The Ghost in the (Historical) Machine

Novelist and historian M.J. Trow explains how he help bring memoirs and history books alive when he is called in to ghost write them.

The challenges of writing historical memoirs are legion; ghost writing even more so.As an historian I believe that everyone’s story is fascinating, but passing that sense of fascination onto publishers and readers whilst keeping the integrity of the ‘owner’ of the memory takes practice and skill and brings with it a number of major challenges.

Challenge One: Finding a voice. I did not fight in the trenches of World War One or live through the Blitz of World War Two. I was blissfully unaware of the Cold War in the ’50s and was very annoyed, as a callow thirteen year old, that my favourite American television programme had been cancelled just because someone had killed Kennedy. In relaying the experiences of those who were there, my job is to try to sound like them, as though I am living through them as I write.

Challenge Two: Avoiding omnipotence. The best memoirs use a blend of personal memory and general knowledge. Take a brilliant work of fiction like To Kill a Mockingbird as an example. If we only saw the world through the eyes of Jem and Scout, we would have a very childlike and distorted view of it. If we only saw the world through the eyes of Atticus Finch, the book would not be the great piece of literature it is. It is the blend of the two that makes it work. Therefore, an historical ghost must take the memories of the person and add enough facts to make it understandable to the reader, without taking away the immediacy of the experience at the time – it’s a tricky and narrow path to tread.

Challenge Three: Old men forget. Memory gilds the lily. You may remember what you ate for breakfast today, but can you be accurate in a month’s time, or in a year? The memoirs I have collaborated on belong to people who experienced events seventy years ago and, to be accurate, a lot of careful research has to be carried out to confirm assertions or add background detail to events. Challenge Four: Leaving the subject with their memories intact. Seeing your life written down in 90,000 words or so, bound as a book and covering a whole wall in a bookshop in a High Street near you can be a very scary prospect. Many subjects get a touch of cold feet and it is a ghost’s job to make sure that the person in the book and the person in their soul remains the same. Putting actions and words into the subject’s mouth simply for the sake of a ‘story’ is a temptation that many ghost writers allow to overtake them, but that makes them less of a ghost writer and more of a novelist – although for various reasons, novelists make good ghosts (see later)!

Ghost-writing is huge fun because it allows a writer to explore in depth areas that do not necessarily come within the scope of his/her own experiences. A memoir is the story of a life or part of it and the emphasis must be on story; not in a fictional or fabricated sense, but in the sense that it must have pace and it must grip the reader from Page One. If a woman lived through the bombing of Coventry in November 1940, we have to hear those anti-aircraft guns, feel the ground shudder with the impact of incendiary bombs, see the buildings collapsing in rubble, smell the cordite and dodge the shattering of glass, even though we are sitting in an armchair in the quiet of a world at peace.

Scene setting is vital too. If a man sits around a campfire deep in the Burma jungle in 1944, what are the songs he sang? What were his thoughts of home? Vera Lynn, almost certainly. Wife and kids, of course. But it has to be more specific than that. We must be able as readers, at least in part, to croon numbers by Hutch and the Ink Spots. We must be able to salivate at the sudden remembrance of the half-forgotten taste of egg and chips and HP Sauce. Conversely, we have to know what he is doing in Burma at all. The average Tommy was not privy to War Cabinets and meetings of the High Command, but as a ghost writer, it is my job to work some of that into a narrative that will make sense to a reader and put it all in context.

Ghost-writing is hard work. It is not just a matter of tweaking an existing manuscript – copy-editors in publishing houses do that. It often requires a complete rewrite, creating the ‘voice’, reordering chapters for dramatic effect and so on. Some life stories are told from interviews, others from sparse notes and others still from a full manuscript which is not written in an accessible style. Whatever the raw material is, it will never be complete and as an historian it is my job to find those little snippets of fact that set the scene and make the people live. Also, it is particularly useful to begin with a hard-hitting chapter that highlights the tension in a life. Starting with ‘I was born on 20th of April 1889’ is not likely to grip anyone – until we realize that this is Adolf Hitler writing; and his ‘diaries’ were long ago exposed as fakes.

It helps, I think, to be a novelist as well as an historian. The best ghosts are used to fleshing out emotions and describing events that, historically, are one-liners or even footnotes. There is a balance here between the universal experiences of man and the notion that the past is a foreign country where they do things differently. The death of a child will always hit someone hard, whether they are hard-bitten veterans guarding Hadrian’s Wall in the 4th century; one of Napoleon’s ‘grumblers’ at Waterloo; or the family of Keith Bennett, who still do not know where their boy lies buried, somewhere on Saddleworth Moor. Beyond that universality however, we have to try to understand the points of view of the 4th, early 19th and mid 20th century families and that is where the difficulties begin. In the end, it is all about empathy and the ability to get, even in a limited sense, inside someone’s head.

A ghost must have loyalty to his/her subject. Doubting what they say won’t work; writing pure fiction won’t either. The problem comes when a memoirist is uncomfortable remembering or passing information on. My own father, for example, had a ‘brilliant’ World War Two, visiting places he would never have seen had it not been for the war. If he were here today, he would say the same thing. Others were not so lucky – they were wounded or were prisoners or saw terrible things; they may even have done them. The trick is to get them to talk because their stories are worth hearing and we will not have theses survivors around for ever.

It is only now that the literary world has come to appreciate the importance of historical memoirs. If earlier generations had left their stories for posterity; if earlier generations had had access to ghosts – just think how much more we would now know about the past.