Working as a ghostwriter is not something you plan for; it is something you stumble into. In my case, it began when an old friend, a political activist who had long spoken about wanting my help in putting a book together, called to say he had found a private source of funding for it. Was I interested in writing it?
It was a subject I had some a background in so I was able to rough out an outline in a couple of weeks. We got together every couple of months for two-day work sessions and within a year we had a manuscript and a publisher. While I was wrapping up that project, another friend recommended me to someone else who had a story they wanted told, and some funding for it.
This time the world I would be writing about was one I was unfamiliar with, but I liked the subject of the book and I decided to give it a shot. It was during this project that I began to understand what a privilege it can be to tell someone else’s story. I had written biography before, but this was a strange hybrid: a first-person biography. In a very real sense, you become the person you are writing for, internalizing their thoughts and feelings as you use all of the tools at your disposal to tell their story as if was your own.
“I began to understand what a privilege it can be to tell someone else’s story.”
Part of the job is also putting the subject and their life in a larger context. This means researching time and place and weaving their narrative into the world they inhabit. In this, you can allow yourself a measure of literary freedom, secure in the knowledge that the character whose life you are temporarily inhabiting will get a chance to look over your shoulder and make whatever corrections are necessary.
In this case, the book was for someone who had a brief media fame but for the most part lived under the radar. And it was an admirable life. A man with principles and convictions and an unwavering sense of solidarity, moving through a world that was often unwelcoming and at times outright hostile. But he stood his ground and pushed forward and through the force of character made a success of things. That is how the story played out. An honest man confronting his times without compromising his principles. I was pleased that the first publisher I approached picked it up. The experience confirmed to me the truth of the cliché that everyone has a book in them—at least in the sense that all of our stories are worth telling. And for a writer, telling those stories can be as rewarding as any other literary form.
“The experience confirmed to me the truth of the cliché that everyone has a book in them—at least in the sense that all of our stories are worth telling.”
About ghosting in particular, I learned that even what was supposed to be a negative turned out to be a positive. I am speaking about the fact that your work goes unrecognized by the larger public. This might have mattered when I was twenty-five but now that I am over sixty it is a hidden benefit, as I discovered at the launch of my activist friend’s book. It was a relatively big event, with about 200 people packing a hall in Toronto for an on-stage interview. I sat near the back and it was one of the most pleasant literary events I ever attended. I had dinner with my friend before the event and we went out later with others to celebrate. The next day, my friend left for a long but low-budget book tour. I returned to my home in the Laurentians, realizing that I had the best of both worlds: the satisfaction of having written a decent book that was off to find its public and freedom from the obligations that accompany book publishing.
So when the publisher of the recently completed book asked if I would like him to add my name on the cover, I unhesitatingly declined. When the work is finished, better to be free to move on to the next project while someone else has the chore of flogging it. Ghostwriting a book, I discovered, can be a bit like ghosting a party. When you have had your fill, and your fun, you can slip away without stopping for those awkward good-byes.
Peter McFarlane has written five books of nonfiction, including two ghostwritten books, as well as more than 100 newspaper and magazine features. He has specialized in Indigenous history and politics and has worked on several CBC radio programmes as a researcher and on-air contributor. He is currently completing another ghostwritten book and a new work of non-fiction.