As anyone who reads the papers, watches the news or frequents social media will know, there’s been a lot of hype about Prince Harry’s forthcoming memoir, Spare – which is hardly surprising of course. Some of the more recent speculation has focused on the Prince’s ghostwriter, the Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist, memoirist and novelist, JR Moehringer. As someone working in the publishing industry and a ghostwriter myself, I’ve been following it all with interest and at times, a kind of horrified fascination.
The latest ‘insider scoop’, courtesy of the Daily Mail’s Royal Correspondent, is that Moehringer has refused to make some of the changes Harry requested in view of the death of his grandmother, The Queen. And another recent revelation is that during their work together and in order to amp up a ‘touchy-feely’ first draft, the Prince’s ghostwriter has consistently pushed him to dig into the deepest of his resentments towards his father, the now King, as good material for inclusion in the book.
Initially I dismissed all this as ‘celeb’ gossip, most likely with very little substance.
However, having done some digging myself to find out a little more about Moehringer and his previous work, it seems that difficult father—son relationships are something of a specialist subject for him. In 2005, he wrote his own critically acclaimed memoir, The Tender Bar, which centres on the fractured and damaging relationship between himself and his absentee father, a well-known DJ in the US. And in 2009 Moehringer ghosted Open, the tell-all autobiography of his second most high-profile client to date, Andre Agassi. Figuring large in this book too is a father who makes his son’s life very difficult, in this instance by his overly controlling and demanding ways.
So when I read the latest stories about the collaboration between the Prince and his ghostwriter, I can’t help feeling some professional unease. For one thing, I think it’s really important to highlight – for anyone thinking of enlisting a ghostwriter’s help in putting together their book – that this is not how most ghost–client alliances typically work. I can absolutely assure you that most ghostwriters – and certainly those of us at United Ghostwriters – are not here to impose our own take on life onto your story or try to create parallels between your experiences and ours. We don’t want, or need, to use your book as a pretext to write about ourselves
In relation to all of this, I’ll never forget an experience I had in my very early days as a ghostwriter, one which was both painful and instructive. At the time, the project I was engaged in was only my third ever ghosting assignment. Since the first two had gone well and the clients had been pleased with the final results, I think I imagined that I had mastered the art of writing a book in someone else’s name. The short, sharp lesson, which I never forgot, was that I still had a lot to learn about this complex craft. In fact it’s a learning curve which continues to this day.
I’d been working with the client in question for several months. We’d already completed a number of hours of intensive interviews, and all was going really well. It felt that we were a good writer-client fit and I was optimistic and excited about our work together.
The time had come for me to write a sample chapter for the book, so that both the client and I could gauge whether I was able to capture his ‘voice’ convincingly and tell his story in an accurate, relatable way. This stage can be a bit nerve-racking for both parties (but mainly for the ghost!).
Anyway, I’d decided I’d draft the opening for the book, in the form of a Prologue – not a simple task in itself, since it needs to convey something of the essence of the client’s life and give a compelling overview of what is to come for the next XX number of pages. However I felt I was pretty much ready to start writing, and I’d also had a great idea about how to begin. Or so I believed anyway.
Once I began to write, the words seemed to flow without difficulty, as did the ideas. The opening scene would be a vignette from the client’s early childhood, when he and his twin sister, barely more than toddlers, were sent out to forage for mushrooms in the desolate countryside near the family home. It would, I decided, be a powerful metaphor for the way in which throughout their childhood and teenage years, the client and his sister were so often just left to fend for themselves in a hostile world by a mother who was neglectful and a father who was abusive.
The client and I hadn’t spoken in any depth about the mushroom-picking expeditions of his early years, but I felt I had the necessary experience to draw on – it was something my sister and I did at times as young children, albeit always accompanied by my father, on family days out in the school holidays.
I couldn’t wait to show my client this first draft. I knew he was going to love it – how could he not?! I sent the piece off on a Friday afternoon, and so didn’t expect to hear anything back for at least a day or two.
By the end of the following week, however, there was still no response – so I decided to give the client a call. As soon as he answered the phone, I asked him what he thought of the Prologue. I was shocked, and then completely crestfallen, when he told me that he’d been struggling to work out what to say to me, given how disappointed he’d been with what he’d read.
‘It doesn’t sound like me, or us, at all,’ he began.
Well, I already knew from other experienced ghosts that this isn’t an unusual first response from a client. Often people don’t initially recognise themselves in print – even when you’ve simply reflected back to them precisely what they have told you, and even when you have quoted their words verbatim. However as my client continued with his critique, I could feel my heart sinking to new depths.
‘You’ve created such an idyllic scene with the green fields and the sunshine and the happy atmosphere, but it was nothing like that! Even the way you’ve described the act of picking mushrooms is not right – it’s not what we were taught anyway! What you’ve written is not remotely like what we did, or how we felt at the time . . .’
Once I got over my own disappointment (and it took a while!), I realised what was at the heart of my blunder. It’s a mistake which is very easy to fall into, but one which could be regarded as a cardinal sin of ghostwriting: I’d assumed that my own experience of something was the same as my client’s, and that I could directly draw on my own past when trying to recreate his. This is patently not always the case.
Sure, it helps when a ghostwriter can truly relate to what you’ve lived because we’ve had similar experiences – but a writer’s imagination is not limited to what they have directly experienced. We’re here most of all to act as a conduit for your story – to draw out the detail and recount it in the most readable form, and most importantly, to present it to your intended readership in the way that you have chosen.
Given JR Moehringer’s very different modus operandi, is it possible that Prince Harry may live to regret his choice of ghostwriter? The answer to that will only become clear in the fullness of time – once the book has been published and we’ve all been able to read it. By then, for Harry anyway, it will be far too late to retract or revise anything about the way his story has been presented to the world. . .