Ghosts in the pages
The first ghost-written modern-day book that I am aware of is the autobiography of Lee Iacocca, published in 1984. As CEO of Chrysler Corp., he resurrected the company. Right on the cover are the words “With William Novak.” Novak was reputedly paid $1 million for the collaboration. Every ghostwriter since has sought that same cover line “with.” Few have been paid in the seven figures.
My first role as a ghost was for Sean O’Sullivan. At twenty, elected an MP in 1972, he was the youngest parliamentarian at the time. He won again in 1974 and then, in 1977, resigned his seat to become a priest. In 1985, he asked me to be his ghostwriter. I had written other books, but this was my first as a ghost, or in this case, the Holy Ghost. I called Ron Graham, who had ghosted the successful 1984 autobiography of Jean Chretien, Straight from the Heart. Graham’s recipe: thirty-five hours of interviews yields a 1,000-word transcript, enough for a 300-page manuscript. I followed the formula and recorded O’Sullivan’s recollections, including poignant descriptions of his recent diagnosis with leukaemia. I sat down on May 1, 1986, and by working eighteen-hour days, wrote a 100,000-word first draft in a month. I’ve written many books since, but that month was the most fun I’ve ever had writing. Both my Houses: From Politics to Priesthood, was published that fall.
I’ve done two other ghosting jobs since: Thumper, about Donald S. Macdonald, and The Duke of Kent, about Darcy McKeough. I was a “with” in both cases. The key to such memoirs is to submerge yourself and capture the voice of the subject. You want their best friend to read it and say, “That sounds like him.”
All these thoughts sprang to mind when I read in a recent issue of The New Yorker about J.R. Moehringer, the ghost who wrote Spare, Prince Harry’s memoir. After quoting Harry as saying he once looked at Hamlet and decided not to read it or any other Shakespearean play, the ghost goes on to gild the lily with exact phrases from The Tempest, King Lear and the shunned Hamlet. He also used Americanisms such as “on the fritz.” Such writing is not an accurate depiction of Harry; this is just the ghost showing off. Moehringer is more novelist than truth-teller and the book suffers as a result.