Ghostwriting often seems like one of those jobs that we logically know exists – celebrity memoir assistance perhaps being its most recognizable form – but we might not often give too much thought to the ghostwriters themselves. Are they only ghostwriters or do they have personal writing projects? Do they want to yell at their uncooperative clients? Sometimes given much of the work and very little of the credit, it can seem, from the outside, a thankless job. However, for someone who is interested in riding the line between journalism and personal essay, ghostwriting can be a satisfying bridge.
Sari Botton, a writer living in Rosendale, NY, has worked as a ghostwriter since the mid-’90s, all while continuing to grow more comfortable with telling her own stories. Her work has appeared in several print magazines and newspapers, as well as online venues like The Rumpus. Recently, along with co-creators Julie Novak and Eva Tenuto, she’s been the writing workshop leader for the TMI Project – which “aim[s] to get women and men from all walks of life crafting and telling the stories that have been burning in their souls while they’ve been afraid or ashamed to share publicly.” They host live performances, writing workshops, and story slams, operating under the firm belief that the personal is universal.
I recently had a chance to chat with Sari about her ghostwriting work, her own writing, and a bit about inspiration.
I suppose the obvious question is, how exactly does one become a ghostwriter? How long have you been doing it?
I became a ghostwriter by accident. Back in 1995 or 1996, when I was working as a reporter at a women’s magazine and looking to go freelance, I was seated next to a literary agent at an Author’s Guild event. The agent was looking for a journalist to hire as a ghostwriter for one of her clients, and that’s when I got started. I’ve done it off and on for years, while juggling other work, like journalism, editing and copywriting.
What profession or type of person most often comes to you for help writing their memoirs? Is it primarily books that you work on, or are there other types of work?
My clients are a mix of people in different professions. For example, I’m working with a woman now who is an advocate for people with disabilities, and a man who is a psychologist. I’ve written for the head of a cosmetics company, a midwife, a fashion designer, a baseball player’s wife… It is usually books, but I have done articles and essays, too.
Does your level of involvement vary from project to project? By that I mean, do you take on the bulk of the writing with some projects, but then act as more of a guide on others?
I work with people in one of two different ways. I either take the lead and do the bulk of the writing, or I am an editorial consultant, which means I am mostly editing and making suggestions about directions the author should go in. When I am being the ghostwriter, sometimes the authors do some writing, but that is just part of them sharing their story with me. I rework what they have written to me in a big way.
I’m sure you have non-disclosure agreements that prevent you from talking specifics, but is it strange to have others take credit for your work? Do many of your projects have “with Sari Botton” somewhere in the fine print?
I am a bit of an anomaly in the ghostwriting field, in that I never put my name on anyone else’s book. It just feels too weird to me. Even if I have done the writing, it isn’t my story. Also, sometimes I have clients who have very different politics than I do, and I don’t necessarily want my name on their book, and they probably don’t want that either. My contract usually stipulates that I get the first acknowledgement, and that I either write said acknowledgement, or have the right to approve or disapprove it. I get a lot of “Thanks to Sari Botton for helping me find the words…”
You’ve said that you encourage your clients “not to be afraid of upsetting the people close to them by writing about them.” How often do you encounter resistance to doing this, or just towards being honest, in general? Any moments of “I am not being paid enough for this shit?”
I should really also charge for therapy. Every. Single. Client. Goes through at least one phase of being afraid to reveal either the truth of what happened, or their true emotions, and often what they’re afraid to share is vital to the appeal of the book. In one case, a book almost didn’t get published because the author was withholding too much.
How has your ghostwriting experience helped you coach writers within the TMI Project?
It’s a very similar process. When I work with ghostwriting clients, I reveal a lot about myself, to put the clients at ease. In the TMI Project workshops, I am always also working on monologues and essays I share with the group. When they hear my vulnerability, they tend to feel it’s okay for them to do the same.
I first became aware of you through your contributions to The Rumpus, particularly your “Conversations with Writers Braver Than Me” series. Have those interviews helped you grow within your own memoir writing?
My Rumpus column has been one of the most emboldening, enlightening experiences for me, and I am so grateful to Stephen Elliott and Isaac Fitzgerald for their support and encouragement on it. I get to talk to authors I greatly admire, and pick their brains about how they have found the courage to reveal a lot about themselves, whether in memoir or autobiographical fiction. I’m still struggling to screw up all the courage I need to put my own memoir out there, but I am making big strides, thanks to that opportunity.
How do you balance your freelance work, ghostwriting assignments and your personal work? Or is it cyclical? Or, do you feel like on some days that you’re still trying to figure it out?
It’s always changing. The workload ebbs and flows. I trying to squeeze in some amount of personal writing every morning. But the paid work always has to be my priority. A girl’s gotta eat.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing two book proposals for the clients I mentioned above, and contemplating putting together an essay anthology. I have a couple of magazine assignments. And I have some personal essays in the works.
That 2010 movie with Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan, The Ghost Writer – Did you see it? (I haven’t.) Thoughts?
I didn’t see it because it is, from what I understand, a scary movie, and I don’t like those! My husband makes fun of me, saying that my definition of “scary movie” is very broad. As in, it includes The Wizard of Oz
Wizard of Oz IS a bit scary. The flying monkeys!
All I need to hear is the Wicked Witch of the West’s music, and I’m running scared.