DON'T CALL me a ghostwriter!
I am the person whose name appears on a book's title page, following the "with," the person whose name is most often in the smaller type, and the proper name for me, technically speaking, is a "collaborator." The ghostwriter is someone whose contribution to the making of a book is not just unacknowledged but purposely concealed. If I have my name on a book, even if it is only on the acknowledgements pages, then I am not a ghostwriter.
With the book business as tough as it is for all writers, established as well as new, and with the buying public increasingly interested in the lives of people who lack either the time or the talent (or both) to write their own books, more and more writers will be asked to write books for and with others. Especially in Washington. And the question of due credit will continue to be a valid one for those who care about the creative process.
It may not surprise you to learn that I did not grow up wanting to be a collaborator, dreaming of helping other people write their books. (In fact, I didn't grow up wanting to be a writer at all.) When I left college teaching in 1968, I hoped to write books of my own, and by the early 1970s I seemed to be on track. I'd published a couple of novels for children, and co-authored a book about a labor union.
Then, in 1973, I got a call from F. Lee Bailey, the criminal lawyer, about whom I'd written a magazine article, asking me if I would like to help him write a book. I said yes, and we did For the Defense. Then he and I did another book, this one on air safety (Cleared for the Approach).
By 1975, Bailey's literary agent, Sterling Lord, had become my agent. He recommended me to Maxine Cheshire and together we produced Maxine Cheshire, Reporter. The next year it was A Term to Remember, an account of former congressman Edward Mezvinsky's service on the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment hearings. (I shared the credit on that one with Kevin McCormally, Mezvinsky's press secretary.)
By 1978, I had done six books in six years, not counting two more short novels for juveniles, but including one Bailey-Greenya effort (the ill-fated Trial of Patty Hearst) that was never published.
I thought I had found my way out of the "with"-- business that year when Peggy Brooks, an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, asked me to do--alone!-- a book about Leo Ryan, the California Democratic congressman who was killed in Guyana. But, unfortunately, after I'd logged several months of work the deal fell through. Since then I have concentrated on finishing my first adult novel, though in 1981 I helped Pete Shields, chairman of Handgun Control Inc., write Guns Don't Die, People Do. My current project--as I wait for my agent to finish reading my novel manuscript--is, as you probably guessed, another collaboration.
The point of including all this background is that I have become, almost unintentionally, a collaborating machine, and, having at least as much ego as the next writer, I complain about it from time to time. In fact, I recently told an interviewer that collaboration was "not work for a grown man." Glib as that may sound, I have to stand by the printed comment, in the sense that no writer should be happy doing someone else's books (or articles or speeches) all the time.
I started wondering, "How do other writers feel about doing books for others, with or without credit?" In fact, Washington is a very good place to pose that question. And in general, the answers provide a ringing defense of collaborative work--as long as the writer is credited-- and also a stinging denunciation of ghostwriting.
Mary Lynn Kotz's obvious pride in the writing she has done with others almost made me feel guilty about my attitude. Kotz, who helped J.B. West with the best- selling Upstairs at the White House, and the late Marvella Bayh write Marvella: A Personal Journey, says, "I've always felt it was like being someone's lawyer: you come in with skills to make a case, so to speak, for someone who doesn't have those skills. It really broadens your experience to wear another person's shoes, or overcoat, or cry into their handkerchief."
Another Washington area writer who has a lot of "with" in his background is Patrick Anderson. Perhaps best known as the author of The President's Mistress, Anderson has been a newspaper reporter, a speech writer (for Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department and for Jimmy Carter in the White House) and has written six books, four of which are novels. In addition, he has worked as a collaborator with Turner Catledge, Jeb Stuart Magruder, and Larry O'Brien. (Watergate trivia buffs will delight in the fact that Anderson helped both Magruder and the man--O'Brien--whose office the Watergate burglars broke into. Anderson refers to that coincidence as "the Alpha and Omega of Watergate.")
"I look at collaboration as simply an honest day's work, and I see nothing wrong with it as long as a writer's main interest is in doing his own books," says Anderson. "You must remember that when you do a collaboration it is their book, not yours."
Some people feel that doing collaborations robs a writer of time and energy needed for his own work, but Anderson disagrees. "I wrote The President's Mistress after six months of writing the Magruder book, six months spent thinking about nothing but Watergate, and I wouldn't have written it without that experience. I think the purists who say a writer shouldn't help others with their books are wrong. There are a lot of people whose stories we would like to know, but we'll never know them if they don't find someone to help them tell them. Besides, it's a good share-the-wealth program for writers."
"I got into it because of a convergence of economic factors," says another collaborator, Taylor Branch. "By which I mean I couldn't make a living just writing magazine pieces, so I turned to doing books, including the books of others, as a way of remaining self-employed."
Branch, who has helped two very different figures, former basketball star Bill Russell and Watergate snitch John Dean, do their books, says, "Collaborations are as different as the people involved, and my relationship with the person I'm working with is far more important to me than people outside the collaboration think. I spent four months living in John Dean's house, and five months in Bill Russell's. Today, Russell and I are friends. It was at his insistence that the credit line on the book, which is told in the first person, is Bill Russell and Taylor Branch."
Lest we forget, there was another Dean book--Mo, by Maureen Dean with Hays Gorey, a respected journalist in Time's Washington Bureau. "I found the whole thing very interesting. I had known Mo slightly from covering Watergate, and had heard that she was quite shy. But she turned out to be enormously candid. I think the book offered a side of Watergate-- the effect on the wives--that none of the other books did. The only problem I had was at the end, when Mo wanted to go back and sanitize things. We talked her out of it, the editor, Nan Talese, and I."
The tendency toward late-blooming sel- censorship is one that almost all collaborators face. Perhaps the saddest account is that of Winzola McLendon, who spent months working with Martha Mitchell, the late wife of Nixon's first attorney general.
"Please don't say we fought all the time," says McLendon, "because we didn't. She was just marvelous to interview. But she was deathly afraid of having anyone back in her little Arkansas home town read about her use of alcohol or profanity. One of the funniest things she ever said to me was when she screamed, 'I don't want any g--d--- cuss words in this book!' "
According to McLendon, who had a 50-50 agreement with her subject, Mitchell had been offered $1 million for her book. Bute, and th procrastination and ill-health prevailed, and the deal was never struck. Later, McLendon did her own book on Martha Mitchell, but for far less money.
It is not at all uncommon for journalists who have covered a major story to be asked later on to work on a book with one of the principals of the story, a point made over and over again by the Watergate scandal. And of the many books generated by that traumatic episode in American history, that of Judge John Sirica was one of the most sought after, both by publishers and writers who knew the judge would need a collaborator.
For a long time, the leading candidate seemed to be Robert L. Jackson of The Los Angeles Times. However, when the smoke cleared and the deal was struck, Jackson was not the writer.
The reason was classically simple: Judge Sirica would not put Jackson's (or any other writer's) name on the cover, and Jackson had turned down the job. Because it would have been his first book, he wanted credit; so he said no.
The man who said "yes" was John Stacks of Time, who had been the magazine's Watergate editor. "I knew going in," he said in a recent interview, "that I would be named only on the inside, so that wasn't a problem. I had no misgivings.
"Just talking to him was special. And it pleased Judge Sirica to have this Time correspondent sitting at his knee. He used to get a kick out of buying me lunch, at the Roy Rogers on River road. All in all, it was a very special experience, a rare chance to be in on history."
Stacks has no regrets over not having his name on the cover of To Set the Record Straight. He says that doing the book helped him break into the "hardback book business" --he wrote Watershed, a book on the 1980 elections.
Of all my collaborations, I've had my name on the cover every time but once, the lone exception being Guns Don't Die, People Do, the handgun-control book I did with Pete Shields. From the very beginning, the deal was that only Pete's name would go on the cover. The publisher's reasoning was that because the framework of the story was so personal--Pete and Jeanne Shields' son had been killed with a Saturday Night Special--only Pete's name should be on the book cover. With some reluctance, I agreed.
The Shields' book provided me with an experience that only another collaborator can appreciate fully, but which bears telling nonetheless. At the posh book party, Shields got up to make his speech, and began by saying, in ringing tones, "I didn't write this book." Standing back at the bar, where all good collaborators belong once a book is finished, I was stunned at the prospect of receiving public credit. Pete's daughter Leslie, reading her father's statement as I had, took me by the hand. She had me halfway to the front of the room when he continued: "All of you in this room, through your work and your contributions, are the ones who wrote this book." Leslie let go of my hand, and I slipped back to the bar.
When Trevor Armbrister, a senior editor at the Reader's Digest Washington Bureau, began work with Jerry Ford on his memoir, he knew he would not be mentioned on the cover. "But I had hopes that might change, knowing of Jerry Ford's reputation for decency." It didn't, but the former president was most generous in his acknowledgement inside the book: "Above all, A Time to Heal would never have come to fruition had it not been for the assistance of Trevor Armbrister, a distinguished journalist and probing reporter."
It is interesting how the collaboration came about. Armbrister heard from his agent that Ford was looking for a writer, and that his was one of six names on the list. He asked for an appointment and paid his own way to Palm Springs. "In talking to Ford I was brutally candid, especially in regard to the pardon, which I told him 'didn't wash as it had been explained to the country.' My half hour meeting turned into a three hour meeting, and then I was asked to step outside, with the Secret Service men and the family dogs. Forty-five miok. Bute, and thnutes later, Ford reappeared, stuck out his hand, and said, 'You're my guy.'
"The more straightforward I was, the better Ford liked it, and over the next year and three-quarters I grew to have a real reverence for the guy, and a respect for his intelligence as an overwhelmingly decent man."
Occasionally political figures write their own books. Such a politician was former Vice President Spiro Agnew. Agent Scott Meredith, who represented Agnew on the selling of his novel, swears that he wrote The Canfield Decision himself. And he adds that Ladies Home Journal, which bought the serial rights, was so skeptical that it sent someone down to Agnew's house to watch him type. "Finally, Agnew called me and said, 'I can't write with this guy staring at me. Get him out of here.'"
Lisa Drew, Doubleday's executive editor, who has done 30 to 40 Washington books and pays close attention to the capital's book business, says "Collaborators are often absolutely necessary, and I find them quite easy to work with. If there's any excess of temperament involved, it is usually on the part of the collaborator's subject. I've learned how good collaborators work: recognizing that most politicians are not inherently interesting, they do what good interviewers do and draw the person out, get the true voice of the person."
"The problem is not finding (collaborators), but finding good ones," says Random House editor Rob Cowley. "Sometimes, because of the arguments that develop, we have to suggest three or four writers before a deal is worked out. And if the subject is a sports figure, forget it --'cause all those cats want to do is to pick up their checks."
Almost all Washington writers willing to collaborate have a story about "the one that got away" or the big one they turned down. Often writers who have "made it" get calls from people who need help. Kitty Kelley, author of Jackie Oh! and The Last Star, says, "I got a call from Zsa Zsa Gabor who wanted help with a book on her life. When I told her I was very busy doing my own book on Frank Sinatra, she said, 'But, darling, he's such a has-been.' "
Larry L. King, who admits that he has become "two-thirds rich" from the theatrical productions of his article "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," says he is relieved not to have to consider collaborating again: "It's poor man's work. You don't do it for art, but only for the money. When Bobby Baker and I were working on his book (Wheeling and Dealing), we were working at totally cross purposes. I wanted confessions that would sell the book, and he wanted to vindicate himself. It was like pulling a hippo's teeth when the hippo doesn't want them pulled." As fate would have it, the Baker book made King quite a bit of money -- which, of course, came in only after he didn't need it (when it had already become clear that King was going to do very well from "Whorehouse" receipts).
King also recalls, less than fondly, doing a book with Representative Pete McCloskey when the California Republican decided to oppose Richard Nixon for the presidential nomination in 1972. "Simon and Schuster was nuts about it. Then, on the day of publication, McCloskey withdrew from the race. I think it sold six copies in hardcover and 12 in paper."
Another problem with having done many collaborations is that you get calls from other writers who want advice. Should they get involved in this or that deal? And, once involved, what do they do if the subject suddenly clams up, dries up, or otherwise causes problems. I once got a call from Don Smith, the founder of The Washington Tribune. Then employed full-time elsewhere, he was enmeshed in a tripartite book deal, and it was getting complicated. He said he had been offered a buy-out, "a fee plus a small percentage." What should he do? I gave him advice straight from the independent writer's heart-- take the money and run. He did. Unfortunately, the book project he helped launch turned to be All You Need to Know About the IRS, by Paul Bute, and thStrassels, which turned out to be a very healthy bestseller. Sorry about that, Don.
Many writers have grave reservations about doing too many "with"-books. Armbrister put it this way: "I don't want to be tagged out there in 'agentville' as someone who can only do books with other people." Armbrister, who has done two books of his own and two collaborations, Ford's and Oh Congress, with Senator Don Riegle of Michigan, has the odd distinction of seeing both of his collaborations make the bestseller list. "I don't want to do it again, at least not now. If I'm ever to break out of the pack, it will have to be with a solo effort."
Taylor Branch laments, "It's very difficult explaining collaborations to people. After a while they say, in effect, 'But don't you want to grow up? '"
I know what he means. I will never forget the woman I once met at a party who, on hearing I was a writer, wanted to know exactly what I had written. I listed the titles of the books I had done and the names of the people I had done them with, and then she said, quite without malice, "But then you're not really a writer. You just help other people write their books."
How did she know to touch my rawest nerve? Of course she was wrong. If you write anything of substance, anything good and decent and worthwhile, for yourself or for someone else, then you most assuredly are a writer. Not only does collaborating give the writer a chance to do what he or she does best, which, along with the money, is the best justification, but it also affords the writer any number of interesting, instructive, and even enjoyable experiences that he or she would not otherwise have. While working with F.Lee Bailey, I was transported by a Lear jet, a helicopter, a sportscar and a boat, all on the same day.
I'd like to report that I'll never do another collaboration until I see a book of my own published, but I cannot afford so principled a gesture. Besides, from time to time I pick up something I wrote for--excuse me, I mean with -- someone, reread it, like it a lot, and think, what am I so concerned about? For I know in my heart that it is far better a story be told with help than not be told at all.