The death of Margaret Thatcher – which, admittedly, is a dull subject this far after the event, but bear with me – prompted an outpouring of comment from across the UK and the rest of the world, much of which contained the word ‘divisive’. That she attracted the devotion of many but the scorn of the rest now seems to be an official cornerstone of her legacy. Incredible that such a person – politician or otherwise – could garner such vivid shades of opinion and yet, who was the real Margaret Thatcher? I guess we will never know.
One of the difficulties of a ghostwriter’s job is remaining ‘true’ to the author he/she is writing on behalf of. When I say ‘true’ I mean capturing the spirit of the author’s voice and putting it on the page as a ‘true’ reflection of the kind of person authoring it. But what is ‘truth’? As we’ve seen with Maggie Thatcher, one person’s ‘truth’ about how they feel about her, and why she was good/bad for the UK, is entirely different to another’s. Getting to the truth of a person is at the heart of the ghostwriter’s skill, because a reader is very quick to detect when the truth is somehow hidden.
But as the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said: “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that play the devil.” This, I feel, is true, or if we remain loyal to the spirit of Whitehead, probably true. The ghosted book which appears to keep to what appear to be incontrovertible facts, with no room for reflection or comment is a dull book at best, and at worst, a paradoxically fictitious one too. As Whitehead said, whole truths play the devil.
How do I, as a ghostwriter, encourage the author to be truthful, and yet reflect on those truths to make sure they’re consistent with actual events. In short, it’s not easy. It’s extraordinary how unreliable our memories get as time goes on and we replay the same scene in a slightly different way each time. Even writing the most dramatic events, where the author’s memory appears to be crystal-clear, can very often lead to re-writes when the author reads it and realises that it didn’t quite happen that way after all.
This can be nightmarish for the ghostwriter, but I also think that most of us tacitly accept that how we tell a story cannot be 100 per cent accurate, and that time and the mind play tricks. My formula for getting to the truth, or possibly a half-truth, is to ask lots of questions and, more importantly, encourage the author to say what they think about what they’ve just recorded as fact. It’s interesting what a more rounded, thoughtful picture you get of an incident when you get someone to recount it from a slightly different perspective. Simply asking, ‘how did it look from where X, Y or Z was standing’ can elicit the most illuminating response, and get a far more interesting picture of events than a flat account. Of course, I don’t recommend it for every occasion; there isn’t a book in the world that could accommodate so much opinion. But during key dramatic scenes, it’s often vital to include a couple of points of view, at least. Giving the author space to think, and not being afraid of long, suspense-filled silences during the interview process, will get you you the ‘truth’ you’re seeking.