Meet Holly Gleason, the ASJA Member Behind Miranda Lambert’s NY Times’ Bestselling Cookbook Memoir

Michelle Rafter
Holly Gleason
Andy Award nominee Holly Gleason

They say necessity is the mother of invention.

When Holly Gleason’s primary employer cut her pay to 6% during the lockdown phase of the Covid pandemic, the long-time music writer, artist development consultant, and ASJA member had to get creative.

Freelancing alone wasn’t going to pay the bills, so Gleason reached out to reps of a few country music folks she thought had interesting stories to tell – and got a hit.

The result was a collaboration with country music star Miranda Lambert that turned into a 2023 New York Times bestseller. Y’all Eat Yet?: Welcome to the Pretty B*tchin’ Kitchen” is part cookbook, part memoir of growing up in Texas “in the company of the wild, loving women who taught her so much more than how to make a perfect pot of chili or deviled egg,” according to the book’s jacket copy.

It’s also one of nine finalists for an Andy Award, the first-of-its-kind recognition of outstanding nonfiction book collaboration between authors and ghostwriters. Winners in three categories will be announced at the Gathering of the Ghosts ghostwriting convention on Jan. 22, 2024, in New York. Both the Andy Awards and the Gathering of the Ghosts are cosponsored by ASJA and Gotham Ghostwriters, the New York ghostwriting agency. (See the conference schedule and register here.)

Y’all Eat Yet?:  isn’t Gleason’s first book. She edited “Prine on Prine: Interviews & Encounters,” and “Woman Walk The Line: How The Women Of Country Music Changed Our Lives.” She also collaborated with Kenny Chesney on a coffee table book.

In an email interview, Gleason discussed how she worked with Lambert, the difference between writing or editing a book and ghostwriting one, when she joined ASJA and why, and more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The book’s theme of food, family, and friends

It’s about the power of intergenerational female friendship, plus food, drinks, and celebrating to hold people together in hard times and triumphs, chasing a dream, or weathering a storm. Plus, the women in Miranda’s life – (mother) Beverly Lambert and her friends Denise, Heidi, and Vicki, and Grandma Nonny and her lady friends – were such characters, they made for great copy.

It went from something that might’ve been fluffy to fun. All those stories, all those people, all the places and especially, because it’s Miranda Lambert, the music! Once she “saw” it, she was all in. For people who don’t know Miranda or her music, she is a hard worker who wants things to be as compelling as possible.

Cover image for Y'All Eat Yet?

Working with Miranda Lambert and the other women in the book

The process was incredible. Miranda came down to Palm Beach – where I live part-time – a few times for work periods of three to five days. We’d interview hard for several hours. After the first trip, she brought her husband Brendan. As much fun as working with Miranda was, he was like our fun jockey! “Okay, you guys need drinks,” or “I think it’s time to get in the ocean.”

I went to Roundtop, Texas, for the Superbowl of antiquing with Beverly, Denise, Heidi, and Vicki. Over four days, all the women sat for double interviews. They cooked and laughed, and told stories while they chopped. Seeing them in action really greased the narrative, because the chemistry and flow were on full display.

Then we had to pass the Bev test. After we’d write a section and get it where we wanted it, we’d ship the pages off to Miranda’s mother for an authenticity test. If Bev Lambert believed the voice, then we were good to go.

That was the one mandate through all of it: it had to read like Miranda’s voice. Not a version of her voice, but her voice. Because she is so authentic and real her fans know that voice, and if this was going to be perfectly bound, then it has to read true.

The difference between writing or editing a book and ghostwriting one

When you’re editing and writing connective tissue for something like “Prine on Prine: Interviews & Encounters,” or creating a narrative arc with “Woman Walk The Line: How The Women Of Country Music Changed Our Lives,” you have the liberty of moving things around. You can color in the supporting content to fill a hole because you don’t have the article or essay to make the jump. But the other side is, you have to get all the pieces to fit in the frame.

With Miranda, it was more “How do we tell your story?” Did we want it to be linear? Not completely. Did we want to arrange it by the dishes? Maybe a little. Did we want people to feel how all of these elements knit together to build a life, a dream, and a solid young woman? Yes!

Once we identified the flow and the priorities – and music was something that needed to flow through this – we were more organized in our interviews. We had targets and we would talk to them. The last six weeks we spent flying pieces around from one chapter to another, staying open to “Would this fit better in this space versus where we have it?” The Hummingbird Cake recipe moved, I think, three times. “The Loaf” – Bev’s Famous Meatloaf recipe – ended up being its own little intermezzo.

Ghostwritten books she’s inspired by

Joel Selvin’s Sammy Hagar book, “My Uncensored Life” was a great guide for this book. They kept it very much in Sammy’s actual voice and culled stories in a way that supported and lifted what could have been a leaden or over-swaggered memoir. He kept all the rock and roll energy to the story without swerving into Spinal Tap territory.

Also, whoever did the Britney Spears’ memoir because they kept her in a space of high candor, but real grace. That book could’ve exploded into a sea of hysteria and clickbait, but they were able to tell some pretty nauseating truths and unthinkable moments with a minimum of soap operatics or judgment. When you got to the end, you not only had a lot of empathy for what she’s been through, you realized how the gap between what we think we know can be exploited to take advantage of someone who might be struggling instead of getting them meaningful help. A lot of people thought this was going to be “Diary of a Bimbo.” Instead, they got a sentient young girl becoming a mother who was far more rational and pushed to the edge by handlers than anyone realized.

When and why she joined ASJA

I’ve been a member since 2010 I think. When I enrolled in Spalding University’s masters of fine arts program for creative nonfiction, they recommended all the students join because of the insight and support ASJA provides writers. Even though I’d been a fairly high level journalist since I was in college, it had never occurred to me to join. What a shame I missed all those years of everything ASJA provides!

Takeaways from ghosting the book other ASJA writers can learn from

Trust the voice. Embrace the voice. Protect the voice. People who care about the topic or person know the difference between how the subject communicates and a writer approximating that. I’m in the midst of doing a proposal for a fascinating, demi-boldfaced name who had a book out over a decade ago that did okay. I read it before starting to work on this and it felt flat. It didn’t reflect the tone, rhythm, or frankly spark to the voice. When I asked the subject if they preferred that voice, they said, “No!” The subject worked with a Yale-educated ghostwriter who said they wouldn’t put their name on a book that wasn’t written in a certain way. “It wasn’t how I talk,” the subject said, “and that always bothered me.”

As ghosts, it’s our job to deliver the voice so the readers recognize the subject. We are the conduit between the curious, engaged, and casually intrigued and the person we share the byline with. If they feel like we delivered the book that sounds like them, mission accomplished! Miranda’s book debuted at #3 on the New York Times bestsellers list and stayed in the top 10 for three or four weeks. That’s when you know the intended marketplace is feeling connected in a way that compels them to spread the word.

Michelle Rafter is a ghostwriter and ASJA member based in Portland, Oregon. She ran ASJA’s 2023 virtual annual conference, and recently took over as the organization’s publications chair.