Ghosting

In the course of the next Crang crime novel, Annie B. Cooke gets the best paying job of her writing life. Titled Booking In, the Crang novel, which comes out in November 2017, features a murder in Toronto’s antiquarian book business. While Crang, the criminal lawyer who acts more like a private eye, is occupied with solving the murder, his longtime girlfriend Annie, a journalist and author, is earning a fee in the six figures for ghost writing the memoirs of Canada’s wealthiest woman, a billionaire named Meg Grantham.

Ghost writing, as it happens, is a job I’m familiar with, and I passed on some of what learned in real life ghosting to Annie in her fictional work for the billionaire. Over the years, I’ve written autobiographies for a half dozen people who’ve been prominent in widely different fields. Each book was told in the first person—it was the subject who was speaking directly to the reader as if he or she was the writer—but every word was put on paper by me after I’d interviewed the subjects at as much length as they could manage. I found the work demanding, sometimes amusing, often exasperating and an all-round general exercise in ego—not my ego (ghost writers aren’t allowed egos) but the subject’s ego.

Each of the books brought their own strange moments, and what follows is a little of the weirdness in three of my ghosting jobs.

Ghost writing job number one:

In the summer of 1968, I ghostwrote Nancy Greene’s life story. Nancy, who was probably Canada’s greatest skier ever, had just won a gold medal at that year’s Olympic Games, and her managers were anxious to get the memoirs published in time to capitalize on her huge popularity. The managers chose me to ghost write the book even though I’d never skied, not once in my entire life. They figured my writing—fast and readable—would overcome whatever problems my ignorance of the sport might bring on.

The longest period I was given to interview Nancy came in Trail B.C. near Nancy’s home. She and I spent two days in a room at a Trail motel, me asking questions, her answering them, something she did with thoroughness and humour. I tape-recorded our conversations, and the two of us gabbed for a dozen or more tapes. It was the first time I’d worked with a tape recorder, and what I didn’t know—I was, as I continue to be, a technological ignoramus—was that I needed to plug the tape recorder into the motel room’s wall socket every now and then.

When I arrived back in Toronto, the first few interview tapes were crisp and clear, the rest yielded a few crackly sounds followed by one long blur. The blurry tapes contained the particular interviews that, unnoticed by oblivious me, I conducted when the tape recorder was receiving no power. So it was that half of my conversations with Nancy had vanished somewhere in the ether. At first, at home sitting at my desk and contemplating the blur, I panicked. I couldn’t go back to Nancy and ask her, “What was it you said in those last six or seven hours in Trail?” That would be way too embarrassing. I might get bounced out of the job. So I calmed down and started typing, concentrating like crazy on each moment of my lost conversations with Nancy and typing out everything I could remember that she said.

As I typed and as sentences appeared on paper, it seemed that I remembered a whole lot. At least two-thirds of our unrecorded conversations came back to me. And the other third? Well, I improvised them, typing what I decided Nancy was most likely to have said. My improvisations must have been as accurate as my remembered lines because when Nancy read the final manuscript, which I wrote based on the interviews, she didn’t change anything. Not a single word. She apparently liked my version of her life as much as her own version.

Ghost writing job number two:

After dark on a spring night in 1970, Jack McClelland arrived at my wife’s and my house, slipping in under cover of the night. McClelland was a legendary figure in Canadian publishing, and on this dark spring night, he swore my wife and me to secrecy about the job he was about to offer me. He said his company, McClelland & Stewart, was set to publish the ghosted autobiography of a man named Alvin Karpis who had once been named America’s Public Enemy Number One. In the 1930s, Karpis ran with a crowd that included Ma Barker and Bonny and Clyde. They careened around the American southwest robbing banks and shooting up towns. Then the FBI caught Karpis and helped put him in the pen for decades. On his release, a few months before Jack McClelland’s visit to our house, Karpis was paroled back to his home town which happened to be Montreal.

McClelland signed up Karpis for his memoirs, hiring a ghost writer to work with the old bank robber. The writer was an experienced freelancer named Bill Trent, and Trent’s completed manuscript had recently arrived in McClelland’s office. There was just one problem: McClelland didn’t care for the manuscript. He found it too stodgy, too scrappy and disorganized, and he was offering me three thousand dollars to recast and rewrite Trent’s work. This was in effect a ghost job on a ghost job, and Jack said he could give me just three weeks to complete it. And one other thing: Jack said my wife and I weren’t to breathe word to anyone about his arrangement with me. Why? Because McClelland considered Trent a friend and he didn’t want his friend to learn of the dim view the publisher took of Trent’s original manuscript.

I got off to a running start on the job thanks to the great editor and writer, Bob Fulford, who had written a long memo suggesting to McClelland and me how the material could be reworked. I followed the Fulford guidelines, and typing ten hours day, I finished the manuscript on schedule. Continuing to observe the code of secrecy, I followed instructions from McClelland to show up at a room in the Westbury Hotel on Yonge Street behind Maple Leaf Gardens. A man I’d never seen before was waiting for me in the room. The mystery man and I exchanged goods, my Karpis manuscript for his three thousand dollar cheque. The book appeared a few weeks later to generally good reviews with a byline that read “By Alvin Karpis as told to Bill Trent.”

But one thing has puzzled me to this day: if Trent read even a few pages of the book, wouldn’t he have realized it wasn’t his work?

Ghost writing job number three:

On the Tuesday morning after Labour Day of 2002, I won the annual Norma Fleck Award for Best Children’s Nonfiction Book. The award was announced in a pleasant ceremony at the Art Gallery of Ontario that was run along the lines of the Oscars: five finalists had been picked by an independent jury, and the winner from among the five was announced that morning. I won for a biography I wrote of the Six Nations runner, Tom Longboat, and the man at the microphone who announced my name at the presentation ceremonies and handed me the winner’s cheque of ten thousand dollars was Jim Fleck.

Jim had nothing to do with picking the short list or the winner—the independent jury handled all of that—but he was the man who conceived the annual award in tribute to his mother Norma’s love of books, and he was the man who put up the ten thousand bucks every year.

Later that morning, as we were all leaving the AGO, Jim asked me if I’d like to write his memoirs, a book he imagined as something he could leave to his family as a record of his life’s work. Standing there in the AGO’s parking lot, I thought to myself. “I’ve got a ten thousand dollar cheque in my pocket signed by this man. Am I going to say no to him?”

I didn’t, and once the work started, I felt pleased with the decision. Jim may not be a household name, but he has had—and is still having—a career of unbelievable variety and accomplishment. He has been a businessman, a lecturer at the Harvard Business School for several years, then at York and still later at the Rotman School at the University of Toronto, a teacher at INSEAD, the esteemed MBA program in France, the executive assistant to Ontario Premier Bill Davis, a philanthropist of astounding generosity, a key member of the AGO board at the time of the Frank Gehry renovation of the gallery, and active in countless other arts and business organizations.

In 2002 when I started on the ghosting job with Jim, he was seventy-one, and, I thought, he was probably getting ready to coast through the next years into retirement. I couldn’t have been more wrong about the coasting or the retirement. To this day, Jim has never given a sign of slowing down, of fading into the sunset. He kept finding new interests, new boards to sit on, new projects to launch into. “Challenge” was Jim’s favourite noun, and he was forever discovering fresh challenges to stimulate him. And everything that stimulated Jim was ipso facto material I needed to record for his ever expanding memoir. On dozens of occasions, just when I thought I was nearing the end of the book, Jim would produce reasons to keep me typing.

For example, in the spring of 2014, a friend of Jim’s named Bill Leach, a retired four-star general and chairman of the board the Canadian Museum of History, invited Jim to take the place of a retiring member of the board. It happened that the retiring member was the board’s vice-chairman, meaning that Jim became the new vice-chair. It was a nice title, Jim explained to me, but the vice-chair actually had little authority. It was, Jim said, an exciting but cushy appointment.

That status changed on April 1, 2015 when Bill Leach died suddenly of a heart attack. Jim was elevated to the chairman’s role at what happened to be a crucial time in the Museum’s history. An ambitious new addition was in the works, an edifice called the Canadian History Hall that traced Canada from the dawn of human history to the present day. It was Jim who took charge of raising ten million dollars for the project, guiding it to its completion and presiding over the grand opening on July 1, 2017.

Jim’s life—he’s 86 and still searching out challenges—is like that, and for his ghostwriter, looking over the shoulder of the man who just won’t quit, Jim Fleck’s story represents the ghosting job that will never stop giving.

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