Richard W. Hartel and AnnaKate Hartel, father and daughter, offer their different perspectives on writing collaboratively.
“Would you like to write a book together?” I asked her.
Seemed like a logical thing to ask her since she was planning to get English and writing degrees. Although initially she was hesitant, she finally agreed to do it and we started writing together. Mostly it was my stuff that she contributed to, until the day she agreed to write one of her own, on cake preferences. That didn’t go so well since we have very different writing styles. Over time, we figured out those differences and made Food Bites work out – it was great to see it published. I think we were both pretty happy that we had worked together to get something in print.
After finishing Food Bites, we took some time off from writing together, even though the idea for the next book began to take shape. I took a sabbatical at the college she was attending to work on two books, one of which was Candy Bites. One chapter in particular came together that year – the one on the Baby Ruth bar in the movie, Caddyshack.
For this chapter, we conducted an experiment to test whether a Baby Ruth bar actually floats. We put college pool water on our kitchen counter and tried to float a variety of different candy bars. The only one that floated was the 3 Musketeers bar. The Baby Ruth bar sank immediately, proving that the moviemakers were taking unscientific liberties to jazz up the scene. For us, it was a fun way to work together and we got an interesting chapter out of it.
It took several more years before we compiled enough new chapters to complete Candy Bites, but we’re pleased with how it turned out. So pleased, in fact, that we’ve started working on ideas for the next one, Chocolate Bites (forthcoming).
How did I get to this point, where I can write books on ice cream and candy? Actually, a lot of people ask me that question these days, but my research work is on candy, chocolate and ice cream, so it’s a natural step for me.
My career certainly wasn’t something I mapped out and planned as a little kid. No, my career has been a series of stumbles and uncertain steps, at least until I got hired at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is where I’ve really been able to blossom, in part because of the mentorship I received early in my career as a professor and in part because of the opportunities. The University of Wisconsin, particularly the Food Science department, already had an established reputation in ice cream and confections before I ever started. But my background was almost ideally suited to this environment.
In my first year, one professor put his arm around my shoulders and said “Rich, you know something about sugar, so I’m going to introduce you to the candy and chocolate industry.” The next year, another professor put his arm around my shoulder and said “Rich, you know something about crystallization, so I want you to work on this ice cream project with me.” Twenty some years later, I’m the expert.
Why do I write? I don’t know, probably for the same reason I like to teach. It forces me to learn new things and to focus my thoughts in such a way that others can understand them. Although sometimes it can be extremely frustrating, like when the words don’t come together very well or when my ideas are all jumbled, when the words do fall into place, there’s no better feeling of accomplishment. My wife says I should get a hobby, but really, my hobby is writing.
But I also write, in part, because it lets me work with my daughter in some meaningful way. Being able to say I wrote this book with her is a pretty cool feeling. Not everyone has that opportunity and I feel pretty fortunate.
“Think that might be something you’re interested in doing?” he asked.
I hesitated. “I don’t know, Dad. It sounds like a lot of work and what with classes and everything, I don’t know if I’ll have time to help,” I finally replied. I wasn’t lying, writing a book did sound like a huge undertaking, particularly right before my junior year of college. But it was something we’d always talked about doing, something we had planned for and dreamed about.
“We’ll use a lot of the articles we already have,” Dad said. “It won’t be any more work for you than writing those were.” It was like he’d already thought of all my arguments before we’d even started talking.
I sighed. There was no refuting that argument. “Okay, let’s do it.”
He smiled. “Good. But I don’t think we should include any of the candy articles. Save those for the second book,” he said. I shook my head. It was just like him, planning the second book before the first was even written.
“Sounds good. And maybe don’t include the boxed cake one,” I added.
The first time my dad asked me to help him write, I was in high school. He had been writing articles for the local newspaper, trying to explain food science to a general audience. A friend from the University of Wisconsin, where my Dad is a professor of Food Science, had been helping him but the librarian had other duties and I had always done well in my English classes.
I was ecstatic about it. Seeing my name in print, like a real writer! It was all I had ever wanted, since I was in the second grade. For a long time I didn’t think it would happen. When it came to reading and writing, I was a late bloomer. I went through several years of special reading lessons at elementary school. It was actually these lessons that solidified my desire to be a writer. I was fortunate to have them.
Our writing sessions were always relaxed and informal. Once a week or so, we’d sit around the kitchen table and read what he had written. I’d offer suggestions—a different word here, a change in verbs, or even a different avenue of thought. Sometimes, I’d ask questions. A lot of the science was too advanced for me and I’d need clarification. If I asked too many questions, he knew the article wasn’t ready and he’d have to work on it more. If it wasn’t clear to a high school student, it wasn’t at the level the newspaper expected.
During that first year together, we started to dream of the book. Any great idea either of us had was saved for the book. We visited candy factories and discussed the ramifications of automation. “That’s one for the book,” we’d say. I took a class in Latin American history and talked to him about the impact of sugar and cacao plantations. “That’s one for the book,” I’d say. We even went as far as taking pictures for the cover. It was just a big idea but it gave us something to aim for.
When I was a senior in high school, about a year into our partnership, Dad asked me to be the lead writer on an article. “I thought you could write the boxed cake versus home made cake article,” he said. “You could do a taste test in one of your classes.”
I accepted the challenge with relish. This was my opportunity, my chance to really show who I was as a writer. And, since this was less about science, I could make it all my own. I thought I was brilliant—what teenager doesn’t—and wanted to show off. The article I gave Dad was nothing like anything we’d ever submitted to the newspaper before.
That week, we gathered around the kitchen table as usual. “Here’s the article. I made a few changes,” Dad said, handing me a paper copy of what I had written. And it was completely changed! All of my brilliant turns of phrase, my irreverent style was gone! It was just like every other article we’d written together. I was crushed.
“But Dad, this is completely different. You said I could write this one and you’ve gone and changed it!” I said. I could feel tears coming. I’d worked so hard and now it was gone.
Calmly, he explained that we were a writing partnership and that meant that one article couldn’t stand out from the others. They had to be consistent. It was a science article, after all, and we needed to focus on that.
I didn’t take it well. I screamed and cried and vowed never to speak to him again. I made the family miserable for a week. The article came out and I saw my name first in the byline, ahead of Dad’s, but I still wasn’t happy. I neglected my English work and became obsessed with biology and geology. We still had our weekly article meetings, but I was less enthusiastic about them. The glow of seeing my name in print had gone.
When I went off to college, we stopped writing the articles. The newspaper we wrote them for was bought out and the new owners decided not to continue the articles. But the idea of the book never really died. We talked about it less frequently, but it was always there, in the back of our collective minds.
At college, I started taking many writing classes and tried out many writing styles. Reluctantly, I began to realize that Dad had been right. While my original essay may have been a better reflection of my particular style, it wasn’t in fitting with the tone we had cultivated by writing together. I was still disappointed, but no longer resentful.
And then, almost out of the blue, he called and asked if I wanted to write a book. It was almost like not talking about it was the secret to making it happen. The first book came together easily, just as Dad had promised. It wasn’t long before we were toasting to our success.
A few years later, he called again. “It’s time we did the second book,” he said.
I was out of college, working full time as a proofreader, and this time, I didn’t fight it. “Okay, let’s do it.” But I was more hesitant than ever. This time, there would be no articles to rely on and no excuses not to help write chapters. The sting of the boxed cake article was still fresh after all those years.
I had nothing to worry about. Even though there were still fits and bruised egos, we had learned from our mistakes. And while it was never as easy as the sessions around the kitchen table, it went smoothly. Our partnership matured and our books are better for it.