WHEN IS A GHOSTWRITER NOT? by Jill Amadio
Many authors need a day job until their books accrue enough royalties and renown to quit working for someone else, and my ghostwriting career was flourishing. I’d not yet begun writing my own mystery series and was freelancing at magazines. I first started taking on alternate personae when one editor informed me that a reader was looking for a ghostwriter to churn out a business book.
“Impossible”, I said. “Too many words”
“Imagine each chapter as an article”, she suggested.
Since then, I’ve ghostwritten more than a dozen memoirs and autobiographies that required transforming myself into a U.S. ambassador, a Las Vegas croupier, a Texas oilman, a taxicab fleet owner, a triathlete, and sundry others. One was quite an experience. Here it is.
I am hovering just to the rear and right of Jonathan as his sits at a table happily signing his name on the flyleaf of my new crime novel. We are at Dutton’s bookshop on the edge of Hollywood. Jonathan does not disguise the fact that he’d hired a ghostwriter for his book. He is introducing me as “my writer” as one would airily wave a hand and say, “Oh, this is my butler.” Very classy but a bit confusing to the crowd. With Jonathan claiming me, it is obvious that this time my ghostwriter jig is up.
Jonathan told me during my initial visit to his Beverly Hills mansion that he had always wanted a book with his name on to display on “this coffee table”, he said, patting it. His dilemma was that he had no idea how to write. Reminded me of the time I was at an airport shop in Indonesia and picked up President Sukarno’s biography, a heavy red leather hardcover, only to find it full of blank pages (he was still living at the time).
Now, at Dutton’s, I help Jonathan set up his customized pens, business cards, and bookmarks. Two tables almost sag under the weight of a huge champagne and caviar buffet catered by the Beverly Hilton, much to the bewilderment of the manager who has never seen such largesse from a first-time, unknown author. I also spend a ridiculously long time deciding exactly where to position myself. As a ghostwriter I am always absent from “my” book signings. As soon as I finish a project and bank the check, I slink away. But this time is different. The client insists I attend, and I’m curious to see what kind of crowd Jonathan will attract as a result of the gilt-edged invitation cards.
Initially, he envisioned a family drama about a typical insurance scam of which his father had been the true victim. A little tame, I said, and persuaded him we should add a couple of murders to spice up the story. He agreed, and said the characters must include his parents, two brothers, six ex-wives, four mistresses, and three daughters. I told him, No, far too many. I would take three wives, two mistresses, and two daughters, all the while struggling to explain to him that in the book they’d be fictional and would not resemble the real people. He stopped complaining when I asked which of his family he’d like to be the killer.
Occasionally, during the writing, my client threw a spanner into the works such as calling from Belize or Paris and asking me to add even more murders to the mix now he’d got into the swing of things. Luckily, he was pleased with the various twists and turns, especially when I included thugs from a Bel Air branch of the Russian Mafia (honestly, it really exists). I gave the murderer my great-grandfather’s revered Scottish name for some inexplicable reason, honored Keats by sprinkling quotes throughout, courtesy of the sleuth, and withheld adding Cornish cuss words but was sorely tempted. Instead, I saved them for a crime novel I published last year.
For my part, I enjoyed creating a series sleuth, a forensic accountant, on someone else’s generous dime, hoping to continue the collection (Jonathan never did ask me to write another book but he owns copyright so I can’t use the sleuth, of whom I had grown fond).
An inveterate traveler on both business and pleasure, Jonathan was absent a lot. In fact, most of the time. He told me to basically just carry on, and he’d read the book after it was finished. As it turned out, he preferred me to read it aloud to him, which I did, leading to an unexpected part-time career in voice-over and narration work.
Jonathan pronounced himself satisfied. But then he said his third daughter was going to be very upset that I’d left her out. He insisted on her inclusion. Fearing my final fee in jeopardy, I had her join the Peace Corps in Chapter One and whisked her off to Somalia, never to be heard from again.
However, when it came time to querying agents Jonathan refused to spend longer than two weeks on the search and quickly self-published with an expensive hardcover POD press. For which I was grateful, nevertheless. Saved an awful lot of work and having my client possibly suffer from the rejection syndrome, for which he’d understandably blame me.
Now, at Dutton’s (sadly, since closed) my client is having a grand old time chatting to the two hundred or so clients, colleagues and neighbors he’s invited to congratulate him. As his eyes keep darting to the door to see who is arriving I just know he’s hoping it’ll be a Hollywood producer, a director or an actor who’ll slap an option offer on the table within the next three days. He’s begun to like this author thing. I decide to phone a film producer friend and invite him over to put Jonathan out of his agony.
“Hi, Brandon, how about coming along to a book signing right now? It’s not far from your place”.
“Who’s the author?”
“Oh, no one you know”.
“So why would I come?”
“Well, I wrote it”.
“Why didn’t you say it’s your book signing?”
He snorts and hangs up.
Still undecided where to stand I continue to hover, ghostlike, all the while admitting to myself that Jonathan’s book looks very, very nice.
Like Tosca Trevant, the amateur sleuth in her crime series, Jill Amadio hails from St. Ives, Cornwall but is nowhere near as grumpy or unwittingly hilarious as her character. She is a true crime and thriller ghostwriter, and was a reporter in Spain, Thailand, Colombia and the United States. She writes a monthly column for the UK-based MysteryPeople ezine, and freelances for My Cornwall magazine. She is a member of Crime Writers Association (UK), Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the Authors Guild. She lives in Southern California where it hardly ever rains, much to Tosca Trevant’s annoyance