The writer is author of ‘Confessions of a Ghostwriter’
With his memoir Spare, Prince Harry has achieved what once seemed impossible: turned the media spotlight on to ghostwriting. His ghostwriter JR Moehringer has found himself at the heart of the endless commentary surrounding this royal tell-all.
We ghostwriters are not used to the glare, but we welcome the moment of warmth. For most of the time, our job is to be invisible, to write the books that our clients would write, if they could. We are paid well for this work — and this makes us unusual in the world of professional authors. Many a hungry writer has been tempted to try their hand at ghosting at some stage but most discover quite quickly that it requires a very particular set of skills.
We listen to everything our clients tell us and then we “become them”. Many subjects have never had such an uncritical audience for their outpourings before, and find it extremely therapeutic.
Among the skills involved in ghosting are co-operation and discretion. Ghostwriters never argue: we want the subject to tell us more, not become defensive and fearful of our judgment. We need to see the world only through their eyes if we are to write convincingly in their voices. It is for historians and biographers to make judgments, not us.
Sometimes, the occupation brings with it dangers other writers might not encounter. In 2007, Robert Harris quoted me at the beginning of each chapter of his novel The Ghost. As the plot unfolds, the ghostwriter protagonist becomes increasingly endangered by his involvement with his subject, an ex-prime minister accused of war crimes.
There have been moments in my own career when, living among billionaires and politicians from certain African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries, it has become apparent to me that I was spending an unhealthy amount of time in the company of possible assassination targets.
But our clients need to feel as comfortable talking to us as they might their lawyers, doctors or therapists. They must trust us totally, confident that we are on their side and will betray only the secrets they choose to share with the public.
Once we have won a subject’s trust, we can then ask them to open up about things they may have been wary of talking about. Assurances are given that, even if we decide to put difficult revelations in the first draft, we can be trusted to remove them before publication should they have second thoughts.
We do not have to fact-check everything that we are told. If the subject tells us that they did not commit a crime of which they were accused, for example, it is not our job to investigate. But we might ask them to explain their alibi in detail, so as to put a convincing case to readers on their behalf.
If something the subject says is unconvincing, the ghost might well point that out, but we can’t tell them that we don’t believe them. Nothing must endanger the relationship or break the bond of trust.
A ghost doesn’t have to like their subject — although it helps — but we must be interested in hearing what they have to say. We must display the same curiosity as eventual readers of the book, and ask their questions for them. If we are not drawn in, then we almost certainly won’t be able to draw in the reading public.
If an author does not yet have a publisher, the ghost may well help them, writing a synopsis and sample material and perhaps even submitting it to agencies or publishing houses on their behalf. We will do whatever is required to create the books that our clients want to write, and to get them in front of as many readers as possible.
It is a wonderful way to earn a living. When the book is as successful as Spare, the satisfaction of a job well done is enough. We feel no need to see our names in lights.