When the Writing Demands Talent and Discretion, Call the Ghostwriter

From a New York Times story by Elizabeth A. Harris headlined “When the Writing Demands Talent and Discretion, Call the Ghostwriter”:

The cover of Prince Harry’s new memoir has a simple design: A close-up of his familiar face, looking calm and resolute behind a ginger beard. His name is at the top of the frame and the title, “Spare,” is at the bottom.

What the cover does not include is the name of the book’s ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer.

Perhaps the most exalted practitioner of a little-understood craft, Moehringer aims, ultimately, to disappear. Ghostwriters channel someone else’s voice — often, someone else’s very recognizable voice — and construct with it a book that has shape and texture, narrative arc and memorable characters, all without leaving fingerprints. Doing it well requires a tremendous amount of technical skill and an ego that is, at a minimum, flexible.

“If I’m a great collaborative writer, I am a vessel,” said Michelle Burford, who has written books with the broadcaster Robin Roberts, the actress Cicely Tyson and the musician Alicia Keys. “The lion’s share of my job is about getting out of the way, vanishing so the voice of my client can come through as clearly as possible.”

The way she explains it to her clients, she said, is that they provide the raw materials to build a house and she puts it together, brick by brick. “You own the bricks,” she said she tells them. “But you — and there should be no shame in this — don’t have the skill set to actually erect the building.”

The process can vary widely from writer to writer and project to project. There are writers who push hard to have their names on the cover, and those who never do. Sometimes, writers who don’t agree with their subjects expressly request their name be left off. Fees can range from about $50,000 to many times that, into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is even little agreement on what to call a ghostwriter; some strongly prefer the term “collaborator,” because they believe “ghost” implies there’s something shifty about the arrangement, or that the subject — generally, the “author” in contractual language — had nothing to do with the finished product.

“Authors run the gamut from someone who is a complete control freak and has to approve every semicolon to those who barely phone it in,” said Madeleine Morel, an agent who specializes in matchmaking book projects with ghostwriters. “And when you start working with someone, you don’t know where they’re going to fall on that curve.”

Often, a writer will meet the subject only a few times, then follow up with phone calls, emails and texts. Others say that in order to get enough of a sense of the person to capture on the page, they need at least a few dozen hours in the presence of a client, sitting together in a room or shadowing the daily routines of the subject’s public and private lives.

To write Andre Agassi’s memoir, “Open,” Moehringer moved to Las Vegas, where Agassi lived. Agassi said he bought a house a mile away from his own, and Moehringer occupied it for two years while he worked on the book. All the writer requested was a long table where he could lay out the scenes he’d piece together “like a necklace,” Agassi recalled. They’d meet in the morning, fueled by breakfast burritos from Whole Foods.

“I’d spend a couple of hours with him over breakfast and a tape recorder,” Agassi said.

“Open” is widely considered a paragon of sports autobiographies — a raw and honest excavation of a well-known life. Agassi said he sought out Moehringer to write the book — “romancing” him to do it, he said — after reading Moehringer’s own memoir, “The Tender Bar,” about growing up with a single mother.

“It was the first autobiography I’d read that didn’t feel like a global press conference,” Agassi said.

A former newspaper reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, Moehringer has a reputation for intense work habits — he rarely sleeps when finishing a book — along with a good sense of humor and strong opinions about the projects he works on, even if they ultimately belong to somebody else. Like any reliably employed ghostwriter, Moehringer is also known for his discretion. Prince Harry’s book is his third ghostwriting project. Maybe.

“It’s quite hard to tell — it’s the third that I know of,” said Will Schwalbe, who was the editor in chief at Hyperion when it published “The Tender Bar.” “There could be one out there that I don’t know.”

Beyond doing the writing, a good ghostwriter also encourages subjects to go beyond what they might say on their own, a crucial challenge with public figures who have been famous for many years and whose life stories are already well known.

Indeed, some agents argue that by pushing their subjects, ghostwriters can make books more authentic than if they were written by the public figures themselves. Agassi said Moehringer asked the hard questions needed to help him dig deeper, but that he felt safe throughout the process; the honesty that resulted from their collaboration is part of what made the memoir so highly regarded.

“He’s half psychiatrist,” Phil Knight, a founder of Nike, said of Moehringer, who was the collaborator on his memoir, “Shoe Dog.” “He gets you to say things you really didn’t think you would.”

Burford, who collaborated on Alicia Keys’s memoir, said a significant part of her job is making her clients comfortable by creating the right circumstances for them to open up. She doesn’t interview them, she said, but tries to have normal conversations. She broaches delicate subjects in phone calls late at night, she said, when clients can curl up on the couch, maybe feeling like they’re “talking to a stranger on the bus.” She will also try to mirror her clients: If they show up in a T-shirt and jeans, she’ll dress casually as well.

“I’m often working across racial lines and gender lines,” she said, “and anything I can do to make us feel more alike than different is helpful to the collaborative process. So if you’re coming in with bed head, I’m coming in with bed head and no make up.”

But in the end, nothing goes in the book if the author of record does not approve. Ghostwriters work for their subjects — and can be fired by them. Daniel Paisner, who has collaborated on roughly 60 books with public figures including John Kasich, a former governor of Ohio, and Serena Williams, said he writes for an audience of one. If the subject is happy, he said, then he’s done his job.

“At its heart, it is a service profession,” said Byrd Leavell, the head of publishing at United Talent Agency, which represents a wide range of artists and celebrities.

Paisner, who also writes novels and hosts a podcast about ghostwriting called “As Told To,” said that some of his books are more merchandise than literature, meant to capitalize on someone’s 15 minutes of fame. “They are read — or at least sell — upon publication,” he said. “Then six months later, or two years later, they’re in the dust bin.”

But he hopes that some of his books will be read for generations, like “The Girl in the Green Sweater,” which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who hid for 14 months with her family in the sewers of what was then Lvov, Poland.

Practitioners say the perception of ghostwriting is changing. For a long time, any book written by a ghostwriter was dismissed as merchandise. Many potential readers still might consider a book with an additional writing credit on the cover to be less intimate, as if the collaborator were a barrier between the reader and the subject.

The fact is that most people don’t have the time, or the ability, to write a good book, practitioners said.

“Writing is a technical skill,” said Jon Sternfeld, whose collaborations include a best-selling memoir by the actor Michael K. Williams. “People don’t give it the technical credit it deserves.”

In recent years, the stigma has started to melt away, in part because some of these books, like “Open,” are very good.

“The analogy I always draw is in the old days, nobody would ever admit to internet dating, and now everybody talks about it,” Morel, the agent who connects ghostwriters and subjects, said. “In the old days, nobody would ever admit to working with a ghostwriter or collaborator, and now, it’s accepted, by and large.”

Though the stigma has lessened, it is not gone. There are public figures who take more credit for the writing than they should, publishing professionals say, and celebrities who insist they wrote a book all by themselves when they didn’t.

Agassi, on the other hand, said he wanted to put Moehringer’s name on the cover of “Open.”

“One of my strengths is knowing my weaknesses,” said Agassi. “Doing a craft like I did for so long at the highest level, you understand the difference between the best and the rest.”

But Moehringer declined such public credit, Agassi said. He preferred to disappear.

Elizabeth A. Harris writes about books and publishing for The Times.

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