Ghostwriter Tales: Catch-92
GHOSTWRITER TALES: Catch-92 (or capture those memories while you still remember what you want to write about)
by Dakota Donovan
I was one of those kids who preferred eavesdropping on adults over playing outside. While listening to my elders talking about their lives, I heard many say, “I could write a book,” meaning they had the tales but not the wherewithal to get them down on paper. Well, that’s how I now spend a good part of each day — helping other people tell their life stories. Often, individuals I’ve worked with have for decades postponed documenting important aspects of their lives — either on audiotape, videotape, or in writing. As many advance in age, they are anxious to create a record before, in their words, “it’s too late.” They wish to capture the significant and formative events of their lives not just to say “I was here,” but as a legacy and family history for their children and for the generations that follow.
One problem with procrastinating is that by the time you get around to telling your tale, you may have forgotten all but the broad outlines. I’ve ghostwritten several books for an author, a man close to 90 I’ll call Benny, who was unable to provide more than a few words about each topic — for example, “I grew up in Brooklyn during the 1930s.” So to give his story color, I’d have to research Brooklyn in the 1930s and include details about the area for the chapters taking place in that location.Benny might also tell me that he sold gum on the streetcars as a kid, his father ran a bakery, and other details — and that’s about all I’d gain from him: just a few words here and there. It was up to me to create a compelling narrative that built to his arrival in Hollywood and his journey as a movie director. (Here, too, Benny was only able to provide the bare basics.)
When a client (the “author”) is elderly and can’t remember much, I conduct Internet research on subjects touched on in the book (including what I can find on the author), get books from the L.A. Public Library, and — if the individual was in the movie business — visit one of the local repositories of Hollywood lore. These institutions include the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, the Warner Bros. Archives at the University of Southern California, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. While anyone can visit the Margaret Herrick Library (but be prepared for stringent security measures), you have to show that you’re working on a “legitimate” project (for example, a biography or memoir intended for publication) to gain entrée into the archive sites associated with universities. Lucky for me, I enjoy research, so when a client’s memory is lacking, I’m ready and willing to help him or her fill in the blanks.
I wrote several memoirs for Benny, who years afterward would call me every once in a while to chat. After entering an assisted living facility, his phone book remained his tie to the outside world. He’d call people at random throughout the day — but, in many cases, could not remember the roles they’d played in his life. During his last couple of calls to me, he’d say, “Who is this?” When I identified myself, there was silence on the other end for a few seconds. I’d ask, “Do you remember me?” I didn’t think he recalled who I was, but he was kind enough to say, “Yes, vaguely.” When I reminded him about the books we’d written, he said he thought he remembered our collaboration, and asked, “So, what have you been up to?” I’d keep him company for a half hour or so telling him what I could divulge about my current projects.
The character of Milton Kingman in my novel L.A. SLEEPERS: A Hollywood Ghostwriter Mystery, is loosely based on Benny — a dear man who was a delight to know and work with. I’m so glad that I was able to help him capture his memories and help him get his story into the world.