Come See our New Website

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Cup of Ambition: The Ghostwriter

We've all heard it before, at dinner parties, from relatives, from our therapists: "Oh, you write. Does that mean you'll be a teacher?" Fine, fine. We can't make enough money to "eat" or "live" from our poetry. Every MFA graduate knows the horrible feeling that settles into his/her stomach as graduation approaches. You finished a whole book!, you keep telling people. And still, no prospective employers come a-calling. Here at HFR, we know how you feel. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some jobs we writers and lovers of books might enjoy. Or do enjoy. Or have tried, and regret. This regular post, A Cup of Ambition, will talk to those in-the-know about what the working world is really like. (To see our previous interviewees, click here.)

It’s our thirteenth Cup of Ambition, and we’re gonna give you a little salt in your sugar with ghostwriter Neil Strauss, who has co-written the autobiographies of rock stars, a porn star and journalist Joel Stein (who fell into neither category, although he did rock a mullet once). 

Strauss is also an American author, pickup artist and journalist.

It’s hard not to get lost in his feverish speech and profound observations thrown out as casually as the “you know?” he use
s to punctuate most sentences, but it’s impossible to miss 
how much he loves what he does and how far he had to come from his days as a discarded-popcorn scavenger at theaters, which I’m actually only assuming he stopped doing.

Getting started
Twelve years ago Strauss was assigned to interview singer Marilyn Manson for Rolling Stone magazine. Initially, he said, he planned to write an expose about who he assumed to be “some goth rock, phony poser.” However, it became a cover story about the time he spent with a “smart and really interesting” artist. The next year, Manson’s autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, ghostwritten by Strauss, was released.

“I never intended to be a ghostwriter,” Strauss said. “I just thought ‘wow, this is a great way to write a book.’”

Having an open mind, he said, reflecting on Manson, is the most important thing about conducting an interview and working as a ghostwriter.

“There’s nothing wrong with going into an interview with preconceptions,” he said. “But you’ve got to be able to throw away those preconceptions in the face of reality. Some people go into an interview trying to prove a point and don’t really care what reality is. You’ve got to let the person be themselves, that’s the point of an interview.”

Before he was even a journalist though, Strauss said he was writing for free for anyone who would take his work (he sent his first book proposal, hand-written, to agents when he was 11 years old).

“I’ve been working on an anthology of my work, and I was looking through all these letters I wrote and seeing all of these rejections…I would do anything just to be around a magazine, to get their coffee, to do their expenses, to do Xeroxes. I would do anything. I had no money. I, literally, would, like, eat discarded popcorn in movies in New York because I had no money for food so I would spend it on movies and culture because I knew it would inform what I was writing…I was so naïve….and it’s fine, we’re built to survive, we’re gonna survive. You’re not gonna die, you’ll find a way to make it happen, you know? So you’ve got to keep doing what you love and not expect to, right away, be writing for some huge magazine or write some huge book, just be willing to write for free for anyone who will have you write. In the meantime, it’s only going to help your craft and get your name out there.”

The Good, The Bad
A lot of things like making a film or cooking, Strauss said, are group efforts between people, but writing is just a relationship between the writer’s head and the page.

“I don’t think of it as a good side and a bad side…I don’t think of it like that. I think it’s a lot of fucking work. Literally, you know, it’s like sitting down and writing 400 or 500 pages on your computer is a hard thing, but the more difficult thing is taking those 500 pages and then making them work. Really tightening them and tightening them and tightening them until everything works…Making sure there’s no repetition in the 500 pages, making sure the story’s moving forward, being willing to take that story you spent a week crafting and just cut it out because it doesn’t work. So, that intense connection you have with 500 pages that only you wrote and only you understand and sort of cleaning and juggling it until it actually becomes a reasonable book is an intensely isolated and time consuming experience.”

And by time consuming, he meant that in the last month he’s worked 16- to 20-hour days. His Mondays alone, he said, are dedicated to “back-to-back” interviews and meetings.

“And every time, I’ll keep telling myself ‘I’m never writing another book again.’ I’m thinking, ‘why do I do this?’”

The morbid motivation
“I’m always thinking about what’s next, but what I’m most proud of is what I’m currently doing. I have four to five books under contract. They’re like a pack of wild dogs chasing me, so I don’t have time to look back or I’ll get eaten alive,” he says with an unsettling laugh. “I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but what motivates me is trying to get all these books done, like, before I die. When I’m excited about a book that I’m writing I think, ‘Oh god, I hope I finish this before I die.’…you just make sure you can express yourself in the right way to everybody.”

HFR: So, is there a pre-written eulogy?

Strauss: “I suppose [my eulogy] may be in ‘Emergency’ somewhere, because that book is a lot about accepting our mortality.”

The key to ghostwriting
The key to ghostwriting is storytelling. And in Strauss’ case, the books he writes are not for fans of a particular person he writes about, but rather are for fans of the world that person represents.

“I try to write the stories for someone who has no interest in that person,” he said. “And then if I can make it interesting, that is the challenge.”

Making a story seem universal doesn’t mean it has to be existentially vague either.

“Fuck the big questions,” he said. “The art is storytelling. Some people want to warm up but if you look at your life, what’s the most interesting thing that happened? Don’t wind up, just throw the reader into a really compelling story that they’re gonna wanna read separate from who you are.”

What makes a good ghostwriter?
You have to be able to listen to editors, he said. Adding that it’s true as long as they’re good. It’s important to accept criticism and be able to determine if it’s right or wrong, he said.

“I think a good ghostwriter will take another person’s words or life and write how they would write if they could write. I think empathy and lack of ego would be a good skill with this,” he said.

The real story, he added, happens when the tape recorder isn’t running.

“The more you can immerse yourself in [the subject’s] world and serve a purpose in their world, the more you can really step into their shoes and see through their eyes.”

This is also good, he said, for getting to know the other “characters” in the subject’s life. Talk to those people and spend time with them so you can see the kinds of things they don’t tell you, he said.

Thoughts about this job for writers…advice
Strauss explained that a lot of people are encouraged to do something safe and sensible that will make money, but it can a sure way to unhappiness if it’s not something you love to do. If you follow your bliss, you can make a lot of money and if you lose that money you have nothing, he said.

“The secure way is really the insecure way,” he said, quoting Joseph Campbell.

“It’s a great way to learn about publishing to get a book out and yet, if I wanted to, not to have any responsibility for it,” he said, laughing. He has a clause in his contract that allows him to withdrawal his name from a book he ghostwrites if he’s unhappy with the final product.

Turning down proposals for books isn’t rare, either. While Strauss said it has little to do with how famous or not famous the person who wants to write a book is, there are just a lot of people who aren’t ready to tell their story.

“[Subjects] have to be willing to tell the truth and the whole truth and hold nothing back. If there’s something you’ve done in your life that’s a really bad thing, whether you’re
 embarrassed about people knowing or don’t want to tell them, then don’t do a book…you know, someone’s going to spend 400 pages in your world. If you’re holding back, then you’re robbing [the readers] of your experience…[Authors] can’t be afraid to make themselves look bad. We all have dark sides, we all have insecurities, we’ve all done bad things; you’ve got to show them and just trust that in the end it’ll paint a complete picture of you as who you are.”

“[Subjects are] pre-screened to make sure they’re cool with the kind of book I want to write, he said. “I want to make sure they wont be their own worst enemy.”

People start with the ending, and most of the time it starts with one person who someone has complicated feelings toward, he said. It’s important to know what’s interesting to readers versus what that person finds interesting, he said. He explained that out of 10 hours of tape on how his subject feels about one particular person, only 30 minutes may be worth using.

A bit of theory
With a degree in psychology from Vassar College, Strauss said he considers himself a social artist as well as a writer.

“I think you’re not doing your job if the other person isn’t learning about themselves,” he said. “When you put your life back to back, end to end, certain things emerge. And you’re probably going to recognize those things before they do, because it is their life. It’s really like a light bulb is going off over the person’s head. There’s a therapy to it, like a ghostwriter.”

Our boundary is truth as that person sees it, he said, you can’t do a book with someone who is self-diluted. They need a certain distance from themselves, he explained. For example, when Strauss did his work with Mötley Crüe, he took the same story from all four members, and each version was a little different.

On James Joyce
“It’s one of the reasons I write; I never knew you could do that much with words,” he said about Joyce’s “Ulysses, which he re-reads every three years.

Inspiration/How To
Strauss and fellow ghostwriter and journalist Anthony Bozza lead the HarperCollins subimprint Igniter, which gives talented unknowns a chance to work with the well-knowns on their autobiographies after some training with Strauss, who also said he edits pieces of their work from time to time.

In an Igniter cinderella story, an out-of-work computer programmer was paired up to write the autobiography of a supermodel, Strauss said. He added that an autobiography about Bozo the Clown is also in the works.

As for future ghostwritten projects by Strauss, who is working on one of his own books right now, his feet are ready to be in the shoes of former Louisiana Gov. Edmund Edwards, whom Strauss could only describe as a “charming crook.”

No comments: