Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Dublin Coincidences

If writers used co-incidences in their plots as often as they actually occur in life, few readers would be convinced. In April a book that I ghosted, Secret Child by Gordon Lewis, is being published by HarperCollins. It is based in Dublin and is the inspiring story of a boy who was born and brought up in a secretive home for unmarried Catholic mothers in the 1950s.

By sheer co-incidence, this Saturday I am being interviewed at the Mountains to Sea Book Festival in Dublin – a city I have never been to before. What are the chances?

On top of that I am being interviewed by Sue Leonard, a journalist I talked to for the first time a few months ago when she interviewed me for the Irish Examiner upon the publication of my memoir “Confessions of a Ghostwriter”.

It seems like the whole thing was just meant to be.

Secret Child is a touching story. Gordon had no idea what his mother had gone through before she arrived at Regina Coeli and he had no idea that he was a secret from her family and from everyone else in the outside world. No one outside the hostel knew that he even existed.

In fact he knew nothing of the outside world until he was old enough to start getting out of the hostel buildings and up to mischief in the streets of Dublin. That was when his mother realised that she was going to have to do something to save her boy from the sort of bleak future that faced so many illegitimate children in Ireland at that time – and save him from the dangers of his own reckless high spirits.

So, at the age of eight, Gordon was introduced to a much older man called Bill and told that he and his mother were going to be leaving the hostel, which had been the only home he had ever known, and travel to England to live with Bill. Over the following years, as the three of them struggled to survive, Gordon came to realise that there was more to his mother’s and Bill’s story than he could ever have imagined.

They had been lovers who had been separated by the religious divides of the time and by the ignorance of their families. Gordon knew Bill was not his real father, but no one ever talked about that, just as no one ever talked about their past life in Ireland. It was like it had never existed. Gordon’s whole life was full of secrets and puzzles and only when he returns to Ireland fifty years after leaving it, is he finally able to make sense of the whole story and understand the full horror of the hardships his mother suffered and the depth of the love story between her and Bill.

It will be wonderful to get to spend a weekend in the city that I have been writing about and experiencing so vividly through the eyes of another.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

A Day in a Ghostwriter's Life

Some days there might be an invitation to fly to a private island on a private jet, or to spend a night lurking in the shadows of a back street brothel with a girl forced into sexual slavery. Most days, however, ghostwriters are like every other sort of writer, bashing away at our keyboards for hours on end. So, let’s pick one of the more interesting days.

Their enquiry had stood out from the usual half dozen that arrive on my screen each day. James emailed that he and his girlfriend, Penny, lived in Switzerland and were looking for a ghostwriter to tell their love story. He warned that it would contain sexual elements that many would find shocking, but that there would also be many lessons to be learnt from it. He told me they would be in London the following weekend and would be staying at the Dorchester in Park Lane. Since I was going to be in Mayfair that Sunday anyway, interviewing an African President whose memoir I was ghosting, I suggested I pop into the Dorchester once I was finished.

The President, an easily distracted man of almost infinite good humour, had to break off from our meeting to deal with a crisis and I found myself free in the middle of the day. James invited me to join them for lunch at Zuma’s, a famous Japanese restaurant in Knightsbridge. Even if nothing came of the book it would be an interesting lunch and would pass the time until the President was free to resume talking.

The couple waiting at the restaurant were extremely good looking, reserved and charming at the same time, intent on making me feel comfortable in their company despite being completely wrapped up in their adoration of one another and being about to share some amazingly personal details about their lives. One chilled bottle of wine followed another as they shyly revealed their tale of true love.

They had met as teenagers and, like Romeo and Juliet, were forced apart by family pressures. Unlike Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, however, these two had been given a second chance, which they had turned into something magical and deeply erotic. By the time the espressos came I was hooked and had agreed to fly out to Switzerland the following weekend so that I could start the process of “becoming Penny” in print.

I was so in thrall to their story I only realised the whole afternoon had sped by when my phone buzzed to tell me that the President was now ready to talk again over dinner. Grabbing a cab back to Mayfair I set the tape recorder going once more and realigned my brain, submerging myself inside the head of a man clinging to power in a dark and dangerous world, many miles from the hushed luxury of the room we were going to be spending the evening in.   

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Five Reasons People Like Owning Slaves.

1.      Slaves make you rich. Without them you can’t build pyramids, railways across Burma, skyscrapers in the desert or very cheap clothes because the wage bills would be too high.
2.      Slaves make you feel important because you can force them to suck up to you, even if everyone else thinks you are a complete plonker.
3.      Slaves make life very comfortable for you because they can be forced to do all the most unpleasant jobs around the house while you loll on the sofa.
4.      Slaves have to have sex with you even when no one else in the world would touch you with a barge-pole.
5.      Slaves allow you to be true to yourself because they can never turn round and tell you that you are just a bully and a loser.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Ten Most Heroic Professions in Thrillers and Dramas

Virtually all the central protagonists in great thrillers and popular dramas tend to belong to the same handful of professions.

The most notable exceptions are those heroes with “special powers”, although of course some of them, like Clark Kent himself, have professional day jobs. (For Clark it is being a “mild-mannered reporter”, which has always struck me as a contradiction in terms).

So, if we take out those with “special powers”, from Batman to the Six Million Dollar Man, what would be the ten most frequently used professions for the heroes and heroines of thrillers and dramas?

Policemen and women inevitably get a good showing because they inhabit exactly the right terrain, dealing with baddies on an hourly basis and solving crimes like the rest of us solve Sudoku puzzles. From the Scandi Noirs to the mean streets of NYC and downtown LA, the dreaming spires of Oxford to the golf club in Midsommer, the principles are the same. The cops are in at the beginning of a drama and stay to the end.

Doctors. They have always been a trusty mainstay. They are the ones who have to deal with the murder victims as well as the critically ill, inevitably becoming involved in the personal crises of other characters.

Soldiers. Obviously, from Flashman to Biggles, they get centre stage in any war drama or thriller, but then there are all the peace-keeping tensions for them to sort out too, from Ireland to the Middle East.

Amateur and Private Detectives. From Philip Marlowe to Sherlock Holmes, from Miss Marple to Monsieur Poirot, they have all the skills of the professionals but the dramatic advantage of leading lives more like our own – sort of.

Lawyers. From solicitors to judges they have the same access to crime and dramatic tales of conflict and justice as the police and the doctors, plus they can wear smart suits and funny wigs.

Secret Service Operators. From Bond to Bauer, the Man from Uncle to John le Carre and Homeland, they get to run the biggest, scariest plots in town, (apart from the superheroes of course).

Medical Experts. These are all the folks who inhabit the same dramatic landscape of sickness, violence and death but aren’t doctors. They are the nurses and midwives, pathologists, criminal psychologists and forensic experts.

Reporters and Journalists. Almost by definition they have access to the best stories and they get to go where the action is; plus they have the added drama of looming deadlines.

Wealthy businessmen and women. These are the guys who run big corporations, (think Richard Gere in Pretty Woman and, of course, Christian Grey in 50 Shades). They fly around in private planes and run dysfunctional families in places like Dallas and in shoulder pads like Joan Collins. They are mostly morally dubious but they get to wear even better suits than the lawyers.

Authors and Ghostwriters. Here’s where I get to confess a personal interest.

I happen to think that ghostwriters are in a similarly fortuitous position to many of the above when it comes to being at the centre of thrillers and dramas. Like all the above their lives tend to be episodic; they receive a commission; they are led into some strange and interesting world that they previously knew nothing about. 

The ultimate tale with the ghostwriter as protagonist must be The Ghost by Robert Harris, later turned into a film by Roman Polanski, with Ewan McGregor at the centre of the plot. I have used the same device myself. In Secrets of the Italian Gardener the narrator is a ghostwriter who finds himself trapped inside the palace of a Middle Eastern dictator as a revolution brews outside the walls. In Pretty Little Packages, recently published by Thistle Publishing, the ghostwriter is drawn into the worlds of people-trafficking and modern slavery when a girl called Doris asks him to write her story because “someone has stolen her beautiful new breasts”.

I guess it is partly the lure of all these fictional adventures which attracts so many of us to follow paths into the professions. Then, when real life turns out not to be quite as exciting as the authors and dramatists led us to believe, we have the books and films to escape back to once we get home from the office.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

"Pretty Little Packages" from Thistle Publishing

Fifteen years ago I was ghostwriting books for the most disenfranchised members of the global community; victims of enforced marriages, sex workers, orphans, victims of crimes, bonded labourers and abused children. Out of those experiences I wrote a novel, (initially entitled “Maisie’s Amazing Maids”, and now re-launched by Thistle Publishing as a sumptuous paperback and e-book entitled “Pretty Little Packages”).

Thistle is an enormously successful imprint set up by London agents Andrew Lownie and David Haviland to keep books alive and available when the more traditional publishing organisations are no longer willing or able to do so. While there have been some grumblings in the industry about the possible ethical problems of agents acting as publishers, and the Society of Authors recommends careful scrutiny of the contracts, Thistle has shown exactly how an agent/publisher can fill this gaping hole in the market, providing another potential stream of revenue for authors.

Electronic developments mean that publishers like Thistle can operate with minimal capital outlay, able to be nimble and responsive to the demands of both authors and readers in ways that are impossible for organisations that have invested in vast, glass, riverside tower blocks and mighty wage bills.

Until a book or author becomes a phenomenon, (step forward J.K. Rowling, E.L. James, Patterson, Donaldson, Walliams, Paddington et al), we authors are really more suited to the cottage industry style of production and marketing than the corporate. A book that can provide a good living to an individual author and an individual agent/publisher is often hard pushed to make any significant contribution to the bottom line of one of the mighty glass tower corporations.

Joe Tye, the ghostwriter protagonist at the heart of Pretty Little Packages, is definitely working at the “cottage industry” end of the business when he is approached by a girl called Doris, who informs him that someone has “stolen her beautiful new breasts” and asks for his help. Responding to her plea plunges him into the dark and dangerous worlds of people trafficking and modern slavery – his discoveries making the glass tower publishers suddenly eager to open their cheque books to him.

At the same time as dealing with the amorous advances of the sixteen year-old daughter of a gangster, who also happens to be his client, and navigating his way through drug dens and backstreet clinics from Brighton to Manila, Joe is trying to be a responsible, newly divorced father to a young son who constantly does the unexpected – and then things turn really ugly.

At the heart of everything sits Maisie, and her network of “Amazing Maids” – all called Doris and all having their breasts stolen. But behind Maisie lie much more powerful and sinister forces. People for whom other people’s lives are entirely expendable. People who do not want Joe telling stories.

Back in the real world; the more publishing companies there are like Thistle the more chance that stories will be told which the denizens of the glass tower blocks would otherwise allow to disappear – stories like Pretty Little Packages.   

Monday, 2 February 2015

The Greatest F***ing Love Story

“How about ‘The Greatest F***ing Love Story?” the publisher suggested as we brainstormed possible titles for an erotic love story that I had ghostwritten for an anonymous European lady, hereafter known simply as “Penny”.

The book had worked out well and one of the biggest agents in London had agreed to take it round the publishers for us. The reactions were dramatic. Some were shocked by the contents and thought it too strong for the general trade market, others were worried that the general public wouldn’t like the fact that it was non-fiction rather than fiction, (they were all at that stage scrambling over one another to find the “next 50 Shades of Grey”). We received some offers but they didn’t seem to reflect the value which we believed the book could have. The advances on offer weren’t dramatic enough to distract us from the paltry percentages we would earn in royalties.

Penny and James, (her lover), decided we should take control of the project ourselves by working with the new and dynamic selective partnership publisher, Red Door, which is the baby of Clare Christian, an editor whose previous venture was The Friday Project, (now part of HarperCollins). We also felt we needed to address the “discoverability” side of the challenge right from the beginning. To that end we hired Midas, probably the country’s best known publishing PR and marketing consultancy, and they worked with Clare on the design and packaging of the book right from the start. We now had all the elements of a traditional publisher in place, but without the overheads of a huge Thames-side building and everything that is required to support such an edifice.

The marketing gurus within Midas liked the idea of “The Greatest F***ing Love Story” as well – it did after all sum the story up at several levels – but were fearful that, even with the asterisks, it would frighten off too many of the potential retailers. More titles were bandied around until we settled on “Chances”.

With the book due to be published in February the mighty Midas marketing machine fired into action as soon as Christmas was out of the way and I found myself writing articles and doing a succession of interviews to promote the book, culminating in an encounter with Claudia Winkleman on her late night Radio2 Arts Show.
Whenever I mentioned to anyone that I was going to be meeting Miss Winkleman I always received the same response - “Oh, I love Claudia Winkleman”.

It didn’t seem to matter what age or gender the person was, or whether or not they were likely to be fans of reality shows like “Strictly” or cultural offerings like “Film Night”, her puppyish glamour had somehow worked on all of them. It appears the woman is fast-tracking towards being a national treasure. What, I wondered, could be the secret of this magical spell she was casting over the nation?

Listening to so many paeans of adoration rang alarm bells. How could the reality possibly live up to this awesome reputation? Was I going to have to report back to all these devoted admirers that in reality the woman was a monstrous confection of insincerity and vanity, propped up by armies of sycophants and hangers on? Could she possibly live up to everyone’s heady expectations?

I have to report that fifteen minutes in a studio with Miss Winkleman is like being enveloped in a particularly cosy nuclear explosion, flattened by a steamroller of charm and wit so overwhelming that you barely notice the pain when she skewers you with an unexpected stab of journalistic enquiry. She opened by caressing the book lovingly, purring with pleasure at the production job Red Door had done on it, and continued in much the same vein from then on. All in all it was the most exhilarating and enjoyable quarter of an hour I can remember ever spending with a total stranger. I felt like we had been friends for ever and that, I suspect, is the secret of Miss Winkleman’s magic.

Chances is the true story of the most erotic of love affairs, of the most intense and rewarding relationship possible between a man and woman – a relationship that blossomed out of heartbreak.

“What” the cover asks “if your first love was your soulmate and perfect sexual partner but you made the mistake of letting them go? What if you were reunited with that first love after fifteen years of unhappiness and you were then able to fulfil every romantic and erotic dream you had ever had?”   

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Confessions of a Ghostwriter

Cover image of "Confessions of a Ghostwriter" by Andrew Crofts, due out from HarperCollins in August.