Last week was quite a week for ghostwriters breaking cover. After the New York Times revealed that Donald Trump lost over $1billion in the decade from 1985-1994, Tony Schwartz, his ghostwriter on The Art of the Deal, suggested that Random House either take the book out of print or re-classify it as fiction. If the book is to remain available, Schwartz went on to say, it should be re-titled The Sociopath. Ouch.
Meanwhile, revelations by another of the president’s ghosts, Charles Leerhsen, took us directly into the deal-maker-in-chief’s office. Leerhsen wrote Surviving at the Top in 1990 — a point in Trump’s career when his businesses were losing money by the yacht-load. The glimpse we get into the president’s routine all those years ago is bizarre — even by Trump standards. Leerhsen wrote in Yahoo News:
‘But Trump’s portfolio did not jibe with what I saw each day — which to a surprisingly large extent was him looking at fabric swatches. Indeed, flipping through fabric swatches seemed at times to be his main occupation. Some days he would do it for hours, then take me in what he always called his “French military helicopter” to Atlantic City — where he looked at more fabric swatches or sometimes small samples of wood panelling… But the main thing about fabric swatches was that they were within his comfort zone — whereas, for example, the management of hotels and airlines clearly wasn’t.’
The ghostwriter’s conclusion, as told to MSNBC, was that Trump ‘had no talent for running his business empire and he had no interest in it’.
And yet, while these observations delivered a gratifying shot of schadenfreude, I felt a slight queasiness. When I searched for the source of this unease, I found two causes.
The first was concern for the writers. Any ghost will tell you that hand in hand with a celebrity book comes a hefty Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) — a document drawn up by the lawyers of the rich and famous to terrify the poor and invisible. The agreement sets out the responsibilities and liabilities of the ghostwriter in terms which, translated from the legalese, mean ‘Breathe a word of this to anyone and we might allow your children to visit you once every ten years’. They aren’t so much agreements as ultimatums.
So my first worry was whether the ghosts had managed to give the lawyers the slip.
But the second was a broader concern, and it made me challenge the wisdom of spilling the beans. Without being too prim about it, I felt queasy because no matter what we privately think of our clients, we owe them our silence about whatever doesn’t make it into the book. That fundamental trust underpins all successful ghosting collaborations.
We are granted access to our authors on a scale that very few others can claim — sometimes being told things that the author has never spoken of before, even in private. It is almost the first rule of ghosting that we respect the privileged position we are in: a bit like the ‘what happens in the dressing-room stays in the dressing-room’ convention for sports teams.
And for the author to properly open up, he or she has to trust the ghostwriter absolutely. In return for that openness, it’s reasonable to expect that the ghost will not publish or discuss publicly any confidential or private information that hasn’t appeared on the final printed page.
So, while the immediate shot of schadenfreude was about as intoxicating as it gets, the feeling was spiked by the sense that, in these chaotic, unstable times, yet another important convention had been upended. Spilling the beans is always messy.