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The Masquerade

As a ghostwriter, I became an apparition of my former self


By Bill Marvel. Photo by Danny Fulgencio.

 

I’ll begin with a confession.

When I was a cocky young journalist, overly impressed with myself for earning my living writing for a daily newspaper, I seldom thought about ghostwriting. If I bothered to think of it at all, I didn’t think of it as writing. I put it in the same dark corner of my mind as public relations. Not prostitution exactly, but not quite honest, either. Ghostwriting was a kind of striptease: When you read a “ghosted” book, what you saw was not what you got. You didn’t get the writer’s own thoughts or ideas or even his or her own words. You got somebody else masquerading as a writer, and the writer masquerading as somebody else. Ghosting was the kind of writing that sad, desperate old hacks did when they could no longer cut it as real writers.

Little better was the “as told to” book. You still weren’t getting the story straight from the author’s mouth. You were getting the story through the author’s mouth. “As told to” was a form of ventriloquism, I thought. And who wants to be someone’s dummy?

I carried these notions around for most of my writing career. Then I got a chance to ghostwrite a book, and I took it. How did this happen? Did I sell out? Was I a fallen writer, or only a writer who had lost his balance?

I was already working on a book of my own in a cubbyhole the Dallas Public Library provides for real writers who have a contract or a legitimate project under way. In the next cubbyhole sat Craig Hanley, who was writing William and Rosalie, the narrative of a Jewish couple’s Holocaust experiences. Craig’s book, as fine an “as told to” as was ever written, won the 2005 Mayborn prize for best book manuscript and was the first book in The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Series, published by the University of North Texas Press. (Aspiring authors take note.)

Working side by side, Craig and I soon became friends. We talked writing, tried out phrases, sentences, then whole paragraphs on one another. We ended up reading each other’s manuscripts, offering what I like to think were helpful suggestions. I know that Craig’s were more than helpful. I learned a lot about writing nonfiction from Craig Hanley during our days in the library. More that that, I got a lesson on the craft and the ethics — Craig would have called it the morality  — of ghostwriting.

In a roundabout way because of the success of William and Rosalie, Craig was offered an opportunity to ghostwrite the story of R. V. Burgin, a U.S. Marine from Texas who had fought his way across the Pacific during World War II. Bits and pieces of Burgin’s story had appeared in other books about the war. And a considerable chunk of it was being filmed for “The Pacific,” an HBO series co-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, the team that had put together the great “Band of Brothers” mini-series several seasons before. (“The Pacific” aired this spring, to great acclaim.)

Even though the production team had interviewed Burgin at great length, flown him and his wife to Los Angeles several times, and hired a well-known actor to play him in the series, Burgin felt that his full story had never been told. His wife and four daughters had been nagging him for years to get it down. Then he had heart surgery and realized, he says, “I’m not getting any younger.”

He went looking for a writer. Those he knew from “The Pacific” and from other World War II narratives were tied up in other projects. But one of them knew somebody who knew somebody who remembered William and Rosalie and knew Craig Hanley.

Sometimes this is how books get done.

Craig met Burgin and was deeply impressed, and Craig is not easily impressed. He decided to take on ghosting Burgin’s story, but other events intervened. His mother had moved to Montana and was getting along in years and would need his help. And he was just beginning to hear another call, one even more insistent than writing. (Craig is now in his third year of studies preparing for the Catholic priesthood.)

He asked me if I would be willing to meet Burgin. I was a little reluctant; I had a book contract of my own and magazine work to pursue. But we drove down to Lancaster, Texas, one morning and Craig introduced me, and I too was deeply impressed.

At 87, Burgin still looked every inch the Marine: Tall and straight as a rifle barrel and almost as thin, with large, competent hands and a firm grip, and eyes that gave you the feeling that he could see straight through you if he chose. His memories of the war were as clear, a remarkable thing in itself. He was, I sensed, the kind of man who would tell his story straight, not talking around the unpleasant parts, not holding anything back.

“One thing I want to make sure,” he told me on that first day. “That you’ll write the story straight, you won’t put any fiction into it or sensationalize it.”

I agreed to help him write his book.

George Getschow, the writer-in-residence for the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, speaks of the “mating dance” that a writer and a potential subject go through as they size each other up, learn to trust one another, establish the ground rules spoken and unspoken that will govern their relationship. This dance, this courtship, is the necessary precondition for any successful ghostwriting project. If you do not trust your subject to tell the truth, if he or she does not trust you to tell it right, the project is poisoned at its source. If certain things are going to be held back, you, the writer, need to know in advance what and for what reasons. You need to feel confident that holding them back will not compromise the integrity of the story. And your subject needs assurance that the story is in safe hands, that you will neither butcher nor distort. That what comes out will do honor to both of you as well as to the reader.

Burgin and I quickly developed a working routine. Once a week I would drive down to Lancaster and sit at Burgin’s kitchen table, a digital recorder resting on the oilcloth between us. Over cups of strong coffee, we would talk of his life growing up on a small south-central Texas farm that had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing; his adventures after high school traveling with a crew selling personalized stationery; his enlistment in the Marines, boot camp, and everything that came after. The recorder caught every word, along with the bubbling coffeepot, the meow of the Burgin cat, the ticking clock on the wall, and, eerily, the sudden crash of a thunderstorm just as Burgin was describing a vicious artillery attack on Okinawa.

Most importantly, it caught Burgin’s voice in all its Texas richness, his manner of speaking, the cadence of his sentences. As I’ll soon explain, when it came time to write, this made all the difference in the world.

My son set up my MacBook so I could download the interviews as sound files. For the two days after each of those weekly meetings with Burgin, I would transcribe the interview, word for word, including all pauses, false starts, unfinished sentences.

After a newspaper career in which I never used a recorder, I now urge all young writers to get one and use it, especially for book-length projects. The human memory is fallible, the human ear not to be trusted. You never really know what’s in an interview until you play it back. Things said that I forgot or might have overlooked had I only been taking notes turned out to be crucial once it came time to write. Often, on replay, it was as though I was hearing Burgin for the first time.

Every writer knows transcribing interviews is a burden. Getting them word for word is agony itself, hitting the playback command over and over, cupping your hands over the earphones to make sure you got it right. Did the officer on Pavuvu who interviewed Burgin for OCS really ask if he played “crap,” or was it “craps?”

The week following each interview, I would give Burgin a copy of the transcript. Over the next few days he would read it, often with his wife Florence reading behind him. At our next meeting, he would hand it back with comments, corrections and often, additional information.

My original thought in undertaking this project had been, This should be easy. I’ll edit the interviews, touch them up a bit, smooth them out with a transition every now and then. And we’ll have a book. Then we’ll find a publisher. And so I wrote the first chapter, the obligatory growing-up-on-the-farm chapter — It took me about three days  — and gave it to Burgin.

Two nights later, he phoned. He and Florence had read what I had written. It was okay, he said. But not what they had in mind. What they had in mind was something that sounded less like an interview and more like a book.

It took me several weeks to grasp what he meant, and then almost a month to get what he wanted on paper. What he had not wanted, he said, was “fancy writing.” But he did want writing, not just transcription. He wanted his book to have a voice.

We agreed that the book should be written in the first person singular. That is, the pronoun “I” would be narrating Burgin’s story. But what kind of voice would “I” have as Burgin?

In preparation I had been reading combat narratives. Some filled in missing information, some provided perspective on the war in the Pacific. All enlarged my sense of what such a narrative might be. And, unexpectedly, one suggested a framework. Homer’s “Odyssey” gave me a narrative arc and showed me what Burgin’s story was all about: This would be the tale of a fighting man who wants only to fight with honor, finish the job and go home to an ordinary life, to a wife and family.

Yet nothing I read helped me find the voice I was groping for.

It had to be Burgin’s, unmistakably. Not as recorded, with my interruptions and all the attendant hesitations, false starts, and backtracking. Very few interviews can be used exactly as a recorded. And this had to be the voice of a storyteller, distinctive and aware of his audience, creating suspense, varying the story’s rhythm, funny when it needed to be, grim when grimness was called for.

That voice would have to be constructed in the same way a novelist constructs the voice of his narrator, or of a major character. For hours I listened to those interviews, absorbing Burgin’s soft Texas accent, the ways he phrased things, the length of his sentences, his characteristic images, until I began to hear his voice in my writer’s ear. It may even have furnished the soundtrack for a dream or two.

Then I sat down and started writing, and everything started falling into place. The cadences and rhythms just came. When I had finished the first chapter, I gave it to Burgin and his wife. They read it and liked it. We were on our way.

Learning to write Burgin’s story from inside Burgin was, in terms of the craft, the most demanding writing I’ve ever done in 50 years of journalism. And it absolutely overturned my notions about ghostwriting.

Ghosting is, first of all, writing. It is not different, finally, from good journalism of any kind, especially narrative journalism. Most of what we writers do, perhaps all of what we do, is telling other people’s stories. If we are to be true to those stories, we have to see them from the point of view of those who lived them, from the inside. Even if we are writing the most dispassionate, third-person, “objective,” account — perhaps especially if we are writing this kind of account — we must start with an understanding of what our subject is telling us, what our subject wants to tell us and why, of where he or she is coming from. We start with listening.

But listening is only the start, and I think this is what separates reporters from writers. For reporters, it is enough to listen carefully and transcribe accurately what has been said. The writer has to do more. He or she has to construct out of the raw material of language a voice that is true to the subject of the story. The reader has to have the sense that the subject is speaking directly, with a voice that moves right from the page to the ear, and to the mind.

Because this voice has to be constructed, we writers of nonfiction have to go about our work like novelists, using all the novelist’s artifices and tricks of the trade. It means paying attention to the way people speak, selecting what will be told and when, consciously varying the rhythm of a story, so that it sounds like a story and not like a sound bite or a long quote.

Is this journalism? Possibly not, some might argue. Certainly not in the traditional sense. The proper role of the journalist, it might be argued, would be to just transcribe the recorded interview, edit a snippet or two, provide context and insert them into the story or on the air. The snippets would contain only the most significant things said during the interview, justifying the news space or airtime.

Can we call it narrative nonfiction, then? Only if we put the emphasis on the non.

Here is a test I came to rely on: As I finished each chapter, I submitted it to Burgin. He read it, often re-read it, passed it to his wife, who also read it. Always my question to him was, Do we have this right? Is this what you want to say? Is this true to what happened? Whenever he felt it was not, he corrected what had been written. Often we went over passages word by word. When the book had been edited, we went over it again. In the end, I wanted Burgin to be able to say, Yes, that is my story in my voice.

In the meantime, reading on my own, I was checking Burgin’s memories against other accounts. When there was a discrepancy, I raised a question. Often this led Burgin back to the bulging manila envelopes that contain his service records. Sometimes it led him to make a phone call to an old Marine buddy. A few times we changed what had been written. But only a few times. As I said, Burgin’s memory is remarkably sharp. And as he told me in the beginning, there was to be no fiction, no fantasy or sensationalism in his book.

Ghostwriting does not mean that the writer is not there. It means the writer is invisible, as he should be in most good writing. Craig Hanley, who had brought me together with Burgin and in so many ways was responsible for turning me into a ghost, e-mailed me some advice a few months ago. “The only thoughts I have on ghostwriting,” he wrote, “is to get out of the story’s way.”

When he was at Harvard, Craig studied Asian literature and languages, so he had a ready aphorism at hand. Basho, the 17th century Japanese master of the haiku, admonished his followers that the best writing is “like the clear water in a stream that subtly magnifies and accentuates the rocks on the bottom.”

“Great ideal for a hired-gun narrator,” Craig added. “Good training, too, I think. If more writers tried to write other people’s stories instead of their own, there’d be lots more decent books.”

All writers should be “ghosts” — invisible, or at least transparent. The reader looks through us to something else, the story we tell.

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As a ghostwriter, I became an apparition of my former self
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