"So it was an accident?"
"Accident? Suicide?" He casually fl icked his hand. "Who'll ever know? What does it matter? It was the book that killed him."
"That's encouraging," I said.
While Rick went on with his pitch, I stared at my plate and imagined the former prime minister looking down at his assistant's cold white face in the mortuary -- staring down at his ghost, I suppose one could say. How did it feel? I am always putting this question to my clients. I must ask it a hundred times a day during the interview phase: How did it feel? How did it feel? And mostly they can't answer, which is why they have to hire me to supply their memories; by the end of a successful collaboration I am more them than they are. I rather enjoy this process, to be honest: the brief freedom of being someone else. Does that sound creepy? If so, let me add that real craftsmanship is required. I not only extract from people their life stories, I impart a shape to those lives that was often invisible; sometimes I give them lives they never even realized they had. If that isn't art, what is?
I said, "Should I have heard of McAra?"
"Yes, so let's not admit you haven't. He was some kind of aide when Lang was prime minister. Speechwriting, policy research, political strategy. When Lang resigned, McAra stayed with him, to run his offi ce."
I grimaced. "I don't know, Rick."
Throughout lunch I'd been half watching an elderly television actor at the next table. He'd been famous when I was a child for playing the single parent of teenage girls in a sitcom. Now, as he rose unsteadily and started to shuffle toward the exit, he looked as though he'd been made up to act the role of his own corpse. That was the type of person whose memoirs I ghosted: people who had fallen a few rungs down the celebrity ladder, or who had a few rungs left to climb, or who were just about clinging to the top and were desperate to cash in while there was still time. I was abruptly overwhelmed by the ridiculousness of the whole idea that I might collaborate on the memoirs of a prime minister.
"I don't know -- " I began again, but Rick interrupted me.
"Rhinehart Inc. are getting frantic. They're holding a beauty parade at their London offi ce tomorrow morning. Maddox himself is fl ying over from New York to represent the company. Lang's sending the lawyer who negotiated the original deal for him -- the hottest fi xer in Washington, a very smart guy by the name of Sidney Kroll. I've other clients I could put in for this, so if you're not up for it, just tell me now. But from the way they've been talking, I think you're the best fi t."
"Me? You're kidding."
"No. I promise you. They need to do something radical -- take a risk. It's a great opportunity for you. And the money will be good. The kids won't starve."
"I don't have any kids."
"No," said Rick with a wink, "but I do."
WE PARTED ON THE steps of the club. Rick had a car waiting outside with its engine running. He didn't offer to drop me any where, which made me suspect he was off to see another client, to whom he would make exactly the same pitch he had just made to me. What is the collective noun for a group of ghosts? A train? A town? A haunt? At any rate, Rick had plenty of us on his books. Take a look at the bestseller lists: you would be amazed how much of it is the work of ghosts, novels as well as nonfi ction. We are the phantom operatives who keep publishing going, like the unseen workers beneath Walt Disney World. We scuttle along the subterranean tunnels of celebrity, popping up here and there, dressed as this character or that, preserving the seamless illusion of the Magic Kingdom.
"See you tomorrow," he said, and dramatically, in a puff of exhaust fumes, he was gone: Mephistopheles on a fifteen percent commission. I stood for a minute, undecided, and if I had been in another part of London it is still just possible things might have gone differently. But I was in that narrow zone where Soho washes up against Covent Garden: a trash-strewn strip of empty theaters, dark alleys, red lights, snack bars, and bookshops -- so many bookshops you can start to feel ill just looking at them, from the tiny little rip-off specialist dealers in Cecil Court to the cut-price behemoths of Charing Cross Road. I often drop into one of the latter, to see how my titles are displayed, and that was what I did that afternoon. Once inside, it was only a short step across the scuffed red carpet of the "Biography & Memoir" department, and suddenly I had gone from "Celebrity" to "Politics."
Copyright © 2007 by Robert Harris
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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