Our guest blogger this week is the wonderful Gillian Stern. Gillian is a ghostwriter – mostly of memoir – commissioned by Penguin, Hodder, Orion, Bloomsbury and W&N, among others.
I have a new secret. I think about him all the time. I imagine his thoughts and responses. When I am not with him I talk to him in my mind. I record our conversations and listen to his voice before I go to sleep, at the gym, on the bus. I read his messages to me and the ones on social media and then I read into them. He has a special ringtone on my WhatsApp, on text. I don’t talk about him to anyone.
Yep. I am working up a new memoir, signed to a major publisher, and as I write this, he and I are in the editorially-loved-up early parts of a relationship that will go through many different iterations and then fade into the recesses of the bookshelves. For now, we are only happy to see each other. We make new dates even before the current one is over and when I hear him speak in public or he is being interviewed during the day, I might already have taken his emotional temperature and know what mood he is in, how his day is going and this makes me feel a little bit special.
He is in the public eye. He is sharp and articulate and multi-talented. He is complex and multi-layered. At least that is how he is presenting himself to me and I am convinced. When accessible, we spark ideas off each other and he gives me such good material, is so fiercely intelligent, so seemingly open and willing to talk and explore and explore further, that I absolutely know this is going to be a fine and widely-read book.
Of course, I say relationship but it’s very one-sided. It’s not about me, even when the temptation is so great and I want to make it about me, so he can see that I too am fascinating, that I too have a story and am sharp and articulate and worthy of attention beyond being a cypher for what, in those moments of not being noticed, I meanly think of as his ‘stuff’. It’s an intimacy that is completely one-sided – it’s not about me, never about me and never about ‘us’. That’s not in the contract and we have 80,000 words to write. This is my livelihood and I will need to move on to my next book and ultimately nothing else is relevant – this is a process and there is a deadline and I must always keep the job part of this in focus. It’s a professional intimacy that simply (complicatedly) has to be transferred into prose that takes the readers by the hand and takes them through his narrative.
I love my job, the privilege of getting to know someone so well that for a while I become them. But at times it can be complicated. It involves a level of intimacy that I just don’t see replicated in any job my friends do. Even my closest friend, an actress, who also strives to become her characters, does it on a level that does not involve hours of listening to her character talk and days of crafting these words into a narrative. And if my lovely husband of 30 years was this preoccupied by someone else, often an alluring and charismatic someone else (though not as alluring and charismatic as him, obviously), I wouldn’t be at all happy. Separating my work from my life is sometimes hard.
It’s not always like this. Ghosting a memoir can actually be relatively straightforward. I have written memoirs that centre on a person’s illustrious career with just enough of the personal to get by; memoirs where I can disclose who I’m working with, the context and time are the thing and I have asked my kids to help me with my line of questioning, to open my mind. And there are levels of the personal too – not everyone wants to trawl through repressed and painful memories before we hit the page. And despite a cheery ‘oh-thanks-that-was-like-therapy-same-time-next-week?’ after sessions (and my need to eat crisps), that’s not my job. And if it feels like it for a month or so, ultimately that’s unsustainable, and anyway, anyway, we have deadlines to meet.
This much I know: however much he shares of himself with me, whatever parts of his life he chooses to reveal, we are never going to be friends. For all the reasons above and because pretty soon the bubble will need to burst. Weeks of adoring, deep, challenging questions turn swiftly on a pin once there are words on a page and one of us has to be critical or unpick or reject. That’s always a moment of change that I both dread and yearn for. Then, what has gone before scatters like fairy dust.
Later, once the book is written and handed over to the publisher, it will no longer be ‘ours’. And, well, on publication, months later, when he is on TV or in the spotlight talking about his book, I will have moved on and the intimacy, even the published narrative, will be both a part of me and a mystery to me.
In addition to being a ghostwriter, Gillian Stern is also a structural editor, for commercial and literary fiction and non-fiction, working with the same publishers, as well as writers recommended by word of mouth, agents and other publishers. She is a judge on the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize and works closely with agents, particularly in placing debut and unrepresented writers.