What do writers do when they can’t write? It’s an exasperating question, since some write anyway – even in risky ways.
The risky activities of one strike-bound writer deserve note because he’s a “ghost” who is breaking a prime rule of his “ghosting” fraternity: He’s openly talking about the secrets of his trade.
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Ghostwriting can be both rewarding and punishing. Ghosted books are not specifically outlawed by guilds during times of discord, but ghosts know that much of what they write has another problem: It is factually false. Or at least distorted.
All this is colorfully acknowledged by J.R. Moehringer, who is a serial ghost. His newest effort, Spare, about Prince Harry — it was written before the writers strike — adorns the bestseller list amid passionately challenging reviews.
Far from hiding from the controversy, Moehringer has written an article for The New Yorker describing his fights with his subject and his doubts overall about his “hacky, shady and faddish” profession.
I have known many “hacky” ghosts over the years, including those first tempted into the craft because of strikes. I personally have been offered ghosting jobs: One famous film subject declared up front that he intended to tell me a stream of lies that he hoped I would eloquently immortalize. I demurred.
Moehringer admits that some of the information in his memoirs has been challenged, except for one he wrote about himself. Titled A Tender Bar, it was turned into a small, touching movie starring Ben Affleck and directed by George Clooney (watch the trailer here).
Affleck played a hard-drinking character who doesn’t exist in the memoir. And Clooney treated Moehringer as if he were an actual ghost – he never even offered to meet him.
Moehringer’s work has won wide praise several times, as with Open, Andre Agassi’s memoir (which Moehringer wrote). Some ghosts like Michelle Burford or Daniel Paisner have ghosted scores of books, but, unlike Moehringer, most members of the fraternity never write or even talk about the process.
Memoirs and autobiographies, of course, often claim to be self-written. Some become jokes, to be sure, because “their ‘authors’ may have the bricks but could never erect a building,” as Burford explains.
Some show business “memoirs” became instantly famous because of their preposterous exaggerations and inventions. Producer Jerry Weintraub’s, for instance, is titled When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead. It lived up to its title.
In Spare, which earned Moehringer a cool million-dollar advance (and perhaps $20 million for its subject), Moehringer was careful to warn the prince up front that “this is not the story of your life; it’s a story carved from a particular series of events chosen because they have the greatest resonance for the widest range of people.”
Harry balked at some of his ghost’s approaches; he, too, had his angry outbursts with Harry. “For the thousandth time in my ghostwriting career, I had to remind myself, ‘This not your effing book And it’s not about your mother’ but someone else’s,” the ghost explains.
Moehringer is sensitive about his reviews, to be sure. He especially resents the review written by a fellow ghostwriter who described Harry as “off his royal tits” and criticizes Moehringer for being too literary — “all Sartre or all Faulkner.”
Does a ghost end up liking his subject? Prince Harry (the Duke of Sussex) is in litigation with three London tabloids. He also had a recent confrontation with photographers in New York. Last week he lost a legal battle in London over his request to pay for his own police protection in Britain.
Despite occasional arguments over the book, Moehringer insists that its publication ended with hugs and with special thanks to Meghan Markle for giving toys to her ghost’s children.
Their final understanding, of course, was an agreement that “ghosts don’t speak. To which the ghost added, “Well, maybe they can; maybe sometimes they should.”
So he did.
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