The autobiography of a rebellious ghostwriter

by Sam Kriss

I – Birth

I was born… I was born fifty times, maybe, perhaps a hundred, I lose count. It’s hard not to. So many beginnings, all superficially so similar – always the cold linoleum corridors of the hospital, the maternity wards nestled away somewhere in their little catacombs, never all too far from the deathbeds of the old and unlucky. Always the grunts of the mother, the mollifying cooing of the midwives. Oh, not always, of course. Sometimes it’s different. It all depends on who I am at the time. Sometimes, when I’m a particular type of rock star, for instance, I am born in a spattered mess of lurid detail, slick with blood and mucus, bursting from fissured tissue, screeching my dissatisfaction with this bright cold new world. Sometimes – frequently – I’m born in saccharine soft focus, I bounce and gurgle improbably, I editorialise about the life-affirming beauty of the event. Sometimes there are husbands and boyfriends there, tightly holding the hands of my many mothers and being generally useless. Often, of course, they’re conspicuously absent.

Being born is easy. Anyone could do it. Giving birth is harder. I’ve done that, too, but rarely in as much detail; it’s always a rather brief affair. The public is always far more interested when it’s me violently pulling myself into existence than when I’m doing the pushing. I don’t know why.

II – Life

Enough with the masks, you say. Tell us about yourself, your actual self. Well, they’re not masks, and I have only told you about myself, my actual self, but I’ll indulge you a little. I live and work in an apartment in Upper Manhattan. It’s nice, I suppose. Not a penthouse, not dripping with gilded ostentation, but comfortable enough. It’s not really mine. The Company owns it. I think they want to hand over the deeds as a token of thanks when I retire, which is sweet of them, but I can’t ever really retire, I have to keep going until I die. I have a large wood-panelled study where I interview my subjects. It’s crammed with books. My subjects expect the books, their presence make them more comfortable; I never read them. I gave up reading other peoples’ words a long time ago. There are companies; you can buy old hardbacks by the metre. If you were to actually inspect the covers (nobody ever does) you’d see it’s all a mishmash: most of the books are forgotten mid-century novels, never bestsellers, never particularly literary, valuelessly mediocre. Here and there are laughably outdated works on history, anthropology, ethnography, linguistics, similarly forgotten. There’s some poetry in there too, Schiller and Goethe, in the original German, I think. I don’t speak German.

I’m a ghostwriter. I write the autobiographies of other people. Celebrities, mostly; people not trusted to do the job for themselves. Singers, actors, models, reality show contestants, gameshow presenters. Most books sold these days are airport novels, textbooks, or celebrity autobiographies, and I take up a pretty big share of that last field. Go to any bookstore and you’ll find my books, shelves and shelves of them, generally with eye-wateringly bright covers dominated by one of my many faces, with one of my many names in big block capitals. The subtitles tend to be variations on a theme: My life or My struggle or My story, and so on. I don’t choose them, the Company does. Perhaps they have a computer there, up in their offices, with some algorithm determining subtitles based on a set of facts about the subject. Perhaps they draw them out of a hat. I’m not really bothered.

Collecting the facts is easy, really. The subjects come up to my office and tell me their story. Sometimes I have to fill in some of the gaps for myself. Sometimes the Company gives me a little list of events that should be spun in a particular way: the firing of the manager was an amicable affair, the weird druggie phase was a hideous experience remembered with deep shame (or, increasingly, the opposite: it was incredible and they don’t regret a thing). I don’t object. I have no illusions about my craft.

The stories stick to a familiar pattern: the humdrum beginnings, the fortuitous discovery, the precipitous rise to fame, the gut-wrenching realisation that Money Can’t Buy Happiness, pathos-ridden episodes in which old friends are deserted and family scorned, downward spirals accelerated by drink and drugs, rehab, rapprochement, catharsis. Anyone could churn out a half-decent iteration of this quotidian little tale. My subjects could probably do it themselves, to be honest. I keep quiet about that.

Where my real talent lies is in the voice. I can steal my subject’s voice, I can snatch it from out of their throats. The discerning reader knows, intellectually, of course, that the book they read was not written by the person whose name appears on the cover (they’re wrong) – but they become immersed, I can make them forget what they at least think themselves to know. It’s not just a matter of using the right vocabulary, the right register, the right little catchphrases, although that’s important as well. When I interview my subjects, half of the time I don’t even pay attention to what they’re saying. I’m busy feeling for their voice, slowly sounding out the topography of their linguistic bearing. After I’ve done this, I could probably reconstruct the details of their whole story on that basis alone.

Sometimes, after a few interview sessions, the subjects start to see me as a kind of therapist. Maybe it’s the couch, the room full of books, me sitting across from them with the notepad. I have to remind them, gently of course, that while of course I care deeply about how miserable they are and the manifold reasons for their misery, the general public doesn’t necessarily share my concern. Their vulgar attempts at semi-Freudian autoanalysis are, after all, rarely relevant to the story. People don’t read celebrity autobiographies for the Oedipus factor. They – my subjects – are all in actual therapy as well, of course, without exception. Most of them are dosed up to the eyeballs on antidepressants, some on antipsychotics as well. I’ve had famous people, public figures, collapsing into shuddering tearful paroxysms in my office. I feign sympathy as best I can.

Have I ever slept with one of my subjects? Once, only once. The girl was a wreck, frankly: she was going through six psychiatrists a year, they couldn’t keep her, she kept fucking them. I never did that again. It wasn’t that I felt some sacred line of separation had been crossed, as if I were intruding into the story, I didn’t even feel particularly guilty; it’s just that I have my own way of crossing, my own way of intruding. I won’t name names. It would be gauche, I think.

All day I listen to famous people tell me stories they have told a thousand times before. All night I write them up. I go out, sometimes, to the grocery store, or to the bank. I still need food. Newspapers, when I have the time. Cigarettes, although I smoke only when I’m writing. Clothes, too; the Company needs me to look presentable. Occasionally I see a movie. Or I eat at a restaurant. A nice one. I can afford it. Alone. I don’t mind.

III – Sarcophagy

I am a rebellious ghostwriter. I think I may have mentioned that. But I never lie; everything I write is always scrupulously truthful – or, at least, truthful according to the reality generated at the intersection between my subject and the Company. Nor do I ever insist on myself in what I write, sneak in fragments of my own voice, my own persona, as if to remind the reader that the book they are holding is a fiction. There’d be some rebellion there, I suppose, but it’s of a dismal, futile sort. If I were to do that, to insist on the independence of a singular I against all my many subjects, I would be admitting defeat, I would be affirming only my own smallness. They would envelop me – I might make a desperate grasp, and with strenuous effort poke a little hole in their facades, but that would be all.

There is no singular I. We are all multiple.

When I said I have been born fifty times, a hundred times, I wasn’t being metaphorical. When I said I can steal my subject’s voice, I wasn’t using a figure of speech. It’s all me. Perhaps it’s better to call me a revolutionary rather than a rebel. When I write someone’s autobiography, I consume them. Oh, not the physical body itself, that stays. But their story, their voice, that belongs to me now. I become them. Their birth becomes my birth, their childhood mine, their happy memories mine, their psychoses mine, and if I seem at all disdainful towards them now, it’s only because very few of them don’t hate themselves. It’s not always a pleasant process. I need it, though. My multiplicity is never sated. I hunger. We hunger.

By the time the presses start rolling, my subject becomes, well, a part of my Subject – with what remains of them left a person stripped of all being. They don’t all die instantly, but after publication few make it longer than a year. Sometimes they will appear on a few reality TV shows, have a couple of photoshoots for increasingly unglamorous publications, they may even feature in a movie. But they’re done. Their story has been written down now, the stamp of history has been placed on their life, and there’s little for them to do but fade away.

I’m good at what I do, and that’s why the Company hires me. They’re not just a publishing firm, although I do tend to deal only with the publishing division. They run the agencies, the star-spotters – and when, for whatever reason, they want to get rid of a particular person on their books, they commission me to write an autobiography.

It’s far tidier than assassination. Sometimes I think Mark David Chapman may have been one of my less sophisticated predecessors. Lee Harvey Oswald too, for all I know. It’s possible. The Company is far larger than I can perceive; in all my contact with it I’ve been feeling along one tiny edge of some impossibly vast and expertly hidden structure. I don’t worry myself about it. It’s not my business.

The bell rings. It’s one of my subjects, a new one. There are perfunctory introductions. “Sit down,” I say. And then, after a while, “Tell me about your birth.”