Ghost Writers

It was early in 2011.The Toronto theatre was almost full, buzzing with the low-key chat of people about to watch the new movie The Ghost Writer. Some, no doubt, were there because they knew that Roman Polanski had directed it, and were intrigued by his personal difficulties. Others in the audience may have been attracted by good reviews. Others perhaps were fans of Ewan McGregor or Pierce Brosnan, two Celtic actors playing English archetypes. Since this was a Friday night, some popcorn-munchers were simply out on a date, hoping to hold hands and perhaps more. As for me, I was there because of Robert Harris, the screenwriter and the man who had written the brilliant book, The Ghost, on which the movie was based. And before the lights went down, I was craning around, scanning the Toronto audience, looking for ghosts.

As a publisher I have often sought out ghost writers, professional wordsmiths who were willing to write a book, secretly, in the voice of a celebrity (“As I raised the Stanley Cup above my sweat-soaked head, I felt . . .”). The celebrity, of course, was the author of record, and I can recall uncomfortable conversations with celebrities about to tour to promote “their book” where I emphasized how important it was for them to, er, become familiar with the book they would be discussing. The anonymous ghosts are a hard-working and time-honoured part of publishing, and I have often offered up devout prayers of gratitude to not especially holy ghosts for delivering a competent manuscript, on time. Indeed, some of my best friends are, or have been, ghosts. And in my presence the description “hack work” was warmly embraced by the Saskatchewan Writers Group discussing a ghost-written book about curling.

In my experience, ghosts – men and women, old and young — come in all shapes and sizes, but all of them are defiantly corporeal. They all have, at least at the outset, a firm belief in the merit of writing for pay rather than fame. Their experiences drawing out a subject’s life (“How did you feel?”; “Can you describe the room in the Kremlin?”) over many hours spent together, can leave them with a deep respect and affection for the subject celebrity. Or by contrast, since famously no man is a hero to his valet, sometimes the ghost finds that long-term proximity leads to boredom, dislike, even disdain, or at least deep exasperation. (“What do you mean, I can’t use that? It’s a great story!”) It is a fascinating role, and it often turns a supportive publisher into a psychiatrist. So I was disappointed that none of the many ghosts I have encountered over the years were in the theatre that night.

This was too bad, because Robert Harris knows about ghost writers. To be fair, the remarkable Harris, a highly respected British political journalist (the former Political Editor of The Observer, and the 2003 Columnist of the Year in the British Press Awards) seems to know about everything, including how to turn out internationally successful novels. It’s as if the admirable Jeffrey Simpson, for example, took a little time off from Ottawa politics to write best-selling fiction about, say, post-war Berlin long after Hitler’s victory (Fatherland), modern Moscow enlivened by a search for Stalin’s diaries (Archangel) ancient Rome falling apart (Pompeii), and the life of Cicero, as told by his slave, Tiro (Imperium) — although Tiro, no novice at telling a story, writes in his own voice.

In fact Harris is so interested in the art and science of ghostwriting that each chapter of his latest book, The Ghost (which the movie wisely follows very faithfully until the final, Polanski-inspired seconds, where good old Roman earns his screen-writing credits) begins with a quote from a genuine handbook, Ghostwriting, by Andrew Crofts. I especially enjoyed the following warning to working ghosts seeking details from their subjects: “’What if they lie to you?’ ‘ Lie’ is probably too strong a word. Most of us tend to embroider our memories.” Spoken like a true ghost. You can see how the tactful Mr. Crofts came, literally, to write the book on this subject.

The quote Harris selects to precede the very first chapter sets the right tone. “Of all the advantages that ghostwriting offers, one of the greatest must be the opportunity you get to meet people of interest.” The phrase “people of interest” has interesting echoes of police investigations, which may in this case not be accidental. Because in the book and the film the ghostwriter, played on the screen by Ewan McGregor, is being approached to write the first-person memoirs of no less a figure than Adam Lang, the recently retired British Prime Minister with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan on his docket. Harris is able to bring his deep knowledge of British politics at the highest level into fascinating play here. And the PM, as played by Pierce Brosnan, will be recognised by roughly 99% of Canadian movie-goers as a Tony Blair character.

With Prime Ministerial memoirs the stakes go up. I have been involved in editing and publishing the memoirs of Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, and Paul Martin, and I know that the stakes are high for the author; this is their chance to get their version of events during their administration on the record. For his Hell or High Water, for example, Paul Martin took this task so seriously that with the help of the National Archives he convened meetings where the several officials involved in, say, drawing up the 1995 budget, thrashed out a version improved and corrected by the individual memories of all the participants.

The stakes are also dangerously high for the publisher, who has usually made a large investment in the author’s advance royalty payment to secure such a major book. Selling enough copies to recover the advance money can be a challenging salvage operation.

In the book/movie the optimistic publisher has paid Adam Lang/Tony Blair an advance of $10,000,000. The company desperately needs Ewan’s services because the previous ghostwriter, a man named McAra, is now an ex-ghost. He drowned off Martha’s Vineyard, where Adam/Tony is now holed up with his team. This includes his fierce wife Ruth (played by the whip-smart Olivia Williams) and a security and secretarial staff led by Amelia, played by a restrained Kim Cattrall, who has left her New York sex-cougar days far behind her, although she still knows how to precede a male visitor up a flight of stairs in a memorable way.

One of the many joys of The Ghost Writer is that in his screenplay Harris gives a realistic (give or take $10,000,000) look at the world of publishing. Usually Hollywood (from which Mr. Polanski is now detached) shows book editors occupying elegant paper-free offices so large that they could play badminton there in the lunch hour. In this case the five potential ghostwriters (up for the role of saving a $10,000,000 investment, remember) must take turns cramming into a London editor’s galley-sized office. In a very realistic scene, we see it containing the tweedy English editor, the tough New York publisher, Adam Lang’s Washington lawyer (hello, Timothy Hutton, it’s been a while!) and young Ewan, practically sitting on his agent’s lap. Which itself is an interesting metaphor.

At this so-called “beauty parade” Ewan wins the assignment by claiming utter ignorance of politics, but a shrewd knowledge of what ordinary people really want to know. (His previous ghostly subject was a famous magician, and he hit number 1 on the best-seller list with the memoir I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered. Obviously Harris’s research into Ancient Rome comes in handy at unexpected times). The book world realism continues as his agent, Mr. Fifteen Percent, says, yes, his client can do this. As the book puts it: “I could feel him willing me to say yes, but all I was thinking was, A month, they want me to write a book in a month.”

When the agent later extracts a fee of $250,000 there’s a fine exchange, with the agent saying “And you’ll get a collaborator credit.”

(Ghost writer, automatically). “On the title page?”

(Agent) “Do me a favour. In the Acknowledgements.”

This is familiar territory for me. In match-making any deal involving a celebrity and a ghost, experience taught me that personal chemistry was almost everything, but the details of appropriate recognition could later become the cause of nuclear war. Assuming that the pair could tolerate the idea of, in effect, living together for some time, I found that it was vital to set down in writing for both parties an agreement on just how ghostly the author’s presence was going to be. No “with Ewan McGregor” on the cover? Or on the title page inside (as Ewan’s character hoped)? No mention in the flap copy? Not even a reference in the author’s Acknowledgements to “my old friend Ewan McGregor, who helped me to shape my thoughts on paper etc.”? Total anonymity? Even from drinking pals? Not even a discreet appearance at the launch party for the book?

In the film our boy does turn up at the launch party, remarking wittily to his companion that a ghost is about as welcome at a book launch as a mistress at a wedding. Since the recipient of this little joke is . . . er . . . a notable mistress, it’s yet another example of Ewan’s ghost writer character blundering into something he’ll regret.

And that, of course, is the theme of a very good book and a fine movie. Ghost writers, I think, will especially enjoy two scenes. In one the ghost is hanging around with Adam/Tony and his crew as a very bad piece of news about him breaks, involving a charge so grave that his ability to travel freely is threatened. (Director Polanski treats this theme sympathetically.) Clearly Adam/Tony must come up with a response. Ewan is pushed forward for the job (“He’s supposed to be the writer”). Soon, to his surprise, he’s crafting the official press release, “with a curious bashful pride.” As he hears his words replayed to him and the world on CNN we can see Ewan’s mixed emotions. It’s exciting to be creating a huge news story in this way, but he knows that he has crossed a line. Without even asking if his man is innocent of the charges laid against him, he has been sucked into Adam/Tony’s world. Always a hazard, as alert ghost writers know.

The second incident is a major artistic triumph. Ewan becomes interested in learning more about exactly what happened to his drowned predecessor, McAra. He decides to take McAra’s dusty rental car for a drive to the ferry (the publisher in me silently shouting at the screen; “ No, no, for God’s sake, get back to your manuscript!”). On the Massachusetts mainland the car’s GPS system offers him a menu that includes REMEMBER PREVIOUS DESTINATION. So with the aid of a disembodied female voice — “In two hundred yards turn right” – he is able to follow his dead forerunner’s last journey on this earth. Ghostly indeed, and in every sense a turning point.

It’s a fine piece of symbolism in a highly intelligent political movie. Tony Blair could sue Pierce Brosnan for his portrayal of an insecure charmer who is much more than a caricature. I’ve never seen Tony Blair jogging, but Brosnan jogs in just the right fussy “look at me being healthy” way that Blair surely must display. McGregor is appealing as a blunderer. “Bad idea,” he says to his bathroom mirror, before stumbling much deeper into Adam/Tony’s life than he should. Kim Cattrall, as I noted, is recovering nicely from Sex and the City and is an effective English chief of staff. And the star of the show is the PM’s wife Ruth, played unforgettably by Olivia Williams, an actress to watch.

The movie deserves to be seen, just as the Robert Harris book deserves to be read. I hope they may even raise questions in Canada about celebrity books and our assumptions that a ghostwriter must inevitably be involved.

In the world of sports stars such low expectations are perhaps understandable. Publishing legend has it that one company’s Christmas sales hopes centred around the memoirs of a famous Original Six NHL star. Just before lunch the Great Man made a loudly applauded entrance to the room where the Sales Reps had gathered from across the country. With order restored the reps were invited to ask him questions. One nervous salesman asked him how he liked his book. “How the hell should I know, I haven’t read the censored thing,” replied the star, and the book’s authenticity took a dent, along with the book tour plans. Lunch, too, was less of a success than planned.

Dave Stieb, the former Blue Jays pitcher, may have published his memoirs, but he was not a man of the book. After a signing session at the University of Toronto Bookroom, the grateful manager explained to him that the store had a policy of allowing a signing author (he might usefully have described it as a signing bonus) to choose any book in the store, free. Dave didn’t think he wanted any for himself, no, or his wife, no, not even an atlas or a fine book of photographs. The astonished staff indicated the rich array of possible books for his children, but Dave waved them off. Books, no thanks.

At the other end of the athlete-writer scale is Ken Dryden. When I published Ken’s book about his life in hockey, The Game (“The sports book of the century,” as one understated Globe writer described it), I spent hours explaining that, no, there was no ghostwriter involved, Ken really did write it himself – despite, I might have added, having graduated as a lawyer.

Captains of industry — successful business leaders — are not often literary types, so ghost-writers tend to be in demand when the leaders feel that it is time to impart their accumulated wisdom. Sometimes the chemistry is wrong for a successful blending of their talents. McClelland & Stewart chairman Avie Bennett and I once watched with keen interest as a contracted author and his ghost stood nose to nose and screamed into each other’s faces, the ghost telling him to come back when he had learned how to become a human being. As the screaming continued in duet form, Avie whispered that perhaps we were wasting our time, that this was never going to work. Toughened by previous author-ghost experiences — not to mention husband and wife collaborations that led to divorce – I suggested that we should keep going. Avie was right, of course.

Speech writers have a lot to answer for here, for diluting the idea that a person might have had a role in, you know, creating the words that come out of his or her mouth. Yet when it comes to speeches, audiences lap up the most appalling nonsense.

Case in point. Some years ago I attended a full house Canadian Club luncheon speech in Toronto where the speaker was John Roth, the proud head of the impregnable Nortel. When he was introduced with reverence he read — with what struck my ears as a remarkable degree of unfamiliarity – a speech that had, I believe, been written by an anonymous speechwriter. Its message, however, was entirely satisfactory to him, since the gist was that the Canadian government should lower its tax rate on enormously rich Canadians like, well, John Roth, or they would go to live and work elsewhere, hint, hint. It’s interesting to reflect that at the time Nortel was drifting towards a Niagara-like plunge that would rob many of its employees of their pensions. Since Mr. Roth later confessed to the Toronto Star that latterly he was too busy with his own post-retirement financial arrangements to keep his eye on the ball, it was a memorable speech. But at the time the rubber chicken crowd applauded the speech politely. After all, this was the head of a hugely successful company and he was speaking in his own words. No and No.

Our expectations for politicians are equally low. Here again the dead hand of the speechwriter has lowered political literacy — and, more important, the expectations for political literacy among our leaders, so that when Brian Mulroney wrote his own Memoirs, by hand, it was a major surprise. In fact, to emphasise that he really did write his book himself we ran some of the hand-written pages on the end-papers containing the book. “No ghostwriters here” was the implicit message.

Canadian ghostwriters will enjoy this book and movie about their profession. But even the most experienced among them will wince at some of the dialogue, as when Ewan’s character is asked when he’s going to write “a real book.” Zing! At some level it is simply normal to write for recognition (“These are my ideas, in my own words!”) and in my experience it seems to cost even the most professional ghostwriters a lot to turn their back on that recognition. Perhaps, to wean them off their habit, they need a self-help organisation of some sort. I may even have a title for such a group — Ghostwriters Anonymous.