Ghost in the machine, John McCrystal

John McCrystal explores the practice and ethics of ghost-writing. 

Everyone has a book inside them, as the saying goes. But not everyone can bring their inner book into the world without intervention. And as with childbirth, varying degrees of intervention are required. Even where all goes well, with the originator of the story willing and able to gestate it to the point where it can bear the light of day, there’s still a fair bit of input at the publisher’s end to clean it up and cut the umbilicus. In other cases, the literary equivalent of an assisted delivery – in extreme cases, a caesarean section – is required, with intensive editorial input required to rescue the story

And then, at the far reaches of a metaphor that’s threatening to become all icky and anatomical, there’s publishing’s answer to in vitro technology or surrogacy, where the natural parent of the completed work supplies only the germ of an idea, and others do the rest. I refer, of course, to that shadowy realm where the ethics of authorship get confused and moral rights get murky: what is known as “ghostwriting”.

It’s difficult to say precisely when my own ghostwriting career began because, on one analysis, it’s hard to draw a firm line between where editing ends and ghostwriting picks up. I once took on the job of editing the manuscript of a biography of a fairly minor historical figure. The author had done a reasonable job, so far as it went. The publisher supposed that all that was needed was a bit of tidying up of the niceties of grammar and punctuation, and perhaps a little direction to the author as to which portions of the narrative were a little thin and needed beefing up.

When it became clear that the author was either unwilling or unable to supply the extra information required, I found myself doing a little independent research of my own. I found the author had overlooked a whole set of sources that appeared to shed light on what she had only identified as “the mystery” of her subject’s eventual fate. I sought (and obtained) permission to add a few paragraphs and references that addressed these sources. I also found it necessary to add some background material – descriptions of places, explanations of events, and so on – that made it more accessible to a general reader.

Unfortunately, due to some falling out or other (I was not privy to the details), the author took the manuscript away from the publisher and placed it elsewhere. Given that the original publisher’s resources had been expended on the improvements I had made (and had been paid by the publisher to make), this was of course ethically questionable. I got paid, but the book when it emerged carried no acknowledgement of the considerable work both I and the original publisher had put into the final product.

My next experience in the Other Side of publishing was far more straightforward. I answered an advertisement that sought a writer to assist a Kiwi veteran of the conflict in Vietnam to write his memoirs. He had a story to tell, and he even had a manuscript, albeit pretty short and thin on the kind of “readability” detail mentioned above. I thought I could see real commercial potential there (and, incidentally, nothing has changed my view on that), so I offered my services in return for a cut of any deal he struck with a publishing house.

According to our arrangement, I would raise the manuscript to what I considered to be publishable standard, but his would be the name on the cover. By doing some research and by interviewing the old soldier himself, I was able to compile a reasonable memoir, if a trifle short, by publishers’ preferred standards. We had no luck placing it with the major publishing houses, and so far as I’m aware, nothing came of some idle talk of self-publication that took place along the way, either. World publishing rights are still available, and I remain unpaid.

More recently – and more conventionally – I was contacted by Random House to see whether I’d be interested in doing a ghostwriting job for them. They had a story, namely the epic motorcycle journey across Central Asia via the Silk Road undertaken by Joanne and Gareth Morgan. But while both Jo and Gareth are excellent storytellers and Gareth is a very capable writer (I don’t know about Jo), neither had time to turn their experience into a book. That’s where I came in.

Using the blog kept by the Silk Riders (as the Morgans and their team called themselves), the media interviews Gareth did and the newspaper columns he had written, and sitting the pair of them down and interrogating them for the benefit of my tape recorder, I extracted the information. Then, using the interview material and Gareth’s pronouncements and scribblings on the subject as my cue, I set about capturing the authors’ “voice”. As the book was to be published under their joint names, it was necessary to tell the story using the technically challenging first-person plural point of view.

The book sold very well, and that project led to other contracts ghostwriting the adventures and ruminations of the redoutable and energetic Morgans. A book about their motorcycle trip through the backblocks of the United States followed, and another about their trip through Africa is forthcoming. Meanwhile, Gareth and I had collaborated on two books of financial advice, one on saving for personal retirement, the other on the Kiwisaver scheme.

I was also contracted by Awa Press to ghostwrite the autobiography of Geoff Mackley, alias Dangerman, an Auckland-based filmmaker whose speciality is tracking violent natural phenomena – hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunami – and putting himself and his camera in harm’s way. My modus operandi was the same as for the Morgans’ biking books: read and view the stories and footage Geoff had generated and work it into book form, using interviews to extract additional material and to get a sense of Geoff’s voice – how he spins a yarn.

The authorship of Geoff’s book was presented according to the formula familiar to readers of sports autobiographies: Geoff Mackley with John McCrystal. While I was subtly acknowledged for the motorcycle books – my name appeared on the flyleaf, and Gareth and Jo were generous in their acknowledgements – my involvement in the financial advice books was far less conspicuous. And that’s how the publisher preferred it to remain. When Gareth asked me to have a say as the “real” author of Silk Riders at the launch, the CEO of Random tried to catch my eye and made urgent throat-cutting gestures. Clearly, as ghostwriter, I was supposed to be content to haunt the darkness out of the limelight, and not too much rattling of the chains. Because in the end, there’s a strange queasiness about the ethics of ghostwriting. There’s a fear that admitting you didn’t actually write the book somehow devalues the accomplishment that the book represents – as though generating the story is not the major part of the accomplishment.

So far, of course, I’ve been talking about non-fiction, where it’s common for a good story to go begging for its owner’s lack of the means to tell it. This is especially true in the case of people who have a sexy, marketable brand – pure gold to a publisher, so long as they can affix that brand to a book. But what about fiction?

It’s apparently quite common in the US for publishers to engage celebrities to “write” novels. I know of one excellent New Zealand novelist living stateside who has made far more money taking a teen TV celebrity’s idea for a plotline and realising it in a single novel than she has made writing several of her own critically acclaimed works. People are appalled to learn this – as appalled as they were to learn that Helen Clark didn’t paint the picture sold for charity that bore her signature. Why? Does it have something to do with art?

Writing is a sort of a trade for people who are lucky enough not to have to don overalls or get their hands dirty. In the end, ghostwriting is just placing your skills at the disposal of someone who doesn’t personally possess their equivalent, or is too busy to use them. We don’t have any moral difficulty in taking ownership of a house that we’ve engaged someone else to build for us. Strange, then, that there should be such uneasiness about the act of writing. It looks very much as though we regard writers as the possessors of a gift rather than just another skill, and we somehow value the construction of sentences as a horse of a different colour altogether than bending pipes or nailing bits of wood. And not even the best builders will pack a hall with people anxious to find out where they learned to use a chisel.

Which leaves you wondering: if writing is so rare and precious a gift, why does society reward celebrity – the brand component in the ghostwritten complex – so much more highly than the writing?


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