How to work with a ghostwriter – the interview process

To get an idea of how effective a great interview technique can be, I’ll point you in the direction of the 1976 movie, ‘All the Presidents Men’, which focuses on two Washington Post reporters investigating corruption in the Nixon government. There is a great moment when Bob Woodward (played by Robert Redford) is in the newsroom, on the phone to a Nixon fundraiser and he asks how his $25,000 cheque wound-up in the Watergate money trail. Woodward is then silent and stays silent. It is a dangerous, not to mention agonising moment, that feels like it might go on forever. Then, the man on the other end of the phone finally blurts out the truth, even though it is highly incriminating.

Fortunately, there doesn’t need to be such an extreme game of cat and mouse between an author and his or her ghostwriter, but finding a way to coax a story out of someone is not as easy as you might imagine. Just because a person wants to get their book written, it doesn’t mean they’re ready and willing to immediately pour out their innermost thoughts. The interview process, where an author conveys to their co-writer exactly what they want in their book, from crucial facts and details, to the overall tone and emotion around it, is always a challenge.

There are some authors who are supremely relaxed about it. Not quite to the stage of Winston Churchill, who used dictate from the bathtub, but chilled nevertheless. This is not the norm though. This type is generally authors who are used to media interviews and public speaking.

In many cases, it can take some time for authors to settle into this stage. This is particularly common when some of the material is of a sensitive nature. Here, it’s not uncommon to find authors reeling off a string of amusing anecdotes as a protective mechanism. At the other end of the scale there are authors who want to go into minute detail of every aspect of their lives. Not all of it will be relevant to the book. Or, others will reveal salacious material but then add a hurried: but that is not for the book!

In all cases, the onus is very much on the ghost to help an author feel at home and steer them towards a meaningful narrative. Ghosts like a good gossip as much as the next person, but when it comes to gathering useful material, things need to stay on track.

It does help to stick to the chapter-by-chapter plan which was hopefully agreed at the beginning of the collaboration. The plan may change a little as you get into the detail, but it is a great way of keeping things flowing. The parties can agree that for the next interview they will discuss, say, chapter four, and can prepare accordingly.

Alternatively, it can be effective to talk through events chronologically. The first interview could be used for childhood and growing up, the next for early career and so on. This format can be very useful for the ghost. On a purely practical level, they will be able to easily locate material on tape, or in their notes. It also helps build a picture of the author’s motivations: childhood experiences often explain a lot about a person’s character.

There are often aspects to a story an author will find it hard to discuss. If these occur early on in the chronology, the ghost will probably wait until both sides know one another better before raising them. Even then, a ghost should keep something else up their sleeve in case the very mention of the event sees the author clam-up completely. In this case, a ghost can steer the conversation onto safer ground and return to the tricky subject at a later time.

From a ghost’s point of view, two of the most essential elements in an interview are careful preparation and then well-crafted questioning. Interviews should dig below the surface, yet questions should be couched in a way the interviewee feels comfortable answering. The best questions to gather information for a book are often open-ended, beginning with words like ‘how?’ ‘what?’ ‘where?’ and ‘when?’. These conversation starters encourage expansive answers and produce an abundance of information. If a ghost has done their homework and found out as much as they can about the facts surrounding key events beforehand, they won’t waste of everyone’s time by stopping the flow to ask detailed, yet already available, factual information.

Authors should be aware that ghosts will ask for an astonishing level of detail. It is not enough for someone to say, ‘I grew up in Devon’, before moving swiftly on. If it is relevant, the ghost will need to know the name of the village, size of the house, if it was a blissful bucolic childhood and so on. It helps if a ghost can picture what they want to include in a chapter ahead of time. That way they can work towards getting the range of detail required.

The last thing any experienced ghost should do is start off by putting an author on the spot with a close-ended question that kills an interview dead. For this, think about something along the lines of: ‘So, did you embezzle the company’s money?’ Yes, a question like that may need to be asked, but it should be saved right to the end of the whole interview process and only if the subject has not yet fully explained the circumstances of their story. Frankly, though, if the ghost didn’t get to the bottom of that sort potentially explosive element of an author’s history by then, the chances are the whole process has gone sour anyhow.

The worst questions are double, or even triple-barrelled show-stoppers. For example: ‘Why did your security team use violence against your fans? Did you know that was going to happen? Did you give the order?’ Clumsy questions like this give interviewees carte blanche to avoid the question they want to ignore and to hone in on the less difficult one. Not only does this signal the relationship between the ghost and the author isn’t likely to progress very effectively, it doesn’t bode well for the final product.

Finally, having asked a question, ghostwriters should take Bob Woodward’s example and know when to shut up and listen to the answer. This does take some skill, not least because in the relationship-building process ghosts are always tempted to help their authors out by prompting them when they look stuck for an answer. Listening is as important as asking good questions.

Interviewing is a two way process, where both sides play a key role. Get this crucial stage right though and the actual writing part of the process will flow.