One of the questions I’m often asked is if and when and how my work as a ghostwriter informs my work as a novelist.
Okay, so that’s really three questions shrink-wrapped into one, and there’s no easy answer to any one of them, but I always give it my best shot: Yes, I’ll say … or, sometimes … or, it depends.
Not all that helpful, huh?
Truth is, I don’t have the first idea if the two skill sets are related, or in what ways. I only know that I’m able to write my way from Page One to Page Last each time out. How I’ve managed to fill the pages in between, over the course of 70+ books … well, that’s a bit of a mystery, even to me.
I've been telling stories for a living for 40 years. Most of that living has been in the re-telling of other people's stories, helping to write the autobiographies and memoirs of celebrities like Serena Williams, Denzel Washington, Steve Aoki, and Whoopi Goldberg, but scratching my own head to see what comes out and then finding a way to set it down on paper is a very different enterprise than chronicling the lives or capturing the thoughts and reminiscences of my famous co-authors.
At bottom, the goal is the same: to engage the reader and tell a story in a page-turning way. But I’ve often wondered why it is that I’ve only managed to write four novels over the course of my career, while writing more than 70 books on behalf of others. One surface explanation for this disparity is the fact that these ghostwriting assignments pay the bills. After all, the bottom line is the bottom line, and a writing life is a writing life, so I consider myself blessed to be able to earn a living with my pen and what I can find of my wits. It’s worked out that I’ve been able to extract a living from these collaborations, which tend to be widely read. Meanwhile, my own books have earned me nothing resembling a living and tend to be less widely read—so I guess it makes sense that I’m more productive when I don’t really have a choice in the matter. But that only explains a piece of that disproportion—a small piece, in fact. The truth is, writing for others comes naturally to me; writing for myself, somewhat less so, which means that when I do find the time to write for myself, the words don’t always flow so easily.
I suppose it’s helpful here to acknowledge the key difference in the two types of books I write. When I’m working on someone else’s behalf, giving voice to a lived experience, I know the story. It’s up and happened—very often in a very public way. My choices as a writer have mostly to do with tone and structure and emphasis. When I’m writing my own novel, I’m making it up as I go along. My choices are also about tone and structure and emphasis, but also about everything else. I need to populate my story with interesting characters, snappy dialogue, colorful descriptions … all of that. Oh, and a story. (Can’t forget that part.)
Consider: My new novel Balloon Dog, out this summer from Koehler Books, tells the story of a brazen art heist gone wrong. Somewhere in there, it also tells the story of a writer on the dispiriting end of a disappointing career—wondering not only what he might write about next, but who might be inclined to read it. One early reader called the book a literary mash-up of The Hot Rock, a wild caper wherein Robert Redford and company end up stealing the same diamond again and again; and A Serious Man, the black comedy from the Coen brothers about a man whose life falls apart in ways that leave him questioning his Jewish faith and the road ahead. Another said it was like the love child of a Carl Hiaasen novel and a Jonathan Franzen novel, and still another wrote that it was as if Elmore Leonard and Philip Roth had decided to throw in on a book together. I’m not sure what these lovely and quite possibly flattering comps have to tell us about my book, except that people seem to want to assess a likeable thing by comparing it to two unalike but also likeable things.
Balloon Dog centers on the theft of an industrial-sized Jeff Koons sculpture, and this was perhaps the only piece of the novel’s puzzle that came to me fully formed. It had up-and-happened—kinda, sorta—and how it up-and-happened was this: I was weekending at a friend’s beach house when a couple truckloads of art movers pulled up and announced that they were there to dismantle a very delicate, very valuable sculpture, which they were meant to crate and store for the winter. Actually, the house belonged to my friend’s brother, so for a beat or two we had no idea if these art movers were legit, and in the space between the trucks’ arrival and the eventual all clear, an idea took hold. What would happen if a suspect-looking band of art movers turned up in a similar setting, under similar circumstances, and attempted to remove a similar sculpture from its base without anyone noticing—an art heist in plain sight?
It was, I thought, a great jumping-off point for a novel I might or might not ever get around to writing, and this was where the fiction of that moment took over. It took its sweet time, I’m afraid, because this is where things get tricky for me. Turns out I’m at my most efficient when I have a clear goal in mind as a writer. However, the sliver of brain that houses my meager reserves of creativity doesn’t really switch on when there’s a fixed agenda. In other words, when the story has already been told and there’s a deadline looming, I can find the spine of a piece and bring it to life on the page. In those moments, the writing feels more like craft than art. But when there’s no deadline … when there’s no publisher or editor or client reading over my shoulder with a fixed idea of what I should be writing and on what schedule I should be writing it … when there’s no story, and no cast of characters to help me tell it … well, then it can take me a good long while to find my way.
Here all I had was the whiff of a germ of a kernel of an idea, and all the time in the world to think it through. Or not. Either way, it was on me to figure it out.
About that figuring it out: What slows me down as a novelist is the part I most enjoy. Don’t misunderstand, I enjoy writing books for so many endlessly fascinating and variously successful people. But there’s something thrilling about staring down a blank page, with no idea at first how to fill it, and trusting that the spigots will open in just the right way, in just the right time, and that the right words will ultimately find me. It’s like jumping out of a plane and trusting that your parachute will open: Until it does, it’s terrifying; once it does, it’s exhilarating.
What I’ve found over the years is that the real terror is finding something to say—something that might resonate with readers. That’s the piece I’m not always called upon to supply when I write for someone else, and when I am I invariably push back. Once, when I was working on a parenting book with a well-known television personality, my co-author turned to me and said, “We need to have something in there about children of divorce.” Then, to put an exclamation point on it, he said, “We need to hit that hard.”
And that was that. What, exactly, did he want me to say? Where was I supposed to find these hard-hitting insights and strategies? My celebrity co-author was meant to be the parenting authority in this transaction. I was meant to be his mouthpiece … that’s all. If I knew enough to pass myself off as an expert, my kid wouldn’t have been the one biting the other children in pre-school.
Tell me what to say, and I’m all over it.
Leave it to me to come up with something meaningful, or insightful, or even just a little bit new to say about this or that and it might take a while until my chute opens and I can enjoy that soft fall back to earth.
In the end, with Balloon Dog, I reached for what I knew, and what I knew was this: As a ghost, I was a successful, sought-after writer. As a novelist, I was struggling to find an audience. And so, because I spend my days working alongside ridiculously successful artists and athletes and entrepreneurs who have turned their struggles into lasting legacies, I found myself thinking more and more about the nature of art, the place we make for it in our lives, the value we attach to it and the power it can hold over us. That’s what I decided to write about—and once I did, I found the words to write what I hoped would emerge as a darkly funny novel that pushes readers to consider what it means to create something of value… even if it’s a multi-million dollar Balloon Dog sculpture that looks like a child’s fairgrounds souvenir on steroids.
We’ll see how it turned out.