Client: Can we leave him out of it? We really don’t get on and I’d rather tell the story without him.
Me: But, er, you were married to him for 15 years. I think it might be difficult to write your autobiography without mentioning him.
Client: Surely you can just focus on other areas. What about my awards and my TV series?
Me: Well those are great, but they’re only a part of your past and the idea is for the reader to get to know you through your story. So we need to include your ex.
Client: Well he was a monster. You can just say that.
Me: That would be libellous. We don’t want him to sue you – and your publisher.
Yes honestly, this was a true encounter with a well-known actress. She had been signed up by a publisher to write her autobiography, with me there to put the words together as she told her story. She isn’t the only client I’ve had who wanted to leave sections out of the account of his or her life. A lot of people love the idea of writing a book but when faced with a ‘warts and all’ memoir or autobiography, baulk at talking about shameful embarrassing or hurtful times in their lives.
One famous musician, who had fathered a daughter in his late teens and then split up with the mother and abandoned the child, insisted he didn’t want to mention it in his book.
It can take time and a lot of diplomacy to persuade clients like this that telling the whole story, dark episodes and all, is not only going to make a much better book, but it will do them no harm. It’s part of the ghostwriter’s challenge to persuade them, gently but firmly, to find the courage to be honest and to include the times they see as painful and negative and would rather forget. People who are in the public eye (and many of those who are not) are often afraid that if their image is tarnished they will be criticised and lose popularity. But in fact the reverse is often true. If you tell the truth, with real honesty and humility, admitting that you made mistakes and wish you could turn the clock back, then it can be a positive thing. It can be surprisingly cathartic too.
That’s what happened in the case of the musician. After flouncing out of our interview and refusing to talk to me for three days, he finally agreed to include his daughter in the story. He admitted that he’d made a huge mistake in abandoning her, that he was ashamed and wished he’d had the maturity to do things differently. As a result, when the book came out it was praised for its honesty, with several reviews commenting on the section about his daughter and how moving it was. And, more importantly, he was reconciled with his daughter and gave her away at her wedding.
And the actress? She grudgingly agreed to include her ex-husband and was persuaded that saying he was a monster was not helpful. I explained to her that if you talk about yourself and your own experience, with insight and a little humility, readers will draw their own conclusions.
I had this conversation with Cynthia Lennon when we worked on her book John, the story of her relationship with John Lennon from their teenage pre-Beatles days through to when he left her for Yoko Ono. Of course there was no love lost between Cynthia and Yoko and she had some choice words to say about the Japanese artist who had ‘stolen’ her husband. But we put the emphasis on Cynthia’s experience, her pain and her sense of grief and loss after parting from John, because she had loved him very deeply. The result was a book that was honest and genuine, and which topped the bestseller charts. And Cynthia felt good about it, because she’d been truthful without being vindictive.
Not long afterwards I worked with John Lennon’s sister Julia Baird on her book Imagine This, later made into the film Nowhere Boy. Julia was angry with a lot of the people who let her and John down as they were growing up, but we concentrated on her heartache and loss and on the fact that they were survivors. That decision was vindicated when one reviewer wrote, ‘As with Cynthia Lennon’s John, this one has a tone of intimacy and open honesty…I don’t think there will be another Lennon book which will be worth reading after these two.’
High praise and it was well deserved because both women were courageous and truthful.
The point is that if you are going to write the story of your life, whether you are famous or not, it’s worth including the whole story. Because we all make mistakes, get things wrong and hurt others and readers recognise and understand this.