More Ghost Stories: When I felt I’d absorbed their essential character, then I began to dig

By Barnard Law Collier

“Anyone who ghostwrites for anything but a lot of money is a blockhead.” ~ Ben Luck

I‘ve ghost-written four books in four decades and was complicit in three pre-mortality obituaries of semi-famous people who really wanted to have the last word, even if they had to pay for it.

Three of the books were about industrial psychology by one of the masters of the niche whose findings are still taught in top business schools worldwide. The fourth was the top innovator in the 1980s college marketing boom and the later “parachute” craze for executives.

For each of those books I worked more as an actor studying the live person to be portrayed on screen or stage. I soaked up their mannerisms, particularly their speech patterns and lingo, how they did or did not use humor, their assertiveness, their victories and humilities. When I felt I’d absorbed their essential character, then I began to dig, hard, with both general and very specific questions that pushed them beyond the rote that they often spouted and which they hired me to override.

It stands to reason that the better the ghost writer the more invisible the writer is in the writing. When you begin to write as a ghost you ought to be, as fully as you can imagine and intuit, the flesh and blood person you are writing for. You aren’t smarter, you aren’t more erudite or eloquent, you are who your shade pretends to be. Not to show off is not easy.

What if your real person is a real [you choose the expletive] and you begin to hate being her/him?

Then stop and get ready to pay your advance back. Hate is not understanding, but lack of it. If you hate your character, you will do no service to the client or the readers by hating your way into a shallow book.

I hated the student marketing guy for long enough to figure out why, and then I finished the book. He was satisfied, even flattered, and it still sells well post mortem. I always liked the industrial psychologist, and sales showed it.

To ghost an obituary while the corpse-to-be can still criticize is weird work but much more widespread than many realize. I insisted on getting paid extremely well for the spiritual stresses and strains of it.

I suppose the brilliant ghost who intrigues me most is Tony Schwartz, the guy who several decades ago co-authored Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal, a breakthrough best seller. Now the ghost of Trumpenstein is mea culpa-ing all over town that he did his job too well.
Barney Collier describes himself as “Cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, publisher, and brewer of the world’s best cooking sauce, Gaucho Green Chimmi-Churri.”



  1. BUT: regarding his fans — “I think they also wondered why I didn’t hate anybody, why I never took sides. How do you hate a guy you’re studying so closely? To do so would be to endorse the notion that there are people who come to Washington to NOT do their best, and I truly don’t believe that, no matter what side of the aisle they’re on.” — Darrell Hammond, in his autobiography, God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked [asterisk in original]

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