?
AS: I find writing nonfiction to be inherently easier. For example, Laura’s book is more or less chronological. There's a pretty clear structure. It starts about three-quarters of the way through her story, with her cheering her first NFL game. Then it goes back about fifteen years -- when she is in an emotionally abusive, lonely marriage, and her husband locks her in the bedroom and she kicks a hole through the door. I loved the idea of kicking as a metaphor. After that we go back even further to her childhood and follow her life to the present, her third year on the Cincinnati Ben-Gals.
The rest is a matter of editing. The shape comes in terms of what you cut.
I do think that the best nonfiction reads like fiction, and I tried to find those novelistic moments: Laura's waiting for a Christmas present for both her and her sister. Her sister loves horseback riding and Laura doesn't, but the present turns out to be a saddle. It was right out of fiction, but it is a true story and really important to us.
Another was confessing her aspirations to her boyfriend while watching the cheerleaders at a Bengals game and having him say, “Oh, honey, you’re too old.” You know those words...they rang in her head.
You may also like: Laura Vikmanis's story
Amy Sohn's "Pom-Poms Bookshelf"
These are some of the books that Amy used for preparation and inspiration during the writing of "It's Not About the Pom-Poms."
- "Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy" by Kathy Griffin
- "Open: An Autobiography" by Andre Agassi
- "Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef" by Gabrielle Hamilton
- "Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback" by George Plimpton
- "Deep in the Heart of Texas: Reflections of Former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders" by Suzette Scholz, Stephanie Scholz and Sheri Scholz
- "Go! Fight! Win!: Cheerleading in American Culture" by Mary Ellen Hanson