What the ghostwriter saw: 'I write, they take the credit'

They are the invisible force behind the publishing's biggest sensations. As a new film puts a ghostwriter in the lead role, Jonathan Campbell reveals the secrets of his shadowy profession
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Not every arcane profession is lucky enough to have a film named after it – imagine if The Da Vinci Code had instead been called 'The Symbologist', after its tweed-clad hero's job title, or if Raiders Of The Lost Ark had been released as 'Indiana Jones: Archaeologist'.

Roman Polanski's new thriller, The Ghost, is of great interest to me. Because, like Ewan McGregor's character in the film, I too am a ghostwriter. I write the stories of other people's lives – and they take the credit. In the film, adapted by Polanski with Robert Harris from his 2007 novel of the same name, McGregor's professional author is enlisted by former Prime Minister Adam Lang, played with a Blairish glint by Pierce Brosnan, to write his long-overdue memoirs.

"So, how do we go about this?" Lang asks casually, drink in hand, in an early scene.

"I interview you and turn your answers into prose," comes the sober reply. And there, in a nutshell, is the art of ghostwriting. A subject who can't or doesn't want to write is designated an accomplice to transmute his or her utterances, however garbled, into publishable gold – for a price. In the film, McGregor's writer receives a healthy fee and in exchange the former PM will see his political legacy established forever in print, under his own name.

If it sounds a murky arrangement, then perhaps it is; that doesn't make it unrealistic. In fact everything you need to know about the place of a ghostwriter in the modern publishing world can be gleaned from the fact that McGregor's character in the film, as in the book, is never given a name. It's as if he really doesn't exist.

Before you dismiss this as a typical 'Hollywood- isation' of an industry, hold your judgement. In my experience, apart from the murder of his predecessor and attempts on the McGregor character's own life, much of The Ghost (retitled The Ghost Writer for its US release) is disturbingly close to the truth. We're invisible. I've written a dozen books in the last few years, including several bestsellers – but search for my name on Amazon and you'll be disappointed. We are paid for our anonymity.

And there are more of us than you think.

Where would the publishing sensation Jordan be without Rebecca Farnworth? How many words could Wayne Rooney have typed without Hunter Davies? And just how many copies would Sharon Osborne or Victoria Beckham's stories have sold without Pepsy Dening's guiding hand?

Ghosting is not a new phenomenon. In the early Sixties Errol Flynn had Earl Conrad to thank for his publishing debut, while Bette Davis would not have delivered a word without Sanford Dody. Even Socrates owes his enduring fame to a humble ghost, Plato.

The rewards for seeing someone else's name on the front cover of your book can be extremely generous. One ghost friend admits: "I don't care if my name is on the jacket – as long as it's on the cheque." But enforced anonymity is not the only obstacle to the job. Sometimes your name-checked collaborators seem to want to make your life as difficult as possible. In the Polanski film, Pierce Brosnan's Prime Minister greets Ewan McGregor's ghostwriter with the less than welcoming, "Who are you?" It's an uphill battle from then on, as many of us know all too well.

Celebrities, in particular, enjoy the kudos of being seen as a "writer", but find actually doing the work too much of a chore. One famous British television actor and presenter refused to be interviewed by a ghost we'll call Amanda, but kept inviting her to parties. "I was never introduced to anyone, but he liked me by his side during conversations," she says. "Then if he uttered anything that made people laugh he would turn to me and say, 'Put that in the book!'"

Other subjects pose the opposite problem. "Another actor, a former soap star, gave every semblance of being perfectly co-operative," Amanda recalls. "Anecdotes flew from his mouth with such ease, and I would almost salivate at the prospect of getting them all onto paper. He was wickedly indiscreet." But then came the familiar punchline. "He could quite happily spin a terrific story out for 15 minutes then, just as I'm imagining the newspapers queuing up to bid for serialisation rights, he'd drop in, 'Of course, we can't put that in the book!' So why was he telling me? Does he think I'm there as a friend? Or an audience? I've got a job to do."

More commonly, stars just won't turn up for arranged interviews at their own house – or they decide to bring along 150 of their closest friends to help them through it. After several aborted meetings with one subject, a comedian who peaked in the Eighties, I arrived at his apartment one day to discover him dressed, sober and raring to go. There was no one else in the house and even the dog had gone for a walk. We'd been talking for 10 minutes when the phone rang; he was meant to be doing a public appearance 400 miles away in Glasgow. Guess where I ended up going that day.

Getting the interview is just the first hurdle, though. Most subjects assume that the ghost simply transcribes their conversations and that's it – book finished. I've lost count of the times I've been asked, "Why haven't I seen a copy yet? We finished it last week."

They have no idea of the level of research that starts at that point, and the worst thing is you can never tell them. If I published half the things my subjects have said they would either be locked up or laughed out of town. And I don't think I'd be hired again either. One sweet older actress from a long-running BBC drama series told me some of the most amazing stories I've ever heard, about who she'd had affairs with, worked with or bumped into in the street. But every anecdote I checked out just didn't stand up to scrutiny. Either she was in a different country at the time, they weren't famous then – or on one occasion the person she was supposed to have met hadn't yet been born.

Sportsmen are just as unreliable. "One former footballer told me the same story every week," his ghost, James, reveals. "But each time it featured a completely different character. One week the hero was Bobby Charlton, then it's Georgie Best. When he tells me again it will be Wayne Rooney."

But there's one name all celebrities remember: their own. David, an editor for a major publisher, reveals how one prime-time television presenter demanded from the start that her ghost be given equal billing on her autobiography's front cover. Unusually, it was even written into the contract. "But that all changed the moment she saw the first draft," David explains. "She called me to say, 'Now I've read the thing, it feels like it's actually my book. Does the ghostwriter's name have to go on it at all?'"

Some subjects are more up-front about their input than others. For his $10m (£6.6m) advance in Polanski's film, Brosnan's Adam Lang is expected to take full credit in public. But when Ronald Reagan, in a similar position, was asked about his own memoir, he said, "I hear it's a terrific book. One of these days I'm going to read it myself."

John F Kennedy, on the other hand, denied until the grave that his Pulitzer-Prize winning Profiles In Courage was actually written by speechwriter Ted Sorensen. Similarly, the internet is awash with claims that left-leaning opinionista Bill Ayers in fact wrote Barack Obama's Dreams Of My Father. Whether it's true or just another attempt to besmirch the credentials of the country's first African American leader, perhaps we'll never know. But, remember, it was more than 40 years after JFK's death that the truth about Sorensen's involvement finally came out.

Ghostwriters in fiction are even harder to pin down – but they're there. Shakespeare, of course, is accused of putting his name to the plays of others, while Alexandre Dumas hired dozens of writers to construct The Three Musketeers. Fans of Virginia Andrews continue to buy the Flowers In The Attic author's new books long after her death, thanks to ghost Andrew Neiderman, while the fictional characters Nancy Drew, Jason Bourne and even the Famous Five have also outlasted their originators. But do the publishers want you to know this? No.

Exorcising one's ghost is not an uncommon demand once the book is finished. A launch party can be particularly embarrassing for the subject if the "real" writer is there.

Greg was delighted to be invited to London's Groucho Club to toast his new uncredited work, the 'autobiography' of former boy band member – until his collaborator's management made it very clear he was not to talk to anyone. "I was made to feel like the mad old aunt at a wedding," he says. "Invited out of duty, but everyone is terrified I'm going to get drunk and embarrass the star!"

The celebrity ego in full flight, while scary, is rarely life-threatening. Writing the memoirs of real-life gangsters, on the other hand, has given John more than the occasional sleepless night.

"These are men who have done more porridge than Goldilocks, and they would kill again if anyone grassed them up," he says. "And there I am, recording every word they say." Winning your subject's trust is the biggest step for any ghost. But, as John discovered, "When you're the only person with hair in a room full of thick-necked, shaven-headed men, it's hard to pretend you're 'one of them'." He needn't have worried.

One word from Mr Big and all suspicions were removed. "When you're mixing with characters called The Mechanic, The Butcher and The Fireman, it seems perfectly natural to be introduced to them as The Writer," John explains. "They didn't know what my role in the firm was, and I didn't know theirs – although I could probably hazard a guess."

Fortunately John has never fallen out with the villains he's worked with – it's the ones he hasn't met who scare him the most. "These guys are very outspoken, especially about their rivals," he explains. "Frankie Fraser, in particular, came out of one book very badly." Picture John's face when he moved house shortly after publication – and discovered 'Mad' Frankie was his new neighbour.

"He walks his dog past my house twice a day and every time I see him I think, 'If he knew some of the things I've written about him...'" It's a theme picked up in The Ghost when Kim Cattrall's character, the ex-PM's assistant, tells McGregor, "You're practically one of us now. You're the writer. That makes you an accomplice." Not long afterwards McGregor is fighting for his life. Is this Polanski (and Robert Harris) taking things too far? Well, I can't say I have ever faced a bullet in the course of my work but I have seen one – along with all manner of other brutal-looking weaponry.

And somehow I have found myself abandoning borrowed sinking boats before the owners could find us, fleeing restaurants while someone bigger than me – bigger than everyone – made alternative arrangements about paying, and getting tours of prisons, hospitals and strangers' houses on spurious excuses to fill in the gaps in my subjects' stories.

And it's not just the A-listers who get ghost-written: while the bestseller lists last Christmas were full of celebrity titles from the likes of Ant and Dec, Frankie Boyle and Peter Kay, in my experience it is often those people who haven't necessarily enjoyed such fame who have the most interesting stories.

I had written successful pop star and actor autobiographies before I was invited to work on my first "real-life" or "misery" memoir. Naturally I wanted to do some research before I met my client, but Border's bookshop didn't seem to stock the most famous misery book of them all.

"Don't you have Dave Pelzer's A Child Called It?" I asked at Information.

"Yes, we do."

"Well I've checked your autobiography section and I couldn't find it there."

The assistant examined his computer. "Oh, it's not in 'Autobiography'," he smiled helpfully. "You need to look in our 'Abuse/Incest' section."

I felt myself staring at him inanely: "You have a section for that?"

"Apparently we do. It's on the 'Psychology' floor."

Working on these projects brings its own problems and rewards. Dealing with such unpleasant subject matter as child abuse and abandonment obviously requires a professional distance, but it can be very, very hard. I worked with one lady who always requested to be interviewed over lunch in the finest London restaurants.

"But you know I have to ask you very personal and uncomfortable questions today," I warned.

"It will be good for me to be in public," she assured me. "It will keep me focused."

It never worked out like that. I lost count of the dining rooms where waiters rushed over with concern for the octogenarian sobbing over her foie gras while the Dictaphone whirred.

A good ghost is interviewer, therapist, friend – and punch bag. One subject would phone me at all hours and rant, "You're being paid to get inside my head – well this is what is in there!"

But the rewards are greater than the problems. A lot of children who reveal they are being abused are called liars. To them, being able as adults to publish their words and say, "Look, I was telling the truth," is the validation they have been seeking and it means more than seeing their name in the bestseller lists.

Which brings me back to the first question I am always asked as a ghostwriter: "Don't you mind not being credited for your work?" And the answer is, I genuinely don't. However, other ghostwriters of greater experience predict this will change. "We all start out like that," Jonathan warns me, "and then we become like Paul."

Ah, yes – Paul. For many years he was one of the most successful ghostwriters in the country. He worked with actors, sports stars and royalty and saw each of his books fly to the top of the bestsellers list. And then browsing one day in his local Waterstone's, he spotted a table displaying the shop's top five picks – all written by him.

After years of anonymous success, something inside Paul snapped and he started throwing the lot on the ground. He was still yelling, "I wrote these! I wrote these!" as security bundled him from the shop.

Jonathan Campbell is a pseudonym, and some names have been changed. The Ghost opens on 16 April.

The blockbuster ghostwriters

By Fiona Roberts

Andrew Crofts

Each chapter in Robert Harris's book, The Ghost, begins with a quote from Ghostwriting, a guide written by the king of ghostwriters, Andrew Crofts. He is said to have secretly ghosted dozens of celebrity "autobiographies". Openly, his output includes books from Bette Davies, Gillian Taylforth, Jimmy Nail, 2006 Big Brother winner Pete Bennett, and Melissa Bell (mother of X Factor's Alexandra Burke). Crofts, who averages four books a year, has ghosted a long list of misery memoirs including Stuart Howarth's bestseller.

Rebecca Farnworth

After working with Katie Price on three autobiographies and four novels, former journalist Rebecca Farnworth decided she wanted her name on the cover. Her first novel, Valentine, follows an aspiring actress trying to make her name in London. Whether it will do as well as the Price title, Crystal, which outsold the entire Booker prize list in 2007, remains to be seen.

Pepsy Dening

Dening has acted as "midwife" (as she puts it) – or more – to books by Fern Britton, Victoria Beckham and Sharon Osbourne. After she "co-wrote" Osbourne's two autobiographies, Extreme and Survivor, speculation as to the identity of the co-writer who helped the former X-Factor judge write her novel, Revenge, has landed on Dening's doorstep. But speaking to The Times, Osbourne's publishers were firm: "Revenge is Sharon's story. The co-writer helped her bring it to the page."

Mark McCrum

McCrum's choice of subjects – and career – is more unusual than the rest. An aspiring novelist and published travel writer, in 2001 he was recruited to write Robbie Williams' autobiography, Somebody Someday. After a break from ghosting, writing TV tie-ins and working unsuccessfully on his own novel, he turned ghost again to write Tribe for Bruce Parry, the explorer. But Parry was not content to take a back seat and "heavily redrafted" many chapters, McCrum said.

Hunter Davies

After a five-decade career in journalism, Davies only started ghostwriting in the last few years. He has produced autobiographies for Paul Gascoigne and John Prescott, making headlines in 2008 when Prezza: My Story – Pulling No Punches revealed that the former deputy prime minister had suffered from bulimia. Now he is ghosting for Wayne Rooney – despite having "rather rubbished" the England player's £5m five-book deal when it was first announced, Davies admitted to The Guardian that he soon changed his mind when he was offered the contract.

Eamon Dunphy

Dunphy was more qualified than most to help Roy Keane write his 2002 autobiography. A former Millwall player himself, the Irish sportswriter spent every weekend with Keane for more than three months to produce the rather originally titled Keane: The Autobiography, Dunphy's only foray into the ghostwriting world. But their relationship appeared to have soured in 2008, when Dunphy hit out at the ex-Manchester United captain on live radio, saying he had "lost the plot" as Sunderland manager.

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