The Joy of Writing a Book With My Dad

For much of my life, he has told me we should work on a book together. When we finally did, it was more rewarding than I could have imagined.

Callahan / Olena Yakobchuk / Jacob Lund / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

When I tell people I wrote a book with my dad, they usually look at me with a mixture of curiosity and pity. Some confess they could never imagine doing that. Others ask how it went, in the same hushed tone you use at funerals. But one writing student of mine, who is several decades older and seemingly far wiser than I am, responded differently.

“It must be nice to think of the legacy you created with someone who means so much to you,” she said.

This was a beautiful sentiment, but it was not the way I, or my dad, ever thought about the collaboration.

Over the past few years, we wrote The Good Vices: From Beer to Sex, the Surprising Truth About What’s Actually Good for You, about the science behind the potential health benefits of fun behaviors such as drinking coffee, eating bread, and drinking alcohol, all in moderation. Though we created a work we’re proud of, nice is not the word either of us uses to describe the process.

“It was more confrontation than collaboration,” my dad is fond of saying. And on that point, at least, we agree.

We argued often about rather irrelevant aspects of the writing process, such as which cloud-based word processor to use, whether in-person or over-the-phone brainstorming sessions were more effective to plan chapters, and even, when it came time to record the audiobook, the proper pronunciation of our last name.

Still, there’s no denying that my student was on to something. I have written two previous books and hundreds of articles by myself, but none of those past works mean as much to me as this book. That has to do, I think, not only with the passion I have for the subject matter, but also with the manner in which the book was created. I’ve come to see it as the culmination not of a few years of intense work, but of a lifelong—at least for me—relationship between my father and me.

My dad isn’t a writer by trade—he’s a naturopathic physician. But he’s always encouraged me to write. He gave me a tape recorder when I was about 6 years old and taught me how to “write” by talking into it; I didn’t know how to read or spell well yet, but clearly had stories to share. I would tell anyone who listened about my probably-less-epic-than-I-believed tale of a wooden robot from the North Pole. I played with action figures for so long and so intently that my parents actually banned them when I watched TV. Looking back, I suspect that the tape-recorder gift may have been an attempt to keep an overly talkative 6-year-old from constantly pitching his story ideas. Regardless, it was the first of many moments when my dad would help foster my writing career.

Years later, when I actually began publishing articles for my college newspaper, he gave me the vital advice that, as often is the case with great writing, less is more. As I grew older, I inherited his enthusiasm for many of the vices we examine in the new book, such as craft beer, fresh sourdough bread, and pour-over coffee.

For much of my life, he would tell me we should work on a book together. As I started my career in journalism after college, these calls for a joint project grew louder. Among many other ideas, he pitched a book about the importance of happiness (the Dalai Lama beat us to market with The Art of Happiness) and a biography about his childhood in Brooklyn (which was a hard pass). Somewhere along the way, however, at an exact point neither of us recalls, we settled on the concept for The Good Vices. Which of us had the initial idea is another point on which we disagree.

When we landed a book deal, we embarked on a writing journey that was more difficult than either of us anticipated, but also more rewarding. For almost three years, we met once or twice a week at my parents’ house and talked daily to plan and outline each chapter. After these meetings, one of us would write a rough draft that the other would build on. It was a slow and frequently painful process. Minor revisions became cause for two-hour debates that veered off course and left us both wondering what we had originally been talking about. There were bigger-picture disagreements as well. My dad had a broader definition of what constituted a vice than I did, and felt the book should include chapters dealing with things such as walking and spending time with family, the opposite of a vice to me. I wanted the book laser-focused on hard vices such as drinking, chocolate, and sex (which, incidentally, was by far the most awkward chapter to write with my dad). Ultimately I relented, swayed by his argument that the book was about more than just vices; it was really about encouraging people to enjoy life in ways that could make them healthier. While I admit that my dad was right in this regard, I still vehemently reject his motto for our collaboration: “Father knows best.”

Working this closely with my dad made me realize how often parents are made the butt of jokes. An entire genre of corny humor is derided as “dad jokes,” and few insults are as biting as calling a car a “mom mobile.” Facebook’s coolness factor decreased as more and more parents joined the platform and more original users became parents themselves. For generations, ads, movies, and TV shows have helped enforce these stereotypes of unhip parents with unflattering portrayals that favor the young and, perhaps more important, the childless—from the tight-laced father in Risky Business who is upset that his son, Tom Cruise’s character, has adjusted the family’s stereo settings so there’s now a “preponderance of bass” to Progressive’s funny but barbed ad campaign in which new homeowners start acting like their parents.

When it comes to family in general—and parents in particular—it seems many people agree with Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, who remarks, “I can't help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves.”

Writing this book reminded me that our family members share not only our faults but very often our strengths too. My dad is smart, funny, constructively critical, and caring, and has an intense passion for the truth—all traits I hope I share. Born in Brooklyn, my dad was a teenager in the 1960s, and his personality is equal parts New York City mean streets and Woodstock peace and love. I always say Martin Scorsese should direct his biography, but the soundtrack would have to be a mix of the Grateful Dead and Bob Marley. For this work, he researched each topic with a zeal I’ve rarely seen, and insisted that we constantly question and critically analyze each study we referenced, as well as our own conclusions. At the same time, whenever the stresses of writing the book in addition to other work got to me, he reminded me to make time to relax and to enjoy the fun things we were studying. He was determined to collaborate on a book, not because he couldn’t write one on his own, but because he was convinced—and he ultimately convinced me—that we could, in his words, ‘create something better together than we could alone.’

While the verdict is out on whether collaborations lead to better writing, for me at least, it led to a better writing experience. Writing this book was difficult, sometimes more difficult than past projects, but it was never, ever lonely—and that means more than I can put into words.