Ghostwriting may be the most mysterious realm of professional writing, the name itself invoking a shadowy world. If you’ve ever wondered about it, pay attention to an extraordinary tale in the March 6 London Review of Books called “Ghosting.” It’s by Andrew O’Hagan, a Scotsman hired to write an autobiography of Julian Assange, the accused rapist and giant ego behind Wikileaks.
The story weighs in at 26,467 words, but I lapped it up in one sitting (with a tea break). It is at once a deep profile of a protean cultural figure; a meditation on what it means to be a ghostwriter; a deconstruction of the genre of autobiography; and a master class in damn fine writing.
I have friends who have ghostwritten books for the famous and the semi-important, and their stories over beers or emails often involve a sort of psychological jujitsu with their named authors. “Don’t do it,” I’ve heard more than once, especially when I was contemplating ghosting a book with a medical researcher who revealed his true nature as a total pain in the ass when I tested him by penning an Op-Ed under hire.
“Ghosting,” then, is the decisive cautionary tale in this vein. And man is it tasty.
O’Hagan is hired in January 2011 and given three months and an assistant to turn the thing around. Assange is holed up in a country estate as he awaits extradition hearings. Night after rambling night, Assange rants, spews, attacks everyone who’s ever done good by him, Googles himself, preens for 60 Minutes, eats potatoes with his hands, engages in Twitter wars, and does it all into O’Hagan’s recorder while providing thin gruel in the way of autobiography.
Still, a deadline looms and publishers await in 40 countries. O’Hagan is a pro, and he’s going to deliver. He turns around a 70,000-word draft on deadline, April 1. (Ha!)
That’s when the story gets interesting. Assange, it becomes clear, does not want this book published. The man devoted to spilling the world’s secrets cannot countenance his own. “He had signed up to a project that his basic psychology would not allow,” O’Hagan writes. “In the smart and admirable way of emotional defence, he dressed his objections in rhetoric and principles, but the reality was much sadder, and much more alarming for him. He didn’t know who to be.”
So conflicted, Assange poses as martyr, his publishers the persecutors. O’Hagan, the ghost, becomes intermediary:
Julian came to the door with a drink in his hand and waved us into the dark. ‘Andy,’ he cried as I made for the car. ‘Don’t let them push you around.’ He was talking about his publishers, who had collectively paid $2.5 million for his autobiography.
On and on, the machinations, the drama, Assange’s facile attempts to outflank his own allies. O’Hagan beseeches him to cancel the contract and return the money. But Assange can’t. He’s in deep debt to his lawyers.
O’Hagan gamely hangs in. He agrees to rewrite the manuscript as less autobiography, more “manifesto.” But he needs Assange’s input, which he never receives.
Come September, the publishers have had it. They’ve paid, and they’re publishing. They push the big red button and print the thing with a forward noting that Assange himself objects to the publication of Julian Assange – The Unauthorized Autobiography.
And now O’Hagan, wanting only to work in the shadows – he’s drawn to the big work of wrestling with Wikileaks secrets that are reverberating around the world – is outed. His phone blows up; his email fills with interview requests. He never finds out who leaked his name, and he ignores the chaos.
O’Hagan also turns down $1.5 million to write the fly-on-the-wall book about Assange. Yet, he’s a reporter in deep, so he maintains ties with the man, now cornered in the Ecuadoran embassy, and encourages Assange to help him publish an annotated, curated guide to the most important Wikileaks cables. Assange won’t do it, of course. He’s incapable. O’Hagan writes:
His burst of distrust had shown me he would only ever see me as a servant, and in that moment the account I’m writing here became a reality. He did what he was now famous for doing, building the creature he most feared would come and get him, and I left that night in the knowledge that my time with him, over snowy nights and long crazy afternoons of denial, had brought me back to first position, as a writer. He was a character…. I was now making him into a figment of my imagination and that was perhaps all he could ever really be for me.
So if you’re ever approached to ghostwrite a book, keep the ballad of Assange and O’Hagan top-of-mind. And if you do sign on, here’s a tactic to remember: O’Hagan kept the upper hand in the end, as he took every tape of Assange’s “shocking rants” and sealed them–silent for now–in a bank vault.
Image credit: Canongate