November 2011

Ghostwriting - my experience

“Have you found her voice yet?” asked my elegant, fashionista, journalist friend.

To any casual eavesdropper at the cocktail party, it must have sounded a rather odd question. Might we have been discussing a new party game perhaps, or the discovery of a cure for laryngitis?

But I understood exactly what she meant. I too had been thinking along the same lines and knew how crucial it would be to “find the voice” for the project to succeed.

It had all started a few weeks before when a long-held ambition had been realised and I had signed a contract to publish my first book. From the early flutters of an idea, I had referred to it as my book; although to be strictly accurate I should have called it “our” book - or even “her” book - as I had been commissioned to write the story of my friend Jenny Gucci who, as an opera student in Florence, had fallen in love - and married Paolo Gucci of the famous and powerful fashion dynasty.

For the last six months it was as if I was living inside Jenny’s skin. While Spanish spring gave way to a scorching summer and my family and friends partied ‘til late at night and lazed on the beach all day, I became something of a recluse lost in the Gucci family archives. I put my life on hold, turning down invitations and ignoring my nearest and dearest as I became increasingly involved in Jenny’s past. Over endless cups of tea, conversations spilled into my recorder for safe keeping. Later I would listen to them again as I transcribed her words and then carefully restructured them into a readable story.

Alongside this surrogate Gucci life, my radio programmes continued. One of the UK’s leading ghost-writers, Andrew Crofts, told me during an interview on the Book Show that successful ghost-writers need to be able to suppress their egos completely.

Yes, I had definitely found Jenny’s voice – possibly at the expense of temporarily losing my own.

In the trade we are known as “ghosts” which conjures up the image of a sort of shadowy stalker at Halloween. Although clearly this is a silly picture, there can often be a secretive, “under-cover” element to this writing underworld. Sometimes publishers or the celebrity themselves want the public to believe the book has been written unaided by the big name alone. It remains something of a mystery exactly how many bestsellers have been written by successful ghost-writers.  Several eyebrows were raised a couple of years ago when Big Brother winner, Tourette’s sufferer, Pete Bennett, naively told a journalist that he hadn’t even read the book he was supposed to have written.  In our celebrity-driven society, one can only wonder how many other reality TV stars and overnight tabloid sensations might not have made it to the end of their own autobiographies.

Fortunately however, thousands of other readers have an insatiable hunger for more details of the extraordinary lives behind the headlines. Perhaps because of this commercial success, ghost writers are looked down upon in some literary circles. Could we be accused of turning our backs on our craft and “selling out” for a tempting advance cheque?

It might be argued that ghosting is not nearly as demanding as researching a work of historical non-fiction or the endless interviews necessary for an authorised biography for example; nor does it call for the creative imagination of great fiction writing. However, I believe we perform a different but nonetheless skilled role. It is our job to tell the story fairly without – however tempting – exaggeration or fabrication, in a way that flows into a readable page turner. Knowing that we only have reality to work with, throws up a whole range of challenges; but also innumerable advantages … the most obvious being the invitation to get inside and nose around remarkable true stories.

For the gestation of the book, the ghost and her subject are joined at the hip; locked into a relationship closer than many marriages. I remember once telling Jenny that I felt as if I knew her better than she knew herself. I was even convinced that at night I was having her dreams instead of my own. In turn I was honoured to be trusted with deeply personal details of her life that were not previously known to any living person.

Many writers refer to the analogy of giving birth when they present the final manuscript to their editors. This letting go of something you have nurtured and created is indeed a unique sensation. As a ghost-writer, it goes one step further.
On October 7th (I was only one week past my due date!) by pressing “send”, I delivered my book - my baby - not just temporarily to my publisher for safekeeping, but also over to Jenny for permanent adoption.

This baby/book - won’t carry my name on its cover and, although the agreement had been made months before, it still hurts to know that now I must be brave and step aside to allow this thing I created to go forth and flourish without me. Although I know that Jenny will do a wonderful job at all the signings and promotional events, I am left feeling a bit sad and empty.

But despite the painful birthing process, like all mothers and authors, I am quite prepared to do it all over again and am currently searching for someone else’s skin to climb into and another voice to find.