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Memoirs written by a hired pen


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This article by Emma Jacobs first appeared in the Financial Times

Ghostwriter Andrew Crofts is used to lurking in the literary shadows. If they are very lucky, ghostwriters may be acknowledged on the cover as a co-author. More often they are invisible to the reader. By the standards of most of his peers, Mr Crofts has enjoyed rare celebrity. His guide for aspiring ghostwriters was quoted in the Robert Harris thriller The Ghost, later turned into a film by Roman Polanski.

But it is low-profile work on the whole. “You know the deal of ghostwriting from day one,” he says. “You know your name won’t be on the cover. If you were a speech writer and your speech was delivered by Barack Obama and it got him into the White House, you wouldn’t [be upset].”

As Christmas approaches and booksellers prominently display this year’s batch of celebrity memoirs, the chances are that it is a ghostwriter who has turned hazy memories into eloquent sentences. Celebrity sells. In the UK, for example, the bestseller lists have been dominated by memoirs of the famous, such as the ghostwritten autobiography of Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager, and the life story of The Smiths’ frontman Morrissey, although the latter was written by the singer himself.

Ghostwriters such as Mr Crofts are hired by publishers to write on behalf of actors, sports personalities, politicians, chefs, pop stars, entrepreneurs or Z-list celebrities, whose memoirs are pushed on to the market before the public forgets who they are.

Why do it? One reason is money – the work can prove lucrative. Ghostwriters can make up to $300,000 a year, according to Madeleine Morel, a New York-based literary agent who specialises in representing ghostwriters. Ms Morel has match-made writers with celebrities ranging from “British royalty to Hollywood royalty”. Typically, she says, an author will make $40,000 to $70,000 a book, although a fair few will earn $100,000.

Competition is stiff, as increasing numbers of writers turn freelance. To make a good living, Mr Crofts insists that authors need to produce a steady flow of books. “You try to stack books like aircraft at Heathrow. I usually have half a dozen on the go.”

Ghostwriters sometimes have to endure a “beauty parade”, he says, adding that he has lost work in such circumstances when a female celebrity felt more comfortable with a fe­male writer. “You might get picked because you are older or knocked out because you are too old.”

Publishers take a punt when they sign up a celebrity: they cannot predict what they will get. When Hunter Davies signed on to write for the then-Manchester United striker Dwight Yorke, he was excited. It turned out to be a “washout”, he says: “He wouldn’t reveal anything. He is very private.”

Ultimately, he thinks the money the footballer was paid by the publisher did not make it worth his while, when more lucrative contracts were being offered by the likes of Nike. Since that experience Mr Davies has made sure he asks the celebrity why they want to do a book. “If they say ‘for the money’, it’s not for me. ‘For the agent’, it’s not for me. If they say ‘because I want to put the record straight’, then I will.”

It is necessary to prise open the subject. Ghostwriters are like “lawyer, confessor, therapist and friend”, says Mr Crofts. “You want to win their confidence.” The relationship is very different to that of a journalist who “might stitch them up”, he observes. Sometimes he will hand the celebrity a red pen to suggest edits on the manuscript. “They rarely make a change. It’s about making them feel in control.”

If a celebrity’s life was filled with drink and drugs, the skill of the ghostwriter is trying to fill in the memory blanks. When penning the biography of Pete Bennett – a winner of the UK version of Big Brother, the reality TV competition – Mr Crofts found there were huge gaps in his life story, due to the drugs the former art school student had taken. So he turned to Mr Bennett’s mother instead.

Mr Davies, meanwhile, describes writing former England football star Paul Gascoigne’s memoir as a “nightmare” because of the Geordie’s problems with alcohol. The writer recalls that he would not hear from his subject for months and then get a call suggesting an interview session. There was only one problem: the footballer did not have a clue where he was, according to his scribe.

Yet even after developing a good rapport with the subject, some important issues may still not emerge while writing the book. Mr Davies recounts celebrating with John Prescott and his wife to mark the finish of the UK politician’s memoirs. After a meal, Lord Prescott started eating the remains of the hollandaise sauce. Mr Davies pointed out it was “disgusting”. “I’ve done far worse”, replied Mr Prescott. And out came the story of his struggle with bulimia.

The important thing is getting the interviewee on their own. “The worst thing,” Mr Crofts says, is having minders in the room. “If something is on-message, that’s a problem; a bit of naughtiness makes someone human.”

Getting close to larger-than-life characters is part of the appeal for Mr Crofts, who has worked for eminent figures ranging from “billionaires and business leaders to dictators and those who finance and arm them” (in his experience no one sees themselves as a dictator).

Glenn Plaskin, a New York-based writer who due to non-disclosure agreements will not reveal the identity of his subjects, puts it more bluntly: “People are so bored with the humdrum of their lives. People love the voyeurism. They take pleasure in others’ trials, which isn’t so nice”.

Mr Plaskin believes chemistry is important. His services were picked by an international hip-hop artist but there were no sparks between them. “It was like going on a date. I did my best, he did his best.” The project was aborted. Mr Plaskin recalls finding one client so obnoxious he would surf the internet while they chatted on the phone. “He did all the talking.”

Daniel Paisner, who lives in New York and has “collaborated with” Ivanka Trump and film star Denzel Washington, admits to occasional feelings of frustration. “All those talented, accomplished, opinionated, mercurial types can sometimes be difficult – if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have lived such book-worthy lives.”

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