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By Claire Bott, reproduced from Publishing News, 24 September 2004.
There is a man who’s been a hitman, a pop star, an abused child, a billionaire, a business guru, a Ghurka Colonel, an aid worker, and an environmental activist. He’s told the stories of those wildly different experiences in such gripping prose that he’s had more than one bestseller on his hands, and will probably have others. But you’re unlikely to have heard of him.
Step forward Andrew Crofts, Britain’s foremost ghost-writer. Step forward and take a bow! Ladies and gentlemen, behold the ghost. If he’s blinking a little in the limelight, that’s because he’s not used to it. Of all the books he’s written, his name has appeared on scarcely any of them, and he’s sometimes under contract never to mention the fact that he was the writer to anyone other than the agent and publisher involved. On occasion, he can’t even tell the publisher.
Not that he’s complaining – which probably makes Crofts the only writer in the world without an ego. “If I’d designed the new Mini, that would be a pretty staggering achievement, wouldn’t it? But I wouldn’t expect to have my name plastered across the back of it – ‘designed by Andrew Crofts’. I’m perfectly willing to accept that it’ll say ‘Mini’ on it. If I’d baked the new Mr Kipling cake, I’m quite willing for Mr Kipling to take the credit. So why are writers and actors so much more important?
“Isn’t building a fantastic modern building more important than most books? But the architect doesn’t have ‘designed by …’ written all over it, he doesn’t insist that the building’s never mentioned unless he’s praised for it. It’s very nice if he does get into an architectural journal, but he doesn’t expect the public to …” He trails off, leaving the sentence unfinished; something he does quite a lot. It’s a bit like his habit of asking questions instead of making statements – a form of unconscious verbal self-effacement. Never mind my opinions, he seems to be saying, what about yours? Perhaps it’s something he’s picked up from years of being the man behind the Dictaphone, the blank sheet of paper that others can write on.
What he needs to do is empty out all his preconceptions and identify completely with the person sitting opposite him. He’s very good at it – frighteningly good sometimes. “Quite a lot of the people I’ve interviewed would be considered …. unsavoury. But I don’t know any of the victims. If they’d killed one of my family, I’d probably have a different feeling. Which Graham Greene novel is it ( The Third Man), where he’s on the Ferris wheel looking down at the people, and saying, ‘would you honestly care if one of those little ants …? Let’s be honest.’ You’re merged with the man with the gun, aren’t you, at that moment, looking at the ants down there. Go home and start describing it to somebody else, and suddenly you think, ‘oh, hang on a minute – one of those little ants could be me’. And everything changes. But while you’re in that little capsule, on that Ferris wheel, just the two of you – that’s the point of view, isn’t it?” He pauses, Thinks about it. “And assassins are very interesting people, aren’t they?”
It’s a different world that Crofts lives in – or rather a multitude of different worlds, a new one every few months or so. It’s an unusual perspective, that sometimes makes him act a little oddly. “I had a chap who wanted to do a novel, and he said he’d meet me in a black BMW beside King’s Cross Station. And I didn’t think, just said, ‘oh, all right’. And then as my wife was waving me off, she asked, ‘where will you be?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m meeting a man in a …’ She said, ‘do you mean to say, if the police come round tonight, I’d have to say, look, he told me he was going to meet a man in a black BMW outside King’s Cross Station’, and that’s all they’ve got to go on?’ So I thought, ‘well, perhaps I am being careless’. But I did go and meet him, and it was fine. He was somebody’s bodyguard. I’m not an 18-year-old girl who’s going to be abducted and sold into slavery, am I? The only reason they have to talk to me is that they want a book. So obviously, they want me alive.”
They certainly do, if they’ve got any sense. Crofts was the ghostwriter for Sold by Zana Muhsen and The Kid by Kevin Lewis, both massive sellers, as well as a multitude of other titles, ranging from business books to celebrity autobiographies. Just a Boy by Richard McCann, the son of the Yorkshire Ripper’s first victim, ghosted by Crofts, went into the hardback charts at number five shortly after publication.
Usually, when Crofts is writing someone’s story for them, he’ll take their word for what they tell him. If it seems suspicious, he might ask, “are you sure? Are you sure that’s the way it happened?” But if they say yes, absolutely, he’ll put it in. Like any responsible ghostwriter, he always makes sure there’s a clause in his contract absolving him of culpability for anything his client says that turns out not to be true. But it’s very important, he points out, that they should put up a convincing argument for what they’re saying being the truth – after all, if they can’t convince him, he’s going to have real trouble convincing the reader that they’re being honest.
Crofts’s first ghostwriting experience was with John Fenton, a business guru whom Crofts, then a freelance journalist, was interviewing. Fenton (who Crofts calls “the man in the white suit”, in a wry reference to his sartorial habits) had recently been asked by a publisher to do some how-to business books, but he was so busy that he simply didn’t have the time. He suggested a collaboration: Crofts would write the books for him. He’d supply the know-how, Crofts the actual authorship. Crofts jumped at the chance; it gave him something to put on his CV, a feather in his cap, and besides, it meant reliable money – which, to a man with a young family, as Crofts was at the time, was quite an inducement. “As you get older, you gradually need more money, so I was constantly looking for ways to make the money more secure, and larger.”
So he found his way into authorship by the back door. But perhaps it had been inevitable all along that Crofts would end up writing books. “I went to a school called Lancing, which has a sort of history about it, because it’s where Evelyn Waugh went, David Hare, Christopher Hampton, Jan Morris – there’s quite a history of writers there.” Despite skipping university in favour of going to London to make his living (“I’d been at boarding school so long, I wanted to be somewhere where there were lots of girls!”), Crofts had a fairly conventional upbringing – “my father was in business, I suppose, and my mother did very little, as ladies of that generation did. They met in the War. For people who had a good War, nothing ever after was quite the same” – which has perhaps helped to drive his eternal fascination with other kinds of existence and other people’s lives. It’s that fascination that makes his job so endlessly interesting to him. “These people are living the lives I don’t have to live, because I can just go in, find out all about it, and then move off again. I love it.”
But where does he find these people? Or, more to the point, where do they find him? Well, one of the ways is through the ads he takes out in the trade press. “My name has got to be constantly around, so that if anyone’s looking for ghost-writers, I’m the one they find. Some of the best projects I’ve had have been from people just going into libraries and asking how to find a ghostwriter. The librarian gets out a copy of Publishing News or the Bookseller, and gives them the number.”
It’s going to be his number they give out, not only because he’s the only person who takes out weekly adverts in the trade press to publicise his ghost-writing services, but because he’s just about the only full-time professional ghost-writer in the country; and, so far as he knows, just about the only one who’s willing to describe himself as a ghost-writer by trade. “Most writers have done it at some stage, but they don’t like people to know. They think they’re too important or something, whereas I think – pff.” He grins a toothy grin, a most contented, self-effacing, ego-free ghost.
Andrew Crofts is one of Britain's most successful ghostwriters. Top publishers produce his books and he is in demand by showbiz personalities as well as leading businessmen. His motto seems to be, if it is a good story , I will write it. Some of his most recent books include Sold by Zana Muhsen, which tells of her years as an enforced child bride in the Yemen, My Gorilla Journey by Helen Attwater, the story of an English couple who ran an orphanage for gorillas in the Congo, Through Gypsy Eyes by Kathy Etchingham, Jimi Hendrix's girlfriend. He also ghosted Kathy and Me by Gillian Taylforth, which covers the soap star's colourful private life and her experiences in Eastenders, and Bienvenida -The Making of a Modern Mistress by Countess Sokolow (formerly Lady Buck). He has written fiction -Crocodile Shoes by Jimmy Nail and The Java Man by Sean Martin Blain are two of his books -and non- fiction, mainly on marketing and business issues.
Many of his books are written without a mention of his major contribution
and his contracts stipulate that he must not disclose his involvement.
The glory goes to the 'author' named on the title page but a sizeable
chunk of money goes to him. If you think about it logically, there are
many people in the public eye whose talents are far from literary yet
who produce interesting and readable autobiographies -with the help of
He has a solid list of successes behind him and impeccable credentials but what I wanted to know from Andrew Crofts is how a ghostwriter can give away his own work for someone else to reap the praise. Is this a case of prostituting your art?
'No: he says firmly, but terribly nicely because he is used to dealing with difficult people. 'I wanted to make a living. I was doing company magazines and I was doing travel writing as well as writing books. I was doing an article for one of the management magazines with a business guru, John Fenton. As we were sitting talking in his palazzo, he said, "I have been asked to do three books by a publisher and I really want to do them but I haven't got the time. But I want the glory because I want the business. You write the books for me, I'll get the glory and you'll get the money."'
It seemed like a good idea. Then, when he actually wrote the books, it dawned on him that the biggest problem with writers is finding material. 'If I am going to write a book on how to double your sales, say, as just a writer and not a business man first, I have to find out how to do it. So I shall have to interview a lot of people. Then I shall have to convince a publisher that they should buy a book from me, who knows nothing about selling and then I have to trudge around radio stations for six months or so. I will probably get £1,000 or £2,000 or £5,000 if I'm lucky. If I go straight to this man who has the entire book in his head, have a publishing deal set up and get all the material from one place -his head, his filing cabinet -that will cut out all that area.'
Having completed those books he knew there were good stories around but how could he find them? He decided to put an advertisement in The Bookseller that I might attract people to come to him. Why did he choose The Bookseller?
'My theory when I first did it about ten years ago was that if I went in The Daily Mail all the time I would get completely snowed under and inundated by people who have always wanted to write a book and who can't: he explains. 'I thought that if I advertised to the trade it means that these people have got one step further; they have asked a publisher or a literary agent or the library and it would filter it down a bit. My ad is always on the back page of The Bookseller.'
Then he had a call from Zana Muhsen that was going to change his life. He travelled to Birmingham, heard her story and then did a synopsis for Sold that went off to the agent. At this time he had done four or five books and so had a bit of a track record. 'I wouldn't have said my track record was enough for a publisher, to make an offer, though. They made the offer because of the synopsis and the sample chapter and they bought on that. Once the book was published my agent had some very good foreign contacts and he started sending it abroad and it became the best-selling book of the year in France.'
The book went on to sell three million copies in France, was condensed by Reader's Digest, dramatised for Radio 4 and republished in this country by Little Brown. Ten years later he wrote the follow-up, A Promise to Nadia, which tells of the continued fight to save Zana's sister.
How does he know if a story is worth writing? So many people say they have a story to tell but what makes it worthwhile for Andrew Crofts to write it and ultimately, for people to read it? 'Usually, someone rings me up and I find out a little bit of his or her story " he says. 'If they give me what Hollywood calls "the high concept" then I know this person is a "possible" and I arrange for us to meet. I have to be as interested as a reader is and be fairly confident that the story will interest a publisher. You have to be very non- judgemental to be a ghost. You have to be on their team. You don't have to like the person but you have to be interested in them.
'When we meet I get that person to tell me their story which I tape and this could take two or three hours. I would get the bones of the story and I would go away and do a synopsis, which I show to him or her. Everything that gets written is shown to the author before anybody else and he or she can take out anything. I want them to completely trust me; I want them to tell me everything. If it is Gillian Taylforth, I want her to tell me exactly what happened in the Range Rover and later we'll decide if we are going to put it in the book.'
If the person does not have an agent Andrew will suggest one.
He never goes directly to publishers although sometimes they come directly to him. A third party, he believes, is very handy as a mediator and a good testing ground because if an agent thinks they can sell it, that is a good start. 'I usually provide a sample chapter which is what one thinks will be the first chapter. The best page in the book has to be the first page and the best chapter has to be the first chapter. I think with Zana's story I gave them a dramatic chapter and not the first one dealing with her childhood. 'The agent might want to meet the person but they usually take my word and go on to make a few enquiries before coming back to me. They may say forget it or they may say do it. They are looking for a book sale, a newspaper serialisation, foreign rights and a possible television follow-up.'
It does not take him that long to write someone's book. 'We sit down with a tape recorder and I try and get twenty to 30 hours of information on tape. Then, including other things I can glean, I have the book. That part might take me two or three days. I work chronologically because although the book may not run chronologically I want to know what the subject knows at certain stages in their life because that will depend on how I tell the story. It is like writing a very long monologue but at the same time you can't make it too dense.'
So, what makes a good ghostwriter? 'You have to be non-confrontational and be completely open to someone else's opinions. If I disapprove of something I can't voice that. I don't want to either because I don't want to make the person feel inhibited and feel they have to justify themselves. Occasionally, I might say that something in the story might make the person seem unsympathetic to the reader and how do they justify it. It is like being their lawyer. You have to show you are completely on their side and you want to put their case as well as possible and you do want to understand.
'If there were certain things a person didn't want to talk about I would say to them, we may not put that in the book but I need to understand. Gillian Taylforth had to tell me what happened in the Range Rover because I had to understand whether she had or hadn't done this thing. And I needed to know what on earth made her think she could sue The Sun and win. She might not really want to talk about what possessed her that day and it might not be in the book, but I needed to know in what frame of mind she went into this. I think she behaved immaculately as far as she could, in a very difficult situation. There are people who I have worked with who have done things -killed people, for example - and I have to be able to understand why they have done this, from their point of view. The crunch comes when someone is shown his or her book for the first time. Do they always approve? Supposing they hate it? Andrew is clearly an old hand at dealing with these situations.
'When you show someone the manuscript it's a bit like someone taking a candid shot of you with a Polaroid at a party. You think, oh my God! Because it is not the way you usually pose. Then after a bit you look at it and think, it's not that bad, and a bit later you look again and think, well it's quite good. And that's because it is you.
'When I give the finished manuscript to a person, sometimes the first reaction is negative. So I say, take a pen and change anything you want to change. When they actually sit down with a pen, apart from changing some factual things such as dates and times, they very seldom change anything else. If you've got it right, they can't think of a better way to put it. Out of about 50 or so ghosting projects I have done, I think only one, maybe two, have proved difficult.'
What happens if he is given information in good faith but in fact it is wrong? 'I would only put it in the book if they had managed to convince me. I can be working with people who are strangers to the truth. The publishers would want some sort of warranty against libel.' There was a problem with the book Leonard of Mayfair that was withdrawn because of so many disputed facts but not before review copies were out and it was serialised in the Daily Mail.
Andrew is extending his writing to his own fiction and guess who his hero is? A ghostwriter, of course. Maisie's Amazing Maids (published by House of Stratus) is the first in a series of books featuring Joe Tye, an American living in London. 'It occurred to me that in these series type books where you have a running character, they are either lawyers, doctors, policemen, journalists or private eyes. What they have in common is that they all dip into other people's lives at a moment of excitement. It seems to me that is exactly what a ghostwriter does. It can be anything -big, business fraud, murder, show business.'
It worked perfectly. The synopsis was shown to House of Stratus along with other ideas for ghostwritten books and they took it, along with another book they suggested was fictionalised. That book, The Princess and the Villain, which tells the true story of a gangster who fell in love with a Middle Eastern princess he was hired to guard, was published in June 2001.
I ask what he sees as the main problems of a ghostwriter? 'It's a very difficult balance to get right because you have to please the publisher and you have to please the author. The publisher wants as much controversial stuff as possible and the subject wants to look as gloriously pure as possible.' Tricky. But Andrew Crofts has clearly managed to get the balance right.
Judith Spelman has been a regular contributor to Writers' News and Writing Magazine since they started. She works full-time as a freelance journalist writing features for national newspapers and magazines, as well as editing a house journal for Weetabix Limited and reviewing books on the Internet.
Published on line at www.ojaiorange.com
The book sales charts are full of blockbusters by people who could obviously never write their own books. A sportsman at the top of his game? When’s he going to find the time to sit down and tap out eighty thousand words? A film star rushing from one movie set to the next? Paris Hilton? Sharon Osbourne? I don’t think so.