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Other People's Voices

I never planned to be a ghost during my years at Barnard. Nor did “shrink,” “factotum,” or “shlepper for the almost-famous” show up anywhere among my career goals. Yet for years, that’s what my job description included. At Barnard I was a history major, with a particular interest in the personal lives of people who had shaped the events I studied. My favorite class was with Professor René Albrecht-Carrié, who read aloud from the letters that passed between Czar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm; I still remember the chatty conversations that began “Dear Willy” or “Dear Nicky.” I would be equally fascinated by conversations told to me by the people whose lives I worked to document.

My first invitation to ghost arrived shortly after I’d written a business guide to the Middle East. (My history major and my natural curiosity, plus my love of travel had led me to this project.) My agent was having lunch with an editor who had signed a book by a princess, a member of a deposed Middle Eastern royal family. He needed a writer; my agent had me.

The editor was jubilant; the princess, skeptical. “So,” she said, looking me over, “this is the person you have brought to write my memoirs.” Though said princess had been a champion of women’s rights in her country, it was clear she would have preferred a male writer. I would do my best.

Since she liked to stay up very late playing cards, we would start work at 4 p.m. I would do my writing in the morning and add another shift after 8 p.m. at my editor’s apartment. A difficult schedule for a single mother of three, and a somewhat dangerous one: Several people around the princess had been assassinated.

(Under those conditions, my agent told the publisher that my name should not appear anywhere in the book, not even in the acknowledgments.) But, the job would pay bills and would, my agent assured me, help me secure other projects. So I went to work, occasionally dodging phone calls from reporters (The Washington Post was most persistent) who seemed to know that I was somehow involved with the princess.

While we worked, security was tight. There was a bodyguard who looked like Oddjob in the James Bond film Goldfinger as well as a trained attack dog. But, as I was always seated in front of a rather large window, I sometimes felt uneasy.

The first pages I produced were a disaster. I had literally translated my subject’s voice into print, and though she was an intelligent, worldly woman who spoke several languages fluently, English was not one of them. So when I started to tell her story in her own voice, it was, both editor and subject agreed, awful. I learned the lesson I would take to all future projects: the voice to use would not necessarily be exactly that of my subject, but rather a credible voice—in this case, a voice rich in gravitas, one that conveyed humor and irony. My second try was better. And so we went.

As the project progressed, “my” princess became comfortable enough to talk about her personal life and I felt secure enough to occasionally disagree with her choice of material. There were difficulties with historical data. She had no papers, no diaries to document important meetings and events. I would have to do some historical detective work to reconstruct the missing pieces. (Finally, some practical use for my graduate work in Middle Eastern history at Columbia!) Later, when the manuscript was completed, a distinguished expert at Columbia was asked to vet it for accuracy. He never knew that the “ghost” had been one of his students. Fortunately both the book and I passed.

Next came an invitation from the wife of a well-known U.S. senator; she would like me to write her story on spec. In lieu of money, I was promised invitations to A-list New York parties. The parties didn’t appeal, but as the senator had been a personal hero of mine, I agreed to explore the possibility of a book. After several interviews, copious notes, and a meeting with an editor, it was clear that the fascinating story I had envisioned was not the one the senator’s wife was willing to tell. Good-bye A-list parties.

Much easier was my collaboration with a well-known sports-medicine doctor. The only problem was the doctor’s insistence on restoring chunks of redundant material that I cut. After some back-and-forth, the editor intervened and the material stayed out. The book was finished and successfully published; it continued to pay modest royalties a decade later.

There were more dead-end projects, including the tell-all book for an almost-leading-man, but the worst was for a celebrity fashion/cosmetics/perfume diva. Difficult, demanding (phone calls at all hours), she, too, expected an extensive proposal package on spec. My agent thought it would be good for my career. So I sat and watched her eat a pot of steamed broccoli and listened to her complain about her soon-to-be- ex-husband. I can do this, I thought, I don’t have to like her, I just have to find a good story here. When she called on Christmas Eve, insisting on my time and attention while my kids were waiting to open presents, I began to have serious doubts. When she asked me to write anonymous letters to the soon-to-be-ex, telling him that the “entire industry” knew what a bum he was, I walked away; poison-pen letters would not be part of my résumé.

Since then, I’ve ghosted material for a pair of explorers who shared with me the kind of harrowing adventures I would never have; an orchestra conductor who taught me more about music than I ever learned in college; a “businessman” who operated on the wrong side of the law, who taught me—well, never mind.

Eventually I became a ghostwriter of fiction. An oxymoron, you say? Yes, indeed, but ghosted novels are products that sell. I had some fiction experience, a couple of novels under my own name and several mass-market bestsellers using a pseudonym.

For my first ghosted novel, I did extensive interviews with my subject and created a story that she could conceivably have written, one that incorporated elements from her life into a somewhat swashbuckling tale. “Her” book got a starred review in Publishers Weekly, positive reviews in Kirkus and Booklist. That felt okay. But when one columnist raved: “A book only ‘X’ could have written,” I confess I did wince. But a ghost is, by definition, invisible. And I did have fun writing that book.

If these projects sound like fun to you, if you are interested in people, in weaving the tapestry of their lives into a story that engages the reader, if you want work that enriches your own life and is rarely boring, you just might enjoy ghosting. A caveat, however: By writing in so many other voices, I have discovered that it’s often difficult to find my own.

-Lillian Tabeek Africano '57, illustration by Katherine Streeter