Ghost in the machine

Issue 81, Idler, Nov-Dec 2021

The following essay on ghostwriting and how to be a ghostwriter is published in the November-December issue of Idler magazine, available in selected WHSmiths, Waitrose and bookshops or by subscription at Full list of Idler stockists is here:


Ghost in the machine

I was talking to my sister the other day. She and her husband had just finished reading the autobiography of the late Captain Tom, he of the millions raised for the NHS through his remarkable walking adventure.

            ‘I’m just really surprised,’ my sister said. ‘He was a hundred years old and was a soldier, not a writer. But it’s really well-written.’

            ‘Well, that’s probably because it was written for him by a ghostwriter,’ I said.

            ‘Oh,’ she said, and just for a moment I felt like the horrid boy at a birthday party who sticks a pin in the host’s balloon. After the call, I checked and yes, a writer called Wendy Holden wrote the book at quite a pace after spending many hours with Sir Tom recording interviews with him.

            Does it matter? Well, my uninvited revelation seemed to rub a bit of the gloss off the book in my sister’s eyes. I’ve spent years writing books for clients as a ghostwriter so I suppose I’m immune to squeamishness. But why such feelings of ambivalence about the ghostwriter’s trade?

            I asked Ivan Mulcahy, the founder of the highly successful literary agency MMB Creative ( Ivan employs ghostwriters when he decides they’re required on a project.

            ‘The first thing you have to remember,’ he says, ‘is that people want to read about successful or unusual or super-talented people. We’re interested in what makes people like that tick. But original people are successful for a variety of reasons and, very often, being able to be articulate and persuasive with the written word is not one of those reasons. Good writing is about storytelling, about leading the reader along a magical trail. That’s a particular skill.’

            My first ghostwriting job was thirty years ago. A publisher I knew said he’d had an interesting submission from a hypnotist who specialised in past-life regressions. The manuscript wasn’t publishable in its current state but would I be interested in collaborating with the author? I spent several months with the hypnotist, a splendid and larger-than-life man called Joe Keeton. He invited me to sit in on the all-night hypnotic regression sessions he held in north London. About ten middle-aged people would sit around a suburban front room sipping tea with absolute decorum until one of them, called to sit beside Joe and submit to his entrancement, would within minutes be writhing on the floor, shouting ‘Take me Jesus!’ as she regressed to her past life as a Protestant martyr in the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary.

            It was riveting stuff and I was hooked. The book which ensued, The Power Of The Mind, became a big seller (I’ve since dined out on the Anne Diamond quote: ‘This book changed my life’).

             The trick, perhaps, is to be a bit more upfront about it all. The YouTube blogging phenomenon, Zoella, found herself in hot water a few years ago when her novel, Girl Online, shot to the top of the bestseller charts and became the fastest selling novel in UK publishing history. It then turned out she’d had ‘help’ from a writer called Siobhan Curham and from publisher Penguin’s ‘expert editorial team’. Social media platforms went into overdrive, yelling ‘fraud and deception’ and generally behaving in as unpleasant a manner as those platforms do.

            Zoella survived it, but her squeaky-clean image was tarnished. Our over-zealous world is, perhaps, less forgiving now than when Ronald Reagan put out his autobiography and, on being congratulated on it by a reporter, said: ‘Well, I look forward to reading it.’

            This isn’t a new phenomenon, Ivan Mulcahy reminds me.

            ‘Think of the great American publishing editors like Gordon Lish and Maxwell Perkins,’ he says. ‘Raymond Carver’s breakthrough collection of stories, 1981’s What We Think About When We Talk About Love, was in effect part-written by Lish, who created the minimalist Carver we all know through his ruthless cuts and plot changes. And Perkins is responsible for the towering reputation of Thomas Wolfe, despite the fact he slashed well over a hundred thousand words from each of the writer’s novels and generally re-arranged them. Where does the line lie between ghostwriting and intrusive editing?’

            Well, like it or not, the glossy celebrity memoirs that feature on the front tables of WH Smith and Waterstones are more likely than not to have been ghostwritten, for the obvious reasons Mulcahy explained at the start. And what about the new trend for celebrities to pen fiction? The Zoella case will give you a clue: someone who has made a successful career and pots of money appearing on popular television shows is statistically unlikely to also be a natural novelist.

            One need only observe the huge global interest in July this year when Penguin announced that Prince Harry was writing what they described (with a straight face) as a “literary memoir”, at the same time revealing that the American ghostwriter JR Moehringer had already spent a year with Harry drafting the book. Moehringer did a fabulous job with André Agassi’s autobiography and with that of Nike founder Phil Knight, and is likely to share in a reasonable slice of the reported $20 million advance. Speculation is that he was introduced to Harry by George Clooney, which just goes to indicate what a rarified world these celebs occupy. But Harry at least has probably made the right decision to come clean about his writing partner from the off; whether we like the book or not, we won’t be able to claim he tried to pull a fast one.

            Yet, be careful, because talent isn’t evenly distributed amongst us. There are in fact several TV folk, like Richard Osman, Graham Norton and Robert Webb who do write their own, much admired novels. Others are quietly ghosted, or publicly done so, as in the case of music writer Pete Paphides’s brilliant collaboration with Elton John on the latter’s 2019 memoir, Me.

            The publishing industry remains tight-lipped about the process. In researching this article, I asked a number of ghostwriters to be interviewed on the record and all, often on the advice of their agents, politely declined. It seems that publishers would prefer to risk the occasional spat like the Zoella revelation rather than encourage readers to believe that many bestselling books with a single-named, famous author are in fact group editorial efforts.

            Here’s a game to tantalise you, based on nothing more authoritative than extensive industry gossip. Which famous male novelist constructs his massively popular novels by sending for his team of writers, installing them in his chateau for a week while he wanders around in his dressing gown telling them his latest story idea? Which well-known female popular historian tasks her anonymous ghostwriter with the first draft of her excellent books, only deigning to get stuck in when there is a manuscript to work from?

            It seems we just don’t want to embrace the notion of shared authorship, and yet we have no such concerns when it comes to other media such as film, where the contribution of multiple authors to the script has always been accepted. But the solitary experience of being curled up on a sofa with a book seems to encourage us to believe that the author is speaking directly to us.

            Mulcahy calls this ‘the romance of having access to someone else’s head’. Who wants some hack ghostwriter getting in the way of that intimate relationship? Chapter Two of Ford Madox Ford’s monumental 1915 novel The Good Soldier begins: ‘I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.’ Er, no mention of a ghostwriter, see?

            The trick, I like to think, is to be heard but not seen. The effectively ghostwritten book will have all the flavours and faults of the subject and won’t be so perfectly drafted that the subject’s character disappears in a wash of froth. It takes me hours and hours of tape-recorded time spent with a subject to begin to get a feel for how they interact with the world and how they like to present themselves, but often it will be a moment we share when the tape machine is switched off which really reveals their train of thought. Authentic narrators make mistakes, commit the sins of hubris or pride, confess to weaknesses with a wry smile; one of the first indicators of the presence of a ghostwriter can often be the faultlessness of the text.

            It can occasionally be a perilous occupation, because as a ghostwriter you are relying on the veracity of the stories your client tells you. I can still recall, ten years on, the considerable detumescence on reading the ten-page faxed legal assault from the world’s most aggressive lawyers, Schillings, which was sent to me at 6pm on a Friday evening (Schillings I think invented that tactic, designed to destroy the adversary’s peace for an entire weekend). My subject, they said, had lied extensively about their client, who was at that time almost everywhere on the telly. Thankfully, a combination of libel insurance and a slam-dunk piece of new evidence from my subject resulted in an honourable withdrawal on both sides.

            I asked Ivan Mulcahy what was the most important quality for a ghostwriter. ‘Loyalty,’ he answered, without hesitation. And the biggest pitfalls? ‘Oh, as for us all, greed and ego will bring down a good ghostwriter,’ he smiled. And perhaps also just plain exhaustion. The late Jennie Erdal worked for twenty years as the anonymous, secret ghostwriter for the publisher and author Naim Attallah, allegedly even going so far as to draft his love letters. Finally, she’d had enough and published Ghosting in 2004, spilling the beans on how she’d written all the novels and books the world had previously assumed to be the work of the maverick founder of The Oldie magazine and Quartet Press. When one of Erdal’s old university professors discovered how she’d been making her living, he declared that she was ‘no better than a common whore’.

            So how about the other way round: does ghostwriting blunt the writer’s own pencil? The critic Cyril Connolly listed in Enemies of Promise the methods of earning a living which are detrimental to the serious writer: advertising, reviewing poetry, journalism, teaching – all these jobs he pooh-poohed as being as dangerous to the ambitious writer as his infamous pram in the hallway, because they dilute the writer’s focus. He didn’t mention ghostwriting and I’ve no doubt he would have disapproved; Cyril only really approved of white, male authors with private incomes.

            But in fact, ghostwriting someone’s life is closer to writing a novel than you might think. The effective ghostwriter has to recognise and absorb the subject’s speech patterns, ways of thinking, mental habits. To present a client’s life to the reader, one has to draw him or her as authentically as you would a fictional character if you are to keep the reader at your side. There is a considerable creative satisfaction to be had from presenting a person on the page as they actually are in real life.

            Philip Roth, in his 1979 novel The Ghost Writer, introduces us to his fictional alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, for the first time. Zuckerman in this first outing is a young author of some well-reviewed short stories and he is visiting his hero, the writer E.I. Lonoff based, many say, on the writer Bernard Malamud. In the novel, Zuckerman begins to fantasise that the sensuous creative-writing student Amy whom he overhears attempting to seduce Lonoff is in fact Anne Frank, and in many ways the novel is an entirely literary exploration of the construction of character, whether it be Zuckerman’s fantasised Anne Frank or Henry James, or Roth’s own Lonoff/Malamud riff. For Philip Roth, the very act of writing summoned the ghost.

            Is ghostwriting more prevalent now in book publishing than before? Probably, an inevitable outcome of the seemingly unstoppable fascination with celebrity. It’s no longer enough for Captain Tom to summon his indefatigable spirit and bravery in support of the NHS; it seems now we need to feel we know him too. And how better to do that than to sit down beside the fire with the cold wind blowing outside and his voice coming directly to us off the page?

            As with most elements connected with the trade, the route in is shrouded with mystery and obfuscation. There are companies who advertise themselves as ghostwriting agencies, but they are often as impenetrable to the tyro ghost as those unlikely import/export businesses set up in the ’70s by MI6. Publishers and literary agents tend to have favoured ghosts, so the best thing you can probably do is write your own brilliant book, get an agent and a publisher along the way, and then build your portfolio from there.

            Just make sure to remember to keep a low profile, keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth firmly shut.

Simon Petherick’s latest novel, Like Fire Unbound, was published in March 2021. He is currently ghosting the life of


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