My Life as a Ghost | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

My Life as a Ghost 

Confessions of a Writer for Hire, Sctually Written by Paul Engleman

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I recently got some news about my writing career from a most unlikely source: my mother. While browsing through a mystery magazine at the supermarket--she gets the Star at home--she saw a book-club ad with one of my novels among the introductory offerings.

"Which one?" I asked, seeing dollar signs.

"The book you wrote by Dick Clark--Murder on Stage."

"Murder on Tour." My mother is my biggest fan, but she has a little trouble remembering the titles of my books.

"Oh yes, that's right. By the way, Paul, whatever happened to your book by John DeLorean?"

I had my first real second thoughts about being a ghostwriter the first time I met Bill Adler. I had come to New York to meet the world's oldest teenager, Dick Clark, with whom I had agreed, through Bill, to collaborate on a mystery novel. But Dick couldn't make it and I ended up in a one-on-one with Bill instead. I knew little about Bill except that he was a book packager, someone who lines up celebrities to "write" books. I also knew he had been the eminence grise for Who Killed the Robbins Family?, a best-selling novel/puzzle with a $10,000 prize for the reader/sleuth who correctly answered the title/question.

Bill wore khakis, a knit shirt, and Reeboks, a contrast to the jacket and tie I had borrowed for the occasion. His desk was bare save for a Rolodex and phone, and his office was lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with brand-spanking-new books. As he escorted me to a distant couch, I glimpsed a few of the titles: Murder at the Super Bowl by Fran Tarkenton, The Wit and Wisdom of the Kennedys, Ron and Nancy: A Love Affair. From browsing the remaindered racks at Crown Books, I recognized them all as Bill Adler productions.

I showed Bill the outlines I had written, but he dismissed them immediately. My agent, it seemed, had mistakenly informed me--after being misinformed by the publisher--that the book was to be called "Murder on American Bandstand." Bill said the rights to that concept had been sold years ago. My assignment was to write a mystery with a rock music backdrop. The subject could be anything I wanted, as long as Dick agreed to it.

Bill said Dick was a terrific guy, a consummate professional, easy to work with. He knew this firsthand, having worked with Dick on his autobiography, Rock, Roll & Remember, and his Easygoing Guide to Good Grooming. I asked about promotion, noting that Dick had deleted a clause in our contract requiring a book tour. Bill assured me that he would handle promotion and, knowing Dick as he did, he knew Dick would do anything he wanted.

I wasn't sure how Bill fit in, but I got a clue when the phone rang. Bill told the caller he hoped to fly to Denver that night to meet with Gary Hart, who the previous day had withdrawn from the Democratic primary following revelations of his dalliance with Donna Rice. I thought it was a little soon to be thinking about a book--I mean, shouldn't the guy have an hour or two to smooth things over with his wife?--but I came to learn that when it comes to making book deals, Bill Adler is one eager beaver.

Writing fiction pays about the same hourly wage as cleaning the fryers at Burger King, so when my agent suggested I ghostwrite a book for Dick Clark, I didn't offer much resistance. He said my share of the advance was hardly spectacular, but he thought there would be additional revenues of a sort that I had heard about but never actually experienced: royalties. He also thought it would be a chance to score points with the book's publisher, Otto Penzler of Mysterious Press. Although Mysterious had published my last two books, Otto recently had rejected my proposal for a novel about a missing leftist on the grounds that I had already "proven to be a commie pinko in nonpolitical books." He was currently evaluating my proposal for another novel.

Mysterious had paid Bill Adler a $15,000 advance. Under a separate contract with him, I got half of that, with 10 percent going to my agent. Dick Clark, curiously, received nothing, although his production company had "first refusal" on movie and TV rights at terms "mutually agreeable" to all of us. At the time, I thought I'd be agreeable to anything from $5 thousand to $5 million, but today, three years later, I'd settle for $50 and an autographed photo of Casey Kasem's wife.

After the advance was earned back through book sales, royalties would be paid in an equal three-way split. Authorship would read: "Created by Bill Adler" on one line, followed by "By Dick Clark with Paul Engleman" on the next.

I reserved the option to use a pseudonym; I didn't think of myself as a "serious" writer, but I figured that if I ever had the good fortune to be thought of as one, discovery of my involvement in this project would change that impression in a hurry.

My friends made cracks about flying to the coast to meet Dick at Spago. But since no expenses were budgeted, any poolside cocktails would have to come out of my $6,750. Dick and I conducted our story meetings by telephone--from my apartment on Lincoln Park West to his car on the Harbor Freeway.

Not that there were many meetings. Bill got things rolling with a note to Dick saying that I would call and he would see him soon. (I've since come to suspect that Bill has only seen Dick on TV.) Bill sent me a copy, adding Dick's number and urging me to call him right away.

I once had a job that brought me into occasional contact with famous people, so I wasn't too nervous about calling Dick. But I did have a slight case of the jitters. After all, in the celebrity shark tank, Dick is one big fish. And I was calling in the capacity of full partner.

Dick got on the line right away, set up a time to call back, and did so at precisely the appointed hour. Dick seemed like a nice guy. He even had a few ideas, including one about a music exec who gets murdered years after ripping off songs from a 50s roots singer. I had a few questions, including whether it was OK to mention drugs. Dick allowed that that was necessary, given the nature of the music biz, but he suggested there be an antidrug message. He wanted the story to be contemporary--even he thought the oldies bit had gotten a little moldy. He was happy to be a resource, but after we talked for about half an hour, he also sounded as if he'd be perfectly happy if he never heard from me again.

Nice guy or not, Dick did have final approval. I played it safe by developing his idea into an outline before writing the book. I substituted the son of the roots singer as the apparent avenger, gave the music exec a pair of coke-snorting no-talent sons who get bumped off while their band is touring, and threaded the revenge plot around a case of mistaken identity to allow for what I hoped would be a surprise ending.

I set the story in 1979. The protagonist was music writer Del Barnes, a former one-hit wonder drug burnout whose band had scaled the Top 40 during the Woodstock summer of 1969, a time when the hip were tuned to FM and real-life one-hit wonders Zager & Evans were polluting the AM airwaves with a song called "In the Year 2525." This solved two worries: with a recovered abuser as narrator, I could caution about drugs without sounding like William Bennett; by mentioning both "In the Year 2525" and Woodstock in the book's first chapter, I could narrow the gulf between Dick's idea of rock music and mine. Dick may look younger than I do, but he's got 25 years on me. While I don't know this for a fact, I suspect that when I was a teenager camped in the mud at Woodstock, the world's oldest teen was hosting Zager & Evans on Bandstand.

I titled it "Third City on the Tour" and provided some alternates: "Strike Down the Band," "Rock for Your Life," "Murder on Tour" and, my favorite, "Between Rock and a Dark Place." It was a solid story as mystery novels go. OK, it was a little corny. But as celebrity mystery novels go . . .

Dick said the outline had just the contemporary tone he was hoping for. But since half a dozen characters were due to be done in over the course of the book, he was concerned that reviewers might skewer him for the violence. I promised that most of the murders would take place offstage and the victims would be so thoroughly unlikable that any reader would think them deserving of their fate. Then I sat down to write my first novel not written by me.

My mother had sent me Who Killed the Robbins Family? hoping I could solve the $10,000 question, so I knew a book "created by Bill Adler" shouldn't take more than a couple of months to write. But I had already put in that much time on the outlines. After typing the opening sentence ("If there's one thing I've learned in the music business, it's never trust a guy who says 'Trust me'"), I hit a major snag: although I knew how to write a mystery, I didn't have a clue as to how to write one that sounded like it had been written by Dick. It was a problem of voice, a cruel irony considering that Dick's voice is familiar to everyone between the ages of 3 and 83. But I was incapable of reproducing it. After two hours, I had four sentences. At that rate, I wouldn't be done until the year 2525.

In moments of literary despair--and this was truly one of those--I seek sanctuary at the mailbox. There I found a letter from my partner. Not Dick. Bill.

Bill wrote curiously short letters. This one had three sentences, one of which was: "I trust you have been able to get in touch with Dick and that both he and you are on the same wave length and that we are moving forward on the manuscript."

We are moving forward? I now recalled that when I had told Bill the book might take six months, he had frowned, as if realizing that while he had recruited an undisputed superstar, the publisher had lined up a late-round draft choice with a bum knee. Maybe I was being too sensitive. I spent the afternoon drinking gin and reading the Hockey News, my favorite summer pastime.

After a week of false starts and bad moods, my wife pointed out that anyone gullible enough to believe Dick actually wrote the book wasn't going to ponder whether it sounded like him. She doubted that Dick would even wonder if it sounded like him.

This was an epiphany, a shot of epinephrine that sent me plunging forward. There were momentary setbacks and moments that gave me pause; I had to weed out creeping sarcasm and replant it with weepy sincerity, obviate vulgarity with unfortunate passages like "Chip snarled, adding a choice selection of four-letter words for emphasis." But I was plodding ahead.

I got a letter from Bill that had crossed in the mail with my assurance that the project was going great guns:

Dear Paul:

How are things progressing with Dick Clark? We haven't heard from you and we just wanted to make sure things are going o.k.

Best personal wishes,

"He's got you in his tickler file," my wife said.

I tried not to get annoyed that Bill and I were making the same dough, even though I was churning out a hundred pages for every one he produced and I was only one of his ongoing productions. It beat wiping counters at Dunkin' Donuts.

After writing the first third of the book, I sent it to Dick for his approval. I also sent a copy to the editor at Mysterious, who was understandably miffed that a publishing house aiming to develop a reputation for quality had stooped to celebrity-book production. Dick, to my relief, said it looked fine, and he seemed to actually have read it. The editor observed that Del, the narrator, had the personality of a Ping-Pong ball. I promised to pop some dopamine into his burned-out brain but cautioned about something I thought was central to the project.

"Remember--this is supposed to be written by Dick Clark."

"I know, but we still want it to be a good book."

"We do?"

"Yeah, I think so."

With my collaborator proving easy to please, my editor demanding quality, and my creator eager to finish (I got another letter: "Dear Paul: I trust everything is moving well on the Dick Clark mystery. Best personal wishes"), I continued at a steady pace, resolving to use a pseudonym during tortured passages, regretting during good ones that I was wasting A-material on a Bill Adler creation. It took six months from start to finish, longer than it takes to write a book by me. After reading the manuscript I decided it was pretty good, all things considered, and certainly better than anyone would expect for a celebrity novel.

I vowed never to write one again.

A month later, Bill wrote to say he had a couple of ideas and would "love to work with" me again. With my wife about to lose her job at a publishing company, I figured it couldn't hurt to call. After all, the Dick book hadn't been that much trouble.

Bill asked if I'd be interested in doing "Murder at the Miss America Pageant" with a former Miss Runner-Up. I asked if he had any other ideas. He said he had a big project lined up, but it wasn't a mystery so he wasn't sure I could handle it. I was mildly insulted, since I knew that he hadn't even read "our" book, but I bit anyway. Bill's big idea was a roman a clef about the car industry. The author: John DeLorean.

I instantly thought of several reasons to turn it down. I knew nothing about cars. I knew next to nothing about John DeLorean, except for the little I'd read about his adventures in the cocaine trade and subsequent Christian rebirth. That should have been enough right there. I took down John's number and said I'd talk it over with my agent.

My agent was dubious, based on his knowledge of the 1975 book On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, a legendary publishing nightmare that had gone into protracted litigation. He said that the only way the book would work was if DeLorean cooperated fully and if he would reveal previously undisclosed details about life inside General Motors. He told me to sit tight while he got the truth and nothing but the truth out of Bill. An hour later he called to say that Bill had assured him that John had assured him that he was ready to comply on both counts. But there was a catch. No publisher would nibble on a book like that without a solid hook. Before we could land a contract, I had to supply the bait--a big splashy outline for a big trashy novel.

When I called John DeLorean, he said he wanted the book to be like The Bonfire of the Vanities. I told him I'd see what I could do. He had a long list of books to recommend, including On a Clear Day and The Reckoning by David Halberstam. Maybe it's my short attention span, but I'd rather rotate my tires than read a book by David Halberstam. Still, I made it through, all 7,000 pages, and learned more about the auto industry than I ever wanted to know.

I got a letter from Bill:

Just a brief note to make sure that you have gotten in touch with John DeLorean and you have enough material to proceed with an outline. The outline should be as extensive and juicy as possible. Best personal wishes."

He had underlined "juicy" and scrawled a PS: This book could make alot of money--and be a best seller.

A few weeks later he wrote again:

How are you progressing on the John DeLorean novel? Obviously, we would like to move forward with that book and make a publishing deal for everybody concerned.

In fact, I was not progressing well. I'd made several lengthy calls to John, but we just weren't connecting. He couldn't answer my questions, but he did have lots of ideas about where I might go to research them. After the fourth conversation in which he referred me to the 1976 book, I concluded that John had shot his wad of auto lore a decade before. I was doing the driving, and he was just along for the ride.

I stopped calling for fear he might recommend another Halberstam book. My wife and I divided up our new library of automobile books--I got A-Hal, she took Ham-Z--and talked about buying a little car when the big check arrived. I decided to add detailed research later, after we had a contract. With my wife whispering "think miniseries" in my ear, I focused on writing a juicy plot.

The outline was 100 pages long and had all the ingredients of a surefire blockbuster: power, passion, greed, lust, jealousy, betrayal, revenge--also corny dialogue, contrived foreign intrigue, and turgid technological passages for readers to skip right over.

The story included 50 characters and spanned 60 years. It covered the 1936 Flint strike, the 1943 Detroit race riots, World War II detention camps, hostile takeovers, stock-market manipulation, and leveraged buyouts. It chronicled a savvy woman's rise--through guile and seduction and, of course, against all odds--to the top of a faltering automobile empire to reclaim the company that she believed had been stolen from her father decades earlier.

It was, I thought, a blueprint for the ultimate potboiler. I was feeling pretty smug when I gave it to my agent.

Not trashy enough, he said. He offered some tips, said to add more power, greed, and lust and suggested a few repairs.

While I was completing the tuneup, I received a package from Mysterious Press, an advance cover of Murder on Tour, the title they had chosen for Dick Clark's first novel. It was pink, orange, green, and purple, and the copy ran vertically across a torn concert ticket, so to the average bookstore browser, it would look like this:

I saw right away that if this were a typical mystery novel by a typical mystery author, it would be a disaster. No store would display the book horizontally and no customer would be able to read the title without risking a neck injury. But, I happily realized, this was no typical book. This was by Dick Clark, and the managers of every B. Dalton and Waldenbooks would have 25 copies stacked--horizontally--by the register and 25 more in the store window.

The remodeled big-trashy-car-book proposal registered a perfect score on my agent's trashometer. I sent it to John, calling to say it was coming and to phone me if he didn't get it in a few days. I told him to call Bill with his approval right away--the unspoken message here was that if John had any thoughts at this late date, he should keep them to himself. With the project in Bill's hands, I washed mine and got to work on my next novel. Although it wasn't for the big money, it felt good to be writing a book by me for a change.

I tried not to get distracted by the likelihood that Bill would call any day to let me know that our "literary lottery ticket," as my wife and I were calling it, had paid off. But after two months without news, I succumbed to the urge to write Bill for an update. He wrote back to say he had been unable to reach John. This was distressing news. I might as well have been waiting to hear from Publisher's Clearing House.

Bill suggested I try calling, as if John had a different number when I dialed. This was clearly his responsibility, but with so much time, my time, already invested, this was no time to get into a dispute about division of labor. Plus I was bewildered by a line in Bill's note: "If we don't get a response from DeLorean then I think we should proceed with someone else."

Someone else? Like who? Lee Iacocca? Roger Smith? Or maybe the manager of that Chrysler dealership in Jersey where my father had recently bought a new LeBaron.

I called John. He answered on the first ring--in that all too familiar, faraway voice that never left you any doubt that you were calling long-distance. I told him Bill had been trying to reach him. He sounded only vaguely aware of who Bill was. I said we were waiting for his approval. He said he was waiting for the proposal. I told him someone at his house had signed for it two months before.

"Oh, then it must be here," he replied.

I told John to look, imagining my outline, our literary lottery ticket, buried under back issues of the Watchtower and fund-raising appeals from Jim and Tammy.

He couldn't find it. But he was sure it was there. Somewhere.

I gave him my number again in case he had lost that. Keep looking, I told him. And call me back this afternoon to let me know if you've found it.

"Oh yes, I will," he said.

He didn't.

I called Bill and told him John had said he hadn't received the outline.

"He's lying!"

I asked Bill why John, our partner, his celebrity recruit, would lie. To me, his partner, that writer guy.

"Because I sent him a copy."

I told Bill I was unaware that he had sent one too.

"That's right, you sent him one." I suddenly wondered how Bill had ever sold anything to anyone. But he was, as my agent had said, a super salesman. He had to be. After all, he had sold me on the idea of writing a book and letting him keep half the money.

"What should we do?" Bill asked.

I edged toward the liquor cabinet. The king of book packagers, a man who exchanged best personal wishes with Ron and Nancy, was asking me, some writer in Chicago, for advice.

I told him to make a copy of the outline, put it in an envelope, and call up a company called Federal Express. The next day, I told him, call John and keep calling until he finishes reading. If necessary, read it to him. Convince John he likes it, then make lots of copies and send them to lots of publishing houses real fast.

Bill said he would do just that--in a tone that gave me the sinking feeling that he had been taking down my instructions.

I called him three days later. He said he had been unable to reach John. I tried and got him on the first ring. (Was it my imagination, or had Bill decided John gave him the willies?) John said the proposal was swell, though he was concerned about "some of the language." I didn't ask how he thought it would stack up next to The Bonfire of the Vanities.

I quickly gave up on the big trashy car novel as literary lottery ticket, realizing that the Illinois weekly game offered better odds. I didn't have much confidence in Bill's agenting skills, and I wasn't sure a prospective editor would view John as an asset. But even as I resolved that there wasn't a ghost of a chance I'd ghost again, I was holding out hope of collecting a smaller payoff on the ticket I held with Dick Clark, author of the last book I had written.

Murder on Tour came out in hardcover in January 1989, with advance copies available before Christmas. Authors are entitled to free copies--usually enough to please some friends and piss off others. Author copies of Murder on Tour went to Bill, so I called to ask if he could spare any. He said he'd send me a copy. And he did. One copy. Book rate.

My editor said he'd be happy to send a few. Something in his tone made me think he thought there would be plenty of extras.

Reviews of the book were mixed, but we got savaged--did I say we?--in the trades. The first one I saw, in Kirkus, opened: "Mysteries with celebrity bylines, and books 'created by Bill Adler' tend to be thoroughly disposable. So the bland competence of this should probably be welcomed . . . " Publishers Weekly lamented the "so-so plot and thin characterizations" and revealed the true identity of Dick's pseudonymous collaborator. (Advance proofs had listed me as copyright holder, but someone--Bill perhaps?--had caught the error and changed it to Bill's name before publication.)

I wasn't discouraged. I knew that reviews don't sell books. And I was heartened by a note at the bottom of the PW review: "Author Tour." Dick, evidently, had agreed to go on the stump.

As luck would have it, the publication date of Dick's first novel coincided with the debut of The Pat Sajak Show, the short-lived late-night gabfest that was all the rage among TV-page editors until they actually got a chance to see it. A friend called to tell me that Dick Clark was scheduled to appear as a guest. I tuned in.

Dick's official mission was to promote his upcoming American Music Awards special, which he did quite effectively. He was on for an excruciatingly long segment, excruciating for all the time he spent not telling viewers about his new book that I had written. For half an hour, Pat lobbed softball after softball, asking about Dick's many projects and oh-goshing over his diversity of talents. Each query sounded like a setup pitch for Dick to slam out of the park, an invitation to crow about writing his first novel, to smile and hold that sucker up--horizontally--for a big fat close-up.

"Here it comes," my wife would say.

By the end of the show, I was standing an inch from the screen, shouting like a little-league dad. "The book, Dick! Plug the goddamn book!" Even if Pat did have the lowest ratings since Tammy Grimes, it was a network spot. But Dick, my partner, a guy who'd made millions, billions maybe, doing nothing but promote things, who would not make one dime until the book sold 10,000 copies, didn't say a word.

The next day I called Bill to thank him for his generosity and haste in sending the book and inquire if he'd mentioned to Dick that it was out. Dick knew, Bill said. He'd been trying to reach his old buddy but had been unable to get through.

I filled him in on Dick's mysterious silence in Promoville the night before.

"What can I say?" Bill said. "Murder is illegal." He promised to try Dick again and get right back to me. That was two years ago.

I called Dick and had no trouble reaching him. He said he had agreed to lend his name to the book for whatever value it might have (damn little, it turned out) but was reluctant to sit across from David Letterman and boast of writing a book that he hadn't written. I assured him that he needn't have qualms about lying on my account, that I had signed on to bolster my checking account not my literary prestige. Without his plugs, Murder on Tour was dead on arrival, destined for immediate burial in the remaindered racks at Crown Books. Dick offered his condolences.

A year after John DeLorean gave me the go-ahead on the big-trashy-car-novel proposal, I told my agent it was finally time to wrest it from the clutches of Bill Adler. (I had previously written Bill for a status report but never received an answer.) He wrote Bill a note and got one back with a list of 13 publishers who had rejected it. Bill said he was still working on the project but offered to let my agent sell the proposal for "all of us." My agent, to my amazement, responded with a vote of confidence in Bill's masterful sales skills. But to me he said, "This is the last time we do a freebie for Bill Adler."

We? I got a new agent.

My mother's recent call was the first news I've had about Murder on Tour in a long time. She sent me the ad for the Detective Book Club, an outfit that publishes three-novels-in-one, club-sandwich editions. She ordered a copy, thinking there might be some "lunch money" in it for me. I didn't have the heart to tell her she'd need to order 5,000 more copies, and even then it would only cover one lunch, to be shared with Bill and Dick, with my former agent getting right of first refusal on the pickle.

Her call triggered a vague recollection that I had a payment due in connection with the book. I dug through my files and found an old royalty statement.

Yes, indeed. Book of the Month Club purchased Murder on Tour in January 1989 for $500. According to the statement, Bill got half of that; according to our contract, I get a third of that. Based on my calculations, a check for $74.99 will arrive any day. And that doesn't include the windfall I'll have coming when the money for the book-club sandwich edition clears the ministry of accounts payable at Time-Warner, Inc. (This one, I suspect, might be worth three figures: to my mom's disappointment, Murder on Tour was already out of stock.)

I'll bet those payments are in the mail. But maybe I should call Bill just in case he's been unable to reach me. I'll let you know what he says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.

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