What Is a Ghost Writer?

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Perhaps the unlikeliest hero of the current film season is the character known only as "the Ghost" in Roman Polanski's entertaining political thriller, The Ghost Writer. The movie focuses on the intrigues surrounding a former British prime minister whose memoirs are in preparation while he, his wife, and his aides, including the writer, are engulfed in scandal.

There are enough echoes of contemporary events and personalities to keep the complex plot from veering into the incredible. And then, of course, there is Polanski himself, now under house arrest in Switzerland because of that decades-old encounter with a teenage girl. Much of the film supposedly is set in Martha's Vineyard (actually northern Germany) where the ex-prime minister is staying in the home of his publisher, a global mogul.

The director's notoriety makes the movie a reminder, as Kenneth Turan, critic of the Los Angeles Times, wrote, of "what made him famous in the first place," hailing Polanski's skills as a filmmaker "at the height of his powers." When it comes to the Ghost--played by Ewan McGregor--Turan says "it's a tricky role," but offers little about what the writer is hired to do for the prime minister and how he then goes about it.

Turan actually could have a lot to say about the job, because he is himself a master of the craft. Turan (whose collected reviews I have published) has ghosted the best-selling memoirs of at least two Hollywood stars with colorful life stories. Once, Turan stepped in when I needed a writer fast to pick up the pieces. The book was an account of a superstar athlete's last season. The writer had run aground with a third of the manuscript left to go. We had a firm deadline to meet. So Turan swept up the notes, channeled the athlete, and in a matter of weeks, saved the book, which did very well. In terse acknowledgements, Turan was thanked "for assisting down the stretch."

Ghost writers, who usually are called "collaborators" when they get credit, play a major role in today's publishing culture. Politicians, movie and sports icons, and CEOs are paid millions for their stories, which few could write themselves. The latest example of this phenomenon is Scott Brown, who went from being an obscure state legislator to the United States Senate from Massachusetts to what The New York Times reports is a seven-figure book contract in about a month. Brown, the newspaper noted, "will most likely work with a collaborator."

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as an editor at Random House, I worked on a number of major books with William Novak, who had earned lifetime status in the ghost's hall of fame by writing Iacocca, the autobiography of the Chrysler boss, which was one of the most successful books of its kind ever published, for which, as I recall, he received a pittance.

Novak came out much better in the projects we did together--Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill's Man of the House, First Lady Nancy Reagan's My Turn, and Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson's My Life. He then helped with the translation of Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky's prison memoir, Fear No Evil, but that was much more an effort of personal commitment than the journeyman's artistry that he brought to the other books.

I always thought of Bill as having the same attributes as a great character actor--say, Alec Guinness. He could submerge his own voice and style into the persona he wanted to convey. When O'Neill decided to do his memoirs, he considered writers who shared his distinctive Boston accent and story-telling flair. But he chose Novak, he said, because the book should be in his own voice and not be a duet with the writer.

In the case of Nancy Reagan, Novak was brought in because the first lady was more comfortable working with a man than the woman who had been initially retained. Mrs. Reagan had a very powerful story to tell and deep feelings, but they were enveloped in layers of defensive and political protectiveness.

The challenge with that book was to convey what Mrs. Reagan really wanted to say, sometimes without having her words to make the necessary point. How did she feel about Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan's first wife? She couldn't or wouldn't say exactly, but all Novak needed to know was on display in family scrapbooks in which she had blacked out Wyman's name from every clipping where it appeared. The actress got chilly treatment in the memoir without explicitly critical detail.

Magic Johnson was a glamorous and affirming presence--he recently had been diagnosed with HIV--and Novak skillfully captured the spirit and facts of the story. Ultimately, however, like so many athletes, Johnson's approach to the book was more of a business asset in a portfolio than an effort to delve into who he was, and the results reflected that stance.

As an editor of these ghosted titles, the mission is to come as close to possible to the core of what makes the subjects worthy of a memoir. The plot of The Ghost Writer revolves around the Ghost gradually, unraveling secrets in the prime minister's life with dire consequences. In the real world, the risks of ghosting are very much smaller. But then, you don't get to be the hero of a big movie, either. 

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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