Jennie Erdal

"Ghosting: A Double Life"

(Reviewed by Olivia Boler MAY 7, 2005)

In this engaging memoir, Scottish writer Jennie Erdal recounts the fifteen years she spent as a ghostwriter for a London publisher. She wrote “hundreds of letters…newspaper articles, speeches, the occasional poem and about a dozen books, amongst them two novels.” While ghostwriting is, as Erdal surmises, one of the oldest professions, “if prostitution had not laid prior claim,” what makes her story remarkable is that she was a woman writing for a man, and a very unusual one at that.

Erdal refers to her employer as “Tiger,” although if one really wishes, simply flip to the back of the book where the “Notes and Sources,” provide Tiger’s true identity. The alias refers to a tiger skin hanging over his desk. (At one point, the skin is kidnapped, and Tiger pays a considerable ransom for its return.) Tiger is nothing if not flamboyant: he favors wearing bold-colored silk fabrics, several gem-encrusted rings, and red lizard-skin shoes—“casual,” in his assessment. At first, it seems Tiger might be gay, but in fact, he is a lover of women, employing dozens of London’s upper-class daughters in his publishing empire, taking on a favorite now and then (whether these favorites become his literal lovers is never made explicit). He collects paintings and sculptures depicting female nudes, and hunts down these images in antique shops all over Europe. In addition to his showiness, Tiger is also obsessive to a point that Erdal portrays, unconsciously or not, as diagnosable. He wears three watches, must manically keep to a rigid schedule, and calls her at home compulsively at all hours of the day. At the same time, he is generous without a second thought: when Erdal’s husband leaves her and their three children for another woman, Tiger lends Erdal the money to keep up her mortgage payments. On working trips to his home in the Dordogne, France, he shares his vitamins with her: “Over breakfast…he even shared with me his own special supply of vitamins and other pills, counting them out into two equal rows, his tongue held tight in his teeth as he concentrated, being let loose only when he cited the essential constituents of each item…I was touched by this.” Although he calls her “Beloved,” as he does all his girls, their relationship remains platonic and companionable.

Of course, the kicker is that Erdal is his ghost. A ghost may have little substance to the outside world, but that does mean she cannot be pricked, cannot fall victim to the stresses and anxieties of those who are metaphorical flesh and blood. Although Erdal starts out in the company as an editor managing his Russian list of books (she studied Russian language and literature at university), she soon finds herself taking on other projects for Tiger. It is partly because of her divorce that Tiger suggests she work on a book about women he has been commissioned to author. The project is a collection of interviews he conducts with several distinguished women such as Gloria Steinem and Doris Lessing—in the end, there are 200 women in the book—and Erdal assists him with research as a distraction from her personal sadness. She also winds up transcribing the audiotapes of his interviews, then editing her own writing.

This project leads to others, including the two novels. As if to mask the fact that Tiger gets all the credit for the books without doing any of the actual writing, he and Erdal conduct their discussions of plot, themes, characters, etc. using “the first person plural,” also known as the royal we: “‘What sort of novel are we thinking about,’ I ask. ‘We are thinking about a beautiful novel, very beautiful,’ he says… ‘And it will have a beautiful cover. We will make sure of that.’”

Erdal does not hide the fact that writing these novels is an unpleasant task for her—the deadlines, the subject matter, the whole concept of taking on a genre she has only encountered as a reader/recipient. Eventually, the strain of the relationship with Tiger takes its toll, but the journey to the end of this debut memoir does not disappoint.

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About the Author:

Jennie ErdalJennie Erdal worked as an editor and translator for Quartet Books in London for nearly twenty years. She lives in her native Scotland. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014