James Fox: On Ghostwriting

James Fox is a British journalist and ghostwriter. His books include Life — Keith Richard; Look Again — David Bailey; Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia, about the exploites of aristocratic siblings in the early 20th century; and White Mischief , a hybrid of nonfiction and fiction about an unsolved murder. But it’s as a ghostwriter, especially of Keith Richards’ memoir, that interested me. I got about 20 pages into it and found myself thinking, “ohh, I would have edited some of this…” but then I realized Fox’s genius was that he knew enough to get out of the way and let Richards’ highly idiosyncratic voice dominate. Reading it, I felt like Keith was sitting on a bar stool beside me telling me stories.

Here are some of Fox’s thoughts on ghostwriting:

“I’m very attuned to the way people talk, which I think goes back to my childhood. I had a very bad stammer when I was 12 or 13; my time was spent observing people talking because I couldn’t. I loved how everyone had their idiosyncrasies. I still love that now … Keith has great cadences that just fit into prose. I read Keith’s book back to him out loud before we finished it, and he was listening to the sounds of the sentences, not the facts, taking a musical view. The sounds are what writing is really about.”

Interviewing Techniques:
“Just get a conversation flowing. Never have a chronological clipboard in your mind going next-next-next. Sometimes you have to have the same story again and again. By the fourth time, you’ll get the detail. These stories have been flattened and deadened over time. You have to humanise them again.”