In his excellent piece for this blog last week (‘You can’t avoid ethical questions’, 26 January 2021), my UG colleague, Philip Whiteley looked at the very interesting question of whether we as ghostwriters sometimes find ourselves turning down a writing opportunity, which otherwise ticks every box, because we feel it would sit uneasily with our consciences to go ahead with it.
Philip’s article led me to reflect on the (very few) occasions I’ve decided against working with a client because I’ve felt that my involvement in their project would be morally questionable in my own terms. Even though providing a service to someone doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with or endorse everything they represent – particularly in the case of ghostwriting, where the writer remains anonymous and in the background – when it comes to matters of conscience, every independent professional person should surely have the freedom to make their own choices (within reason of course).
As a writer and literary agent based in Northern Ireland, I have been approached several times by individuals convicted of terrorist offences, from both sides of the political divide, asking for my assistance in writing their memoirs. This hasn’t always been something I’ve automatically turned down – in each instance, I’ve tried to get a sense of the true motives involved, and the person’s take on their past actions. But where they express no remorse for the suffering, injury and in some cases, actual loss of life they’ve inflicted on innocent civilians, aren’t prepared to offer an independent personal perspective on what they’ve done, and continue to ‘toe the party line’, pleading allegiance to the dogma which pushed them to such extremes in the first place – I’ve known that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable working closely with them to help get their version of events into the public domain.
All other things aside, when people in this part of the world seem afraid to speak out about how they feel personally about such actions, but simply continue to regurgitate the message of the ideology in whose name they acted, it’s a sign that they’re still under the control of one of the paramilitary organisations here notorious for keeping their followers in line using tactics of psychological and physical intimidation. And although any involvement on my part as a writer might never come publicly to light, I know that from a personal standpoint I don’t want to help to promote the ethos of these kinds of groups.
In less extreme scenarios, I’ve found myself compelled to say no to writing jobs because of concerns not so much about the integrity or intentions of the client, but about their reliability as my key source of information. Not so long ago, I was approached by a young man*, ex-British forces, who wanted me to help him write a book about his experiences in the Royal Army Medical Corps in various war zones in Afghanistan – including the occasion he witnessed the execution by the enemy of his closest colleague and friend in the unit. In preliminary discussions, he spoke very convincingly and movingly about the details and emotional impact of this and some of the other dramatic events he’d supposedly lived through.
A few weeks later however – before we’d agreed terms of a ghostwriting collaboration – the same young man was up in a military court on charges of passing on to third parties confidential information he’d accessed in security forces’ databases. During the proceedings it also emerged that he was suffering from clinical depression and severe PTSD, and had been repeatedly making false claims to the media about conflict experiences with no basis in fact whatsoever. I had certainly been taken in and for once was actually relieved to have been a bit tardy in formalising a writing contract with him. It turned out that he was a Walter Mitty type of the most tragic kind, whose response to trauma had been to seek public attention by weaving a complex web of sensational stories about his exploits, but which were nothing more than complete fabrication.
On another occasion, some years ago now, I had to – reluctantly – step away from working on a book for one of the first people here to undergo gender reassignment surgery on the NHS. Before we met up, I already knew that, simply because they were perceived as ‘different’, this person* had been subjected to horrific intimidation on the housing estate in which they lived – including, more than once, being burnt out of their home. But warning bells began to ring for me at our first meeting, when in a chatty preamble about their past life, it became clear that there was little distinction being made between fact and fiction in what they were telling me. Colourful stories which initially drew me in – such as being involved in the smuggling of Ivory Coast diamonds into Spain, and having had amorous encounters with members of Sartre’s inner circle at the Café Les Deux Magots in Paris – very quickly took on a different complexion as I began to spot obvious inconsistencies, and realised that various dates and geographical details being cited just didn’t tally!
The above examples are the most memorable of the very few times when I’ve felt unable pursue a ghostwriting opportunity for reasons of conscience, even when every other element of the equation was apparently in place. As regards the two prospective clients who turned out to be compulsive yarn-spinners, after an initial sense of annoyance, I soon realised that compassion was a more appropriate response on my part, given the clearly fragile psychological states that must have pushed them towards such an disconnect with reality. I also feel sure that, had each been willing or able to relate an accurate version of what they had actually experienced, it would have made for just as compelling reading as the fantastical tales they’d concocted in their own minds.
For anybody who is currently considering engaging a ghostwriter, this final point is an important one to bear in mind. The full, unvarnished facts of the experiences you wish to relate are likely to be more than interesting enough to hold the attention of a reader – especially if you have a seasoned writer on your side, who’ll be able to present your story in the most compelling way. In my experience in this business, truth so often really can be stranger than fiction. And so in the long run, you’ll always be better served by telling your ghosting partner the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!
[* some details have been changed to protect privacy]