Cole Brown was waiting out the pandemic in Australia when his friend Matt James, who had found fame and courted controversy on the 25th season of the reality TV show “The Bachelor,” reached out to him about collaborating on a book. James was the first Black bachelor to be selected for the popular series, and before the season had finished, a photo surfaced of the contestant he had fallen for, a white woman, at what has been described as an “antebellum plantation-themed party.”
James was offered a book deal to write about his experience on the show, and to share his thoughts on the challenges of being a Black man in America. That’s when Brown, a part-time Oak Bluffs resident whose book “Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World” had been recently published, got involved.
Writers are often hired to assist high-profile people write their books — think politicians, entertainers, and others who have found notoriety. These writers are sometimes referred to as “ghost writers.” They may receive credit for their work on the book’s jacket under the word “with” or “and,” as in the case of James’ book — “First Impressions: Off-Screen Conversations with a Bachelor on Race, Family, and Forgiveness” by Matt James with Cole Brown. (Published by Worthy Books, and to be released on May 3.) Or sometimes a ghost writer is exactly that, ghosted, and may simply get a thank-you in the book’s acknowledgements; and there are times they don’t even get a thank-you.
Seasonal Vineyard Haven resident James Dale has been working on books with politicians, sports stars, and others for three decades. Dale, whose most recent collaboration was with Congressman Elijah Cummings (who died in 2019) on his memoir “We’re Better Than This: My Fight for the Future of Our Democracy” explained, “Sometimes the public wants a sense that the person whose book it is was written by them, and not polished up by somebody else. But generally the public doesn’t really care. They buy the book because of the ‘big name.’ They don’t buy or not buy the book because I co-wrote it.” He added, “The ego is the principal driver, and it’s a matter of whether their ego demands that the famous person be alone on the cover, or if they’re okay giving some credit to somebody else.”
Journalist, restaurant reviewer, author and part-time Oak Bluffs resident Fran Schumer has both ghosted books and received credit on the covers. Schumer noted that she generally works on these types of projects for the paycheck, and doesn’t generally care where or if she’s credited. “Usually if you look at the acknowledgements, the very last line they’ll say, ‘Thank you for all her help with this book’ to so and so,” she said.
The role of the collaborating writer, whether a “ghost,” “with,” or “and,” is different with each project. During her collaborative book project with the businesswoman Mary Cunningham, Schumer recalled, “I would sit with her and listen to her story of that particular time period that we were covering and then go home and write a chapter, then send it to her and she would edit it and send it back to me.”
“People are not always good at judging which parts of themselves are most interesting, so my job was in part to interview him [Matt James] and provide some structure to the story,” said Brown. “My job is to say, ‘Hey, that thing that you mentioned almost as a throwaway is actually really interesting, and we need to include that.’”
One of the biggest challenges in doing this kind of work is sublimating your own authorial voice, and channeling the voice of the person you’re writing with. “You have to listen a lot. And you have to listen with a discerning ear. In other words, not just absorbing the facts and the words. You have to try to absorb the voice,” said Dale. “To some extent, you have to become a chameleon or a clone or something. You have to temporarily become that person in your head.”
“It helps that I’m a mimic,” said Schumer. “I like to imitate people, even speech-wise. And when you sit with them long enough, you absorb their way of thinking and expressing things.”
“I had a good friend when I was living in Australia who’s a big writer there, who said that the best writing advice he ever received was to write without ambition,” says Brown. “I think that in the case of ghostwriting and co-authoring, that really has to be the case.”
Cole Brown, James Dale, and Fran Schumer will be discussing writing other people’s stories at this summer’s Islanders Write. Visit islanderswrite.com for more information.