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Late nights, dark places, and knowing when to pull back - The Art of Ghostwriting

We talk to Vincent Hogan, Paul Kimmage, Christy O’Connor, Keith Duggan and Dion Fanning about what goes into writing a sports autobiography.

Vincent Hogan worked with Paul McGrath on his autobiography, Back from the Brink.
Vincent Hogan worked with Paul McGrath on his autobiography, Back from the Brink.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THE LIFE OF a ghostwriter is a strange existence, one that involves countless hours of transcription and writing all to put someone else’s face on the front cover. 

And with people all around the country set to use these next few weeks to catch up on the sports autobiographies they never got round to, or dust down some old favourites, we decided it was as good a time as any to take a look at how the sausage is made.

Behind most good sports autobiographies hides a good ghostwriter.

Each experiences their own hurdles and concerns during the process of compiling another person’s life story, but one of the main, and most common challenges, is trying to accurately capture the voice of the sportsperson in question.

“The first I did was Nicky English in 1996, and there is no doubt about it, there are lines in that book that are almost acts of conceit on my part,” says The Irish Independent’s Vincent Hogan.

“I read them now, and it’s clear that Nicky wouldn’t say that. I kind of look on that as a weakness in the job I did on that book. The more books I did, the more attention I paid to the voice of the subject.

“If you look at something like the book I did with Gooch Cooper, there is a rhythm to how Kerry people speak. It’s almost a lyrical rhythm. It would be a rhythm that would be very different to say, the rhythm of Henry Shefflin’s book. Now someone has picked me up a few times on the amount of bad language in Gooch’s book, and there are a lot of ‘fucks’ in it, but it’s just part of the rhythm of how he speaks. I remember saying to Gooch when I was giving him back chapters, ‘Look, if you want to take those ‘fucks’ out of it, I’ve no bother with that at all.’ But I felt it was part of the rhythm of how he spoke.

colm-cooper Colm Cooper's autobiography was released in 2017. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I always do the transcripts myself so that I can hear the nuance of their voices and expressions that they may use a lot of. When I eventually sit down to write the book, I try to hear their voice in my head as I’m doing it.”

Getting their voice across is one thing, but putting yourself in the eyes of the subject is an altogether different type of challenge. 

“It should be ‘The Curse of Ghostwriting,’ not ‘The Art,’” states Paul Kimmage of The Sunday Independent.

“My first time [ghostwriting a book] was with Andy Townsend. That was a rushed job in some respects. We had to do it straight after the World Cup in 1994. That wasn’t too bad an experience in that there wasn’t too much angst involved given the time limitations. 

“Tony Cascarino, Full Time, that was very, very different in the sense that I now actually had a basic grasp of what writing entailed, and had a plan to do something very different, in that I went into what I would describe as a kind of Daniel Day-Lewis-mode of ghosting. It was no longer good enough to sit there with a tape recorder. I wanted to be the person, to try to really get under his skin and really understand who the subject was and to write it that way. So I spent a lot of time with Tony on that. I lived with him for a good bit. And that was much, much more demanding. But also much more fulfilling.”

Some writers take a more casual approach to the project. When freelance journalist Christy O’Connor worked with Anthony Daly on his autobiography, Dalo, the pair did a large chunk on their work on the drive home from training. At the time, O’Connor was working part-time as a goalkeeping coach with Daly’s Dublin team.

“We’d be coming down in the car after Dublin training and could be chatting away for two hours,” O’Connor says.

“Then around Nenagh I might think ‘Jesus I suppose I better turn on that [dictaphone].’ And then he’d drop me outside the house, it could be 12 o’clock at night, and we could sit in the car for another 30-40 mins chatting away.”
JOE.ie’s Dion Fanning enjoyed a completely different approach when working with Richie Sadlier on Recovering, released last year.

“I wouldn’t quite say I was ghostwriting,” he explains.

“The way I did it with Richie was slightly different, in that Richie wrote it and I worked on it then, and I suppose polished it, rather than straight transcript, which is more of a struggle.

“With Richie a lot of the time it was just trying to stay out of the way and just get it done and help him. What I consider to be the best passage in the book, when he talks about his role as a psychotherapist and working with adolescents, and uses the metaphor of being on a boat, I didn’t touch a word of that.”

The bulk of Jim McGuinness’ autobiography, Until Victory Always, was pieced together through long phone calls with his ghostwriter, Keith Duggan of the Irish Times.

“He was away in Scotland a lot of the time,” Duggan remembers.

“We did meet from time to time, but a lot of it was by phone, and that can be extremely difficult. But as it turned out, he speaks as well, if not even better, by phone than he does in person. We carried out a lot of two hour-plus interview sessions, and at the end of each one I basically suggested he go and think about the next period we would be covering, whatever that might be, say when he was in his twenties or his first year with Donegal. He was extremely thorough and extremely introspective and self-analytical. I think he’s built that way anyway.”

jim-mcguinness-speaks-to-his-team-before-the-game Jim McGuinness worked with fellow Donegal man Keith Duggan on Until Victory Always. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

For any good book, it is vital that the sportsperson in question is willing to open up and be brutally honest about their life experiences. Naturally, some people are more comfortable doing this than others.

“Any time you are going to commit to a project like this, you are sort of very much dependant on the actual person you are working with,” says Duggan.

“I guess Jim McGuinness had shown himself to be a fairly riveting communicator in public over the four years, so he certainly had no difficulty in articulating himself.

“Once someone sits down to tell their life story, which is I suppose what a reader expects from these books… They are expecting some insight into who this person is, what makes them tick, how they got to where they got to, etc. It’s up to them how deeply they want to delve into that. 

“You can ask them questions and you can push and prod, but I think ultimately they have to arrive to that conclusion themselves.”

Fanning explains how Sadlier was determined to be completely open about his experiences, including deeply personal passages about being sexually abused at the age of 14.

“One thing he said to me, which was incredible really, when we were doing the chapters around the abuse, was ‘From the point of view of the writing, be as brutal about these chapters as you are about any other. Don’t spare on the style side of it because you are dealing with a sensitive subject.’ 

“There were times where you would ask him to do more or expand on stuff, but really the general thrust of it, it wasn’t a situation where you were dealing with a reluctant subject or someone who was doing a book because they believe it’s a good thing for their profile.

“When you get somebody who is as willing, and is as ready as Richie was to tell the story and is committed to it, it is an easy job. But it is extraordinary to get somebody who is that open about what they have been through.” 

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“I think that there are people who are just much more guarded by nature,” Hogan adds.

“They will commit to a project, but they will very much commit to it on their terms. And you realise pretty quickly that your journalistic instincts will be frustrated in a lot of cases, because they are not going to just change personality to please you.  

“At the end of the day, how open they will be is completely up to the subject.” 

Kimmage found himself frustrated during the early stages of working with Matt Hampson for Engage, published in 2011. In 2005 Hampson was left paralysed from the neck down when a scrum collapsed during a training session with the England U21 rugby team.

“One of the early conversations we had, I said to him, ‘Listen Matt, I can’t imagine what it is like to be you, and I won’t be able to imagine. You’re just going to have to tell me, and this is going to take time.’ And it did take time. For the guts of four years I spent with Matt, trying to put myself in that same place I did with Tony [Cascarino], and get under his skin and actually live his life through his eyes and recreate the experience of what his life was like before, what his life was after, what his life was now.

“I mean that did actually push me to the brink in terms of the pressure of trying to keep your job. I couldn’t but give him 100%, and that puts pressure on every other aspect of your life. I’m not a guy who can multi-task. That’s a great strength but it’s also a big weakness. So when I do take on something like that I get obsessive about it and it just puts pressure on all of the other important things in your life. Family, marriage, work, job, all of those other things. Relationships, friends. And after I had done it I said ‘That’s fucking it, never again.’”

It isn’t just the journalist who gets pushed to a dark place.

“It was so difficult early on for him [Hampson] because I told him, ‘Look, you’re going to have to really dig deep here and this is going to really hurt, because of what you had come through, but unless we can get to that point, this isn’t going to work. Nobody wants to read a book about a kid in a wheelchair, that’s an instant turn-off. You’re going to have to really make people want to read this, and the only way they engage with it is if you’re honest with what happened to you and how you are feeling about it now.’

“And there was a lot of the early conversations, and not that I’m guilty about it, where I’m fucking losing the head, saying ‘No, no, no, no, no. That’s bullshit. That’s not what happened, give me this and give me this’… And because I was dragging him to that kind of dark place, he actually got quite ill early on. And it was quite worrying, you know? But again, he understood where I wanted to go, and it was actually where he wanted to go. But it took a while until we were both singing off the same hymn sheet.”

Then there is the wider implication of family and friends who might be affected by what comes out of a book. 

Towards the end of working on Back from the Brink with Paul McGrath, Hogan felt the need to touch base with some of the people closest to the former Ireland defender.

“There was a lot of shocking stuff in it that, and as I kind of uncovered it, I was shocked by it,” he says.

“I was absolutely conscious of that, and absolutely conscious of the impact it would have on Paul, but not just on him, on his family. 

“I knew there were suicide attempts, I knew there was drug abuse and I knew there was a lot dark stuff there [before starting the book]. I just didn’t know how much of it I’d be able to uncover. Then I didn’t know how much of it I really could use. The further I went into that one, the more conscious I became that I wanted his family to know what was coming.

“I actually asked him to set-up a meeting with his three eldest sons, who were living in Manchester with his first wife, Claire. I wanted them to understand this wasn’t a football book. This was, in places, a really dark book about his life story. And part of it did involve them. That was actually the last thing I did before the book was published, I met them in Manchester and the last three paragraphs of the book are their words.

“It kind of reassured me that they knew exactly what was coming, and that it wasn’t going to be a bomb going off in their lives.”

Knowing when to hold back is a skill in itself.

“You want to get to the truth without hurting the person,” Kimmage says.

“Which is not to say that everything has to reflect well on them, but there are limits to that when it extends to other people as well. I sometimes have had to be reminded of that, definitely.

“Instinctively I probably push too far. I probably go too deep. And not just with Matt, with Tony [Cascarino] there was a couple of times where I had to talk to an editor and say ‘What do you think?’ And was told ‘No, I think you’re gone too far, you need to pull back.’” 

O’Connor faced a similar issue working with Cathal McCarron on his 2016 book, Out of Control, which included harrowing stories of gambling addiction, and was released to a backdrop of controversy. 

While McCarron’s book may not have sold as well as O’Connor’s books with Daly and Jackie Tyrrell, he feels its success can be measured in different ways.

“I know for a fact that it saved two people’s lives,” he says.

“People who were in a really, really bad state, contemplating suicide, who read the book and saw that there was another way out. I know that because I’ve seen the messages.”

Some of the revelations that came to light while working on McCarron’s book shocked O’Connor at the time.

“Obviously you want to protect the person,” O’Connor continues.

jackie-tyrrell-and-joe-canning Jackie Tyrrell kept a diary while working on his autobiography with Christy O'Connor. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“As a journalist your job is to write the best story, but you can get a line and think, yes, this is a really good line or a really good story, but is that going to do that person any favours in the long run if it comes out? I would always say it’s easier to take stuff out than put it back in.

“You might maybe battle for a few things, but at the end of the day it’s their book. If they don’t want something going in, that’s their decision, even though you might have spent a couple of days writing something. That’s the way it works.

“With Jackie, I said it’s going to be no holds barred here. I wrote 50,000 words [initially], and I was expecting him to come back having run a red marker through most of it. But he said ‘No, that’s great, fair play to you.’ McCarron didn’t change one word. Dalo, I had some battles with Dalo alright, but it was all within reason.” 

Of course, sometimes it’s not all plain sailing.

Despite telling himself he would never ghost another book, Kimmage signed on to write Brian O’Driscoll’s autobiography when he found himself out of work. Their working relationship eventually broke down, and Kimmage quit the project.

“I think we should leave that one there,” he laughs.

“This is no disrespect to Brian. I think he’s in a much, much better position now. I think he should only actually be thinking about it now. I think he would want more from it now and invest more it now. But anyway, I think it was essentially a box-ticking exercise for him.

“Now that isn’t really why we fell out in the end, and I’m not really going to get into that. It more related to the pressures of my work and something I asked him to do for me that he couldn’t do, and that was it. I quit it. But it certainly poisoned any inkling I had to do it again. I have had a lot of offers since that I haven’t even thought twice about.

“I think what it made me understand or realise, was that if you are going to do something like that, if you are going to put the commitment and make the investment that I was prepared to make in it… And this was for Brian as well, I mean Jesus, we were three years working on it! If you are going to make that commitment to something like that, then you really have to love the person you are doing it for. That is almost the only reason to do it.”

Some argue the merits of ghostwriting. 

In Duggan’s case, despite being well received, Until Victory Always remains the only book he has ghosted, partially because of his fears surrounding the wider sports book industry.

“Obviously they [autobiographies] sell very well and I see the sense of them and I can see the appeal of them and good ones can be really enjoyable, but they just can smother the market I think,” he says.

“There have been so many really good, independent, little sports books that tell terrific stories and shine a light on areas that maybe don’t often get that profile. It would be a shame if publishers aren’t still willing to take a risk on books which may be not as commercially certain as the big-name sports autobiographies.”

Kimmage agrees with the sentiment, but is also enthusiastic about the general quality of sports autobiographies.

“Recently there have been some outstanding works. The Declan Lynch collaboration with Tony O’Reilly, Tony 10, that was absolutely fantastic. Richie Sadlier’s book [Recovering] last year with Dion Fanning, absolutely outstanding. The Eamonn Magee book [The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee] with Paul Gibson, absolutely extraordinary. A fantastic piece of work. Niall Kelly’s books with both Philly [McMahon, The Choice] and Andy Lee [Fighter], really good. The Christy O’Connor book with Jackie Tyrell [The Warrior's Code] was very good, there is a rawness there.

“So when it is done well, they are really good. Now we’ve had a raft of rugby books that are just fucking appalling. Just absolutely appalling. And they actually do the publishing trade no favours at all. 

“So those are the ones that have really impressed me as great pieces of work. They are still being done, there are still some great pieces of work out there.”

What better time to dig into them.

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