Monday 23 October 2017

Haunted by ghostwriters' conflicts

Sleepless nights are an occupational hazard for hired storytellers, writes Paul Kimmage

Alex Ferguson's last match in charge of United
Alex Ferguson's last match in charge of United
Alex Ferguson
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

If you are going to be the least bit upset not to see your name credited or not to be invited to the launch party then you are going to have a miserable time ghosting altogether.

Twenty-six years of marriage may sound like a double-life sentence, but for us it was something to celebrate. And celebrate we did – table for five (we've acquired some extra baggage), an '09 Gigondas and a very pleasant evening being mocked by our kids.

"Be honest, you wouldn't really do it again?"

It was later, on the journey home, when the text message dropped; a friend who's ghosting the memoir of one of our biggest sports stars was burning the midnight oil: "Jesus, it's a hard station the ghostwriter's lot. A total grind of a job."

Confession: I've been working with Brian O'Driscoll on a similar project for almost two years now and knew exactly where he was coming from, but felt a duty to reply.

Me: "Sorry, not with you mate."

Him: "Ah nothing, I'm just wrestling with [his subject]. Think I'm stuck in your torture chamber."

Me: "F**k, that's not a good place to be. I've just had a few drinks and BOD is the furthest thing from my mind . . . until about four o'clock tomorrow morning that is, when I'll wake-up in a cold sweat thinking about it."

I was joking, of course. What sort of idiot spends a night on the town, makes passionate love to his wife (sorry kids) and wakes up at four in the morning thinking of Brian O'Driscoll?

But sure enough, at 04:12, there I was in that first test in Christchurch, wrestling with what happened when he captained the Lions.

"It was the first minute of a Test series and the adrenaline was running high. Suddenly I was aware of their hooker, Keven Mealamu, trying to pick me up by my left leg."

'That doesn't work.'

'Why not?'

'That's not his voice.'

'What you mean?'

'He's not Mario Rosenstock.'

'But that's how he describes it in his other book.'

'Sorry, it sounds like a sketch from Gift Grub.'

It wasn't always this tough. In 1991, I ghosted Neil Francis at the Rugby World Cup and it was the easiest column I'd ever written. I've played in two World Cups – USA '94 (Andy Townsend) and Japan/South Korea '02 (Jason McAteer), competed in all of the golf majors (Sir Nick Faldo) and whitewashed England in the 2006 Ashes (Brett Lee). It ain't rocket science. The game starts, the game finishes; they win, they lose.

But books are different. Books take more. What happens when they go home? How do you capture a life?

My first attempt – Andy's Game – was the story of Andy Townsend and the 1994 World Cup. Count the number of cliché's in these opening lines: 'Mick Byrne raps on the door just after nine. The World Cup starts here. In a little over an hour, I will kiss my wife goodbye and begin the first leg of a journey that will take me to an event I will look back on for the rest of my life.'

Andy was a good subject but the book didn't scratch him. It was published in September '94 and was selling for 99p by Christmas.

I wanted more from Tony Cascarino. I wanted to know how it felt to be battered by your father. I wanted to know how it felt to cheat on your wife. I wanted to know how it felt to be a 37-year-old Londoner playing football in France. I wanted to wake-up each morning with his demons in my head.

'I open my eyes to the sound of my hometown, Nancy, in the morning: the 7.43am for Paris pulling out slowly from the station; the hum of exhaust pipes on the Avenue de la Garenne; an ambulance klaxoning moronically in the distance; heavy drops of rain rapping the bedroom window and beyond the white net curtain, the first sight of Nancy, an eternal grey sky, always the same.'

This was better. This was a life. The only downside was that it took a year to write.

And then I met Matt Hampson, a (then) 21-year-old prop from Leicester who had suffered a catastrophic injury playing for England. I had never interviewed a 21-year-old ventilator-dependent-quadriplegic before and was not looking forward to the experience. I mean, where did you begin? How could I ask this kid to look forward? How could I ask him to look back? But off we went.

'There's a portrait at home that often makes me smile. It was taken six years before the accident in the summer of 1999. What does it say about the Hampson family? Well, let's see now . . ."

Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson took four years to write and pushed me to the brink of insanity. This was the Daniel Day Lewis school of ghostwriting: I went to bed every night with the building blocks of his life and awoke most mornings at four, trying to put them together.

And so it is with BOD.

I've fallen completely in love with Amy and have Frank and Ger (his parents) and Julie and Sue (his sisters), on speed-dial. I could write the A to Z on his 'circle of trust' – Dunny, Damo, Skiddy, Redser, O'Flynn, Den, Shaggy – and a black book on his foes. My hardened northside brogue has acquired alarming southside tones. I say 'invariably' a lot, take coffee at The Westbury and have even started listening to Mumford and Sons!

Is there no cure for this insanity?

And it is insane, because you could just dump the words and wrap the cover – Brian O'Driscoll, The Autobiography – around a cold, battered sausage and it would still sell by the truckload. And the book might sell three copies or three million, but the ghostwriter's fee is the same.

So why do we care?

Paul Hayward, the Chief Sports Writer at The Daily Telegraph, spent the last three years working with Alex Ferguson on his autobiography. "I think you have to start out with certain guiding principles," he says. "It has to be their voice, not yours. It's not your book, it's their book and your job is to convey their voice and their thoughts and their opinions without getting in the way."

The book was published at a press conference in London on Tuesday and as Ferguson was preparing to face the storm, Hayward was taking to Twitter on a quiet train from his home in Brighton. His timeline for the day makes interesting reading.

Feel very furtive on train with Sir Alex Ferguson's new book. Just hope people enjoy the depths of insights from him on players, rivals, life.

Then . . .

When the news tornado is over you'll find plenty in Ferguson's book about psychology, building teams and the spirit of Man Utd over 27 years.

Then . . .

BBC website stealing chunks of the Ferguson book direct. Scandalous. Looks to me like a complete contravention of copyright.

Then . . .

You haven't read the Ferguson book already. You've read the news lines. The story of his life and work is between the covers, I hope.

On Friday, I reminded him of the Tweets and asked him why he cared.

"Because I spent months and months trying to make the book the story of his life," he replied. "I care because to me it's more than a series of back-page headlines. I wanted people to see that there's a depth of materiel in there . . . how he managed the club . . . how he rebuilt teams . . . the psychology he brought to the dressing room . . . how he kept himself going and developed all those outside interests to keep the pressure off.

"I knew that this was the best story that British football has thrown up since Bill Shankly and I wanted the book to tell that story, and not just be a series of scandals. I think it has been a disappointing week for sports journalism. A lot of journalists ransacked the book on Tuesday afternoon and then criticised it on Wednesday for what it was lacking, and then later in the week, they started attacking it for its opinions.

"So I didn't find it very edifying really and it struck me as a bit odd because sports journalism will condemn bland autobiographies and it appears it also wants to condemn opinionated ones. But that might be me being hypersensitive."

I reminded him of the point he had made earlier – this is Ferguson's book, not his – and asked again why he cared.

"Because I put a lot of effort into it, and my name is on it, and I care about the book as a book," he replied. "How many it sells is irrelevant to me – I've got no stake in that – the money was irrelevant for me. Books are hard work and distract from the daily job but I've been writing about football for most of my life and the attraction for me was to spend time with Alex Ferguson and learn about the game that fascinates me."

I asked if he had ever woken-up at four in the morning thinking of Ferguson.

"Of course," he laughed. "When you take on a subject like this it consumes you – it's with you when you wake-up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. It's only when you see it on a book shelf that you know you can let it go and that it's not going to haunt you anymore."

Sweet dreams, Paul.

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