I have lost count of the times that the authors I am ghost-writing – or authors I am deep-editing – have told me ‘this is great, this is like free therapy’ or Whatsapped me half an hour after I have left their place telling me how much ‘lighter’ or ‘unburdened’ they feel, how good it is to have ‘someone to share all these difficult things with’. I have had spouses of my authors greet me at the door, cheerfully welcoming me in as ‘respite care’ and an hour after I have left, received Whatsapp messages from them, these ones telling me how ‘amazing’ it is that I have been able to ‘get x to talk about things he hasn’t with anyone else before.’
So, when last month in The Bookseller, the agent Rachel Mills – with her customary care, thoughtfulness and warmth – called for industry support and safeguarding for ‘the authors who are brave enough to tell their stories’ as well as their agents and publishers, I was dismayed not to see ghost-writers included. As the custodians of our author’s deepest selves, the curators of their experiences, words and feelings, as the writers who have to inhabit and become our authors, we are surely, alongside the memoirists writing their own memoirs, among the first port of call for support from the ‘industry’.
But how many of agents, editors and publishers – who, after the deals are done, the contracts signed, have sent us off to write the book, often as Rachel rightly points out ‘to a strict deadline with scary contract wording hanging over you’ – have stopped to truly think what it is we do. How many truly see us as people in our own right, not just freelancers hired to make their signing a reality? Does it ever cross their minds that we might need some support during the interviewing and writing process, not to mention the moment when the manuscript is handed in and that terrible, aching separation anxiety that usually both the author and the ghost experience, kicks in?
I would say, very few, though of course there are exceptions – and in my case as both freelance ghostwriter and structural editor – the agents, Caroline Michel and Nelle Andrews; and publishers Alan Samson and Rowena Webb, have over the course of writing, frequently checked in to see how I am ‘bearing up’. But overall, in my long experience, once the contract is signed, and the sessions and writing begin, while I might receive a breezy email ‘hey, how’s it going?’ or more likely ‘When can I expect the first three chapters?’ I have rarely been asked how I am, how I am feeling, if there is anything troubling me, triggering things in me. And never if I need professional support.
For me, ghostwriting is entirely about the person I am inhabiting. The relationship is built on connection and trust, two people who come together to write a book without ever having met before the initial interview. There is a lot of talking as a way in, a lot of feeling around to find the comfortable spots, the points where I will need to delve deeper, the spaces they want to occupy, the places they need to avoid. How all that squares with the outline upon which the book has been signed. I have had authors tell me shocking and disturbing things, much of which may not reach the page, but does of course, form a basis for what can be a deep and intimate relationship for the duration of the book, and for a bit beyond.
And that marvellous, privileged relationship, the heartbeat of what delivers a good book, is almost, as it has to be, entirely one way. Sure, once the conversation flows, I talk about things in my life and the author will ask me about my day, my week, my family, my childhood. There will be an intoxicating exchange of WhatsApp’s, any time, day or night as a thought hits – but, this relationship isn’t and never is about me and my deepest self, it’s temporary and fleeting and ultimately transactional, so I’ve learned to moderate my responses, sometimes even to manipulate a conversation in a certain way, so we can stay on point.
And that’s ok. Mostly. Except when it isn’t. I have left sessions during which I have had to fight to keep myself together because the conversation touches something deep in me. There have been times when I have felt depleted, tearful, walking miles across town to try and calm down before I go home and become myself again. And then the next day, I have had to get up and write it all down in their voice, shoving whatever has been triggered in me aside.
So, yes. I welcome Rachel’s call for care and compassion for those tasked with writing memoirs or curating them through to publication. As a ghost-writer – and like it or not, we are a key component in the memoir market – to know that should I be in need, I could call my editor, and ask for a coffee and chat, or in more stressful situations, some support from a professional, would make an enormous difference to the wonderfully complicated, and necessarily emotionally work that I do.
Gillian Stern is a former non-fiction commissioning editor, who happily discovered a novel that went on to win prizes and become a bestseller. She then crossed over into the world of commercial and literary fiction and has since been a freelance fiction and non-fiction editor for literary agents and publishers including Bloomsbury, Picador, Hodder, Penguin Random House and Orion. She combines this with her work as a ghostwriter. A memoir she ghosted was named as WHSmith’s Non-Fiction Book of the Year and she has since ghosted a sequel for the same author, as well as several other memoirs that have been Sunday Times and Amazon Bestsellers. Well-known for discovering and mentoring debut novelists, she has been a judge for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize for the past eight years.
Contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @gillybethstern.