The bills were mounting up when an email slid quietly into my inbox: a mutual friend had given my name to a publisher. Was I interested in ghostwriting a memoir? The book’s subject was a community arts worker. The name rang a bell.
At the time I was writing my first novel while scraping by as a freelance journo and a research assistant. My credit card was maxed out. A concentrated chunk of work, with a decent pay cheque, held practical appeal. The catch (or so I thought) was that I’d have just 11 weeks to write the memoir while working my day job. Full of rash optimism, and keen to explore a possible sideline to support my fiction-writing habit, I said yes. ‘The timeline’s tight,’ warned the publisher. ‘I’m pretty organised,’ I replied breezily. ‘If we stick to a schedule we’ll be fine.’
Time was tight because the subject—Joe, let’s call him—had tried to write the book himself, and got no further than the first half-chapter. That’s not unusual: everyone thinks writing a book is easy, until they try it themselves. It’s not rocket science, but it’s painstaking work.
At our first meeting in a Collingwood café, Joe turned up half an hour late, muttering about traffic. With the publisher’s help we nutted out a schedule to complete the manuscript. Given our tight deadline, we all agreed it was vital to stay on track. Joe would send me his initial notes ASAP, I’d do the interviews at his place, and a transcriber would convert the audio into text. Then I’d write up the memoir from that transcript, filling gaps and polishing as we went. A simple-sounding plan.
Two things struck me at that first meeting: Joe’s reluctance to make eye contact, and a sense that he wasn’t too fired up about the idea of writing a book—or indeed having one written for him. He came across as a very busy person, with numerous important priorities jostling for his attention. Perhaps he’s just shy, I told myself. We weren’t shooting for the Pulitzer, and my task seemed clear. It would all be fine.
Warning signs soon began to flash. First, Joe refused to start unless I agreed to waive my moral rights, which cover being properly credited as the creator of a work. This type of waiver is very rare in publishing, ghostwriting included, but the clock was ticking so I caved and signed the contract. I tried repeatedly to schedule our first interview, but my subject kept putting me off: he was too busy. Another precious week slipped by, no notes in sight. Finally, with the publisher’s help, I extracted his notes and secured our first interview.
Entering Joe’s swish townhouse that first day, I found one wall of the lounge room entirely covered by a gigantic picture of his head: a portrait painted by an artist he knew. Perched on the couch, my back to this distracting vision, I switched on my recorder and began the conversation. Over the coming weeks I worked hard to build a rapport while asking questions that I hoped would help unfold the story of his life. While his self-penned notes were not especially candid or revealing, I was confident that together we’d dig deeper, uncover more sincere and compelling material.
Too confident, as it turned out. When I did manage to pin down an interview time, Joe made an effort to relate his memories in a lively way, and I did my best to weave them into a coherent narrative. But it soon became clear that I’d landed a reluctant subject with some unusual blind spots—often evasive, and plainly uneasy about the process; eager to paint himself in a flattering light, but blissfully unaware of the impression he created.
The person I saw behind the scenes did not match the public figure. He vetoed certain topics, hedged on others, and seemed hell-bent on emphasising his own virtues. I had assumed my job was to tell a strong story that came as close to the truth as possible. But as well as shaping the voice, I now realised, I would also need to moderate the tone, inject humility, trim the humble brag. Mention people he’d omitted, give due credit to others, persuade him to pare back the long lists of name-checked celebrities. In short, I had to make my subject a more appealing character.
There were other, more practical challenges. Despite our urgent schedule, Joe often cancelled on me at the last minute, and I had to pester him to reschedule. He made repeated messy changes to chapters he’d already approved. Sometimes, when he got bored of talking to me, he’d wander off, leaving me alone with his enormous portrait. Twenty minutes later I’d venture upstairs, yoo-hooing, wondering where he’d gotten to. I’d find him watching videos or sending emails. ‘Hadn’t we better get back to it?’ I’d smile, teeth gritted. Once, when I arrived on his doorstep at our scheduled time, he announced that he was off to inspect a new house for sale down the road. While he strolled around at leisure, admiring the fittings, I trailed behind like a hapless minion, fretting silently over my deadline.
I had assumed a fellow arts worker would realise that writing a book takes both skill and hard slog. But my subject clearly saw me as a note-taker, not a collaborator. He had no interest in what makes a good story—my suggestions about narrative tension, pace, candour, and reader empathy fell on deaf ears. He seemed to think the book was falling from his lips fully formed, and that my only task was to type it up. Setting him straight was a lost cause: there was no time, and no point. When I started to feel childishly huffy about all this—Egads, my literary genius is being dismissed!—I’d remind myself that a ghostwriter can’t have an ego; we are workhorses, not show ponies. That I’d willingly signed on as the hired help, to write the story he wanted to tell. Still, it is a collaboration, and you want your contribution to be acknowledged.
But my subject was proving elusive: easily bored or distracted, with a short attention span, and not always frank or forthcoming. His anecdotes often felt less like honest recollections than attempts at impression management, as if he were a product and the book his calling card—airy, upbeat and self-congratulatory, a long CV with the dodgy bits excised. In a way I didn’t blame him—self-exposure is a daunting prospect, privacy is precious, and I’d be skittish too in his position—but I worried that the book would seem insincere, flimsy. That having jettisoned his more bombastic quotes, I’d be presenting my subject in a dishonest and one-dimensional light: unfailingly cheerful and virtuous, sometimes put upon but never in the wrong. That I was complicit in creating a falsehood—and worse, a dull one. A protagonist without flaws, who didn’t ring true and who wouldn’t hold a reader’s interest.
Deadline looming, I became increasingly nervous. Wasn’t emotional honesty a vital ingredient of memoir? Skimming the surface would never yield narrative gold, but probing was plainly unwelcome. I made gentle efforts to dip beneath the surface, to persuade him to go deeper, but it was a delicate balancing act. A ghostwriter dealing with a reluctant and flighty subject must take care not to get that person offside, create animosity, poison the dynamic. Our interactions were ever-amicable, but he clearly saw the process as a chore. And it was causing me a lot of stress. Could I meet my deadline and deliver a decent book, a result we could both live with?
Working late into the night, I churned out 10,000 words a week while holding down my day job. I had to chase Joe to approve the final edits, but managed to deliver the manuscript on time in a shape that he and the publisher were happy with. It went to print virtually unaltered. It was no masterpiece—more puff than substance—but I’d done my best under less than ideal circumstances. I asked to see the page proofs, which I was contractually obliged to check. But they never came.
On Friday 13 March (ominous, in retrospect), I bumped into Joe by chance on the street. He cheerfully informed me that the book was out. This was a surprise: my promised copies still hadn’t arrived in the post. But the real shock was to come.
When the book landed in my mailbox, it felt satisfyingly hefty, its weight a testament to all those hours of work, the mad flurry of activity to make the deadline. But as I flicked through its freshly minted pages, an alarm bell began ringing. With a sick feeling I scanned the title page, the imprint page, the acknowledgements, the spine. Something was missing.
‘As told to …’ That’s what my contract said. But my name appeared nowhere in the 15,000 copies of the book now circulating, nor was there any mention of a ghostwriter or collaborator in the publicity material. I’d requested that credit clause for a reason: if I ever wanted to ghost another book, I’d have proof that I was up to the task. Now my labour had been erased, my presence spirited off the page. The ghost exorcised.
When the publisher was alerted to this embarrassing oversight, things went very quiet. Eventually we negotiated that I’d receive a cut of the book’s royalties as compensation for the bungle, and they’d print another 1500 copies with my name on them: As told to …
The error was a let-down, as the publisher had been good to work with. But what troubled me most was that Joe had let his life story go to print without mentioning the person who’d helped him tell it. Surely, as the individual with the biggest stake in this whole venture, he must have noticed my name was missing: he’d scrutinised my contract and demanded I waive my moral rights; he’d reviewed and approved the page proofs. Discreet enquiries yielded some sobering news: before those few amended copies were printed, the publisher had suggested to Joe that to help compensate for the stuff-up, perhaps he’d like to add my name to the acknowledgements page. He refused: apparently he didn’t want the thank-you list to run too long.
As difficult as I’d found him to work with, I’d become oddly fond of my subject. When someone recounts their life story to you, however carefully edited, you can’t help but empathise. When you listen to their voice for weeks on end, trying to turn their memories into a coherent story, perhaps a tiny fragment of that person lodges somewhere inside you. My boyfriend certainly thought so: I’d be talking about some unrelated topic when he’d say darkly, ‘I can hear Joe.’ Unconsciously I was taking on my subject’s mannerisms and patterns of speech. I was channelling the guy.
The memoir came out on April Fools’ Day. This seemed auspicious. Just before it hit the shelves, I received separate phone calls from a journalist and a bookseller. They’d heard rumours of trouble within Joe’s organisation. This was news to me, and I declined to comment.
A rush of negative media coverage accompanied the book’s release: reports of a legal stoush over naming rights and governance; other stories of underpayments, litigation. As these disturbing allegations came to light, I started to question not only Joe’s choices, but my own: in my efforts to meet the deadline and to keep relations cordial, had I whitewashed or overlooked important facts? In toning down my subject’s egocentric tendencies on the page, was I complicit in creating an untruthful portrait? If I’d profiled him wearing my journalistic hat, I’d have dug deeper, asked harder questions, done more background research, sought to verify his account of events. So as his ghostwriter, what exactly had I done—hammered out a 75,000-word PR exercise? At best, I’d been naive. At worst, I’d taken a well-paid gig without thinking through the ethical implications. Was I the April fool in this scenario?
I felt conflicted: disillusioned about the breach-of-contract bungle, puzzled and annoyed by Joe’s decision to discount my contribution; happy to pay off my credit card but uneasy about the way I’d done so; annoyed to have my efforts so publicly erased, but relieved that my professional name was not tied too closely to that of my now-beleaguered subject’s. Whatever the truth of his legal hassles, being linked to him publicly had suddenly lost all appeal.
My first ghosting assignment was my last. The accreditation blooper left a bad taste, and the job was more ethically fraught than I’d imagined—not quite a moral quagmire but certainly boggy territory. A decade or so later, I look back on the experience as a crash course in the tangled navigation of truth, fiction, ego and complicity that ghostwriting entails. Some ghosts become true collaborators, even friends with their subjects. But more often, I suspect, the role is a murky hybrid of midwife and ventriloquist, handmaiden and illusionist, stylist and hack, truth-seeker and PR flack.
Ghosting is by nature a thankless task, its practitioners paid handsomely to remain offstage, to put their own egos and pretensions aside. That’s the deal you make. But like it or not, a ghostwritten book forges a lifelong link between subject and author—a connection that may well become unwelcome if, at some later stage, the proverbial substance happens to hit the fan. For the public figure whose face is on the cover, exposure does not always bring accolades. For the hired ghost, invisibility can turn out to be a blessing.
Meg Mundell’s books include The Trespassers (UQP, 2019) and the edited collection We Are Here: Stories of Home, Place and Belonging (Affirm Press, 2019) by writers who have experienced homelessness.
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