Naples resident Mary Jane Robinson is a busy writer who makes her living by remaining invisible. She rarely receives any mention in the books she writes for others. In turning people’s stories into effective narratives, her job is not only to be true to the storyteller’s voice, but also to bring the prose to a professional level. For more than twenty years, Ms. Robinson has been doing this exceptionally well, having ghostwritten over 100 memoirs.
Without mentioning names, her website alludes to many prominent clients, including “a cabinet member in the Reagan administration; numerous Fortune 500 CEOs; an Emmy Award-winning actor; the ringleader of the “Dinnertime Burglar Gang”; and several founders and founding families of both public and privately-held prominent U.S. corporations.” Her primary focus lies in the preservation of personal, family, and corporate histories.
PJ: What is/are the most difficult part/parts of your work as a ghostwriter?
MJR: Because a ghostwritten memoir can only be as good as the interview (and the backstory I add to enrich the text and context), the interview is the most challenging aspect of my work. In using oral testimony as the foundation for the life stories I write, I have learned a valuable lesson: It works best to know little or nothing about the subject of the interview. When I know little or nothing about my client, eliciting their story is like turning the pages of a book—for both of us. I am not reaching for what I already know is ahead.
Because I know nothing, I must listen intently and pose good questions as I guide people through their lives. If my task is to take them on a guided tour, the interviewee can relax and tell the tale, which is the true beauty of working with a ghostwriter. Listening to what is being spoken and thinking of what question will follow is difficult. When the interviewee has finished answering my question, he or she looks at me for the next one.
The way one asks a seeminglysimple question is crucial.If I say, “Tell me about the first time you saw your future husband,” the interviewee might feel overwhelmed. If I ask, “When you first met your future husband, what were you wearing?” the answer will lead to more questions. The first question is too general; the second question is specific. Specific questions feel simpler to answer.
As a ghostwriter, I writein first-person narrative, assuming my client’s voice and form of expression. Effective ghostwriting is all about “voice,” and it cannot be mine. When it comes to the intimacy of the interviewing process, beyond listening closely to what is said, my ears are alert to the individual’s intonation, form of expression, humor, and heart. I hear that again in working through the word-for-word transcript. Beyond telling a great story, my goal is to submit first drafts that inspire my clientst to say, “How did I do this?”
The full interview, as it appears in the March 14, 2013 Naples Florida Weekly, can be found on the following three pages: Florida Weekly – Ghost Writer 1 , Florida Weekly – Ghost Writer 2, and Florida Weekly – Ghost Writer 3