Monday, August 30, 2010

Michael Robotham: Ghostwriting

Melbourne Writers' Festival - Session 1
The first session I attended was on ghostwriting, and one of the speakers (Tom Noble, who wrote Mick Gatto's life story) was unable to be there, so Michael Robotham went it alone. As always, he was a very entertaining speaker with plenty of stories to tell! He worked as a ghostwriter for many years, after being a journalist, and has written the life stories of Geri Halliwell, Rolf Harris, Tony Bullimore, Lulu and a couple of SAS soldiers, among others. He actually got his first job after the original writer had a falling-out with the subject, and went on to write 15 in all. He now writes great crime fiction.

It was fascinating to hear what goes into ghostwriting someone's life. I've done a couple of oral history collections, and many of the skills are similar - interviewing, drawing the person out, getting them to remember things they thought they'd forgotten, and then endless hours of transcribing the tapes. Michael said he can do up to 60 hours of tapes and transcribe more than a million words before he gets to the point of choosing what to include and how to put it all together so it flows.

As with oral history, it's also vital to find the right "voice". You can't use a child's voice at the beginning and then change it later - it has to recreate the person's way of speaking so that, for the reader, it's as if they can hear the story being told. You get very close to the person, and as well as drawing out those forgotten memories, you're also drawing out old pains and regrets. He said you can end up being like the person's therapist, and sometimes they don't want to let you go! Whereas others forget you after a week and convince themselves they wrote the book.

The ghostwriter should bring two things to the project - ignorance (a blank canvas, ready to take it all in with no preconceived ideas or bias) and a knowledge of what readers will find interesting. Often subjects will think their childhood is irrelevant or boring, for example, but for many readers, this is the most interesting period. We love to see how people are formed or influenced in their early years, and how that affected them later. It's also about showing the growing wisdom and experience of the person, and how they came to it.

When asked about the movie out at the moment - The Ghostwriter - Michael laughed as in this story the writer is expected to write the book in three weeks. To do a really good job takes 12 months, and you could maybe manage it in 3 at the least. Before a ghostwriter gets the job, they need to meet the subject. It sounded like an audition process! You need to get on together to make it work. And is an autobiography, ghostwritten or not, all true? He says what comes out is "their truth", and no two people see or experience the same event the same way anyway. All in all, a really interesting session!

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