Ghost Writing with Hannah Renier
Thursday 11 May 2017 @ Goring Methodist Church Hall, Worthing
Hannah Renier is an experienced ghost writer who will talk about how she tackles ghost writing. Drawing on over 20 years experience she will take us through the processes of absorbing someone else’s life, the ups and downs of such writing and share her insights into what makes a successful piece of ‘ghosted’ writing. She’ll ask us to do some writing as part of the evening.
Hannah is a ghost-writer, writer, historian and researcher. She has earned her living by writing and researching since 1984 and has ghosted books (under Authors' names) published by Penguin, Tempus, Virgin, the History Press and Historical Publications to glowing reviews. She has also ghost-written many self-published books, either non-fiction or faction, about – for instance – diet and exercise, business intrigue, imprisonment in Libya, medicine in Saudi Arabia, good-old-boyism in Ireland, corruption in Central America, bribery in Indonesia and even hairdressing in Southend. Almost everything she has written has been produced under conditions of anonymity and with no share in copyright. She's a member of the Society of Authors (since 1989) and two other authors' associations, and of three London history societies.
Review of the meeting
Hannah told us that most people become a Ghost Writer when, for example, a rock star has written their story badly and their agent wants a ‘proper’ writer to ‘fix’ it. But Hannah became a Ghost Writer after she had been working as a scriptwriter for corporate videos. It was not a job she’d ‘give to anybody’. It was soul destroying and not the world for her, so she looked for a new way forward. Around 1989/1990 she realised that history was being lost because people couldn't remember stories of old people, such as war veterans. She advertised her services as a Ghost Writer in the hope of making a living – friends, family and colleagues were most disapproving. She helped people to produce their own autobiography as written by a ghost. She produced books with nice covers, more than just manuscripts. Hannah was a member of Society of Authors and, through them, she got a media lawyer to advise her – ‘you need one if you are a Ghost Writer’. Usually the royalties and advance are split 40:60 between the Ghost Writer and the celebrity when star stories are written. If you agreed to a buy out, then the writer concedes their copyright, which is inadvisable. She hand held customers through the printing and production of their books. Most people were older people, so she protected them - and herself - with a contract and ensured that they retained their own copyright. A fascinating lady born in 1886 was one of her first interviewees. We laughed when she told us that most people who employ a Ghost Writer – not just old – seem to want to get rich or get revenge. A person with an unusual story might get their book picked up by the publishing houses. It’s worth considering highlighting one episode in the person’s life if it is particularly interesting.
Hannah advised: ‘You don't work for people who are complete shits’. Everyone laughed, not for the first time, as her talk was informative, amusing and entertaining. When she couldn't cope with a celebrity who wanted to focus on child abuse – it was not for her, as you have to ‘be’ the person as the Ghost Writer. She gave it all up for three years because she was so disturbed and upset about this experience. Her break included lots of other writing work to earn her crust, but then the Internet turned up. One of her jobs was as a part time private secretary to a rich woman. Hannah kept account of the masses of shopping. But she had always been keen on writing history, so she created a web site to advertise her availability. Fortunately, a historian asked her to do his writing for him. He had been let go by his agent, but after Hannah helped him the book got good reviews and was adapted for television. You don't have to agree with the person you ghost for. For example, she has written for Trump supporters, faith healers and UKIP supporters, amongst others. You need tolerance and rapport to do an effective job. Pick people who have a good story. Keep control of your subject and the interviews you are doing. It’s necessary to spend a certain amount of time, recording etc. Remember, it is not collaboration. The writer is in charge. A lot of time is needed to conduct and record interviews. The best approach is to write the book and charge stage payments for work in progress. Often, you need to be quick. She doesn't generally have her name on the book, as she feels the story belongs to the client. She doesn't reveal the identities of people she writes for and they have to take it on trust. There are too many Ghost Writer’ these days, so be prepared for the competition. When she writes a life story for someone, it is so much more than recordings and notes. It is who the person is, what they are about. She usually rejects the titles the customer wants and thinks of one that is much better. A life story she wrote of a woman who was in Shanghai many years ago is now an important piece of history that would have been lost otherwise. You have to embroider/elaborate to make it readable – needs conflict to make it interesting and readable. But, in the end you still have to do what the client wants. Even if they want put their poem in the end!
Hannah read from one of her ‘ghost writes’. It was from the point of view of a woman who had struggled against prejudice and was eventually appointed first ever woman police commissionaire. The extract covered the early part of her career, as she comes to realise that sexism was going to be a barrier to success. It was gripping and engaging and amusing. After a few questions, we took some time to ‘ghost write’ the start of a story from the viewpoint of someone we know well. We started with a touching, thoughtful piece about her dad. Liz Eastwood read a piece about her eight year old mother and family nearly being burnt to death in a fire set by their own father. Cherry brought the Bloomsbury set to life and talked about the interruption of religion and how a mum’s death can impact on a life. Terry told us about a long ago North London experience, referencing Kings Cross and horses and carts, World War 2 bombsites and evocative landmarks like the Gaumont Cinema. Hannah said that people tend to remember their childhood first of all. Cherry remarked that she used to be fascinated by people’s stories in her work life. Hannah suggested that it is a good idea to keep notes of your life. Cherry reminded us that we can listen to recordings and see the diaries and interviews of folks from the war times and other past lives in libraries and on line and in Brighton archives. Hannah agreed that these resources are important for research and the facts give life to ghost written stories.
To finish her session, Hannah read us an 1801 extract from a history based on a Sarah and Thomas Ellis’s travels between 1779 and 1835. Sarah wrote seven thousand words, in her daily journal, on an eight -day journey. The finished history will be about fifty thousand words to get the history in to the narrative. These historic stories must include faction, to bring them to life.
We had a great chat over coffee, tea, gingerbread and lemon muffins. Thanks to Alison Hawes.