A Week In Books: the art of ghostwriting

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 13 January 2006 01:00
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Everybody loves a literary ghost story - not the kind with floating shrouds and rattling chains, but tales of late-night liaisons over a hot tape-recorder, unfairly divided advances, and the sad plight of the hidden helpers who flit behind a famous name. In publishing, ghosting recalls 1950s sex: often practised, seldom discussed.

Still, some signs of frankness have begun to show. Jennie Erdal set a benchmark for candour and wisdom when she wrote about her 15-year association with Naim Attallah in the brilliant memoir Ghosting. The suggestion that Hollywood celebrity mascot J T LeRoy might not be wholly responsible for his hair-raising fictions - raised in The Independent last May - has finally been picked up elsewhere. And now a smart and savvy crime novel takes as its premise the lonely life of a ghost writer to the stars: Hope McIntyre's How to Seduce a Ghost (Piatkus, £18.99).

The story, however, doesn't end there. Behind the pseudonym "Hope McIntyre" hovers a rather distinguished ghost. In 1994, Naomi Campbell published her first and only novel, Swan. It soon emerged that the supermodel had relied on the literary services of her editor, Caroline Upcher. There followed some hilarious equivocation as Naomi's agent insisted that although Upcher did indeed count as the "writer" of Swan, the moody Streatham diva remained the true "author". Medieval theologians would have loved all that.

Anyway, the slickly-written Swan did the business, Caroline Upcher went on to publish other novels (such as Falling for Mr Wrong) under her own name, and then worked for Miramax in New York. Now she returns as "Hope McIntyre", with a ripe old yarn of murder and passion in Notting Hill, narrated by that reclusive ghost.

In Lee Bartholomew, "McIntyre" creates a plausibly mixed-up heroine with "a degree in privacy" who relishes her role as the "as told to" or "written with" in small print. Living alone in a big house borrowed from her expat parents, she cultivates habits of secrecy and self-effacement that spill over into her private life, as baffled mates and slobby-but-nice boyfriend fail to pin her down. Then a commission to ghost the memoirs of a mysterious soap star, and a fling with the anguished actress's gorgeous-but-dangerous manager, unleashes an enjoyably twisty tale of arson, domestic violence and rotten market vegetables. Whatever the plot's other virtues, it may (you suspect) be intended to show Hugh Grant-struck US readers that there's more grit than glitz in some corners of London W11.

Literary types will be fascinated by the stray sidelights that expose the ghostly craft. Amid all the (efficiently staged) clue-planting and chick-lit intrigue, "McIntyre" dwells on the balance of power between a famous subject and an unknown scribe, who has both to "subsume your own ego and exert it", on the duty to make a screwy celeb sound "sane and wise", and - after soapy Selma comes out as a battered wife - the social value of "a killer story with a message from a household name". Lee even fears revenge from "someone into whose autobiography I had managed to inject his or her true vile personality".

On our star-dazzled book scene, ventriloquists such as Lee haunt the bestseller lists in greater profusion - truly the ghosts in the humming celebrity machine. They deserve the sort of generous recognition for their skills that Alex Ferguson gave to the eminent sports writer Hugh McIlvanney when the Man Utd chief published Managing my Life. In the meantime, let's hope Naomi Campbell knows what great value she had from Caroline Upcher. Campbell now plans an autobiography, and has just revealed that "Oprah Winfrey said she's going to help me, but I'll write it myself". See the pigs fly over Streatham!

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