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Ghost Stories

Confessions of a ghost writer

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I don’t mind admitting that I’ve ghosted many books, including some supposed autobiographies and some celebrity novels. I’m glad I haven’t spent my writing life doing nothing else, but I do maintain that ghostwriting deserves to be recognised as a distinctive and difficult literary genre, not to be undertaken lightly. Why, then, is there no Nibby for Best Ghosted Book of the Year? Why, in fact, do people think the literary ghost is a species of whore?

Ghostwriting’s history has yet to be written. The core of it is the separation of the writer from the author, a disjunction not as unnatural as it may seem. The most basic ghostwriter would be the scribe-for-hire still seen in some parts of the world until quite recently: the figure squatting at an intersection of the bazaar, with an ancient Remington typewriter on an orange box, composing letters for migrants and mercenaries to girlfriends in villages far away. He has now been sacrificed to Skype and FaceTime.

The genre of faked autobiography originates in the seventeenth century, when the first books published purely for profit appeared out of Grub Street. That supreme Grub Streeter Daniel Defoe was one of those who specialised in inventing personae through which to tell exciting (but mostly spurious) personal histories – Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and the London merchant ‘H.F.’, the supposed eye-witness to the Great Plague in A Journal of the Plague Year. The offspring of this highly popular form was the realist novel, the most refined as well as the most honest form of lying ever invented.

But Grub Street writers also composed first-person accounts of the lives of existing popular celebrities like Duncan Campbell, the deaf and dumb conjurer, and Captain George Carleton, a soldier who saw thrilling action in the War of the Spanish Succession. Sometimes the subjects of these sensationalised ‘autobiographies’ cooperated in the work (Carleton may have been one of these), giving rise to a new industry, ghostwriting in the modern sense. It always lived in the gullible and far from artsy marketplace of popular journalism, and consequently enjoyed an ambivalent relationship to the truth. In this regard, nothing changes. No one today will mistake the ghosted memoirs of a tennis star or actor for literature, but many of her trusting readers will happily persuade themselves that every word is her word, and that every word is true. The more skilful the ghost, the more convincing the deception.

A different kind of lying is in play with the ghosting of fiction. Here, the usual publishing process is reversed: it is not a matter of the novelist (in her lonely garret) hoping to become a celebrity, but of tricking out the celebrity (in his gated community) as a novelist, while the actual writer remains in the garret. There is a rule of omerta here: the celeb accepts unlimited PR liability while the ghost accepts the fee without a word. Occasionally this pact is broken, as when Naomi Campbell blithely disclaimed responsibility for the critically savaged novel Swan, of which she was the published author (but not the writer).

The ghost’s sense of being, at best, a covert operator on the margins of ‘proper’ writing and, at worst, a despicable liar, can result in damaged self-esteem and the need to hide from sight. But the ghost is, in any case, contractually forced to live in the closet. One who came out is Jennie Erdal, and her account should be mandatory reading for all would-be literary ghosts. Erdal’s memoir Ghosting tells of a fifteen-year professional relationship with a plutocratic foreign-born publisher, her employer, whom she calls Tiger. His vanity far outruns his command of English, though he wants desperately to be a respected novelist. He therefore pays Erdal to write two short, elegant tales, which he publishes under his own name (and his own imprint). These receive considerable critical praise, though with no more than a whisper, in the acknowledgements, of her role in the matter.

These were rare examples of ghost-works intended to be read as art, yet Erdal’s account is highly attuned to all the issues lying at the heart of ghostwriting. Ghosting is a delightful, funny and wise book, but there is an underlying whiff of transgression, of intimacy traduced. In it, the literary skill that had previously been laid at Tiger’s feet has now risen up to mock him.
Erdal tells how, like many ghosts, she passed through moments of self-loathing, not least when a professor at her old university told her she was ‘no better than a common whore’. Take away the moral posturing and there is a sort of truth in this charge. To get best results, the ghost will need to employ flattery to jack up the other’s ego, to make them believe they really are writers. But this cannot be done without complicity in double-think, and it is just there that the shadow falls, the sense that the ghostwriter is plying a tainted trade.

There are occasions in the ghosting process – as in Freudian psychoanalysis – of ‘transference’, where clients seem to unload their own neuroses on the ghost. At first they are wary of this person pretending to be them. Then they adore you, until soon they want to kill you. I have ghosted the fictional works of two figures from the world of horses, one of whom began by regarding me with awe, and ended thinking I was too clever by half; the other, after a promising start, gradually decided that I was impossibly dim-witted, no better than a stable lad in his first week on the job. The petulant, often random corrections these clients imposed on my prose sometimes turned it into gibberish.

Clients may fall prey to the idea, stimulated by double-think and negative feelings about the ghost, that they can do perfectly well without. Experienced ghosts will be familiar with that moment, probably somewhere around chapter fifteen, when your celebrity attempts to send you packing. It is important not to worry. You are almost always quite smartly back in favour.

Sometimes your world and the client’s collide, with unfortunate results. I once assisted with the memoirs of a retired ‘society’ cat-burglar. He was on the face of it a bit of a charmer: quite well-read, ruggedly handsome, a marvellous raconteur and capable of considerable spontaneous generosity. But when he suddenly took issue with certain aspects of the publishing contract negotiated by my agent on his behalf, we realised how spontaneously violent he could be. He burst into their offices, threatening to break noses and kick bottoms on all sides. He left only because his old acquaintances the police were about to be called. It took time for my relationship with the agency to recover.

The circumstances under which the ghost harvests a client’s story can be significant. A man imprisoned for many years after being falsely convicted of terrorist acts, and released after a long campaign to free him, received a fat publishing contract, and picked as his ghost a journalist who had sympathetically covered his case. The two of them went off to a Mediterranean resort to put his reminiscences on tape. Months went by and the book was not delivered and at the last minute I was hired to rescue the job. As soon as I looked over the tape transcripts I saw the problem: a few pages of good sense, followed by a gradual descent into rambling anecdotes and bizarre digressions; then, after forty pages, two or three more of good sense before the same unravelling; and so on for six-hundred pages. It was obvious what had happened. While they talked on their sun-washed hotel balcony the two men had spent all day, every day, getting shit-faced on the local plonk. I had to begin again from scratch, re-interviewing the client under strictly teetotal conditions.

My favourite assignment, and my best ghosted book (or so I think), was neither a memoir nor a novel. The client was not a celebrity but a schoolteacher who had amassed a huge archive of information about a little-known but disastrous sub-arctic expedition in the 1920s, and received a large advance for a book telling the tragic tale. When the task proved beyond him, I came in to do the writing based on his research, with carte blanche to take any approach I thought best. I quickly became engrossed in the world of explorers, trappers and adventurers in the Canada of the time, adding quite a lot of research of my own and coming up with a text that was liked by everybody involved. On publication – under the client’s name and with a minimal ‘without whom…’ mention of me in the acknowledgements – the book was well reviewed and then disappeared almost without trace. But I had hugely enjoyed writing it.

So, to anyone planning a career in ghostwriting, I say this: you must accept daily frustrations, with joyful intervals; you will learn much and earn a reasonable living, but may be held in contempt; and you will enjoy publication but not public recognition. Such is the ghostwriting life.

Robin Blake is the author (and writer) of fifteen published books including five 18th-century crime mysteries featuring Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis. He is also the biographer of Anthony Van Dyck and George Stubbs and has written widely on art. He has retired from ghostwriting.

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