Ghost writing: John McDonald

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19 November 2021
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The novelist, screenwriter and ghostwriter describes how he competed Rupert Whewell's novel White Dog

I never met Rupert Whewell but, earlier this year, I lived with him for about four months. For the most part, it was a harmonious relationship, although we did have one or two minor differences of opinion.
Rupert died in a mountaineering accident on Nanda Devi, in the Himalayas, in May 2019. His family wanted a ghost-writer with experience of writing fiction to finish his novel, set in the world of art dealers, dodgy Russians, diamond smuggling and social intrigue – in December 2020, I was asked by Whitefox Publishing if I wanted to play a crucial role in seeing it come to life.
I had an initial phone call with Rupert’s sister, Lisa, who was driving the project. We seemed to hit it off and I was given the go-ahead. Lisa kindly provided samples of Rupert’s writing and thought processes, in the form of a diary he kept while trekking through India to Nepal in 1989.  
As a ghost-writer, you have to put your own ego to one side when taking on someone else’s voice, particularly if that person is deceased. That’s when the term 'ghost' really comes into its own. You must subdue the natural inclination all professional writers have, to 'correct' the amateur’s 'misconceptions' about motif and narrative mode.  
With non-fiction memoir (of which I’ve ghosted many), the urge to impose your own style and perspective isn’t so great, as you’re dealing with the facts of someone else’s life, which can’t easily be manipulated. That’s not to say, of course, that you shouldn’t make your professional opinion known to the author and explain how to avoid cliché and hackneyed phraseology.
Fiction is different – fiction is fickle, shifting, subjective, wilful, capricious. It takes discipline to write it from the point of view of someone else. In this case, at what point did it cease to be Rupert’s novel and start to become John’s? This is where respect is required, respect for the original author’s vision – what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.  
Luckily, in the case of Rupert’s book White Dog, the task proved easier than I first expected. His writing style was, in some ways, analogous to my own – with essences of, perhaps, JP Donleavy, Don DeLillo and even Gore Vidal – but blended into a work that was none of those literary fabrics, but unique in itself.
The process of working with Rupert’s existing material and his notes took some preparation. I read through several versions supplied by Lisa, to get a feel for the story and the author’s modality. There were several files from which I pulled together the narrative flow into a single-document draft manuscript.
During that process, I liaised with and took advice from a couple of Rupert’s close friends, along with guidance and suggestions from Lisa and Rupert’s mother, Elaine. Their input was invaluable in enabling me to get to know Rupert as a person as well as a writer. Lisa, in particular, was hugely instrumental in birthing this creation as a tribute to her brother.   
After that, I edited the existing material and wrote up the missing sections of narrative, trimming superfluous descriptive prose and filling in the gaps, taking continuity into account and also Rupert’s original voice, so that the new material fitted seamlessly into the whole.
I then worked with Lisa and Elaine on an edit of the new draft manuscript, taking their further comments into account and giving the novel a final polish.
White Dog isn’t for fiction lovers who like to be spoon-fed. Rupert intended his book for people who like a literary challenge and who enjoy having to think a little about what they’re reading. In that respect he gives the reader the opportunity to draw their own conclusions as to meaning and interpretation.
The novel was a project I greatly enjoyed working on. It was both interesting and informative and the creative process of bringing Rupert’s vision to life was particularly satisfying.
From a personal point of view, I wonder, if I had met Rupert Whewell, would we have got along? I think maybe we might have. Why? Because, now that the project is finished … I kind of miss him.  

Find out more about John McDonald on his website.


Are you interested in becoming a ghostwriter? Read this guide.

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