The professor from the medical department of a leading US university was quite clear about why I was being approached to help with his book project. I’d pointed out that there were probably a thousand decent ghostwriters between his campus on the edge of the Pacific and my home in Surrey – and that there were probably a hundred of them with a medical or scientific background, which was something I certainly couldn’t claim.
‘Exactly!’ said the professor, with a triumphant note in his voice, as if I had just proved his point. ‘That’s what we want. We value your lack of knowledge.’
So now I’ve got a new USP to focus on. I have a new selling point. I am the man with the ignorance. Roll up, roll up! Get your blank incomprehension here!
The American book is going ahead. We’re nowhere near finished yet. But it’s all working well for both of us, and the Prof’s insistence on finding a ghostwriter who didn’t know anything about his subject has proved extremely shrewd.
In his highly specialised field, he knows everything there is to know. There’s never a question I put to him that he can’t answer, quickly, clearly and with the kind of confident, down-to-earth explanation that makes me feel I understand exactly what he’s saying. But his instincts told him, quite rightly, that he had no idea what ordinary people would and wouldn’t understand and what questions they would ask.
That’s where I come in, as the reader’s representative, asking the dumb questions over and over again and making sure it all makes sense for the non-expert.
Many years ago, I used to be friends with a top London neurosurgeon, known to her chums as Jane the Brain.
When Jane talked about the delicate, complex surgery she and her team undertook, she always said it was just like push-fit plumbing – only done at a microscopic scale.
You’d come away feeling that you could probably do it, too, with a bit of training and a few hours’ practice. But I admired the way she was so thoroughly on top of her subject that she had no interest in making her work sound mysterious or heroic. She just wanted to give people a clear idea of what was going on, using everyday examples and analogies to make you understand the principles behind these precise and specialised procedures.
It’s an illusion, of course. Like my professor, Jane the Brain wasn’t setting out to teach people how to do her job. But even such internationally acclaimed experts recognise the importance of letting the outside world know what they’re doing. Lay people, journalists and politicians need to have some idea about what’s happening on the front lines of science and medicine, if only to ensure that sensible decisions can be taken about the funding of hospitals, labs, universities and research establishments.
And the people who really know – the doctors, academics and scientists – don’t have the time, or, usually, the writing skills, to take these stories to the world.
That’s not always the case. Adam Kay, the real-life doctor whose book formed the basis for the hit TV series This Is Going to Hurt, is one dazzling exception. So was Sherwin Nuland, the American surgeon who wrote the best book ever about death, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, and soon found he had a surprise bestseller on his hands.
But, as a rule, those who spend their formative years and most of their waking hours doing more practical things are more likely to find an audience for their ideas if they work with a professional writer.
And although it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the ideal ghost would be someone who understands your specialist field, there is a lot to be said for deliberately picking a collaborator with no prior knowledge or preconceptions about your area of expertise.
I’m learning as I go along, gleaning enough information at each stage to make some sense of what the professor is telling me and piece together draft chapters for his approval. Most of what I come up with survives his critical review, though there are occasional moments of confusion and hilarity where I have got the wrong end of the stick. But that’s OK, too. That’s how the process works.
What it does guarantee is that the final book will be his, not mine. He is the author. I am just the technician who helps him capture his thoughts and get them down on the page. There may be a fleeting mention of me in the acknowledgements section, but it’s quite possible that my name will not appear at all.
I don’t mind. That’s up to him. If the Prof ends up with the book he hoped to write, I’ll have done the job I set out to do. Within a few months, my pristine ignorance will be restored and I’ll be grappling with the mysteries of some new subject – track and field athletics, maybe, or aerospace engineering or behavioural economics. It’s amazing how much you learn – and how quickly you forget it all – when your mind starts off as an open, receptive blank.
Ian Shircore’s latest book is Conspiracy (John Blake, 2022)