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The agonies and ecstasies of the ghostwriter

Essay | 8 minute read
It is a grubby truth universally acknowledged that most, if not all, ghostwriters are in it for the money. One such writer reveals the truth behind the trade

My first foray into ghostwriting came by accident. Having left university, I had bookish ambitions but few contacts, and so was interning at a literary agency with the aim of furthering both. The pay was non-existent, but evenings at the next-door pub offered compensatory good cheer. It was not long until the agency’s director sidled up to me, gin in hand, and asked me what sort of writing I was interested in.

‘The usual, I suppose… decadence, debauchery, style…’

A look akin to a drowning man being given a buoy came over his face. ‘So have you heard of Sebastian Horsley?’

Horsley, the artist, dandy and drug addict, had lived a remarkable life. He had made and lost a fortune, swum with sharks, had himself crucified, slept with over a thousand prostitutes and had engaged in a sado-masochistic affair with the gangster Jimmy Boyle. Publishers had been desperate to buy his life story. The problem was that the manuscript that he had eventually turned in was entitled Mein Camp, and was, in his words, ‘akin to being stuck in a lift being yelled at by a madman’. The agency had been looking for a simpatico spirit who would both appreciate what Horsley had done, but also turn the book into something that people might actually want to read. Something I did not realise at the time was that a previous publisher had reneged on their contract after Horsley, high on heroin, had threatened his editor with violence. Had I known this, I might have been less keen to work with him.

As it transpired, he could not have been a more friendly or simpatico person with whom to collaborate. The book as it stood was a fascinating hodgepodge of ideas and witticisms – some borrowed, some blue – but it lacked any structure or any sense as to who Horsley really was. My task was to offer suggestions and rewrites where appropriate, and over the space of a few months, the book came into some kind of focus, not least because of the work of another talented editor. When Horsley’s memoir, now retitled Dandy in the Underworld, was published, I received a wry acknowledgement, in which I was thanked ‘for blowing the whistle’. Payment was never forthcoming, but the experience – on this occasion – was quite enough compensation.

Most ghostwriters do not work with characters as flamboyant as Sebastian Horsley, nor do they spend their time poring over life stories for the sheer pleasure of the task. It is an industry that exists in the shadows and recesses of publishing proper, a kind of mirror universe in which the talented but obscure shuffle forward to illuminate the words of the famous, and then retreat once the job has been done. Most publishers can call upon the services of several ghosts, sometimes euphemistically described as ‘book doctors’. Their tasks vary enormously. Sometimes, as in my dealings with Horsley, the bare bones are there but need fleshing out, a process that naturally arises through conversation, research and creative indulgence. On other occasions, as in my last commission, one simply writes the book from scratch, and then watches wryly as the putative author accepts the adulation and plaudits.

As an industry, it has existed since ancient times. The New Testament canon is unlikely to have been written by the disciples of Jesus, but instead by literate scribes who would have come from a higher social background than the illiterate working men who were the apostles. There has been an ongoing debate as to whether Shakespeare’s plays were by him at all, or whether a jobbing actor from Stratford happily accepted fame and adulation to act as the proxy for another, whether Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the courtier Francis Bacon or even, in the most outlandish versions of the tale, Christopher Marlowe, who faked his own death for political expediency. While few genuinely believe this, it has nonetheless continued to keep the idea of the high-profile ghostwriter in the public eye.

This tradition has continued well into the present day. Thomas Hardy’s biography was written by him but published under his second wife Florence’s name, just as Harry Houdini’s (excellent) supernatural stories were in fact written by H. P. Lovecraft. Rumours have persisted that To Kill A Mockingbird was written with significant input from Harper Lee’s friend Truman Capote. It is rare to find any politician who is a talented enough writer to craft compelling prose, but Malcolm X’s autobiography at first appears to be a striking exception; when one realises that the ghost behind it was none other than Alex Haley, author of Roots, it is less surprising. And this is before one gets into the innumerable memoirs of singers, comedians, reality-show stars and ‘personalities’, most of which resemble nothing so much as a desperate attempt on both the subject and writer’s part to pursue their endeavour to a common purpose: continued exposure for the first, and payment for the second.

Ghostwriting Sebastian Horsley’s life and times (Photo by Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

It is a grubby truth universally acknowledged that most, if not all, ghostwriters are in it for the money. Few published authors are entirely devoid of ego, but there is an especial form of sublimation that comes with attempting to write in another’s voice, sometimes excruciatingly so, while knowing that they will receive none of the recognition that they usually expect. There will be no launch party in their honour, no congratulatory bunch of flowers or champagne from the publisher; instead, a cheque is banked once a stringent non-disclosure agreement has been signed, and the next project is sought. Good reviews and strong sales will strengthen a ghost’s credibility, but it is at least true that a disastrous flop can be walked away from with a shrugged ‘not my problem’ and a nonchalance that the ‘official’ author cannot enjoy.

There is also the issue of relations between the ghost and the ‘author’. At best, both parties will understand the need for compromise, clarity and speed, and work harmoniously and professionally together. This was true of my second commission, which was writing several chapters of a memoir of a much-loved TV personality by his widow; she felt too upset by the necessity of writing about his illness, death and funeral and so I worked on the project for a couple of months, squirrelling out revealing aspects of his life from the endless condolence cards and obituaries that I had been given. It was mundane and repetitive, but I at least felt that I was offering a public service of sorts, not least because I was able to include a scurrilous anecdote about a former tutor of mine who I had convinced the aforementioned TV personality was a leading medieval scholar. (It saved on research.) Such is the lighter side of ghostwriting.

At its worst, it can lead to an irreparable breakdown in relations between ghost and subject and the project’s cancellation. The most notorious incident of this was between Andrew O’Hagan and Julian Assange in 2011, when O’Hagan was hired to write Assange’s memoir. As an award-winning author in his own right, O’Hagan was initially wary of the commission, but decided that it would be an interesting project; as he put it, in a revelatory article in the London Review of Books, ‘the Assange story would be consistent with my instinct to walk the unstable border between fiction and non-fiction, to see how porous the parameters between invention and personality are.’

Unsurprisingly, working with the notorious fugitive from justice, even before his embassy days, proved impossible, not least because of Assange’s extraordinary paranoia, coupled with imperial delusions of grandeur. As O’Hagan wincingly mused, ‘I don’t think he’s got the right kind of psychology to be able to put his name to a memoir… he wanted to cover up everything about himself but his fame.’ Many subjects who work with a ghost have occasional fears that they are going to be misrepresented; few manage to make the saga of their memoir’s creation more interesting than the book itself. O’Hagan and his publishers eventually released a volume pithily entitled Julian Assange: the Unauthorised Autobiography. It received respectful if somewhat bemused reviews, with the Independent saying ‘an extraordinary story, lovely writing and a weirdo hero – what’s not to like?’

Few other ghosted projects have ever received that level of ignominy. In a profession in which discretion and the ability to charm are just as important as literary ability, it is likely that most publishers and agents will be reluctant to reveal the secrets of which best-selling historian and which award-winning biographer have barely written a word that has appeared under their own name for decades. Unless, that is, one collars them at a launch or booze-soaked dinner, and then the gossip usually flows, uninhibited by any non-disclosure agreement.

Yet it’s worth bearing in mind the words of the doyen of contemporary ghost writers, Andrew Crofts, who has worked on numerous autobiographies, often with a strongly emotive theme. As he says, ‘when you have been working as a ghost for a few years, you will be able to gaze on a shelf-full of books with different authors’ names on the spines, knowing that without your input they would never have existed, and you will be able to look back on many encounters with extraordinary and varied people. Despite all the frustrations and annoyances you are going to be facing, it is still a wonderful way to spend your life.’

Or, as a previous client put it after a lively exchange of views, ‘it beats working for a living, doesn’t it?’

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