“Writing will always take you places,” as no-one in particular said, and it is true. Even if you don’t leave your spare room for 18 months, whatever you write within those four walls will send you forth on a journey across cities, oceans, deserts, and even time itself. Alternatively, you might simply end up in another confined space, like Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’, but at least you’ve shifted somewhere.
Ghostwriting often involves two – and perhaps three – journeys during the course of a book. First, there is the journey you take with the author’s story, the one in which you find the author’s voice and imagine the world through his or her eyes. There is you own journey too; because no matter what anyone says, the ghost’s own style and voice invariably creep into the narrative, flavouring it with personal literary likes and dislikes. Finally, there are the physical journeys the ghost takes: the hours spent on motorways, in trains and on buses travelling to meet authors, agents and publishers. Every journey is food for thought; thoughts filled with anticipation, excitement and the fear of the unknown. I’ve taken many memorable journeys during my time ghosting books and at the end of each one I always ask myself the same question, the kind that was asked of domestic travellers in the petrol-rationed days of World War Two – ‘Was your journey really worth it?’
Happily, quite often the answer is a resounding ‘yes’, despite the trials and tribulations of the journey itself. A book deal, a pat on the back from a publisher pleased with the final manuscript or the end of a pleasant book launch are always pleasant conclusions to the effort made, though there has been more than a fair share of disappointments this year, too. Still, with the sun out and holidays looming there is time for reflection and a chance to renew energy and resolve.
Just recently I’ve undertaken one of those satisfying journeys, albeit that it concluded in the dining room of a Bristol nursing home – hardly the sort of woody literary agent’s office or airy, open-plan publisher’s office that is run-of-the-mill for me. I’m working with a retired Free Church minister who, at 94, has decided to write his first book. This project started in 2007 when his beloved wife died, and he was given an enormous amount of help collating the info needed from a friend. However, the years since 2007 haven’t been entirely kind to the Reverend’s memory and when I met him a couple of months ago it was obvious we would need to structure an intensive and painstaking interview process to plug the many gaps in the narrative. Luckily, he has no hesitation answering questions and giving very full accounts of events he can remember. Unluckily, he tends to repeat these stories over and over again, asking me if I’ve heard them before. Nevertheless, with patience and understanding we have now managed to do what we set out to do and I have many megabytes’ worth of recorded material ready to be pressed into service.
To celebrate, the Rev took me to a local nursing home where he occasionally lunches (“though never alone. Oh no. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I lived here…”) 30-degree heat we had soup followed by quiche lorraine, mash, carrots and gravy. The Rev apologised for eating more slowly than he used to, so I apologised for bolting my food. I asked him if he watched much television or listened to the radio.
“I’ll answer that in a minute,” he replied, gnawing his way through a chicken leg, and indeed it was more or less a minute before he lifted up his head again.
“Well, I’ll tell you now,” he said. “I’m afraid I’m not keen on sport, so we can’t talk much about that.” No problem to me; I can’t think of anything more boring than watching sport on telly.
“However,” he continued, “there is something I do like to watch. Every morning, at 9.30, I switch on my TV set and I watch The Jeremy Kyle Show. Now, what do you think of that?”
The Rev chuckled, and popped a carrot into his mouth.
“What do you think of it?” I replied hesitantly. It was hard to imagine the gaggle of angry, hard-bitten young men and women parading their issues for all to see in any way impressing the Rev. But this is a man who has shown compassion all his adult life, perhaps in compensation for the terrible lack of compassion shown to him as a child.
“Well,” he said, “it’s very interesting. It gives me great insight into people today. If I were still preaching I would be talking about the Jeremy Kyle Show. The problems it raises are fascinating, just fascinating.”
The Rev went back to the remainder of his carrots and I looked around the room. It wasn’t the most uplifting sight, yet it gave me a spark of insight into the man I’d just spent four days with in a faded 1930s house. No matter his age, or his failing memory, here was a human determined to engage with the world and, more importantly, determined not to judge and to see good in all situations. Now I saw how he inspired congregations right around the world, from the US to China and Australia to Great Britain, how he charmed an American woman to be his wife and come to live with him in post-war Rotherham. How he was instrumental in setting up a local branch of the Samaritans and no doubt saved hundreds of lives, albeit anonymously and at the end of a phone. And so, by one flash of insight, he had charmed me too. I’m looking forward to ghosting the Rev’s book. I just hope his once-wonderful memory sticks around just a little longer for him to be proud of what we will achieve.