“I either write the book or sell the jewels,” screen star Ava Gardner told her ghostwriter, Peter Evans, “and I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.” The line appears in the 2013 tell-all Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, one of many unauthorized biographies and celebrity memoirs about legends like Richard Burton, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor that I devoured at the time. I’d been hired to write two comic books about Monroe and Taylor, so my bookshelves became crowded with Hollywood tales. The thing that made The Secret Conversations memorable—besides Gardner dishing about the bedroom skills of famous ex-husband Frank Sinatra—was that instead of working silently behind the scenes, Evans made himself part of the story. Long before I became a ghostwriter myself, Evans’s relationship with Gardner entranced me. What, exactly, was his role?
In the book, Evans, a British journalist who had penned books about Peter Sellers and Jackie O., writes about private details that Gardner would spill during late-night calls after having a few martinis. Their relationship was loving one minute, contentious the next. He recorded her stories and then went off and wrote them down. It seemed glamorous to me: spending time with a celebrity, answering 2 a.m. calls from an Oscar nominee, getting a glowing yet discreet shout-out in the acknowledgments. Now, having cowritten (or ghostwritten, coauthored, or whatever publishers want to call it) six books and counting, I know that it can be glamorous, sort of. I’ve been to pool parties in the Hollywood Hills! I’ve been photographed by paparazzi in Los Angeles while walking with a celebrity! Even though I knew I would be the “unidentified woman” in the caption, being at that end of a telephoto lens was an experience I never would’ve had on my own (unless someone hired a private investigator to follow me, which wouldn’t feel nearly as fabulous). But despite those rare moments, ghostwriting is mostly hard work. There has to be a ton of trust. As a ghostwriter, you might hear things like, “We can’t put this in the book, but . . .,” and you damn well better keep whatever you’re told to yourself. It requires oceans of patience and zero ego. What it does not require is for you to be in the same physical space as the person you’re working with, which is why I can do the job from Hutto, Texas.
Ghostwriters oftentimes have agents who put them up for jobs, negotiate contracts, and give advice when a project feels like it might go off the rails (for example, when a celebrity gets “canceled” and all hell breaks loose online). There will be an interview, typically via Zoom, so the celebrity can decide if you’re the one to help tell their story. I’ve worked with people such as Selling Sunset’s Chrishell Stause, Southern Charm’s Shep Rose, and Love Is Blind’s Vanessa Lachey. With each book I’ve worked on, there’s been an initial bond that seals the deal. Chrishell and I had both recently lost parents to cancer, so we connected right away. With Shep, we both get Southern culture and humor and love books and writing (he’s kept extensive travel journals, and he loves a lot of the same books I do—Lonesome Dove; William Finnegan’s surf memoir, Barbarian Days). Vanessa is also a mom, and I know all about raising kids while working and trying to have fun amidst chaos.
Celebrities don’t have to write books, but they’re often approached by their agents, their managers, or publishers and given book deals. They have that coveted possession that nonfamous writers tweet (and now, I guess, Hive or Mastodon) their hearts out to attain—a massive platform of potential book buyers. Most every celebrity I’ve worked with had always secretly wanted to write a book, and the idea thrilled them. They just often have no idea how to start or what to do leading up to publication day. They know how to find their light when the cameras roll, or how to charm Hoda and Jenna on Today, but mention the contents of a book proposal, and they panic.
Despite what Us Weekly declares, celebrities are not just like us. We regular folks might be busy, but we don’t typically have call times, press junkets, dress fittings, podcast recordings, photo shoots, hosting gigs, and travel, often all within the same week. Books become the project on the to-do list that gets pushed off until later, because writing deadlines feel intangible, unlike the very real ticking time bombs they feel like to professional writers. Celebrities aren’t used to putting their life stories onto the page and don’t have time to sit down alone and type 60,000 words. Weekly phone calls are crucial, since that’s when stories are shared and chapters take shape. These calls can sometimes get pushed for weeks, which means the deadline might have to get moved, which means I start to stress that we’re falling behind and that an editor is going to hate me. Ideally, we’ll have a two-hour call once a week. I’ll record the conversation and take notes. Between calls, chapters get written and rewritten until the next call. I have met with a celebrity in person on occasion, but in my experience, calls or Zoom sessions are more productive. The one time I sat down to work in person with Chrishell when I was visiting Los Angeles, we pulled out our laptops with the best intentions. We ended up drinking wine and bonding for three hours and got absolutely no work done.
During the months we’re working on a book, it’s my job to be a sort of literary river guide, leading the celebrity through the process. I tell them what lurks up ahead (proofreading, legal reviews) and what they need to be working on next (writing down that story they texted me about, answering a series of questions I sent them). I remind them not to panic, that there will be plenty of opportunities to tweak a sentence or add a story later. I tell them that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect (it can be a “vomit draft”), that it’s important not to become paralyzed with fear of judgment. To ease someone’s jittery nerves, I’ll say: “Let’s just get something on the page, and we’ll go from there.”
Throughout the process, I get to peer past the tabloid version of each person and understand them on a deeper level. When I landed my first ghostwriting job, around 2018, I never expected that I would end up feeling protective of most of the celebs I work with. I’ve seen people torn down on social media for things that I know to be completely false, or twisted in a way that’s infuriating, hilarious, or both. It has been a lesson in never, ever blindly believing what you see online. As a journalist, it reminds me to be diligent with fact-checking when I’m working on my own stories. I’ve read interviews with celebrities in which parts of their stories are flat wrong, because the writer didn’t bother to triple check and borrowed a cute anecdote from another article that was also wrong (no, Chrishell Stause was not born at a Kentucky Shell station). I’ve also seen plenty of people being accused of not writing their memoirs at all, which is funny because everyone I’ve worked with has written, edited, recorded, and opened up to tell their story. They’ve agonized over sentences, come up with book titles in a fit of inspiration, stressed out about subtitles, and worried and rejoiced like anyone else who has a book coming into the world. It’s my job to make sure each person’s story is told in a way that’s engaging and authentic to their voice, and to help them turn in the best draft possible to the editor. Yes, you might butt heads occasionally, or you might get frustrated when another call is canceled, but unless you’re working with someone who is downright abusive, you remind yourself that you work for them, not the other way around. See? Zero ego.
There are Reddit threads and radio debates about which celebrities actually wrote their own books. I doubt that even Nate Silver could correctly predict those numbers. Ghostwriting in general has gotten a bad rap, even though it’s been around since ancient scribes would do the writing and famous figures would get the bylines. Texas-born Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Anne Porter did some ghostwriting, and H. P. Lovecraft wrote a book with Harry Houdini. Is the Keith Richards memoir Life not Keith Richards’s story because he wrote it with James Fox? It’s a hell of a book, and it belongs to Keith Richards, full stop. You can’t tell someone’s story if they don’t collaborate with you. You can’t share intimate details of a stranger’s life if you’re not communicating. So when people ask me about ghostwriting, about how glamorous it is, about who writes what, I tell them it’s a collaboration, it’s hard work, and it requires superhuman patience. It can take one to three years from the start of a project to publication day. A celebrity doesn’t lie back and get a diamond facial while I sit alone in a dark cave (or in Hutto) and write made-up things about their childhood and their first love. We get the words on the page together, but at the end of the day, the book belongs to them. It’s their story to tell.