I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and turn it around again...
― Philip Roth, "The Ghost Writer"
Late last night, as the snow began to fall in upstate New York, and I was about to retire for the night, Libby informed me that Prince Harry's memoir, Spare, was off hold and ready to be borrowed. That was fast, I thought, the publisher must have a released a lot of library e-book copies. No surprise as it was the fastest selling nonfiction book of all time on the day of its' release--across all platforms: hardback, e-book, and audiobook.
I lived in London for a decade and confess that the royals either fascinate, disturb or bore me. I knew I'd read or skim Harry's memoir—we all call him Harry now—but would not buy it. And it's good bedtime reading, not too demanding, and written in a breezy style by Harry's ghostwriter, JR Moehringer, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist (feature writing, LA Times), ghost of Andre Agassi's memoir, and author of his own memoir, The Tender Bar, now a movie with George Clooney, a friend of Prince Harry's. Clooney introduced Harry to his "literary midwife."
Celebrity literary midwifery is a particularly lucrative occupation. But the ghost has to agree to terms in a contract: Will their name be on the cover, in the acknowledgments (the first sentence), or absent entirely, and though it's disappointing to readers, at times, to discover a book has been ghosted by either one person or a team of persons --Michelle Obama's books for example-- a skillful ghostwriter captures the voice of the "writer" with ease. Still, it's best not to judge a ghosted memoir on its literary merits, though some are written better than others.
My own experience as a ghost writer goes back a ways. At first, it was just articles for Woman's World magazine, still extant, it's a German-owned tabloid, that specializes in "as-told-to" stories by women. The women related their stories to me and I then wrote them in the first person, as though I was the person, a slightly creepy sensation. My byline appeared after the words "as told to." I did quite a few of those stories and enjoyed meeting not-so-privileged women with heart-breaking and/or life-affirming stories. I had never written for a tabloid before and the women I met opened my eyes to a different, forgotten America, the America Trump galvanized in 2016.
Then, one day, I was called into a meeting with my agent, an editor at Doubleday, and Bob Keeshan's agent. Keeshan had created a character for children's television called Captain Kangaroo, and his program was losing ratings to Sesame Street. He wanted to stay in the game so his agent suggested he write his memoir. He didn't want to do it, so they decided to hire a ghost. I was the third writer they had approached, and the only woman. Keeshan liked women; he was gallant in an old-fashioned way, which amused me. We were comfortable with each other, and I got the job.
I thought it would be a breeze to work with him, but like so many celebs who are forced to write their memoirs for career reasons, he resisted. He didn't really want to tell his life story, or not just yet. I remember stomping into his office one day and saying, "If you don't start telling me about your childhood and how you are raising your disabled son, this book will be remaindered in Barnes & Noble in a week."
He laughed and made a weird comment about what I was wearing, which made me laugh. Patience and a sense of humor are essential in this business, I thought to myself. I'm here to serve him, get the book written. He was deflecting, obviously, changing the subject. How did I find out about his son? "I'm a journalist," I reminded him. Still, it was a no-go, off limits, like the rest of his family.
Spare me the frustration of this process ever again on behalf of a celebrity, or mini-celebrity, or a celebrity who is aging out and wants to stay in the game and is eager to preserve and/or enhance his reputation, or is forced by failing ratings to write a book.
Most of Keeshan's staff had been stolen by Children's Television Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street, and when I interviewed them, they did not hold back their opinions or resentments about old-fashioned Bob Keeshan, or their delight at working with puppets who could talk about their emotions, recite the alphabet, and count!
Most painful for me was to provide transcripts, or reports, of all my interviews with every person who had ever worked for Bob Keeshan. He had a contractual right to hear all of it, and he wasn't happy, of course not; he was hurt. About half-way through that difficult year, he lost heart in the book, so much so that I had to pad it with scripts from a radio series he had done, as well as numerous testimonies he'd given to Congress –on racism in cartoons, among other subjects. He was a good guy, I kept telling myself, as I sat down to write a draft. I wrote the best book I could write, in the circumstances, and it even went into paperback, but was remaindered soon after.