Further ghostly aspirations
15 Nov 2014
In a sequel to the website article ‘Ghostly Aspirations’, published last November, eight of the agency’s ghosts explain the sort of books they would like to work on.
Powerful storytelling is so often about struggle and triumph: about ordinary people forced into extraordinary circumstances. As an award-winning newspaper and magazine journalist of 30 years’ standing, I have learned a thing or two about empathy, understanding, and drawing the very best from someone who has decided to share their story – often unearthing surprising details and new angles along the way. I feel privileged to be chosen to tell the stories of so many remarkable people, from the world’s most prolific surrogate mother to a woman jailed for manslaughter after the assisted death of her severely disabled son, from sportswomen to actors, often giving voice to the unheard or overlooked, sometimes to the famous. As a regular contributor to weekly and monthly magazines, I am drawn to record the lives of unusual and inspiring women, capturing their authentic voice and telling their remarkable stories in the most compelling of ways. With a keen eye for the commercial aspects of writing as well as the creative, I am a skilled and experienced ghost writer who takes great pride in finding the very heart of someone’s story, and in crafting it into must-read prose.
As a journalist by trade I love to dig up what lies beneath a story or take something momentous and present a totally new angle on events. But the story does not have to be from the point of view of the great and the good. I’m fascinated by the idea of ordinary people thrown into incredible circumstances and doing their best to navigate the situation they are faced with. Whether it be a kidnapping, survival situation, a mysterious secret history or a money-making scheme, a tight, exciting and untold tale is what excites me. So if I think of my perfect person to ghost they would be the Other – an extraordinarily different person who has come forward to shed light on something captivating and previously unknown. Or on the opposite end of the spectrum they would be an Everyman / woman, thrust into a situation we would all be fascinated to hear about. However, if we look at ghost writing as one of the world’s best excuses to spend time with people we admire, I would go for the novelists whose books I love to read and who happen to still be alive: William Gibson, Irving Welsh, Margaret Atwood. Or the spellbinding British comic-book grandmaster, Alan Moore, whose enigma I would love to unravel and slingshot somewhere un-thought of.
I do most of my work at the junction where ghost writing meets co-authoring. When the author of a biography has done the research and sketched out the book, but struggles to bring out the qualities that would make it a good read, that’s where I come in. Sometimes doctoring the text is enough; more often I have to immerse myself in the subject’s life, and become a co-author (in ghostly obscurity if necessary). That’s when the job is at its most demanding and its most satisfying.
My recent ghosted and co-authored projects include the story of Robert Trimble, a WW2 pilot who undertook a secret mission to rescue POWs on the Eastern Front; a biography of Moura Budberg, the Russian spy who fell in love with a British agent during the Revolution and was haunted for the rest of her life by the shattering betrayal she suffered; the life of Peter Watson, millionaire art patron and doyen of the gay scene in pre-war Paris, murdered in his bath by his jealous lover; and the incredibly moving life of James Barry, a Victorian military surgeon who was revealed after death to have been a woman, forced to disguise herself in order to pursue a career in medicine.
These extraordinary, little-known lives are rich in drama, adventure and poignancy. There are so many of these stories waiting to be told. I’m constantly on the lookout for them. There are two at the top of my wish-list. I’m charmed by the tale of Joseph Wright, the illiterate Yorkshire mill hand who became a professor at Oxford University. Last biographed by his widow in 1932, this extraordinary man is known mainly for teaching Anglo-Saxon to the young JRR Tolkien, rather than for his amazing rise from illiterate poverty to the dreaming spires. And there’s the exhilarating life of merchant seaman Charles Lightoller – going down with the Titanic (and surviving) wasn’t the only, or even the most remarkable, of his life’s adventures.
Lives like that – obscure, strange and dramatic – are the kind I most like to write.
It’s a joy to work with someone who will open up, be honest, tell it warts and all and trust that readers warm to, even prefer, a flawed character to glossy perfection. It can be hard work convincing celebrities of this, but sometimes they get it, and it always makes for a deeper, more satisfying read (and write). I like a challenge, whether it’s a celebrity who needs to scratch beneath the surface, or someone who may be scratchy on the surface but who has a tale to tell that is, in places, dark and who needs time, space, encouragement and trust to reach into the depths of their memories. I love working with people who have courage and humour in equal amounts. It takes real courage to overcome a traumatic childhood and go on to help others. And to talk about it with humour and lack of self-pity. Mikey Walsh, who I worked with on Gypsy Boy, was of this mould, as was Sophie Andrews, author of Scarred, now running The Silver Line and Jenny Tomlin, author of Behind Closed Doors, whose flawless memory for detail (always such a bonus) created a brilliant evocation of the East End in the sixties. Who would I like to work with? People who have rich and complex stories to tell, who refused to give up, who fought back. Celebrities? I’d pick Bob Geldof, Barry Gibb – last of the brothers, Christine Lagarde (who knew she was a teenage synchronised swimmer), Sarah Lancashire, Kylie.
I look for people who can take the reader into secret worlds and unheard of situations. In recent months book projects on two elite crime squads and a treasure hunter extraordinaire have turned into a major BBC TV crime drama, a series of plays for Radio 4 and a worldwide hunt for lost art, so as far as I’m concerned, secret worlds are what the reading, watching and listening public want us ghosts to delve into.
After spending most of my magazine career interviewing celebrities, I’ve long been fascinated by the person behind the façade – too often we’re only presented with the two-dimensional version of someone’s story, constrained by limited word counts and linear questioning. We all have a story, we all have quirks, sides to us that aren’t obvious on first appearances. Becoming well-known is something that changes your life and the way you are perceived by the world at large – and I’m endlessly drawn to discovering how this changes people at their core, as well as how they cope with it. Of course, the ‘big’ names that many writers, including myself would love to get behind would be strong female successes with dramatic life arcs – the likes of Nigella Lawson and Lorraine Pascale. But other famous names, such as actress Amanda Redman and feisty, outspoken pop star Lily Allen, really appeal. As a journalist, I would love to write the Rebekah Brooks story, once the phone hacking court case is over, but whatever the verdict, I expect that one day she’ll be penning some memoirs herself…
A forefinger – the size and shape of a solid Cuban cigar – jabbed uncomfortably into my ribs. “There’s no respect any more. Y’unnerstan’ me, Reporter Boy?”
The Kray Twins’ birthday party – location: a visibly weary nightclub in the equally run-down Kingsland High Road - was unquestionably strange. For a start neither Ronnie and Reggie were present: in 1984 they were half way through their respective 30 year sentences. But the representatives of their old firm who were (currently) at liberty to attend mixed cheerfully with the remnants of their one time sworn-rivals, the Richardson gang. Strange days indeed. But it was the conversation which was most bizarre. This collection of ageing villains, each bearing the physical scars of a lifetime at the coal face of crime, wanted to talk about the state of the world. Or, more exactly, the state of their chosen profession. Modern crime, they repeatedly advised me, was a disgrace. The man with the emphatic forefinger was the product of London’s criminal aristocracy. He had earned his spurs with Billy Hill and Jack Spot – the godfathers of post-war protection rackets and illegal gambling – before graduating to the dominant Kray firm as the austerity years of the Fifties turned into the white heat of the Swinging Sixties. He had, I knew, a tale to tell. And he seemed enthusiastic to the point of insistence that I was just the journalist to help him. There was even the hint of a substantial wad of five pound notes ‘don’t ask no questions, Reporter Boy’) to ensure the process went smoothly. Above all, though, I knew I had encountered the single most vital ingredient in the telling of any story: the voice. His was a vocabulary of its place and of its time in the world: a litany of spielers and dips, of brasses and grasses. I never saw the promised cash and never wrote the story. But our encounter has stayed with me and has shaped the way I approach the rough trade of ghost-writing.
The first question has to be ‘ is there a story here The second is that all-important element, the voice. For me to write with any authenticity I must not just climb inside my subject’s life but hear his (or her) voice more dominantly than I hear my own. In truth, it’s not much of a trick – more a question of simply listening until the cadence and the space between words forms its own unique pattern and defines the personality of the subject. Still, it’s the process by which I’ve been able to ghost life stories as diverse as the young English girl sex-trafficked to the cesspool of 1990s Amsterdam and the recollections of a ladies maid in an aristocratic 1930s country house. Would the older and more experienced me have thought – as his younger, greener version did throughout that remarkable Kray Twins party – that the life of the gnarled and scarred villain, emphatically exploring the soft tissue of my rib cage, was a great book begging to be written ? Actually, I’m not sure. Because the other great ghost-writing hurdle (at least for this ghost-writer) is honesty. Not your common or garden respect for the law – which my new acquaintance plainly held in low regard – but the willingness of the subject to observe, examine and then publish the very personal flaws and foibles which have helped dictate the course of a life. The mark of a good ghost – in the opinion of this one, at least is the ability to establish a relationship of complete honesty between the subject and the reader.
So who would I like to ghost ? The list is as wide and as open as my own undimmed curiosity. At one end of this spectrum there is Ratko Mladic, the unrepentant butcher of Bosnia presently on trial in The Hague. At the other is Nina Hartley, surviving queen of hard-core pornography, feminist campaigner and (oddly) a former nurse. Which leads me to the final thought. I abhor the chosen professions of both Mladic and Hartley, so why would I want to ghost their life stories ? Would my innate prejudice (we all have them) not colour my writing ? Well, no. Because I’ve come to the ultimate ghost-writing conclusion that the distance – emotional, physical and ethical – between a ghost and his (or her) subject ultimately makes for a better, more honest book than one written in a spirit of comfy concurrence. Maybe I should have snatched at the wad of dubious fivers and written the villain’s story after all.
As a ghost writer you get the chance - for a few months at least - to live vicariously through the exploits of others. So, over the past few years, I have inhabited the mind of a Miami-based Colombian drug gang money launderer, an undercover cop and an eco warrior who doubled as a government spy. Aside from trying to capture the excitement of people who survive on their wits, what is equally challenging is the chance to explore the darker side of relationships and telling stories of courage in the face of extreme adversity. In that regard I’ve been privileged enough to work with a girl who lived with the ticking time bomb of a brain tumour, a Hollywood actress whose wings got burned and a daughter who survived horrendous violence at the hands of a mother from hell. My only aspiration is to tell moving stories of lives less ordinary, in whatever form they take.