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Ghostwriting for a Ghost

John Peragine talks about finishing the manuscripts of his old friend and mentor—and ghostwriting for an actual ghost.

John Peragine talks about finishing the manuscripts of his old friend and mentor—and ghostwriting for an actual ghost.

Have you ever considered what would happen if an author died before publishing their book? Would it be buried with them? Fortunately, my close friend planned ahead and willed me the rights to his unpublished works.

For many authors, there is that one teacher, mentor, or friend that inspired them to write and supported their dream. For me, that person was Arthur “Pete” Ballard.

The year was 1985. I was about 15 years old, and I was attending North Carolina School of the Arts as a flute player. Think Hogwarts for the arts. I was many miles from my home in Florida, and I remember walking into his classroom. He looked like a cross between Van Gogh and Hemingway. Wild white hair with a beard to match. A coffee ring on his desk from his endless spills, and the air was full of his cigarette smoke from his Pall Malls. (This was the '80s in a school of bohemians).

He read The Scarlett Letter and The Crucible to us, and he opened my world to literature and great writing. Then I got sick. I was in the hospital for a week, and Mr. Ballard visited me daily with flowers and a card signed by my classmates. My mother came and took me home to recover, and the next year I returned to school, and we remained friends.

Even though I was studying music, he inspired me to write. Even after I graduated, we remained friends for the rest of his life. It only took me about 25 years to believe I could be a writer, even though he knew it all along.

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Pete Ballard’s life could be the memoir of the “Most Interesting Man in the World,” even though he was a teetotaler. His friends were Sarah Churchill (daughter of Winston Churchill), Thornton Wilder (award-winning author and playwright) and Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind) and Tennessee Williams (American playwright), just to name a few. He raced camels in Arabia and was present for two international wars as a warden of peace. That barely scratches the surface of who the man was, but to me, he was very dear friend and confidant.

His one wish before he passed away was to publish his two books and his collection of short stories, but alas, it was not to be. And so, in his will he passed the rights to the works to me, with a promise I would do what he could not.

Pete was not a man of the digital era, and so all his manuscripts were handwritten and typed. Quite the task to decipher and quite the responsibility to complete. I have never met any other writer who received such an inheritance.

I share this inheritance with my friend Craig Spurlock, who was also a student of Pete’s. Craig is in the film industry and Pete always imagined his books as movies. Again, no pressure.

I am a ghostwriter to a ghost. His persona is etched into my psyche, which under normal circumstances as a ghostwriter, would be a good thing. Lately, he has appeared in my dreams, complete with his faithful cloud of smoke. He asks me how I am progressing and quickly shoots down my excuses. I loved the man in life, but as a ghost, he can be pretty demanding. Worst client ever! I can’t even fire him.

His work intimidates me. How can I possibly write the way he did? If I have questions, who can I ask? His books were written over many years, and not only do they need to be transcribed into a word processor, but they need to be updated for today’s market.

I have spent countless hours with him, and when I close my eyes I can see him sitting in his wingback chair, with one cigarette between two fingers and ashtray full of ones he had forgotten he had lit. I can hear his gravelly voice with his slight West Virginian twang telling about his early life living in a small coal town.

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I ask a question about the book, close my eyes, and imagine how he would answer it, and listen for the words he would use. This is important because his main characters are all representations of him. It is this roll of film I have in my head of the thousands of hours we spoke. Well, he mostly spoke, and I just listened. I must capture the ghost in ink and fiber.

It is an unusual situation, and a challenge in which I hope I will learn more about myself as a writer, especially a ghostwriter. I am extremely honored that he chose me for the task, but I may need a psychic medium before I’m done.

Do yourself a favor, and have a talk with your family about how you want them to handle your manuscripts. Put it in writing or talk to an attorney. Give your words a chance to become immortal even though you are not.

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