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Call the Ghostwriter When the writing demands talent and discretion

Ghostwriters channel someone else’s voice — often, someone else’s very recognizable voice — and construct with it a book that has shape and texture, narrative arc and memorable characters, all without leaving fingerprints.

By Elizabeth A Harris

The cover of Prince Harry’s new memoir has a simple design: A close-up of his familiar face, looking calm and resolute behind a ginger beard. His name is at the top of the frame and the title, “Spare,” is at the bottom. What the cover does not include is the name of the book’s ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer.

Perhaps the most exalted practitioner of a little-understood craft, Moehringer aims, ultimately, to disappear. Ghostwriters channel someone else’s voice — often, someone else’s very recognizable voice — and construct with it a book that has shape and texture, narrative arc and memorable characters, all without leaving fingerprints. Doing it well requires a tremendous amount of technical skill and an ego that is, at a minimum, flexible.

“If I’m a great collaborative writer, I am a vessel,” said Michelle Burford, who has written books with the broadcaster Robin Roberts, the actress Cicely Tyson and the musician Alicia Keys. “The lion’s share of my job is about getting out of the way, vanishing so the voice of my client can come through as clearly as possible.”

The way she explains it to her clients, she said, is that they provide the raw materials to build a house and she puts it together, brick by brick. “You own the bricks,” she said she tells them. “But you — and there should be no shame in this — don’t have the skill set to actually erect the building.”

The process can vary widely from writer to writer and project to project. There are writers who push hard to have their names on the cover, and those who never do. Sometimes, writers who don’t agree with their subjects expressly request their name be left off. Fees can range from about $50,000 to many times that, into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is even little agreement on what to call a ghostwriter; some strongly prefer the term “collaborator,” because they believe “ghost” implies there’s something shifty about the arrangement, or that the subject — generally, the “author” in contractual language — had nothing to do with the finished product.

“Authors run the gamut from someone who is a complete control freak and has to approve every semicolon to those who barely phone it in,” said Madeleine Morel, an agent who specializes in matchmaking book projects with ghostwriters. “And when you start working with someone, you don’t know where they’re going to fall on that curve.” Often, a writer will meet the subject only a few times, then follow up with phone calls, emails and texts. Others say that in order to get enough of a sense of the person to capture on the page, they need at least a few dozen hours in the presence of a client, sitting together in a room or shadowing the daily routines of the subject’s public and private lives.

To write Andre Agassi’s memoir, “Open,” Moehringer moved to Las Vegas, where Agassi lived. Agassi said he bought a house a mile away from his own, and Moehringer occupied it for two years while he worked on the book. All the writer requested was a long table where he could lay out the scenes he’d piece together “like a necklace,” Agassi recalled. They’d meet in the morning, fuelled by breakfast burritos from Whole Foods.

“I’d spend a couple of hours with him over breakfast and a tape recorder,” Agassi said.

“Open” is widely considered a paragon of sports autobiographies — a raw and honest excavation of a well-known life. “It was the first autobiography I’d read that didn’t feel like a global press conference,” Agassi said.

Harris writes about books for NYT©2023

The New York Times

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