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Ghosts at the Mayborn Nonfiction Conference
by Jerome Weeks 22 Jul 2010

This weekend is the sixth annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. Literary nonfiction includes everything from narrative features in magazines to full-length histories. But this conference will offer something different than helpful advice or big-name author confabs: a panel on ghostwriting.


This weekend, the University of North Texas presents the sixth annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. Literary nonfiction includes everything from narrative features in magazines to full-length histories and biographies. Conference speakers include such notable authors as Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club), Hampton Sides (Hellhound on His Trail) and Bryan Burrough (The Big Rich). But KERA’s Jerome Weeks notes that this conference will also address a different kind of non-fiction. Two men will talk about their experiences ghostwriting — writing another person’s book, sometimes without credit.

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Bill Marvel and Kevin Fedarko will present a panel on ghostwriting. Both Marvel and Fedarko are experienced journalists who had never been ghosts before. Both ended up working on successful memoirs. And both went in with a low opinion of the craft.

Here’s what Fedarko felt:

Fedarko: “Contempt mixed with, um .. contempt [laughs]. Actually, I don’t know that that’s accurate. I would say just utter disinterest mixed with contempt and a mild grudging respect, I suppose, to the extent that I thought about ghostwriting before this.”

Even so, Fedarko (left) collaborated with Greg Mortenson on the book, Stones into Schools. Mortenson is the mountain climber whose efforts building schools in Afghanistan led to the memoir, Three Cups of Tea, which has been a publishing phenomenon, a bestseller for three years. When Fedarko was a senior editor of Outside magazine, he’d written a  profile of Mortenson in Afghanistan. So when Mortenson had a contract for a second book he couldn’t write, Fedarko was a logical choice. But with publication only months away, it was a frantic, crash project.

Fedarko: “I don’t want to misrepresent it as this kind of ‘marvelous interlude,’ this ‘walk through the garden of ghostwriting’ – no [laughs]. It was really miserable and it didn’t pay nearly enough.”

Bill Marvel is a former features writer with the Dallas Morning News. He had no intention of ghosting until a friend and fellow author introduced him to R. V. Burgin. Burgin is a veteran of World War II. His character appears in the HBO mini-series The Pacific. But Burgin felt there was still more to tell of his experiences as a Marine.

That’s where Marvel came in.

Marvel: “I wasn’t desperate for a project at the time. But I thought, what the heck, I’ll go meet this guy. And within the first three minutes, he said, ‘I don’t want any glorification. I want just the truth.’ And that won me over.”

Many readers are unaware of just how common ghostwriting is. It’s no longer a luxury service reserved for politicians, celebrities and authors like Tom Clancy who can farm out the writing. There are dozens of literary agencies with stables of pens for hire. Even small-scale, self-publishing firms offer ghosting as a service. Any CEO who can’t draft a coherent memo but thinks the world needs his wisdom can get his name on a book.

Yet many readers still believe that any book is essentially a testament by the (nominal) author. Reading it will provide insights into the mind and character of the presidential candidate or talk show host, even though she or he may have done little actual writing.

For such readers, it’s an issue of ‘authenticity’ — a word whose origins and meanings are tied to  ‘author’ and ‘authority.’ Yet it’s not such a simple either-or, did-he-or-didn’t-he? question. From William Shakespeare’s surviving colleagues assembling what they could of his playscripts to editor Gordon Lish practically inventing Raymond Carver’s ‘minimalist’ short-story style, many writers have not been the ‘sole begetter’ of their works. Agents and editors, heirs and spouses often have had a hand in what gets printed under an author’s name.

But while ‘authorship’ may offer a spectrum of involvements and influences, consciously putting one’s name outfront on a book while the hired help does the heavy lifting inside —  that’s a kind of bait-and-switch that leaves Fedarko with some serious reservations.

Fedarko: “Most ghostwriters are participating in what is ostensibly a literary enterprise but which is really more about marketing and packaging. And I think to a large extent that’s what I participated in as well.”

(It should be noted that Fedarko says it was his choice that his name doesn’t appear on the cover of Stones. He’s thanked inside. To appear on the cover, he says, was too much like claiming part of Mortenson’s activities.)

On the other hand, writing Stones into Schools, he says, certainly has helped people understand and appreciate Mortenson’s humanitarian efforts. Fedarko says Mortenson is an inspiring man of action — who doesn’t have the writing chops to explain those actions, not in any coherent or compelling fashion. He’s moving too fast for ideas or frameworks — he’s on to the next thing that needs to be done.

Fedarko: “In some ways, with this book, he may have been seeing for the first time a kind of articulation of what he stands for and why what he does is important.”

Bill Marvel (right) makes much the same point. Writing Burgin’s memoir, Islands of the Damned, made a Marine’s heroic story accessible, readable.

Marvel: “Burgin is from a farm in south-central Texas. He tells wonderful stories but he doesn’t construct a narrative. And he knew right away that he needed a writer. And so I had to construct this voice to tell this story. It would be his voice. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a writer.”

That’s because at its best, ghostwriting is a kind of ventriloquism – not a trick or a con, rather, a way for a writer to lend his skills to another. But voicing another person’s story means a writer must suppress his voice, his ego. And finding that voice, expressing that ego, is often what motivates a writer in the first place.

Both Marvel and Fedarko are currently busy — on their own books.