There are kids who hope they will grow up to be commodities traders or termite inspectors, garbage men or janitors; even a few who want to be plumbers or proctologists. I'd be willing to bet, however, that not a single person anywhere has ever — EVER! — grown up dreaming of one day becoming a ghost-writer. That goes for the sons and daughters of ghost-writers — especially
the sons and daughters of ghost-writers.
It's admittedly a strange job. People are often both fascinated and repulsed by the work; they see the job of helping another person write a book as somehow underhanded or devious, which I guess it is, in a sense. Deception is part of the job description, but not in a way that seems any more notable than, say, what a good actor does in portraying a famous person's voice on screen, or what Jennifer Jason Leigh did in evoking Dorothy Parker's speaking style in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. The questions are the same: Which parts are the actor? And which parts the famous person?
As my friend the author Jacob Heilbrunn said, in reference to my most recent book, Letter to a New President, co-written with Senator Robert Byrd, "I'm flummoxed as to how much of it is Kettmann and how much Byrd." The answer, of course, is that in all meaningful ways the book is Byrd, and that the only parts that might feel like Kettmann are really unexpected sides of Byrd that I coaxed out of him in our long conversations together in Washington. This was essential in the service of giving the book a fresh and relevant feel, rather than just rehashing familiar views and priorities of a Senator who, as of January, will have served half a century in the Senate. Byrd was easily the most vocal and visible Senate opponent of the Iraq War, giving thunderous speeches on the Senate floor against the stampede to war, and as a man who has known 11 presidents personally and long ago made himself an expert on the history of the Senate, his insights have a different feel than most of what we hear in the age of instant analysis.
"An entire nation cannot be held hostage to fear week after week and month after month and year after year without paying a catastrophic price," Byrd writes in Letter to a New President.
The American people and, yes, all too many of their political leaders have been manipulated and controlled in recent years through the most shameless use of fear that this country has ever seen. Sadly, and shocking as it must be to stare down so sobering a reality, even the infamy of Joseph McCarthy's reign of demagoguery in the 1950s did not threaten the Constitution as directly as we have endured of late.
Some people see the job of ghosting the way Truman Capote dismissed the work of the Beats (and feel free to invoke the famous Capote accent, circa Murder by Death): "That's not writing, that's typewriting." I have it on good authority, for example, that one book that recently made a (mercifully) brief appearance on the Times bestseller list was actually written — start to finish — in seven days, and that the ghost — or would that be the typist? — actually banged out book copy in real time, as he spoke with his subject, rather than the more pedestrian and traditional method of first listening, taking notes or tape-recording, contemplating what might or might not be important, reading at least a few books and performing other essential complementary research, and then slowly crafting chapters that feel as if they might possibly be able to meet the test that any book must meet to deserve existence: Namely, "works that will last," as Twelve publisher Jonathan Karp put it in his recent landmark Washington Post essay, "Turning the Page on the Disposable Book."
Call me old-fashioned, but I still remember my first trip to Manhattan as a boy of six with my parents and older brother Dave. I had, at the time, devoured every volume I could find in a forgettable children's series called The Happy Hollisters, and could not believe my luck when, visiting all the way from California, we were walking up Broadway, I think it was, and happened to pass by Doubleday. This, I knew, was the publisher of The Happy Hollisters series — and when we went inside and I found four freshly printed volumes I'd never even seen, let alone cracked open and read, it impressed upon me a sense that books should always, in some ways, feel special. I still feel that way, having survived many an eye-opening experience in publishing, including a memorable stint working at Regan Books as a book doctor back when Judith was very much still at the helm. I, in fact, feel that way more than ever, even if I now understand that "Jerry West," the listed author of The Happy Hollisters, was in fact a fictional name behind which one or more ghost-writers toiled away.
If there's a name for the approach I favor for helping other people write books, I'd probably call it Gonzo Ghosting — and I think Hunter Thompson would puke at that formulation, even as he secretly understood. Here's why: I believe ghosting should involve living the story along with the subject in ways you would never have imagined at the time you signed up for the job. I believe it should involve a lot of old-fashioned hard work (Thompson's dirty little secret — he actually worked very hard to achieve his random-seeming style). And I believe that, however it may look to outsiders, ghosting should involve risk and trauma and daring, and should push the envelope — in short, that it should be approached as a creative endeavor, with all that entails, meaning that if each job doesn't take a bite out of you, the kind that Janis Joplin sang about, then you're not really living the experience and might as well not bother.
Sure, there are a lot of ghost-written books that are not worth the paper they are printed on, but then, there are a lot of bad books written by an author and that author alone. I would encourage anyone with a chance to produce a book to accept how lucky they are to be in that situation, and to live up to the implicit responsibility and try like hell to produce a book that is important or special in some way. Plenty of people hated Juiced, the Jose Canseco steroid tell-all that I ghosted, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller, but the book earned some extreme raves, as well, including one from novelist Michael Chabon, in which he praised Canseco for "step[ping] forward to tell the truth, a big, meaningful, dolorous truth that most of us, measured by our own standards of heroism, would have a hard time bringing ourselves to tell," and another, published by Bryan Curtis in The New York Times Magazine, in which he seems to be making a case for the book as great literature.
"Canseco's book started a congressional inquiry, and none of the book's more lurid allegations has been effectively refuted," Curtis wrote; "… I think Canseco may have unwittingly written one of the most harrowing portraits of the modern athlete….[W]hen he picked up a pencil, a funny thing happened. He came crashing down to earth. On the page, he was less a buffoonish, larger-than-life figure and more a real human being."
If there's another trademark of the approach I'm trying to champion here, it's the need to conceive of a book in the context in which it is likely to appear when it is published. This is harder than it sounds, like the task a smart and quick NBA guard faces in trying to place himself in front of a hard-charging big man, expecting a painful collision — and an offensive foul on the hard-charging big man. For example, while working on Juiced, it was clear to me that the book's first-person account of injecting Mark McGwire in the rear end with a steroid needle would guarantee that the book would earn plenty of attention from sportswriters. I had spent four years as a baseball beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle — covering both McGwire and Canseco for some of their time with the Oakland A's — and had also written on baseball and steroids for the New York Times, for which I wrote an August 2000 piece, "Baseball Must Come Clean on Its Darkest Secret," which laid out the problem of steroids in baseball and argued for an end to denial.
I knew, though, that if Juiced were going to become a real hit, it would need to interest more than sportswriters, so I specifically targeted Times columnist Maureen Dowd. I asked myself: What sort of chapter might inspire Dowd to write about the book? The result was the (in)famous chapter on athletes and sex, "Imports, Road Beef and Extra Cell Phones." Soon after the book was published, Dowd took the bait and wrote a Sunday column, "Where's the Road Beef?" Soon the book was being discussed at water coolers all over the nation.
As any NBA point guard knows, this business of trying to take an offensive foul is no easy task. You never know for sure just where your target is going to make his cut. Robert Byrd's Letter to a New President will read to many as if it is specifically addressed to Barack Obama, especially in the advice — put to paper in late 2007 — for the next president to reach out to our key European allies and remind them that we value our allies not only when they back us unquestioningly, but also when they raise pointed — and, as it turns out, correct — objections to wildly dangerous foreign-policy adventures being considered. So, of course I'm hoping that sometime in the coming months, Obama might find time to flip open Letter to a New President for at least a quick read.
If Obama does, in fact, take a look, he will be reading because the book's author is Byrd, the 90-year-old elder statesman of Democratic politics whose tutelage Obama actively sought when he came to Washington as a new senator, a scene he relates with startling eloquence in The Audacity of Hope. The book has value, if it does, because Byrd has seen it all over more than half a century in Washington, even travelling to the Soviet Union at one point as Majority Leader to confront Leonid Brezhnev face to face. If Obama takes a look, the last thing on his mind will be which ghost-writer Byrd sought out to help him on this project. Even for someone who would claim to be practicing Gonzo Ghosting, the highest praise is to be quickly forgotten.