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Interview with a Ghostwriter - Clifford Thurlow

Have you ever wondered exactly what a ghostwriter does, and how s/he makes a living doing it? Perhaps you are thinking of hiring a ghostwriter. Or perhaps you are thinking of becoming a ghostwriter. Or perhaps you're just curious. Whatever. Check out this interview with "a real, live" ghostwriter -- you'll find it interesting...

In this interview, veteran ghostwriter Clifford Thurlow describes some of his experiences and the challenges he has faced. He also gives some valuable advice both to aspiring ghostwriters and to those who may be considering using a ghostwriter.

Nicole Bishop: Tell us a bit about yourself, and the work you did before you became a ghostwriter.

Thurlow: When I was at school the careers master once asked the class what we planned to do when we went out into the world. At the time, I probably wanted to be Mick Jagger, but the word "writer" slipped out of my subconscious and I've been writing pretty much ever since. I started out as a junior reporter on a local paper covering the labyrinthine politics around the English south coast and then went to Greece, doing much the same as the assistant to The Guardian correspondent in Athens. 

When the German writer Gunther Grass gave an anti-government speech at the university, he was put under house arrest at his hotel. He escaped in the trunk of a car to the American air base and was flown surreptitiously out of the country. I was with Grass all the way from the university to the air base and my story was such a big scoop it was syndicated around the world. My phone was tapped, I was followed in the street - it was like living in a Graham Greene novel - and then I was "asked" to leave Athens "within 24 hours." 

It was particularly gratifying that my moment of notoriety was linked to a famous writer and I travelled east looking for more adventure. I arrived in India, where I lived among the Tibetan refugee community in Dharamsala. I discovered that the Tibetan story-telling tradition was oral; the young people were busy surviving in a new environment and it seemed likely that a lot of the stories from their country would disappear unless they were written down. It took me almost a year to make a collection and the anthology was published as Stories From Beyond The Clouds - my first book.

Nicole Bishop: Why did you take up ghostwriting as a career?

Thurlow: I don't think people really take up ghostwriting, it sort of happens. 

After living in India, life back in London seemed pretty dull. If Dharamsala had been the yin, I thought I needed some yang, the opposite, and set off for Hollywood with stars in my eyes. 

I thought I'd surf - the waves, not the internet - and write film scripts. In the end, I didn't do either. I worked tarring roofs in the San Fernando Valley and started planning the great (unfinished) novel. I was lucky enough to meet at a party the actress Carol White - she'd been the star of Cathy Come Home, Poor Cow and various hit films. She wanted to write her autobiography and, as we both came from London, the meeting seemed blessed by serendipity. 

Like lots of English performers who try and make it in Hollywood, she was broke, of course, but sitting by Carol's pool writing notes and sipping cocktails under the banana tree was better than standing out in the sun tarring roofs...

Nicole Bishop: Describe one of the most interesting experiences you have had in your career as a ghostwriter.

Thurlow: It's very difficult to pick out the most interesting thing that has happened to me as a ghostwriter because the very nature of the job creates endless amazing incidents... 

I worked with Afdera Fonda, the fourth wife of Henry Fonda and an Italian baronesa from the Franchetti family. Afdera knew everyone - the Hollywood glitterati, the British aristocracy, mega-rich CEO's... Every day we went out to lunch with people you'd seen in the movies or read about in society columns, Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Diana Vreeland, lords, dukes and earls - and they all wanted one of two things: either to make sure they weren't forgotten, or alternatively, if they were remembered, that Afdera would be discreet in her reminiscences... 

Nicole Bishop: Describe one of the most challenging experiences you have had in your career as a ghostwriter.

Thurlow: The most challenging job I've done was working with the actor John Le Mesurier. He was a very sensitive and self-effacing man and was only writing a book because his manager had told him to do so. He wanted to write it himself, but the pages that came out of his old Olivetti were just strings of dinner party jokes and he would give them to me to shape into biography. He would usually turn up at my flat after a liquid lunch and give me the pages with a handful of damp 10 notes. It was then, over black coffee, that he would talk about his life and the real work was done. 

Nicole Bishop: Ghostwriting obviously requires very close collaboration. Can you generally judge in advance (before taking on a project) who you would work well with? If so, how do you make that judgement? 

Thurlow: Ghostwriters are always looking for a great story and it is really important that the ghost and the subject like each other. It's a bit like being a psychiatrist or a priest - the ghost must listen to the most intimate details of someone's life and then help them shape it into something which is going to be interesting to the readers. 

The ghostwriter must also know if the story he is being told is going to attract a publisher, and the collaborator should respect the ghost's decisions on how to approach the subject. 

Of course, the ghostwriter doesn't only work on biographies. I did write the last third of a novel once, but as the author had died without leaving any notes, there was no one except the real ghost looking over my shoulder while I manoeuvred my way through his world. With live partners, I usually know within a short time if the collaboration is going to work or not. 

Nicole Bishop: From your experience, what is the most important skill of a ghostwriter?

Thurlow: A ghostwriter must know how to listen. He most drop in pertinent questions at the right moment, little triggers that fire the memory of the subject without stemming the flow. The writer must then gather the voice of the subject into his mind and recreate it. 

Afdera Fonda was an Italian aristocrat. In my last book, Sex, Surrealism, Dali and Me, Carlos Lozano was a dancer from the poor slums of Colombia - two very different parts of the social spectrum, and both demanding their own style. It may seem paradoxical, but at the same time, the ghost should have his own firm sense of style - he will take the subject's voice, the subject's turn of phrase, the subject's story, but then mould it like way clay into something perfect. That, at least, should be the aim. 

Nicole Bishop: How do you charge for your services? 

Thurlow: If there is already a publisher involved, they will pay an advance and how I split that with the subject will depend on the individual negotiation - but normally, it's fifty/fifty.

If I am approached by someone who has a good story that we must then try and sell, I charge for my time - about 1,000, or $1,500 - and write one chapter and an outline as a market tester. The subject receives their money back from an advance before we then divide the remainder. If it doesn't sell, there isn't a huge loss involved - but, in fact, I don't take anything on unless I believe there are very good odds that it is a viable project. 

There are other kinds of ghostwriting. For example, I have written family memoirs for people that want to self-publish and keep the record for future generations; with inexpensive printing costs. This is becoming quite common; and the advantage of employing a professional ghostwriter is that, first, they get a professional product, and second, they can then distribute the book if they think it is worth it. 

Nicole Bishop: What is the most important piece of advice you would give to someone who is just starting out as a ghostwriter? 

Thurlow: Negotiate your name on to the cover. Some of my books have "with Clifford Thurlow" slipped inside on the verso page and it just doesn't have the same thrill as seeing your by-line on the front of the book.

On a practical level, I'd say make sure you have lots of spare batteries for your tape, write notes as well as taping, and don't be afraid to ask awkward questions - questions, that is, about sex, money, business, drugs, alcohol and all those things that - whether we like it or not - fill the pages of best-sellers.


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