My name is Ronnie Whelan, John Hayes, Shane Curran: Tommy Conlon on life as a ghostwriter
Pulling out a single, long-forgotten moment from the past will often prompt a landslide of anecdotes, like loosening the one rock that releases the avalanche
If a celebrity needs water pipes mended or slates replaced, he’ll call in a plumber or a roofer. If he needs his story told, he’ll call in a hack for hire. The ghostwriter’s place is at the tradesman’s entrance. It’s a nixer, a paying gig, a job of work.
But if we’re the literary equivalent of the blue collar handyman, unfortunately it’s not exactly a handy little earner. It can’t really be boxed off and wrapped up in a small compartment of one’s leisure time. At some stage of the process it will almost certainly take over your life and swallow you whole. This phase will last weeks at minimum, but probably it will last months. It is a slow, tedious grind.
At the beginning, when the actual writing is but a distant hill on the horizon, it can be fun. You will spend weeks in the company of your subject, revisiting old childhood haunts or the arenas where he made his name. Together you will pore over the musty newspaper archives or sit side by side peering into a computer screen, searching for the match reports that were the bread and butter of his sporting life.
This is an essential part of the process. By revisiting old games, old team mates, opponents, incidents and dramas, the subject’s memory bank is triggered and launched. Pulling out a single, long-forgotten moment from the past will often prompt a landslide of anecdotes, like loosening the one rock on a mountain slope that releases the avalanche.
One cannot know which game or what person or which incident will provide the spark, so the ghost will ask about all of them, hoping for the yarns and memories that will provide the book’s core material. Bit by bit, game by game, year by year, the mosaic is filled.
Obviously it is not enough to revisit just the stats and the scores, the matches won and lost, the heartbreaks and the triumphs. This provides the skeleton of the story, it cannot be done without. But of course the flesh is to be found in the emotions and reflections that this rich period in the subject’s life bequeathed him. The deeper they can dive in these waters, the better the book will be.
Most sportsmen will say, long after their boots have hardened solid in the attic, that they never felt more alive than in those days on the playing field when they were working without a safety net and everything seemed balanced on a knife edge.
The ghostwriter has a responsibility therefore to do justice to that precious time in the subject’s life. The subject, motivated by the financial pay-off in the first place, may not fully appreciate that this book is his one shot at getting it right. But it’s a record of his life that will be there for his children and grandchildren long after his deeds have faded from the public memory.