Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: Ghosting

Ghostwriting is a mysterious profession. It's something you really don't hear much about, for obvious reasons. When I do think about it I have a vaguely negative reaction, mostly against the person who allegedly wrote the book. Sort of like how I feel about cheating, but then I remind myself, writing doesn't come easily to all. Is it really so bad to hire someone to help you turn a better phrase?

I've read quite a few accounts of writers writing about writing, but never of a former ghostwriter coming clean and writing about ghostwriting.

Jennie Erdal gives a glimpse into this world in Ghosting, her memoir of writing for UK publishing icon Naim Attallah. Attallah, who she refers to only as "Tiger" in the book, is the eccentric, overshadowing presence in the book, as he is in her work life, for nearly two decades. In the book's first few pages she writes "the bird of paradise is already standing there in all his finery... His eyes sparkle like precious stones ... His voice is velvet and beguilingly accented..."

She paints a picture of a larger-than-life man who spent lavishly on clothes and furnishings (including a tiger skin for his office) and vacations to a retreat in France, and who took daily visits to the barber and dental hygienist. In one moment he's the most fun, generous person you've ever been around, with the ambition and energy to follow through with some humongous ideas, but in the next he's a "vainglorious dictator," a child obsessed with having things his own way.

It's an odd matchup with Erdal on the surface. The person tasked with writing in his voice comes across as mild, intellectual and pragmatic as she describes working on a slew of plum writing assignments -- a book of interviews with famous women, two novels, a weekly column for a major newspaper -- under the name of her famous boss.

She discusses her translation work and her role in interviews with celebrities with relish. But it is the novels that she anguishes over: "Can one write from another person's heart? I'm not sure it can be done ... It is of course possible to fake fiction, but it is difficult to see how it can be meaningful or eloquent." She proves successful at ghostwriting, earning good reviews (even for the novels) and a steady stream of work.

In the midst of her professional memoir, Erdal mixes in her own life recollections. These seem much quieter compared to the extravagance of her employer -- childhood elocution lessons, sneaking to a Catholic friend's Holy Communion rehearsal, the breakup of her first marriage. But there is an emotional honesty that shines through in these quiet scenes that show her skill as a writer. She gets at the heart of a divorce in an amazing way.

You have to wonder, why did she do it? Why did she give away all the glory and do something that is not quite on the up and up for that many years? "In the world in which I moved, there was a feeling that lying, pretending and dissembling were all just part of the repertoire," she explains. And "... I felt aggrieved at being exploited but I think I also enjoyed a sense of having become the power behind the throne; I had imagined myself immune from delusions of grandeur, but no -- a feeling of importance, the proximity to celebrity, my vital role in the construction of a rising scribbler -- these things gave me a vicarious kick."

Hmm, I can buy it. The way she describes it, it seems like a situation seems that could happen to anyone. I think most of us give away a part of ourselves in our work -- we don't get the recognition we deserve, we succumb to demands and do things that we wish we didn't have to.

But it is a shame that she didn't get the credit she deserved for her obvious talent, as displayed in a book that is entertaining, poignant and heartfelt.

No comments: