Ghostwriters can tell a tale or two about their subject matter

Being the invisible artist brings its challenges, discovers Richard Fitzpatrick.

RONALD Reagan was famously asked about his autobiography, An American Life, after it was published in 1990.

“I hear it’s a terrific book. One of these days I’m going to read it myself.”

The ghostwriter has come out from the shadows since that quip, the invisible artist never having been so visible.

Last January, Orion, the publishing house, announced Roddy Doyle had been hired to ghost a Roy Keane memoir, 12 years after Eamon Dunphy’s underwhelming effort. It will come out in the autumn. The news made the Booker Prize-winning author the envy of sportswriters.

Ghostwriters can tell a tale or two about their subject matter

Roddy Doyle’s memoir of Roy Keane is due in autumn

A few days afterwards, there was a hullabaloo when Paul Kimmage resigned as the ghostwriter on Brian O’Driscoll’s autobiography after two years of toil. That the fallout led to headlines was a measure of the status ghostwriters have acquired over the last decade, notably with the 2010 Roman Polanski movie, The Ghost Writer, which was based on a best-selling Robert Harris novel.

Harris, in turn, started each chapter in his thriller with a quote from Andrew Croft’s how-to guide on ghostwriting. Croft says Harris, whose eponymous ghostwriter was commissioned to write the memoir of a former British prime minister allegedly based on Tony Blair, captured the essence of a ghostwriter’s world.

“He got it spot on. When I went to see the film with my wife she said, ‘Ewan McGregor sounded exactly like me.’ A lot of the things he said about ghostwriting are things I would say. The whole atmosphere of being in (the subject’s) house — you’re suddenly sucked into the centre of it; you’re sort of their best friend for a concentrated period of time, having come from nowhere, and then you disappear off again to your own little garret to write the book. He got that really well.”

“The Ewan McGregor character had only done a naff magician’s book before. And somebody said, ‘Why would you not get some heavyweight to do the book? Why get somebody who has only done such a flippant book?’ The prime minister’s wife says, ‘Well, if he can make a page-turner out of that magician’s life imagine what he can do with your story.’”

Hunter Davies has published over 40 books. His five ghosted autobiographies include ones with the footballers, Wayne Rooney — who was contracted by HarperCollins in 2006 to churn out five volumes for £5 million — and Paul Gascoigne. He says he asks his subjects three questions when they first meet.

“‘Why do you want to do the book?’ If they say, ‘My agent thinks it’s a good idea,’ I would turn it down. If they say, ‘I want to set the record straight. I haven’t told my story. I’m fed up with people getting me wrong’ that will be a good starting point.

Ghostwriters can tell a tale or two about their subject matter

Hunter Davies has ghosted five books

“Then I ask, ‘How much time will you give me?’ I will be with you roughly for eight months and I will come and see you every two or three weeks, and I will need at least eight sessions of three hours each. Are you prepared to do that?’ Third, you have got to tell me the truth. If you start lying and making up things, it will get so involved and complicated. I promise nobody else will see the manuscript until they read it. If they have upset their auntie or wife they can then change it. But while they’re doing it they have to open up.”

Ultimately, the lack of control over the content for the ghostwriter can be frustrating, though, especially if the ghostwriter strives for a “warts and all” account.

“It’s trying to make the book authentic when they don’t want to include some stories ,” says Sue Leonard, who has ghosted four books, including Marie Fleming’s book about her right to die, An Act of Love.

One of the truisms of ghostwriting is you can’t make up facts but you can take liberties with the subject’s thoughts, especially when it comes to the struggle to pad out a life story so it fills 250 pages or more. Crofts cautions, however, about inventing tangents that aren’t credible. He cites an incident in the drafting of his book, Sold, which told the story of a Birmingham girl sold by her father as a child bride.

“She was a 15-year-old girl when she went to Yemen. I needed to fill the book so I put in historical bits about British colonialism and Yemen. She said, ‘What’s all this about?’ It wasn’t something she thought about. She was worried about being raped every night and having to walk two miles to get water every day and how she was going to get back to her mum, how she could get a letter out of the country. She didn’t give a toss about the history of the British in Yemen. That was a lesson to me.”

* Confessions of a Ghostwriter by Andrew Crofts will be published by HarperCollins in August. Sue Leonard will speak about ghostwriting at 1pm, Wednesday, 9 July at the West Cork Literary Festival, Bantry Library, Bridge St, Bantry, Co Cork. For more information, visit:


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