One of the ghostwriter’s most valuable skills is getting their subjects to talk. So, when I gathered L.A.’s most successful ghostwriters at the Formosa Cafe to gossip, they knew all my tricks. In desperation, I went with the most transparent of all reporting techniques — buying them all fruity cocktails.
A reputation for discretion is not only how they get work, but how they avoid getting sued; they sign nondisclosure agreements for every memoir they write. But even if they revealed nothing scandalous about their famous clients — or at least nothing that couldn’t be discovered with a Google search — I learned a lot about the curious craft of ghostwriting and the types of personalities drawn to help famous people tell their life stories. Also, I learned why I am far too egotistical to do their job.
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Sitting around the table were Neil Strauss (who has written memoirs for Rick Rubin, Kevin Hart, Mötley Crüe, Marilyn Manson and Jenna Jameson); Lisa Dickey (George Stephanopoulos, Jill Biden, Tammy Duckworth, Patrick Swayze, Herbie Hancock, Gavin Newsom); David Rensin (Bernie Brillstein, Garry Shandling, Chris Rock, Jeff Foxworthy, Tim Allen, Yanni, Louis Zamperini); Hilary Liftin (14 New York Times best-sellers for a variety of super-well-known Hollywood celebrities whom she’d rather not reveal in public); and Sarah Tomlinson (more than 20 books including five New York Times best-sellers and an upcoming novel about ghostwriting, The Last Days of the Midnight Ramblers). I added in quotes from David Ritz (Marvin Gaye, Etta James, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Val Kilmer, Kevin Garnett, Lenny Kravitz, Janet Jackson), even though he was not at the Formosa but we talked on the phone.
Is it OK to call you guys ghostwriters?
DAVID RITZ I like the term “ghostwriter.” I was on a panel of biographers and one of the people on the panel says, “Ritz shouldn’t be on the panel because he’s a ghostwriter and they’re hacks. They’re not real writers.” I say, “What about The Autobiography of Malcolm X, that was ghostwritten by Alex Haley. How about the Bible? Who wrote the Bible? That’s the ultimate ghostwritten book.”
NEIL STRAUSS What is the difference between a ghostwriter, a collaborator and a co-writer?
LISA DICKEY I feel like a ghostwriter is somebody who is going to help them get it on the page. Oftentimes that means you write the whole thing. I just did a book with George Stephanopoulos that’s coming out in May, and it’s about the White House situation room. He and I were collaborating. We talked a lot about who we were going to interview and what is the structure going to be.
SARAH TOMLINSON I’m almost like a music producer. I know how to make an album. You wouldn’t shame a musician for having a producer on their album.
DICKEY You might decide what you want your house to be like, but there’s no shame in admitting that you used an architect.
Is there shame in being a ghostwriter?
STRAUSS It’s the reverse of shame. “I wrote a book” is a proud statement. It’s like, “I really want to take on this accomplishment.”
TOMLINSON Celebrities can make much more money having a perfume or a residency in Las Vegas. They have a passion to write a book. Are they always big readers themselves? Not necessarily, but that doesn’t take away from the care that they have. Because it’s still exhausting, even when you have someone to help you.
Why did you all laugh when Sarah said, “Oftentimes they’re not really readers.”
DAVID RENSIN Because they’re not. Sometimes they don’t even read the book that you wrote.
Has that ever happened to you?
RENSIN Once. He went on TV to talk about the book and I’d be damned if he read it.
DICKEY I know all of mine read them. They were all very involved in making comments.
RITZ Joe Perry of Aerosmith is super smart and wanted to go through every draft. B.B. King read his book, and he said, “I have two words to say: ‘Thank you.’ ” He didn’t change a word. The first book with Ray Charles, I had to transcribe the whole book into Braille, and he would say, “I’m not sure I would use that word.” He helped me as a line editor. He was great. But the revisions took a month.
TOMLINSON I had one who put off reading it until the very last minute. When my own books come out with my name on them, I’ve done the exact same thing. And I can laugh at myself and be like, “Here’s your karma. Remember when you were frustrated because you thought that person should have done the edits right away and now you realize they were just terrified?”
STRAUSS And in this culture, you’re so vulnerable. I forget what happened with the Lena Dunham book [Editor’s note: Some called her childhood story about examining her sister’s genitals “sexual abuse”], but it was something they didn’t see coming.
HILARY LIFTIN That’s a newer aspect of our jobs. The press is going to look for salacious things they can pull out as a quote. So we become experts at not saying it concisely so that it’s very hard to quote.
STRAUSS One of my fears is that only narcissists will still want to do this, because the culture is merciless to people who confess real, vulnerable things that other people really relate to.
Speaking of narcissism, is it important to have your name on the book cover?
LIFTIN I don’t like cluttering up the jacket. If I’m buying a book, I expect to see one name. I don’t think there’s a reason to hide my participation, but I also don’t think there’s a reason to promote it because it’s not a marketing piece.
DICKEY I really like being on the cover. We’re good at what we do. I like to have that acknowledged.
TOMLINSON You ever add yourself to the acknowledgments? I add myself.
RENSIN I’ve added myself to Jeff Foxworthy, Chris Rock and Garry Shandling. The Chris Rock one was a joke. He asked me what books I’d written, and every single one I said, he would go, “That’s white.” Then he writes in the acknowledgments, “No white man in America understands the plight of the Black man more than David Rensin.”
STRAUSS I noticed in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new book, he thanked the agent but he didn’t thank the ghostwriter.
DICKEY In her acknowledgment, Britney Spears said, “You know who you are.”
STRAUSS But the rest of the world will not.
DICKEY That’s not helpful if you’re a ghostwriter.
RENSIN Having your name on the cover and in the acknowledgments is how you get work.
DICKEY Neil, you’ve reached a point where your name on the cover could actually help.
STRAUSS So I have to decide what serves the book. I’ve had situations where my name was contracted to be on the cover and I thought it might serve the book better with my name not on the cover.
DICKEY There was a period of time where I thought, “What am I doing? I should be writing my own books.” I did finally publish my own book in 2017. It didn’t do tremendously well, but I had my own book and I was happy. Then I realized it’s a really unusual skill set that we all have. You have to be able to write, but you also have to be able to write in another person’s voice. You have to be able to gain a person’s trust and have them open up to you.
RITZ Rick James was totally open. But I couldn’t keep up with him. It got too much for me. I had to stop. Then he got caught in some kind of criminal action and went to jail for years. [Editor’s note: James was convicted of kidnapping and assault in 1993.] Locked up in jail he became a different person. He was clear. I got everything I needed. It was perfect, here’s a guy who couldn’t keep still for any amount of time and was now in a position where he could tell me everything. With Gary Sheffield, Kevin Garnett, Ralph Branca, Laila Ali, I caught these athletes when they retired because they’re in a reflective mood.
LIFTIN When I realized that I got to tell stories of these incredible lives and I didn’t actually have to live those lives, I was really happy. I was done writing about myself. I love the intimacy of working with somebody.
STRAUSS And you can avoid all the marketing. You just move on to the next creative process.
LIFTIN A lot of people become writers because they want attention for their work.
You’re looking at me.
STRAUSS That is true.
LIFTIN I don’t feel much ego in my work. I’m not trying to be famous. I love helping somebody bring their story into the world.
RITZ You have to be an empath.
TOMLINSON I’m the child of a narcissist. People who have had a narcissist parent are really good at going into the room and taking care of someone else’s feelings or just reading them very closely.
STRAUSS I had a narcissistic parent. You had a narcissistic parent. Does anyone else have a narcissistic parent?
RENSIN My mother.
STRAUSS As a young child, I had to understand things that my mom told me that weren’t maybe appropriate. And that gave me that empathy to deal with all these different people we’re talking to and write as if you’re them. There’s a loss of sense of self with a sociopathic or narcissistic parent.
Is there a trick to capturing someone’s voice?
STRAUSS I read their emails and texts to capture their voice. When I was doing Kevin Hart’s book, I watched all his comedy specials and all his interviews.
RITZ Comics are hard to get. The world is familiar with their storytelling voice. The world is not familiar with Aretha Franklin’s voice. To re-create that voice takes time. With Sinbad and Don Rickles, they both went through a lot of revisions. It was three drafts before we got it.
DICKEY You do become so immersed in the person. I did a book with Cissy Houston. It was supposed to come out on the one-year anniversary of Whitney’s death. So I’m with this woman who’s seriously grieving. And I took all that on. When it was done, my wife was like, “I’m really glad to have you back.” Because she felt like she was living with this grieving octogenarian for three months.
RITZ Val Kilmer was emotionally very draining. He’s a motherfucker. He’s a very abstract talker. I had the double challenge of literally not being able to hear him because of the hole in this throat, and when I did learn to understand him, I had the challenge of, “How am I going to turn this guy into a cohesive narrator?” I took it on because I admire him. He’s a great actor. He’s also an intellectual guy.
LIFTIN I’m a pretty Spock-like person. But I was working on this book and I was writing about how this very important figure in her life died. And I’m sitting in a cafe writing that scene and I just burst into tears and I was like, “Who am I right now?”
DICKEY Have you cried with a client?
I’ve interviewed people and they cried, but I didn’t cry with them.
DICKEY But you are meeting them for a few hours. This is a different thing. I had a client where she carried this baby to term and then the baby died. And I was writing that in the first person as if it happened to me. You start to really feel it. It’s so intense.
It seems like somewhere between writing and acting.
DICKEY I think actors go through something similar. After I finish a book that I was completely immersed in, I will flip through my own photo albums and reacquaint myself with my life.
If you’re getting that deep into someone’s life, do you avoid taking on a project with a horrible person?
DICKEY I was offered to do a project with a person who had suffered terrible sexual assault. Repeatedly. Over a many-year period. I am so happy for this person to be doing this book and putting this out, but I can’t do it. It’ll wreck me for so long. I also thought there could be malevolent forces that could come down on me.
LIFTIN I had a moment when I was not sure I was safe.
From the client or from the people in that person’s life?
LIFTIN In that person’s life.
DICKEY I had a client who was like, “You should only work on my book on a laptop that is not connected to the internet. And none of it should be connected to your personal devices.”
Do the people you are writing for ever lie to you about their lives?
LIFTIN People lie, but you check it out and you remind them.
That sounds uncomfortable.
LIFTIN Sometimes they have lied to themselves for long enough that they’re reporting what they’ve always reported. Later on, they tell me the thing they haven’t admitted to themselves. A lot of public figures feel set free because for the first time they’re in control of the end product. I always say, “Tell me the truth and we’ll see how it looks on the page and how it feels to you.”
RENSIN Somebody I worked with said that the Jews killed Christ, and then later asked me to bury that tape at the bottom of the ocean.
RENSIN Hell, no.
Do you want to say who that was?
RENSIN Hell, no.
So initially people don’t trust you even though they get to decide what stays in the book?
RENSIN I co-wrote a book with Yanni, who was a fantastic guy. He says the word “fuck” a lot. But he was so press-shy that I have to convince him that I’m not the press. And then he really opened up.
How long did that take?
RENSIN A year.
RITZ The intimacy with Willie Nelson happened really fast. He has no ego. He’s not trying to hide anything. He’s probably my favorite because he’s happy with who he is. In the case of Marvin Gaye, that book was called Divided Soul because he had so many aspects of himself at war with each other.
DICKEY People tend to get very nervous as you approach publication. People start to say things like, “Oh my God, this is going to be in bookstores. I don’t know if I can keep this in.”
STRAUSS There’s this moment that I’ve had with every single person right before it’s about to come out and reality hits. Especially in this savage culture we’re in right now. I’ve had someone once go to the publisher and say, “I’m going to kill myself if this book comes out.”
What did you do?
STRAUSS The book didn’t come out.
DICKEY Did you get paid?
STRAUSS Did I get that last payment? You know how they’re sneaky when they say, “upon completion”?
LIFTIN I’ve worked that into my contract. I make sure that I get paid regardless of whether they decide to publish it.
So you both have had this happen once?
STRAUSS It might be more than once.
Has anybody backed out before publication? Do you still get paid?
DICKEY I had one book where we had finished the entire manuscript. Everybody loved it. The publisher was ecstatic. And then we learned that legally the person was constrained from talking about two-thirds of the things that were in the book. And to the person’s credit, they said, “Let that person sue me for doing this book.” And it came out exactly as we wrote it.
Did this person get in trouble legally afterward?
DICKEY That person did not come after her at all.
STRAUSS I tell everybody I work with, “There’s going to be a moment when you have this fear. Let’s talk about it and we can probably work it out.” Because every fear that everyone’s had, none of those things ever happened. Not a single one.
Have you guys been fired in the middle of a book?
RITZ I chased after Aretha Franklin for years. Mailing her postcards every year, saying, “I’m in Detroit, can I see you?” Finally, she calls the hotel and says, “I’m ready to talk about doing a book.” This is a dream of mine. I start writing the book in her voice and she reads the first 40 pages and says, “This isn’t me. Just type what’s in the transcript.” I ultimately got canned. It hurt. I had been told she had a wall, but I told myself, “Man, I’m going to be so charming and so disarming that I’m just going to break through.” I didn’t put a dent in the armor. I didn’t get anywhere. She was not prepared to speak intimately about her life. I wound up writing a biography about her.
Do you ever become friends with people after the book is out?
LIFTIN Not always. The whole dynamic has been that they talk, you listen. You can either keep that dynamic going or try to switch it up.
RITZ Paul Shaffer is still a really close friend of mine. One of the things about being a good ghostwriter is being nonjudgmental, but still challenging their bullshit. The minute they feel like you’re judging them, it’s all over.
STRAUSS While we’re writing it, I’m with them all the time. I start to understand them in ways better than their own bandmates or their family or manager. You’re seeing them at a level that maybe they’ve never allowed anyone to see them. So their manager is calling for advice on how to handle them. You become part of their very small inner circle. But once your use is over, they’re very busy people.
RENSIN Anyone ever ask you for love advice?
STRAUSS Oh yeah.
What do you do?
RENSIN You give it to them.
STRAUSS You give them advice on everything in their lives. They don’t talk to anyone as much as they talk to you. You really know them better than anybody.
How long does it take you to write one of these books?
LIFTIN Four to six months.
TOMLINSON I did one in eight weeks. And that was back when I did my own transcription.
RENSIN I had four months to do Tim Allen. You go on the set of The Santa Clause and you meet him in the trailer every day and talk.
LIFTIN I had one book where I had 20 hours with my client.
At what point are you done? The final draft?
STRAUSS I shepherd it all the way through, down to photo placement to the copyedit.
RITZ Down to the flap.
STRAUSS The funny part is that lawyers give the legal questions. Then I have to ask Tommy Lee, “Is it true that you witnessed Ozzy Osbourne peeing on a pool deck while snorting a line of ants?”
What did Tommy Lee say when you asked him that?
STRAUSS “Fuck, yeah.”
How do you get these gigs?
RENSIN I don’t know how many people here have been lucky enough to have agents who brought them work, but I found my own thing or got it through word-of-mouth.
So you’ve gone after someone you were interested in?
RITZ Ray Charles’ manager wouldn’t let me meet him. I figured if I sent him my telegram in Braille, he’d read it. I had wanted to write a biography of him. My agent asked me, “Which book would you rather read, a book about Ray Charles by an egghead like you, or a book by Ray Charles in his voice? Write the book you would read, not the one you want to write.”
DICKEY If people are interested in these people a hundred years from now, they will read these books. That’s really meaningful to me. I did a book with Herbie Hancock. If people are interested in jazz, they will pull that book off the shelf. It feels better than doing an article in a magazine. These don’t go away.
TOMLINSON I have a co-writing project coming out in April with an actor named Russ Tamblyn, who was in the original West Side Story. He dropped out of Hollywood in the ’60s and moved to Topanga Canyon with Dean Stockwell — who was his best friend — and Neil Young and Wallace Berman, the conceptual artist. So much in L.A. had been written about Laurel Canyon, but I hadn’t known much about Topanga Canyon. When you find a pocket of history that’s not been completely exhausted, it’s so delicious to get in there and hear firsthand accounts. He went from Cecil B. DeMille to David Lynch. He will be 89 when the book comes out April 9.
STRAUSS Capturing these stories before you lose the person is so important. I was working with Lisa Marie Presley on her book before she passed, and maybe we got to half of it.
DICKEY I interviewed for that job.
TOMLINSON I’ve been up for a lot of the same ones, too.
DICKEY The ones that I interviewed for that you got, I was told that they liked me, but I was not rock ’n’ roll enough.
STRAUSS Really? That is so funny. But it haunts me every day that the other half of her story will never be told.
Are you ever going to do anything with what you have?
STRAUSS It’s up to the publisher. I hope so, but the fact is that the second half still won’t be from her memory. I do feel, like with Russ Tamblyn, there are stories that need to be told. Sometimes I’ll try to find somebody whose story needs to be told. Even with Mötley Crüe, I approached them. I’m not sure their story needed to be told, but I was a younger person then.
It needed to be told. As a warning, if nothing else.
STRAUSS I’d love to do a book with Siouxsie Sioux. She’s so amazing, and her story hasn’t been told. I’ve been trying to find her.
TOMLINSON I have a connection.
DICKEY If we’re doing this, does anybody know Sandra Bullock or have a connection?
Are there people you’re all looking for?
STRAUSS Can you say who?
DICKEY No, because then you’ll get them.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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