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Author Daniel Paisner: The Ghostwriter

Posted by daniel.venn on May 10, 2016 at 7:55 PM

Authors and Authorship Part 5: Daniel Paisner is one of the writing industry's most prominent ghostwriters, having written more than 50 books for some of the biggest names in Hollywood, sports, and politics.  He sheds light into the ghostwriting process, talks about his books, and what he's learned over three decades of writing.

Q: The ghost-writing process is one that the average reader knows little about. How does it work? How much of the writing is your own and how much is done by your subject?

Every project is different. Sometimes, I work with an individual who never really sets pen to paper. The material flows from them, the thoughts and emotions are all theirs, but they don’t do any actual writing. Other times, I work with an individual who might have some chops as a writer, but it just works out that he or she doesn’t have time to do the heavy lifting over a couple hundred pages. Most times, it falls somewhere in-between. How it usually works: I’ll conduct a series of interviews, spend some time with my subjects, get inside their heads, and offer up a draft for them to consider. Then, we’ll bend, shape, rework until we have something they can truly call their own. Very often, we’ll gather friends and family and colleagues to share stories and help to lubricate the memory, because it’s difficult to grab at the stuff of a long life and expect to come back with a handful. I find that when you sit people down in a group, the stories tend to flow more freely. One memory leads to another.

Q: What traits have made you such a successful ghost-writer? What makes so many successful people turn to you to tell their story?

It sounds like a cliché, but it all starts with listening. If you’re a good listener, you’ll hear some amazing things. This is true in life, as it is in ghost-writing. You’re nothing as a collaborator if you can’t get your subject to open up to you, so I always tell the folks who are considering working with me that fit is all. You can find a dozen perfectly competent writers to help you tell your story, but if you don’t feel comfortable with that person, if you can’t let down your hair and be yourself with that person, your book will reflect that. In my case, the listening also comes in handy because it helps to me to develop a rhythm and tone for the piece. You need to have an ear for how people speak – meaning, in this case, how they might write as well. My goal, always, is to make the “voice” of the book consistent with the voice of my subject. It should be of a piece with who they are, and how they carry themselves.

Q: You've helped some of the biggest names in sports, politics, and Hollywood write their books. What projects have been most enjoyable and entertaining for you to work on?

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a good relationship with almost everyone I’ve worked with as a collaborator. There’s a very cool dynamic that takes shape around one of these projects. You’re not working as a journalist, where there might be the framework for an adversarial relationship. I’m not working on the outside, looking in. I’m there to present a life story, or a slice-of-life story, in a way that serves the subject. Very often, I’m staying at their house, getting to know their families, shadowing them as they move about their days. During the run of a project, I might be one of my subject’s closest confidants, but once a book is finished we invariably go our separate ways. That said, I keep connected to most of the folks I’ve worked with, at least in a social media sort of way. Some have become close friends. If I had to generalize, though, I’d say I’ve formed the deepest connections with some of the non-celebrity subjects who’ve crossed my path – ordinary people who’ve done or seen or experienced something extraordinary. One good example of this is my pal Izzy Paskowitz, a former world champion longboard surfer. Izzy’s family was like surfing royalty in Southern California – all over the world, really. But he was just a surfer dude at heart, able to flit about the planet in relative anonymity, and I was drawn to his story, to his family, to the happy band of big-hearted surfer dudes in his community. These days, Izzy devotes himself to running a wonderful charity called Surfers Healing, where he gathers the best surfers in the world to tandem surf with autistic children. He calls it “extreme special ed,” and it’s the most remarkable thing, to see these kids out in the water and how they’re transformed by the ocean and this totally rad activity, so completely outside their experience. Our book is long done, but Surfers Healing was a big part of Izzy’s story, and I responded to it in a big way, and now I keep traveling with Izzy and his crew to these events and helping out in what ways I can. There’s a connection that runs deeper than the book that brought us together.

Q: You've written or co-written more than 50 books. What have you learned about writing and publishing along the way? What do you know now that you wish you'd have known when you were writing your very first book?

Ah, a question for the ages. What I wish I knew early on was that I’d be at this for a while. My very first collaboration was with NBC News personality Willard Scott, back when he was the morning weather person on the “Today” show. I thought it would be a one-off, and that I would be back to writing my own stuff soon enough, but that first ghost gig led to another, and then another. Here I am, thirty years later, and I’m still at it, and when I look over my shoulder at the body of work I’ve produced I realize there are very few of my own books on my shelf. The idea was to do one of “theirs” alongside one of my own, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way, and I wish I’d known that going in. When you start out, you tend to think you have all the time in the world, and that you’ll get around to realizing your hopes and dreams soon enough, but when you get older and you’ve been at it a while you begin to see that all the time in the world has a way of running out on you. Don’t misunderstand, I love the work I’ve carved out for myself as a ghostwriter, but I don’t love that it’s taken me away from the work I’d set out to do in the first place – writing books of my own, fiction and non-fiction, in a meaningful way. Now that I’m in a position to pick-and-choose among a variety of ghost-writing gigs, and to leave myself time to work on my own material, I worry that I might be a little late to the party. The publishing industry has changed over the past thirty years. People are reading/buying more books than ever before, but that number is spread over fewer and fewer titles. The kinds of small, midlist books I seem inclined to write are the kinds of books our big box publishers seem less inclined to publish. Turns out the shelf-life for a relatively young, relatively unknown novelist runs out after a while, and right now I’m trying to come to terms with that. I’ve just published my third novel, “A Single Happened Thing,” with a terrific indie press in Virginia called Relegation Books, but as we send the book out into the world I’m realizing how much easier it would be to get some review attention and literary cred if I was a young up-and-comer instead of a grizzled old bald guy with all these books to my credit. First novelists are given a kind of hall pass, with publishers and reviewers alike. “Third novelists” like myself don’t always get the same benefit of the doubt.

Q: You recently held a book launch event for A Single Happened Thing. How'd it go? What recommendations would you have for authors looking to launch their own book?

Look, writing is hard. Writing a book that makes you smile is hard. But finding a publisher to throw in with you and to help you find an audience for that book is harder still. The book launch was great – we held it at this terrific baseball-themed shop in Greenwich Village. There was beer from a Cooperstown brewery, and baseball-themed stuff all around. (It’s a baseball-ish novel, by the way.) The room was filled with friends and family and folks I didn’t know who seemed to care about baseball and literary fiction. But I went home that night realizing that grabbing at attention for a small, indie book is an incremental thing. If you can get ten or twenty readers out of an event or a book-signing, that’s a great good thing, so my advice for first-time novelists, or widely under-read novelists like myself, is to be realistic. And, patient. Trust that a good, selling review will come your way before too, too long, and along with it there’ll likely be another. And in the meantime, go ahead and serve yourself up to every blog, podcast, ‘zine that takes an interest in your work, and hope that each can blow just enough smoke your way to turn those ten or twenty new readers into ten or twenty more. After that, who knows?

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