The Rich and Powerful go Shopping for Ghostwriters - Andrew Crofts

What do the global rich come to London for? To hire their butlers, to buy their art, to shop for clothes and houses – oh and the culture; they come for the culture.

For a while we called it “soft power”. When we threw our Olympics opening party we flexed those muscles to their full extent and books and their characters were a mighty part of the show. There was Mary Poppins and Harry Potter of course, James Bond skydiving with the Queen, a host of characters who looked as if they had come straight from the pages of Dickens and declamations from the pens of Shakespeare and a variety of other poets. Was Jane Austen invited? I can’t remember but she should have been, if only for the wonderful inspiration she provided for Bridget Jones.

In the eyes of the world London is the city of Byron and John Murray, T.S. Eliot and Faber, George Bernard Shaw and the Bloomsbury Group; so where else would you go to buy your ghostwriter?

Robert Harris sealed our reputation a few years ago when he wrote The Ghost, a thriller centring on a ghostwriter hired by a barely disguised Tony Blair. Roman Polanski turned the book into a darkly glamorous movie with Pierce Brosnan as the ex-prime minister and Ewan McGregor as the ghost who is very soon dragged out of his depth into murky international waters. It painted a chillingly accurate picture of how the business often works.

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Real ghostwriters in America and Europe have also been in the news a fair bit recently. Tony Schwartz, the man who ghosted The Art of the Deal for Donald Trump expressed his regret at “putting lipstick on a pig”. Mr Trump replied by suggesting that Mr Schwartz might like to return the considerable sums of money that he had earned from the book, while at the same time insisting that he had written every word himself and that Tony Schwartz had written nothing. Helmut Kohl, Germany’s second longest serving Chancellor behind Bismark passed away while suing his ghost, Heribert Schwan, for five millions euros for allegedly publishing material from their conversations in a book of his own, and Barbara Feinman Todd has just written what must be the ultimate ghosting memoir, Pretend I’m Not Here.

Feinman Todd started as a journalist on the Washington Post and ghosted for the journalists who exposed Watergate, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and for Ben Bradlee, their editor. She then went on to ghost for Hillary Clinton while she was First Lady and gives a riveting insight into life in the Clinton White House. In the process she sheds considerable light on how Mrs Clinton came to lose the affection and respect of the American people so dramatically.

Charmed by Woodward into being indiscreet about an incident where Clinton held some sort of séance in the White House, Feinman Todd found herself cut off by the Clintons when Woodward betrayed her confidence and published the story in his own book. She is a woman who has worked many years at the coalface of professional writing and Pretend I’m Not Here is the best book about the writing life since William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screentrade, which was published thirty years ago.

I can entirely feel her pain when she writes of realising that she has made a fundamental mistake in her eagerness to impress and please a man she greatly admires. She admits it was a terrible error and so it is. However much we ghosts may regret having agreed to “apply lipstick” to a client who turns out to be a “pig”, the deal has been done and we must stick to it. We have taken the King’s Shilling and we must serve loyally or face the consequences. We must respect their confidences, just as their lawyers and their doctors do, because that is what we have agreed to. They have to be able to trust us or they will not talk freely and we will never get close to seeing into their souls.

The hiring of a ghostwriter is a mutually seductive process. They know that their reputations are going to be channelled through our eyes and they are eager to make the right impression, while at the same time being eager to maintain the upper hand in the relationship. As a result they tend to like to meet in their palatial homes or in the nooks, crannies and restaurants of hotels that they think will reflect well on them.

The darkly polished Bulgari Hotel in Knightbridge is almost opposite the McLaren showroom at the base of the Candy Brothers’ monument to the new order of global wealth, and equidistant between Harrods and Harvey Nichols. It is particularly popular with Russians, Middle Easterns and Africans as a venue for brief meetings. For longer, more lingering lunches they usually favour the Rib Room in the Sloane Street’s Jumeira Carlton Tower, owned by the grandees of Dubai , or China Tang in the dark bowels of the Dorchester.

Anyone who belongs to one of the grand clubs of Pall Mall will use that to impress their ghost, likewise the showier clubs of Mayfair and Soho, which are frequented more often by the Europeans, although now of course the rich of all nations mingle like they are one tight-knit tribe. Clubs actually make ideal venues for interviewing if you are not at the interviewee’s home, being quiet and full of comfortable chairs and people eager to keep you supplied with coffee and biscuits.

But what happens once you have been seduced into signing the confidentiality contracts and the money has pinged in from strangely named foreign accounts? How do you avoid being one of the ghosts who falls out with the client?

The first thing is to have no expectations of receiving any recognition at all for the writing of the book should it come to fruition. If they choose to acknowledge you on the cover, or somewhere more discreet inside, that is very useful for the winning of future assignments, but it is not to be expected. You can expect that they will entertain you royally while they are telling you their secrets, but once the job is over so is your relationship.

If you have the sort of temperament that suits the ghosting process you will welcome that brevity because what you wanted was an interesting story, not a new best friend. By the time the book is finished you will be itching to get started on the next one, which will almost certainly be about something completely different, carrying you up a new learning curve.

You don’t argue with them or challenge their statements, however repulsive you may find them personally, unless they are contradicting themselves or saying something that either the publishers or the eventual readers are going to find hard to swallow. You want to encourage them to open up and tell you more, not clam up and become defensive. You want them to lose their inhibitions and talk freely so that you can gain access to what they really think, thereby forming better ideas of what might really have happened in their pasts.

You are producing the book that they would write if they could, so any views expressed within it are theirs and not yours. You are writing in their voices, taking on their characters, like a playwright putting words into the mouths of her characters, pleading their case for them more eloquently than they are able to do for themselves, like a barrister would do for them were they to find themselves in court. 

Once a project is up and running I hang around them like Charles Ryder hung around Sebastian Flyte, or Nick Carraway hung around Jay Gatsby, getting as much material on tape as possible while at the same time imbibing their voices so that I will be able to reproduce them on the page, inventing dialogue and descriptions where necessary while staying in their character.

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Tony Schwartz did a brilliant job for Donald Trump. The book was a number one best seller for weeks on end and brought the man’s name before a far wider public than would ever have heard of him when he was just another New York property developer.  The book did all the things that a ghosted autobiography is meant to do for the author, raising his profile to a level where he was offered a role in a major reality television show. At that stage Mr Schwartz would have been pleased to know that his book had helped his client’s career. When it started to look as if Mr Trump’s finger was heading for the nuclear button, however, Mr Schwartz panicked and spoke up to say that in his opinion, having spent eighteen months in the man’s company, this was not a good idea. (I have never felt the need to spend more than a few days with any client, but I believe Mr Trump has an exceptionally short attention span when being interviewed and it took Mr Schwartz that long to get enough material to make up a full length book).

It is quite possible that without Mr Schwartz’s help, Mr Trump would not have got to the Oval Office and I can see why Mr Schwartz may find that thought troubling in the small hours of the morning.

Mr Trump appears to genuinely believe that he actually wrote every word himself. Now that we all know a little more about the latest American President it seems unlikely that that is the case, but highly likely that he might believe it to be so. Some clients do end up believing they wrote their own books, but most are extremely intelligent people who remember with great accuracy that they did a bit of talking and the ghost then came back to them with a full-length manuscript. The majority are extremely grateful to be spared having to write 80,000 words themselves since they nearly always have far more interesting things to do, like run countries or corporations, star in Hollywood movies or play their songs to arenas filled with tens of thousands of adoring fans.

I receive two or three enquiries a day for ghosting services. I can only write three or four books a year so I am looking for stories that interest me, subjects that I want to find out about and places that I have never been to. Is the person interesting enough for me to want to “be” them for a few months? Will their story work in book form? If they pass those tests then I need to make a judgement as to whether I will be able to pay my grocery bills while writing. Will the author be paying a fee or will we be able to find a publisher to pay enough to satisfy us both during the writing process? If we are going to go looking for a publisher, will we need to recruit a literary agent to help us in that quest or will we be able to pull it off on our own?

Quite often the rich and powerful lose interest in the book half way through, diverted by a billion dollar takeover, overthrown in a political coup or simply distracted by a new yacht or a new life partner. The ghost must be philosophical in such cases and have another client waiting in the wings to move on to. There is no point trying to keep a project going once the main protagonist has lost interest.

Sometimes, when confronted with their words in black and white, the clients panic and say that they will have to make lots of changes. The ghost must stay calm and assure them that he will be delighted for them to make any changes they like. Most have no more appetite for editing than they did for writing in the first place, so the manuscript will usually come back with a few token scribbles in the margins, which can be incorporated into the body of the text in a few hours.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I only work for the rich and powerful, in fact in the past it has been the exact opposite, when I was writing for the otherwise disenfranchised. Travelling all over the world I worked with victims of enforced marriages in North Africa and the Middle East, sex workers in the Far East, orphans in war-torn areas like Croatia and dictatorships like Romania, victims of crimes and abused children everywhere. But so absorbed was I in the work I quite forgot to equip myself with an adequate pension and so now find it harder to justify writing entire books for the sorts of advances that most publishers want to pay, and that is why I go looking for patrons in much the same way that artists have been doing for centuries.

And so I accept gratefully the offers of fine wine and fine dining, the invitations to fine homes and fine hotels, as I play the parts that are assigned to me.


How fascinating to get a glimpse into this world...thank you!
Dennis Hamley said…
Absolutely riveting post, Andrew. The moral maze that ghost writers must negotiate to pick out ways through which avoid compromising themselves, maintain their balance and enable them to come out the other end with clear consciences is something I would fear to enter. But this post shows me that you've entered it and maintained probity and sense of fairness whatever problems your hugely varied subjects can face you with. Informative, oddly scary and very enlightening. Thank you.
Jan Needle said…
nHow extraordinary, Andrew! Thaks very much indeed for a most fascinating way to burn off the Christmas excesses!
Bill Kirton said…
I'm another admirer, Andrew. Treading that line between real and apparent must be so tricky, and with the subject holding the purse strings, it's always possible that truth will be compromised. Thanks for such an interesting post.
Elizabeth Kay said…
A really interesting post, Andrew. Thank you. I suspect you have to be a pretty good on the spot psychologist to pull this off. Fragile egos are minefields.

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