Ghosts Are Real, At Least In Publishing

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A few days after an article about cookbook ghostwriters ran in the New York Times Dining section, Gwyneth Paltrow took to Twitter to deny that she’d had a ghostwriter for hers, My Father’s Daughter: Delicious Easy Recipes Celebrating Family & Togetherness. The article’s author, Julia Moskin, identified Julia Turshen as Paltrow’s ghost not only for that book, but for a second forthcoming title that will bear only Paltrow’s name on the cover, and she quotes Turshen in the article about her work on the actress’s books.

A week later, Paltrow appeared on the Rachael Ray show via Skype, still insisting she had no help. Ray has similarly refuted Moskin’s Times article. She told Eater.com: “In well over a decade of writing recipes for many cookbooks, television shows, and magazines, I have not now nor have I ever employed a ghostwriter. I simply don’t use them.”

I wasn’t there when Paltrow and Ray did or didn’t write their cookbooks, but as a ghostwriter myself, who has dealt with a client denial, I have a hunch about what happened at least in the case of Paltrow, for which there is more information to sift through.

The way Turshen is quoted in the article, the detail with which she is introduced, the fact that on her website Turshen lists the book as something she’s worked on, and that she wrote an essay about working with Paltrow on her cookbook for Food & Wine magazine all give me the impression that Julia Moskin got it right, or pretty close to right, and that  Paltrow’s denial is rooted in problems of semantics and misundersanding. I sense  Paltrow believes that because the stories and recipes in the book were hers, even if  Turshen did the editorial heavy lifting, she didn’t serve exactly as a ghost, and therefore Paltrow should be credited alone.

“Ghostwriter” is a problematic word. It gives people the idea that we have some kind of other worldly power; that we’re able to hover over clients somewhere in the ether and read their minds, then write their books using only our own words. But it’s nothing like that, at least not for me. That’s where misunderstandings arise.

In her denial, Paltrow tweeted, “I wrote every word myself.” The thing is, even if she did write every single word that made it into the book, it doesn’t mean she didn’t have the help of a ghostwriter or co-author whatever you want to call us.

In my work I never simply interview a person and then write their book using a whole different collection of words than they did. Typically, I use many of the same words that came out of their mouths, although likely in a different order, and surrounded by other words. I also move whole pieces of their narratives around for purposes of better storytelling. I remove boring expository chunks, and try to draw more interesting anecdotes from my clients to replace those – anecdotes they wouldn’t have thought to include until I prompted them; anecdotes I still have to seriously rework and bring to life.

Another way I work is to get clients to “free-write” bits for me, without concerning themselves with spelling, grammar, sentence structure, or “sounding good.” I have them do this because sometimes people are inclined to reveal more when they are in a room by themselves, writing privately, than when they are sitting and talking with some ghostwriter their agent or editor hired, whom they’ve just met. I find some clients also tend to remember and capture more details when they write things down and email them to me.

After I receive and rework the pieces they’ve written for me, I incorporate them with what came out of the transcriptions of our interviews. That synthesis is really hard work. Even if I were to use only words clients spoke and emailed to me, which is never the case, it would still take a lot of work to put those together in a way that yielded a book that’s readable and interesting. It’s a skill most ghostwriting clients – even the ones who can write beautiful letters and witty blog posts – don’t have and rely on us for. Maybe don’t realize falls under the heading of “ghostwriting.” Which is to say, even though the stories are not our own, and many of the words come from our clients, we still do a great deal of work transforming those stories and words into books.

This is where a client might get confused. In her mind, if she’s providing the stories, and I’m asking her to write, I’m somehow cheating or shirking my responsibilities, and she is no longer officially using me as a ghostwriter. Never mind that I’m neck deep in her manuscript, and I will be the one to piece it together, rearranging everything many times, creating transitions, finessing the order and wording again and again before turning it in. Even with chunks penned by the client, it’s still the same job for me. Actually, it can be an even harder job, especially when the client gets attached to problematic sentences she’s crafted and resists having them reworked, or insists on retaining sections that don’t move the story along.

So maybe Paltrow uttered or typed every one of the words in her cookbook. But I strongly doubt she strung them all together as they stand in the book without a great deal of Turshen’s hard work. Maybe “ghostwriting” is the wrong name for Turshen’s role. Maybe it’s the wrong label for this work, altogether, although I’m at a loss for a replacement that accurately describes taking raw verbal matter and transforming it first into rough jigsaw pieces, then smoothing and arranging those into a patchwork, and finally weaving it all into a seamless tapestry.

At the very least, it seems to me the book was a collaboration between Turshen and Paltrow. But it’s probably stipulated in Turshen’s contract that she can’t claim to have worked on it. That’s pretty standard – what ghostwriting is about – even though many people know that most celebrity books are not written by the celebrities themselves. That’s probably what Turshen assumed when she agreed to give Moskin an interview.

I hope Turshen is not penalized financially or otherwise for this potential breech of contract. It’s lousy enough having Gwyneth publicly deny her work on the book. I know that feeling. It’s happened to me.

No one goes into ghostwriting for the acclaim. You do it because it’s a flexible job, it pays at least decently (sometimes well), and because it can actually be gratifying to help someone who’s not really a writer tell his moving story. For the most part, I am happy to stay behind the scenes. While some writers accept a “with” credit on the cover, I never put my name on anyone else’s book.

I tend to think of myself more as a “memoir midwife,” as one client called me. Sometimes it feels akin to what I imagine being a surrogate mother is like.

The point is, in the end, I am ultimately delivering someone else’s story, not my own creation. And so I don’t think it makes sense to put my name on it.

Instead, it’s often written in my contract that I must receive the first acknowledgement, and that it must be worded in such a way that people in publishing will easily decipher what my role was. The acknowledgement usually reads something like, “I’d like to thank Sari Botton for helping me find the words.”

(Turshen’s acknowledgement in Paltrow’s book is more oblique about her editorial contributions: “I literally could not have written this book without the tireless, artful assistance of Julia Turshen. She quantified, tested, and retested every recipe, oversaw the production of the photos, helped brainstorm in a crisis, and, above all, was my intellectual and emotional support through the whole process.”)

Going otherwise unnamed is fine with me. It’s inherently not my ghostwriting clients’ job to publicize the work I did for them. By the same token, it’s not okay for an author to go to such lengths to vehemently deny having had help that she disparages her ghostwriter in the process.

One client of mine falsely insisted in interviews that she’d fired her ghostwriter after she’d found the first chapter to be unsatisfactory. She claimed she then wrote the book all by herself in five weeks.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. I labored hard on that one, especially since we were “crashing it out” in just ten weeks, including the interviewing time.

I was advised to send that author a legal cease-and-desist letter to get her to stop “publicly retracting the acknowledgement stipulated in my contract.” Later, when I got some distance from the incident, I realized her denial was consistent with others she’d made about having help in her life, from the first time I interviewed her.

We talked in her living room that day about, among other things, why she couldn’t imagine putting her son on a special diet. “Tonight, I’m making spaghetti for the whole family,” she said. “I can’t imagine what he’d do if he couldn’t have any of it.”

When we wrapped up interviewing at about 6 pm, we walked into her kitchen. There, in front of the stove, was a woman in an apron, already making spaghetti. “Oh my god,” I thought, “my client thinks she’s making spaghetti even though her hired help is clearly doing it.”

I get it now. She doesn’t like to admit to accepting help with things. No one does. Celebrities – especially those who went to fancy prep schools in Manhattan, as Paltrow did – perceive a stigma associated with needing a ghostwriter, even though they might not have experience writing books. Besides, what’s the point of having a secret ghostwriter if you have to talk about it publicly?

When I read my client’s false claim that I’d been fired, I cried. And then I thought about all the babysitters and nannies that in the book she denied having, as well. I figured they were all having a good cry, too.

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Photos by Brian Macaluso


Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →