Lockdown diaries: the ghostwriter

Invisibility is part and parcel of being a ghostwriter. But somehow I’ve felt it more acutely during lockdown. In normal times, on publication of a book I’ve ghosted, there’s the launch party to which I am invited as ‘part’ of the publishing team, or a place around the table at the celebratory lunch with the ‘real’ publishing team. A few weeks into lockdown however, with these moments of inclusion obviously impossible, when a book I ghosted was published - social media’d, everyone else @’td like crazy to great fanfare - I let my professional self watch it all unfold. But I found my private self waiting for some private form of acknowledgement from those who knew my role. After all, rightly or wrongly, I was celebrating too. I did write the actual book; I had become the author for the best part of a year.

But it seemed I was being ghosted. It doesn’t matter a jot to me that readers think the author wrote the book – it’s his fascinating story, I gave voice to it, that’s the deal – but in lockdown it seemed to really hurt that when the book sailed out into the world, I was forgotten by the only people who knew I’d written it.

Understandable on one level, crushing on another. But those early lockdown days were difficult days for all, and my editor had edited it brilliantly, so I thought kindly of the ‘real’ publishing team and had a celebratory call with the author. And later, my family laid on a socially-distanced drink, those of us here and those of us on Zoom, to toast the book’s passage into the world.  

Meanwhile, I pressed on with ghost-editing - there are many different, blurry, layers to my job - the author whose manuscript had to be handed in by the end of May. When lockdown began, we were 11 chapters into 12 and this has been one of those once-or-twice-in-a-professional-lifetime, wondrous, intense interactions, both of us surprised at how well our vision and voice has blended. The heartbeat of our empathy has been formed around our sessions together – an afternoon every other week, in the same room, hours of listening carefully, a year of talking dangerously – and so getting this last chapter done over Zoom or FaceTime, was a shock to us both. Not just the dodgy connection every time a train rumbled by at my end, but also the distance this weird connection creates. I just couldn’t quite gauge his emotional temperature. Despite him sitting on my desk and us giving it our very best shot, smiling and emoting into our computers, the intimacy was lost and for the first few tries, I felt sad and spurned. But then, given our pre-lockdown form, we got into our stride and we delivered the manuscript on time.

Separation anxiety – from the manuscript, from the daily exchange of thoughts, from waking up in the morning inhabiting him, his past, his present – has been more pronounced, heightened even, during lockdown. I have come close to panicking. I think this is because the job has finished without us being physically present in the same room, talking about it being finished. Warmly and sincerely, over Zoom, FaceTime, Whatsapp, Wherever, he has told me that while the book is done, we will keep messaging, talking, but as I know so well, the intensity has been all about the shared goal of writing the book and is unsustainable. Anyway, he is famous, busy, in demand, already fulfilled by another project and I need to earn a living and start writing my next commission. I’m still in that stage of hoping he’s right. because I’ve listened to him for a year and have lots I would like to tell him, about why I’ve been able to understand him. But does he truly want to hear any of that? While I have fantasies that I am electrifying too, I know how unlikely the marvellous intimacy of the ghoster-editor-author relationship is to continue. That’s the subject of a whole other blog.

Having my husband and our youngest (21) at home has made me feel less self-isolated than I usually am in my professional life of self-isolation. After I got used to the noise from of my husband’s twice daily - and enviously inclusive, collegial - Zoom meetings with his work team, I’m dreading his return to the office. Also, my youngest turns out to be a crack transcriber and with my next author’s permission, has been busy typing out our conversations, the sound of my own voice coming from his room – high-pitched, sycophantic - derailing me on more than one comfort-snack-trip to the kitchen.

Happily, the author I am ghosting next – a superstar, actually - is one of the most vibrant and engaging people I’ve ever met. Eeven our Zoom sessions have been sparky and he is so fully present in them, that I’ve been able to get all the material I’ve needed. We’d had several sessions together before lockdown, so have already established a connection. Now his agent has the outline and I will have to stop inhabiting him too, and wait. It won’t be for long and meanwhile, I shall be my other self – a structural editor – for a few weeks. He and I are still messaging away so we don’t break the thread of thoughts and last week, I went round to his house to celebrate the outline being submitted. I felt exuberant, on top of the world – in someone else’s garden, welcome, appreciated. Visible.

Gillian Stern has ghosted several award-winning, best-selling memoirs for several publishers and combines this with her work as a freelance structural editor of fiction and non-fiction for many of the same publishers. She loves her work with a passion.