A few years ago, I was commissioned to write a book about President John F Kennedy. Mine was the three-thousandth book on the subject, give or take a few, and I hardly thought it was possible there was anything new to say about the man.
But as I burrowed deep into the subject, I started to discover extraordinary details I had never heard about.
For example, I found a list of the medications the President was taking in 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when his finger hovered above the red button and the world was trembling on the brink of nuclear war.
There were fourteen drugs he took every day – including adrenaline, amphetamines, antibiotics, painkillers, Ritalin, sleeping pills and even testosterone. Testosterone? Kennedy? The mind boggles.
And there were other unknown stories, too.
JFK’s gay room-mate from prep school in 1933, Lem Billings, had his own room in the Kennedy White House and was the only person apart from Jack and Jackie who could walk in and out without a security pass.
When JFK wanted to reward Lem for his loyalty, he offered him a job as head of the newly formed Peace Corps. Lem turned it down. Then he offered him the position of US Ambassador in Copenhagen. But Lem wasn’t going to miss the party. ‘Can you imagine,’ he scoffed, ‘my best friend becomes President of the United States and I spend his presidency in Denmark?’
The point about all this is that the Kennedy years have been studied for half a century by academics, journalists and researchers of every sort. Yet there are still new facts to uncover. There’s always a tale that hasn’t been told.
And it’s the same with ghostwriting. Whether the author you’re working with is famous or unknown, there’s always a new angle to uncover, a new idea to explore or a new story to tell. That’s what makes it worth doing. That’s what makes it different every day.
It’s an education. You get to ask people the most interesting questions – and you sometimes get the most surprising answers.
There are only fourteen of us in United Ghostwriters. But if you could ever put all our clients together in one place, you’d have the most extraordinary collection of heroes and villains, beauties and brainboxes, inventors and Dragons Denners, philanthropists and rock musicians, politicos and sports stars, achievers and survivors.
Most of them are great talkers. Some of them may even be good writers. But we are the ones who can take their experiences and knowhow and make them come alive on the page. And, for us, it’s the best job in the world.
Ian Shircore’s next book, So Brightly at the Last: The Poetry of Clive James, will be published in summer 2018.