Your own personal Cyrano: Ready to pen your memoirs? Employ a ghostwriter

Ready to pen your memoirs? Consider employing a top-notch ghostwriter

There are those who have a story to tell–a good story, worth publishing, and maybe even bound to make a few bucks. And there are those who know how to tell a good story. Sometimes the two converge. Often they don't. Thus is born the ghostwriter. In Canada, where even solid literary and journalistic talents can find it a challenge to make a healthy income, that lack of convergence can work to the advantage of those who see their story as worthy of a place on a bookstore shelf, but who lack the time, skill or simple wherewithal to write it themselves.

Who knew, for instance, that June Callwood, who has spent a storied, 65-year career as social activist, journalist, and author of several books under her own name, has also written in the neighbourhood of 15 biographies–including those of Barbara Walters, Otto Preminger and Dr. Charles Mayo–all of which appeared as autobiographies? It's a lot of work for little or no credit, but Callwood finds her satisfaction in the good pay ghostwriting can command. At the same time, she provides anyone thinking of hiring a ghostwriter with frank advice on the first order or business: Don't cheap out.

“Think of what it would cost to hire a good journalist for a year, and count on that,” says Callwood. “So figure at least $50,000 to $100,000.” In addition to her advance, Callwood demands 50% of the profits from a book's sales. To secure a less noteworthy writing talent, you may get away with paying less, but fees are still steep. For a book of roughly 250 pages, the Writers' Union of Canada recommends its members charge a minimum of $25,000.

If you think you can swallow the tab, proceed immediately to an equally important consideration: will anyone want to read the story you'll be hiring a ghostwriter to tell? According to one editor at a venerable Toronto publishing house, business types routinely approach her with the idea of putting together their autobiographies. “Often what they really want written is a hagiography or an extended press release,” and those just don't sell, says the editor, who asked not to be named for fear of scaring off more salable prospects. In any case, she adds: “Most businessmen's stories are boring as hell.”

That said, publishers will at least listen to a well-crafted pitch. Although she seeks out most of the autobiographies she publishes, Diane Turbide, editorial director at Penguin Group (Canada), says there are exceptions. “People who do a lot of public speaking, and do it well, are sometimes approached by people who have heard them, wondering if they've ever written a book,” says Turbide. “They'll then go out and maybe look for a ghostwriter”–often someone whose non-fiction or journalistic work they've admired–“and, if they find a good one, then they come to a publisher.” If the mix of story, teller and timing is right, an autobiography can be born.

The next step is to negotiate just what will be written. It's crucial to hash out, from the start, how active your ghostwriter will be in crafting your literary lebenswerk. John Lawrence Reynolds ghostwrote both Brian Tobin's autobiography, All in Good Time, and Air Canada CEO Robert Milton's Straight From the Top. Beyond listening to his subjects recount their stories, and then organizing those tales into book form, Reynolds definitely sees an editing aspect to his job. “Part of my role is to say, 'I don't think we should go there'–where you're getting into things that frankly the reader doesn't give a damn about,” he explains, or where a subject is dwelling on personal or even salacious details more than they merit.

Next, prepare to be brutally honest with your ghoster, if for no other reason than that honesty sells books. Film director Preminger, recalls Callwood, “told me stories about how wonderful he was, and yet everybody who worked with him hated him. It wasn't my job to find those people and put them in his book, but it can cross the line between seeing yourself as a heroic figure and being deceitful.” Did Preminger cross that line? “Absolutely,” says Callwood, “and it wasn't a very good book as a consequence.”

Speaking of self-importance, it's worth mentioning as a note of caution that Callwood has actually turned down at least two prominent ghostwriting offers from a U.S. publisher because of her own ghastly first impressions of the subjects involved. One was Raquel Welch, whom Callwood met over tea at New York's Plaza Hotel. “I was repulsed,” Callwood recalls. “Her ego was just appalling. I knew I wasn't going to be able to listen to her for two months.” The other was Burt Reynolds, who wanted her to “forfeit all kinds of things if I ever said anything to anybody about him. If you can't start with trust,” says Callwood, “I don't want to start.”

By the same token, you're wise to prepare for a certain degree of intensity when the job at hand involves spilling out hundreds of details of your personal and professional life. “At one point toward the end,” says John Lawrence Reynolds, referring to the months of interviews he conducted with Milton, “he began referring to me as his shrink. I was asking questions other people hadn't.”

Just how powerful the bond between ghostwriter and subject can become was tragically illustrated by the story of Sian Cansfield, who ghostwrote the bulk of Shake Hands With the Devil, Roméo Dallaire's award-winning memoir of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. As Dallaire writes in the preface, “In the last stages of drafting the book, I noticed she was tiring as the content and workload ate away at her sense of humour and objectivity.” Soon after Dallaire made those observations, Cansfield committed suicide. “It seemed to me,” he wrote, that the UN's Rwanda mission “was still killing innocent people.”

Of course, most memoirs are not as harrowing. And certainly in the corporate world, expect to encounter some limits to a full and frank accounting of your tale. “When the subject is a CEO or someone like that, then somebody representing the corporation's interests will have a say in what goes in,” says Reynolds. “It's the job of corporate PR people to argue, 'I don't think we should cover that for these reasons.'”

To many people, almost as important as what goes in their autobiography is what goes on it. Will the ghostwriter's name be there, preceded by the words “with” or “as told to”? Or will your story be what's called “deep ghosted”? It's all up for negotiation. When Reynolds took on the Tobin book, for instance, his contract stipulated he would get no credit, but the two men hit it off, and Tobin insisted the ghostwriter's name appear. With the Milton book, publisher Greystone insisted from the start that Reynolds' work be acknowledged, because he had just won a National Business Book Award for Free Rider: How a Bay Street Whiz Kid Stole and Spent $20 Million. Even then, though, Reynolds added a clause allowing him to remove his name at any time before publication–something he always does, just in case, as he puts it, “I can't stand the son of a bitch or the direction the book is taking.”

If all does go well with you and your ghost, maybe consider, once your book is in the can, putting them to work in other areas of your life. For inspiration, look no further than Ghosting: A Double Life. It's the memoir of Jennie Erdal, who, during a 15-year career with London publisher and media personality Naim Attallah, ghostwrote not only a dozen books for the man, but also correspondence with everyone from bishops to newspaper editors and members of the House of Lords.

Erdal even wrote Attalah's thank-you notes, sympathy cards, and love letters to his wife, all the while giving him what she archly describes as “an eloquent sophistication, which he coveted but did not naturally possess.” Erdal's book, recently published by Doubleday Canada, has already been a bestseller across the pond, where it reportedly has tongues wagging in high places.

Hmm. On second thought, perhaps it would be best to limit your ghostwriter to a simple memoir and leave it at that. And come to think of it, a Burt Reynolds clause might not be such a bad idea after all.