Long hours, limited pay, lost hair, and gained weight. Away from the showbiz of launches and fight for position on Christmas bookshelves, those who put the real work into autobiographies have it anything but easy.
It’s just after lunch back in 2010 but your day is already nine hours old due to catching the first train for a planned morning meeting across the country. You’re into the second month of these trips but there’s a pattern emerging. Arrange to start work over breakfast; after a no-show, receive apology by one; hear excuses till eight; squeeze in few hours of interviews late. Sometimes good lines come out in those brief conversations but usually they’re withdrawn for fear of controversy. Finally having enough, you call a mate. “Why are you f**king bothering with this?” You’ve no answer for him.
You remember the 2012 get together where you got suckered in. “We’ll give you €12,000 straight up but think of how many we’ll shift. After those, it’ll be worth double that.” You agree but a year later there’s a mail about bad sales, no extra money and the demeaning offer of sub-editing shifts in a paper to make it up. You enter a rage as a mug flies off the wall and your other half looks on. “Why do you keep doing them?” Ashamed for several reasons now, you’ve no answer for her.
This is what it’s all about. The 2011 launch has more glitz than you’re about but you’ve put in the work and now for the reward. Only the bouncer stops you and your father and asks for invites. “He wrote the thing for Christ’s sake,” growls the old man. An hour later and you’re settling into a drink when it’s spilled by a showbiz journalist who shoulders you aside all to get close to the real star. You silently ask is it worth all this. You’ve no answer even for yourself.
These are the confessions of a ghost writer. Tales never told. Stories behind the story. Each year, as the Christmas avalanche of sporting autobiographies come tumbling down, I think of the hidden who, how and why. It’s not self-pity though as no one is forced; it’s just a reality you should know.
As I type this, I glance over at the lowly corner of a bookshelf and see four names glance back. Oisín McConville. Darragh Ó Sé. Kenneth Egan. Bill O’Herlihy. After many battles, my name is on all of them, squeezed in with a small font as recognition for lost hair, gained weight, brain cells stressed to redundancy, relationships strained past breaking. But they’ll never be my books, in fact I’ll only be associated with them when there’s negativity. It’s strange when an autobiography is well received, comments tend to be about how a sports star is a remarkable writer. When it’s the opposite, the ghost just wasn’t up to it. But you should remember the quality isn’t about what the writer puts in for they’ll turn their life over to it. It’s about what the subject puts in.
Besides, you get what you pay for. Eamon Dunphy may have gotten £250,000 for Roy Keane’s first autobiography and Roddy Doyle won’t go hungry, but that’s beyond an exception to a bare-bones rule. Other journalists occasionally ask what they should get as they head into the unknown. I answer that if they get near €20,000, grab it. The most I got was €17,500 and that involved the publishers initially hanging up over such audacity. Indeed a rough calculation reveals across all collaborations I’ve earned about €11 an hour. But it’s not just money but time that reduces many Irish autobiographies to express jobs. In fact when discussing O’Herlihy’s, those representing the publishers said there was a catch. “It has to be out in six months.”
So why do it? I was 22 interviewing McConville for the late Sunday Tribune but he called afterwards and asked that quotes about his gambling be removed as he needed to tell people privately first. Decency prevailed but so too did ego as I suggested a book before called my parents to say I’d made the big time. Innocence wasn’t bliss for though. Timing issues meant the last three weeks involved 20-hour working days only interrupted by accidentally falling asleep on a desk and Chinese take-outs. Typing one night the room took a sudden spin and responding, I fell off the chair. By the finish, a rare date was cancelled due to cold sores and severe conjunctivitis. “The big time,” I smiled.
Maybe stupidity is making the same mistakes over, although I regret none of the books. Ó Sé would infuriate as looking for insight into teammates always resulted in the ultimate endorsement of, “A great man for a few pints but serious about his football”. He’d call after midnight too looking for a few words to be changed but he and the others were impossible not to like as people. Professionally though Egan’s book brought the most satisfaction for the least healthy of reasons. The summer of his autobiography I broke up with the woman that would become my wife and she moved out. Yet it helped me get the boxer’s own struggles and I felt I understood his anger and loneliness. He ran drinking to New York. I sat typing in an echoing room. I felt a link amidst such misery.
There’s comfort in that because little else makes sense in the world of ghost writing. I was left out of pocket for one launch after picking up the cheque. And by O’Herlihy’s launch I’d gotten used to being the invisible man as I accepted there was no point in me saying a few words. Yet now, as I look at the four books on the shelf, I realise I’ve never opened one of them since they were published. Far from it all being negative, it’s just that I’ve long had enough of them. And they’ve had too much of me.
Sunday Business Post
9 November, 2014