A Day in the Life of a Life Story Ghostwriter

by Teresa Stenson

November 2017

It’s 9 a.m. and I’m on the train, on my way to interview Susan. It will be our third interview of the four we’ve scheduled: four 90-minute sessions in which we talk about her life and experiences so I can write her autobiography. I’m used to working with people over a longer period of time (ten interviews is the norm) but Susan wants a short, succinct version of her life story. Her book will likely come in at around 15,000 words.

I use the time to look over my notes. I’m concerned that Susan hasn’t warmed to me, that something is a little off in our rapport. In some ways she’s very open: she tells me about painful moments from her past with ease; but she’s abrupt, swift, doesn’t stay there long. The problem is that I need her to stay in those moments a little longer. I need her to describe and then reflect so that I can write as if I am her – because that’s what she’s hired me to do.

Today we talk about Susan’s third and most successful marriage and she softens as she tells me about this happier, more relaxed part of her life. By the end of the interview we’ve reached the present day, and this is good because it means interview four can be all about reflection. Knowing this isn’t Susan’s strong suit I prepare her. I tell her that the writing I’ve done so far feels a little stilted, and I know from the way she’s looking at me that she’s thinking something like: Well, writing well is your responsibility – that’s what I’m paying you to do.

I falter a little. She’s right. In a way.

But I can’t write what isn’t there. I don’t want to put my spin on her words. I need to know how certain events have affected other parts of her life, where the connections are, where her hopes, fears, regrets and joys are. I tell her I’ll lead the way, I’ll prepare questions that will draw out the details, and these details will add colour and layers to her story.

We take out our diaries and schedule interview four, making it three weeks away. This gives me enough time to finish a draft of the book and Susan enough time to read it. I’ll also send her some reflective questions so she can prepare her answers, and though I don’t tell her this – I’ll have some questions ready that she won’t have seen. Spontaneity might help.

I leave and make my way home, ready to spend the afternoon with Edward – well, with Edward’s voice.

The process of writing Edward’s book is a little different because I’m just the hired writer on this one – there is a separate interviewer, editor and project manager (all roles I take on when I’m working for myself, as I am with Susan). In cases like this I never meet the person I’m writing as; I simply receive the audio file of each interview and write the book in stages. It’s ghostwriting in an extreme form: I am unknown even to the author. The only contact I have is through the interviewer, who takes the questions I’ve emailed (there are always lots of questions) and reads them out at the start of each interview. My name is rarely mentioned: “The ghostwriter would like to know how old you were when you fell out of the tree?”

Edward is 93 years young. He has lived a full and varied life, and is a wonderful storyteller. It’s so easy to capture his voice. What’s trickier is how he jumps along the timeline of his life, taking leaps from his twenties to his eighties and back again – and he’s certainly jumping today. But that’s the nature of how people tell their life stories, it’s never linear, and I’d never expect it to be. When he can, the interviewer does a great job of anchoring Edward. The golden question is always, “So, how old were you when this happened?” This enables me to know where in the book to place a particular story.

When Edward’s book is almost finished I’ll get to see the photographs that will accompany my words.·This is always an exciting moment in the ghostwriting process, particularly when I haven’t met the person I’m writing as. I’ve spent months building up a picture not just of them, but also of their partner, their children, their home, their holidays. I scan through the faces quickly – guessing who’s who, then I go through more slowly – match a photo to a person, a story or place in time: This must have been taken just after John was born. Is that the garden where Grace got married? Ah – so that’s the Christmas scarf!

Today’s interview with Edward is number nine out of ten so technically there’s only one more after this, but I have a feeling Edward has more material in him. I also have a feeling that he’s enjoying the process of writing his memoirs far too much – he often says the phrase on the recordings: “Oh yes, I told June about how I’m writing my memoirs…” I predict he’ll book a few more interviews.

Though I’ve never done it before, and though it is probably against protocol, there is a chance that when the book has been written I’ll ask the interviewer to pass a note from me on to Edward. I’ve heard so many stories of the people and connections he’s made through his life that I have a feeling he’ll appreciate it, and like me, he’ll get a kick out of our unusual connection.

It’s a curious thing – to listen to a person recount their life in great detail and never meet them or see them in the flesh. Inevitably I feel that I know them, and yet they know nothing about me: they could pass me in the street and have no idea I’ve spent dozens of hours listening and re-listening as they recount the terrible lows and wonderful highs of their life. I think about the reach of the books I write, how they will become family heirlooms and be held onto – perhaps – for hundreds of years. The books will certainly outlive their authors – both the credited ones, and the ghosts.

Teresa StensonComment