Shoulder to Shoulder: The Art and Chaos of Collaboration

In today’s newsrooms, collaboration is a fact of life. But Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan take working together to a whole new level.

In 1993, the two reporters for The Washington Post got married. The following year, Jordan and Sullivan began teaming up as foreign correspondents. Since then, they’ve worked as the Post’s co-bureau chiefs in Japan and Mexico, shared a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting “for their exposure of horrific conditions in Mexico’s criminal justice system and how they affect the daily lives of people” and produced two children, Kate, 10, and Tom, 8.

Their latest collaboration is “The Prison Angel,” a book-length profile of Mary Clarke, the extraordinary nun who left the comforts of a Los Angeles suburb to live in a cell in a brutal Tijuana jail, where for nearly three decades she has ministered to inmates and guards alike.

Jordan and Sullivan spent more than two years reporting and writing “Mother Antonia”‘s story.

“When we use the authorial ‘we,’ it means that one of us, or both, saw or heard whatever is being described,” they write in the book’s preface. “It would be too distracting to write, ‘she said to Kevin,’ or, ‘Mary saw.’ We could never get away with such imprecise attribution in The Washington Post. But in our marriage, ‘we’ has come to mean either or both of us. And for the sake of kindness to our readers, ‘we’ means that here, too.”


As a reporter who’s shared bylines with others, seen those relationships succeed and fail, as well as a husband who writes fiction with his wife, I was curious to know more about how they view collaboration’s pleasures and perils. Between book signings, finishing their latest project, and packing up to move to London to take over the Post‘s bureau there, Jordan and Sullivan teamed up again to take part in an e-mail interview.


Chip Scanlan: What’s the best part of working as a team?

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan: The best part of working as a team is the multiplier effect. We feed off each other’s ideas, and in the end, when it’s working well, one plus one equals about seven.

What are the challenges of writing together and how do you overcome them?

The biggest challenge and obstacle to writing the book was simply the clock. We burned almost all our vacation time and took only a couple of weeks of unpaid leave to write the book, which took more than two years. At the same time, we had to continue covering our beat, which ended up ranging from Mexico to Cuba and the Caribbean, Central America, Venezuela and Colombia. Lots of ground. So the book took up lots of early mornings, late nights, weekends and long plane rides.

Why did you write “The Prison Angel” as a book?

When Mary met Mother Antonia in the prison in Tijuana in 2002 she realized her story would make a great book. Her story was amazing — it had villains and heroes, movie stars and drug lords, assassinations and stories of redemption — all told by a very smart and funny Beverly Hills mom who now happens to be a nun and lives in a prison in Mexico.


Why did you write it together?

We’ve been working as a reporting team since 1994, the year after we were married, so it’s really second-nature at this point. We actually toyed with the idea of Mary writing it by herself — for about 15 minutes. Then we realized that it would be unnatural — and not as much fun — for one of us to be working on a major writing project without the other. Our friends often ask us how we can possibly work and write together, not to mention raise two kids together at the same time. We don’t know how else to explain it: the partnership just works. When one of us is sick to death of trying to get some particularly hard passage just right (or the kids to sleep), the other steps in and finishes. Then, as often as not, the next day the roles are reversed. And, most important, we are never competitive with each other. We each regard the other’s success as our own.


How do you divvy up the work that went into “The Prison Angel?” Is it any different, and if so how, than the way you do so when you’re writing for the Post?


The Post deserves a lot of credit for its enlightened policy about husband-and-wife teams. We have always been posted as “co-bureau chiefs.” (This caused enormous confusion when we worked in Japan, where callers would always ask for the “Ichiban,” the number one — the MAN in charge.) The paper has always left it to us to divide the labor. With the book, as with our newspaper reporting, we have no scientific formula. It’s more of an art, or just chaos. We shared the reporting and writing, usually passing chapters back and forth like a football. Kevin would write, Mary would rewrite, Kevin would rewrite Mary’s rewrite and so forth until we had something we both agreed on. To get to the final, final wording, we sat shoulder to shoulder and went though it syllable by syllable — as we often do for our Post stories. Again, we have been doing this for so long that no one’s feelings get hurt when the other makes changes.

Mother Antonia turns 80 next year, and your book spans that long life, but you focus on its most dramatic episodes. How did you settle on the book’s structure?

We saw the book as two basic stories: Mother Antonia’s life up to the point where she puts on her habit, and her life in the prison after that. The second is far more dramatic, of course, but the first is critical to understanding who she is and why she chose her new life. We tried to move through the story of her early life as quickly as possible, focusing on moments and events that hopefully help readers understand what makes her tick. We tried to pick stories that would keep driving the narrative forward, just as we would in a newspaper or magazine profile. We hope that by the time readers get to Mother Antonia in prison, they have a pretty good idea of the context and her presence in this terrible place seems natural or at least understandable.

For the second part of the story, we settled on the stories that seemed to be the most important to her, the ones she kept coming back to over and over in our long conversations with her. We then took each of them and reported them out with other people who were there, with wardens and guards, some of them long retired, with DEA agents and informants (our favorite was a guy we knew only as Comandante X), Mexican army generals and even some drug traffickers themselves. We interviewed Benjamín Arellano Félix, sort of the Al Capone of Mexico, in Mexico’s top maximum security prison. After two and a half hours of him looking at us like he wanted to rip our lungs out, we mentioned Mother Antonia’s name and he went all gooey. Just couldn’t stop talking about her, and how she treats everyone the same, “even a guy like me.” An amazing moment.

At times Mother Antonia sounds almost too good, too heroic, to be true? What steps did you take to ensure the accuracy of reconstructed scenes, dialogue, personal history?


Mother Antonia is almost too good to be true, which, of course, makes her worthy of a book-length treatment. We also discovered that she has an amazing memory. Her recollection of events, names, dates and times was incredible. She remembered Eddie Cantor’s street address from the 1930s, and she remembered it right. Still, we always checked her stories with our own reporting.

[According to the preface, "For almost three years, we have conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Mother Antonia. We gave her a tape recorder and tapes and asked her to tell us the stories of her life. We have sat with her in the prison and in her small house nearby filled with an eclectic mix of women: inmates just leaving the prison; women receiving cancer treatments; and mothers, daughters, and girlfriends who have come long distances to visit men in prison and have no money to stay anywhere else.

We have also talked about Mother Antonia with her friends, family, bishops, inmates, guards, wardens, police chiefs, DEA agents, Army generals, and even Benjamín Arellano Félix, one of Mexico's most notorious drug traffickers. In all possible instances, we have checked and double-checked their stories with witnesses, public records, old newspaper clippings from the Library of Congress, and even in an eye-opening interview with an ultrasecret DEA informant we were introduced to only as Comandante X. We have been amazed at the accuracy of Mother Antonia's memories, even those from a half-century ago."]


Journalists are skeptical by nature. How did writing this inspirational book affect you as people, parents, reporters? What was the most important lesson you’ve taken away from the experience?

The phrase “inspirational book” makes us cringe a bit. That’s not what we intended to write. Our purpose was very simple: to write the life story of an amazing person. We applied the same journalistic tests and techniques that we would have for the Post. Now, if her story inspires, that’s great. It certainly inspired us. It is not possible to spend time with Mother Antonia and not be affected by her. As we say in the book, she has challenged us to see the world a little differently. She makes it hard to be judgmental about anyone. Probably a good reminder for people in our line of work.


What surprised you about reporting and writing (a book, stories) together? What did you learn from reporting and writing together? What do you need to learn next as reporters and writers, working alone or together?


We were surprised that the rights to our book in China — which has, what, a fifth of the world’s population? — sold for $1,500. We learned it is masochistic to try to write a book while working full time — book leaves are a wonderful invention. Next, we need to learn how to better use in the newspaper the narrative techniques we applied to the book. Our editors at the Post enthusiastically encourage innovative narrative writing. But the realities of space — and delivering those pesky nut grafs before the jump — often intrude. So the challenge is to break out of conventions and the same old formulas to produce compelling writing that still manages to deliver the news before the Cheerios go soggy.


What lessons can you pass on to reporters who may be teamed up on a story? What tips, techniques or approaches can you suggest for making the process of collaboration effective and successful? What advice would you offer?

We understand that our collaborative formula doesn’t work for everyone. And marriage certainly isn’t an option for lots of writing teams — Woodward and Bernstein come to mind. But key elements that are universal are patience and an open mind. You need to consider your partner’s suggestions and see them as an effort to make the story better, not as gratuitous attacks on your stunning prose. Humility helps. So does decaffeinated coffee.


You’re on the book signing and interview circuit. What do people want to know about the book?


People want to know if Mother Antonia is “for real,” that is, officially recognized by the Catholic Church. She is. They want to know if she’s nuts. She’s not. People want to know if we work in the same room. We do; Our desks face each other. They also ask if we’re giving any of the book’s proceeds to Mother Antonia and her charity work. We have given her half of everything we’ve earned.

What have you not been asked on your book tour that you’d like to answer?


“Hi, this is Oprah. Can you be here next week?”

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