Thursday, 19 June 2014

Confessions of a Ghostwriter

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

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Christina Foyle - Queen of the London Bookshops

When I arrived in London in 1970, a wide-eyed seventeen year-old, Richard Nixon was in the White House, Edward Heath was taking over from Harold Wilson in Downing Street, the Beatles were breaking up and Foyles was the pre-eminent London bookshop by far.

It was huge, rambling and scruffy and so old fashioned Dickens would not have looked out of place in any of its shambolic departments. The shortest route between floors was via a bare concrete stairwell which surrounded a clanking lift shaft. It had the most ridiculous payment system ever invented, involving queuing two or even three times at different counters, and a reputation for treating its employees as virtual, if willing, slaves.

Hovering over all this was a penthouse, the London home of the fragrant Christina Foyle, (she had a fantastic, peacock strewn country house as well), who had been working in the shop since 1928. Her father had opened the store in 1904. Her biggest claim to fame was the founding of the “Foyles Literary Lunches”; vast, glittering affairs held in the grandest hotel ballrooms of Park Lane, bringing “writers and thinkers” together with their readers. Virtually all the most famous names of the twentieth century ended up at one of these lunches eventually, either as performers or as guests on Miss Foyle’s high table.

A few years later I was commissioned by a magazine to do a series of profiles of interesting London figures. Having just published my first novel, (the publisher was a magnificently eccentric Nigerian by the name of Dillibe Onyeama, who had shot to fame with his own autobiography controversially entitled “Nigger at Eton”), I had personal reasons for wanting to meet this woman who ruled London’s literary landscape. I made tentative enquiries to the bookshop staff, who were obviously puzzled by the very concept of something as vulgar as press relations but promised to pass my request on.

Eventually summoned to a conservatory in the penthouse for tea, I met a woman who seemed to me to be exactly as the Queen herself would be in such circumstances. Later, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, I realised I could also see elements of the same steely, handbag style of charm. It was like being granted an audience with a very grand great aunt, the sort of tea-party conversation I had watched my mother indulging in throughout my childhood. We sat amongst the palms, gazing out across the rooftops of Soho, sipping from wafer thin china cups. She asked me gracious questions about my novel and politely assured me she would make sure it was well stocked in the shop. The interview ended and I wrote the piece.

A few months later an impressively stiff invitation arrived at my bed-sit in Earls Court, inviting me to sit on the high table at the next Foyles Literary Lunch. The format of these lunches was always the same. There would be one or two main speakers, who were usually people with potentially bestselling books to promote, and the rest of their long table would be filled with invited guests who tended to be people who Miss Foyle knew or who she was grooming for future events. All the other tables were filled with the paying customers, who came to eat, listen, buy books and have them signed. The people on the high table would all sit along one side and in my memory they were raised slightly higher than the rest to afford better visibility to the masses- but my memory may have become confused by artists’ depictions of the Last Supper.

All of the denizens of the high table were famous and all of them were, conservatively speaking, at least three times my age. High table invitees were assembled in an anteroom first in order to be greeted and introduced and we made more polite small talk before being wheeled out to the adoring paying public. It was glorious, like stepping into the teachers’ common room at Hogwarts; part of the last great hurrah for publishing elitism before the much-needed tidal wave of democratisation hit books and education and life in general. The age of deference was teetering on the brink of extinction, although it would prove to be a long, drawn out demise, and a whole new world was arriving through the doors which had been thrown open by the pioneers of the sixties.

I received several more such invitations from Miss Foyle and I confess I accepted every one of them because it was a magical kingdom to visit, albeit a suffocating one to live in as a young man trying to break into what seemed like a closed and elite world.

Nearly forty years later my wife and I received an invitation to one of the Queen’s summer garden parties at Buckingham Palace.

“This’ll be a bit of a test for all your wishy-washy republican opinions,” she said when I showed her the invitation.

I didn’t bother to struggle with my conscience for long. For so many years I had been forced to walk all the way round the giant slab of a building and its walled gardens whenever I wanted to get between Victoria Station and the West End that the temptation to see inside the walls was too much to resist, as it has been in any of the other palaces I have managed to infiltrate around the world over the decades.

As the Queen and her family descended the palace steps to mingle with the guests on the lawns I was struck by the fact that she was still dressed pretty much as Miss Foyle had been that day at tea. It was like being transported to a pleasantly landscaped time capsule, rolling green lawns filled with top hats, brass bands, tea tents, officers and bishops. Maybe not as much has changed as I would like to think.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Future of the Book is Authors

The Spring issue of The Author, the invaluable house journal of The Society of Authors, is out and the opening article – “The future of the book is you” – is by Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at the Random House Group.

Being unquestionably one of the leading thinkers in digital publishing, Franklin admits that he occasionally gets asked to comment on “the future of the book”.

“The answer is simple,” he says, “The future of the book is authors. Or rather, the future of the book is whatever authors want it to be: ‘the writer leads, (s)he doesn’t follow'.”

He ends the article concluding that he sees a space continuing to open up in which publishers can play “an important part”, although he doesn't know exactly what it will be.

He puts a key question to authors. “Where do you want to go, and what experiences do you want to create? And,” he continues, “can I come with you, to help you get there?”

Is that the politest and most respectful request any publisher has ever proffered to the writing profession? I would certainly like to hear if anyone has heard anything more heartwarming.  

Thursday, 6 March 2014

The People who Keep the Secrets of the Rich and Powerful

Clustered around the rich and powerful are those who hold their secrets.

The bodyguard of the Sultan of Brunei’s ex-wife allegedly knew her employer was losing a million pounds a day at the gaming tables and helped her to sell jewels to cover her losses. The personal assistants of Nigella and Charles Saatchi revealed uncomfortable domestic details in court when put on the spot. Somebody knew how many pairs of shoes Imelda Marcos was storing up because it was their job to align them correctly. A select few knew exactly what was happening within the palaces of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.  No doubt there are many who know the secrets that lie buried in the palace of newly ousted Ukrainian dictator, Viktor Yanukovych.

These trusted retainers have the real stories that the rest of us, including the media, can only ever speculate about. They know the truths that lie behind the media distortions and the propaganda put out by both the supporters and enemies of their employers. As long as they hold the secrets they hold the power while at the same time being dangerous liabilities to those who need the secrets to remain buried forever.

The Italian Gardener might seem like no more than a wise old man working in the palace gardens, but he and the toppling dictator have a past together which means he knows exactly where the bodies are buried – everywhere.   

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

How Much Should Writers Worry About Sharing Credits?

The media rumour mill has it that director, Steve McQueen, and screenwriter, John Ridley, have fallen out over credits regarding their Oscar-winning movie, “12 Years a Slave”.

If that is true it’s a shame that something which should be a monumental life achievement for them both has been tarnished by what could appear to many as egotistical petty-mindedness.

 As a ghostwriter the twin subjects of professional credit and extreme ego-management are of particular interest to me.

Harry Truman is believed to have said “You can accomplish anything in life provided you don’t mind who gets the credit”.  

Monday, 3 March 2014

Why Most Writers End Up Starving

In The Observer this weekend Robert McCrum wrote a fascinating piece entitled “From Bestseller to Bust: is this the end of an author’s life?”

Partly it is fascinating because nothing much really seems to have changed. To be financially successful as a freelancer you need to be entrepreneurial and most creative people are not. The exceptions, from Dickens to Archer, Rowling to Blyton, are blindingly obvious.

Most writers, like most designers and most musicians, need someone else to take care of business for them. Sometimes that person will be an agent, sometimes a traditional publisher, sometimes a lawyer. It might even be Amazon or a freelance publicist.

Finding the right person and being able to make it worth their while to put in the necessary hours on your behalf, has often been a matter of serendipity. If Rupert Thomson, one of the authors that McCrum cites as falling upon hard times, had had a business partner they would probably have advised him not to hire himself a work space in South London, for instance – rule number one for any freelancer must be to keep the regular outgoings down because you are never going to have regular in-comings.

Yet again, however, we are left at the end of the article not really knowing what figures we are talking about. I wanted to know exactly how much these writers have made each year of their careers. Would it be comparable to the lifetime earnings of a nurse or a doctor? A teaching assistant or a headmistress? These sorts of figures are particularly instructive when you have authors who have been working for a long time, so that blips like occasional large advances or arbitrarily cancelled projects can be ironed out. If we knew those figures we could judge better whether the rewards or the sacrifices of a writer’s life might be deemed worthwhile.   

Friday, 28 February 2014

Our Never-Ending Fascination with the Rise and Fall of Tyrants

The world – or at least the world’s media – are now transfixed by the hunt for Viktor Yanukovych, newly deposed President of the Ukraine, and with exposing the extent of his corruption and extravagance while in power. The rises and falls of tyrants and autocrats always make fascinating and satisfying storylines.  

I confess that the first, (and sometimes only), criterion that I apply when deciding whether I want to take a ghostwriting assignment is whether I find the author and the story “interesting”. The most “interesting” people, however, are not always the ones you would trust to care for your children, your grandmother or even your favourite puppy.  To me, “interesting” still means people the like of which I have not come across before, or people who have lived lives that I do not yet know anything about.

Had a charismatic young German leader contacted me in the nineteen thirties and asked me to help with a book he was planning, tentatively entitled “Mein Kampf”, I might well have skipped over as naively as a Mitford sister to see what the fuss was all about. Lord knows how long it would have been before the penny dropped and I realised the full horror of what this strange little man was actually talking about and I would then have ended up as deep in the soup as the unfortunate P.G. Wodehouse. I might have been equally tempted by a ticket to China to volunteer to help young Chairman Mao knock his thoughts into shape for the infamous Little Red Book.

When I first travelled to Haiti Baby Doc would be ensconced in the white folly of a presidential palace for only a few more years before he was overthrown and fled into exile on the French Riviera. The palace now lies in ruins, as uninhabitable as the rest of the city around it, but then it still gleamed like a heavily guarded wedding cake amidst the squalor as I stood outside the gates staring in, trying to imagine the domestic life of the tyrant and his family, wondering how they managed to justify their actions to themselves and to one another. It was a curiosity which would later tempt me to accept invitations to the palaces of a variety of other rulers, wanting to see what made them different, wanting to understand how they had found themselves in such extreme situations, able to exert their will over whole populations.

I was invited to take tea with Mrs Mubarak at her husband’s palace in Cairo, just before the Arab Spring broke through and brought hope to a city darkened by storm clouds of popular resentment. Inside the palace Mrs Mubarak, who is half Welsh half Egyptian, was a gracious hostess. White coated waiters dispensed cakes, which she assured me were home made. The tranquillity inside the gilded salon was reminiscent of our own Queen’s garden tea parties – where they also provide excellent cakes – completely insulated from the boiling stew of hatred festering in the hot, overpopulated streets outside the heavily guarded walls.

It was that contrast, which I had experienced in similar palaces all over the world, that started me writing “Secrets of the Italian Gardener”. The initially peaceful revolutions that erupted at the beginning of 2011 seemed to promise something wonderful for the world, but it proved to be as brief a moment of optimism as the hippy “Summer of love” in 1969. Now Egypt is plunging back into the familiar cycle of violence and hatred and it is like nothing has changed, except that someone new is no doubt now taking tea in Mrs Mubarak’s elegant palace quarters.

When my agent at United Agents first read “Secrets of the Italian Gardener” he told me it was, “a contemporary re-casting of Ecclesiastes, a story about the vanity associated with the desire for power and possessions and ultimately about the cycle of birth, growth, death and re-birth".

As we see yet more rulers being dragged from power and more corpses piling up in the streets we remain riveted by the endless cycle of ambition and hubris.