After ghostwriting for almost 20 years for one of London's most flamboyant literary and financial figures, Jennie Erdal's patience wore thin. She could see the layers of deception accelerating.
Besides, confrontations with Naim Attallah, an autocratic, bombastic, eccentric man, were stressful.
So she bailed, telling him she wanted to take her life in "a different direction."
He asked, "What would you do?"
"Writing," she replied.
"You should realize it is bloody difficult to write!" he said.
He didn't get it. So she waited about three more years before she actually stopped "ghosting."
So goes the amazing story Erdal tells in her fascinating memoir, "Ghosting: A Double Life."
Erdal said she never considered writing about the process of ghostwriting until she left the job in 2000. "Then I needed to do nothing for awhile," she said by phone from her home in St. Andrews, Scotland. "But I wanted passionately to write fiction. This story was pressing on my head, and so I began to use it fictionally. Then I thought, 'Why am I fictionalizing it when the reality is so much stranger?'"
So she wrote the book, and it has been very popular in the UK. In the meantime, her subject, Attallah, whom she calls "Tiger" in her book, has been giving interviews declaring himself "betrayed" by Erdal.
("The biggest betrayal in all of mankind!")
Yet, in spite of what Erdal calls his "litigious tendencies," he has said he will not sue.
For her part, Erdal said "there is no libel in the book," and she calls Attallah "a wonderful person to write about. His faults are all tangled up with his virtues. You can't say that about everyone. This is my story, not his. I am not out to demonize him."
Indeed she doesn't. She portrays a balanced human being who is "bigger than life," charismatic, interesting and energetic, yet obsessive, autocratic and unyielding.
When Erdal's marriage failed and she had three children to support, she needed a job. In the beginning, she was acting as "a personal assistant, secretary, researcher" for Attallah, who made his fortune in banking and then developed a publishing house in London. Gradually, her duties changed. She started writing lectures for him to give, articles, books, novels and even "intimate letters."
Her role developed so gradually that she wasn't aware for a long time that what she was doing was not moral that writing material for someone else to say without attribution was "ghosting." She says neither she nor Attallah ever used that word.
"He was very ambitious about being a writer, and he thought I could make it happen for him. I worked at home about 500 miles from London. I didn't feel manipulated at the beginning. My impression was that a lot of people were doing the same thing."
By the time she wrote the book, she was sorry and wanted to "take a hard look at ghostwriting, which is very prevalent now. We all get mixed up in our heads. I was doing an extreme form of it especially with intimate letters. Passing off something that is not your own is not honorable or moral behavior, but it is interesting behavior. Why give words away? Words are very personal."
Her top salary, she said, was "25,000 pounds a year less money than he paid his chauffeur. He paid me just enough to keep me interested. It was enough for me to pay the bills. The fact that I didn't get credit didn't matter to me. I knew. He couldn't own my thoughts. Getting credit seemed very low on the list of priorities. It was more important for me to care for my family."
Something else bothered Erdal. Tiger insisted that when she wrote two successful novels under his name that she put erotic sex scenes in them. "I treated it with humor. My daughter said I used humor as a coping strategy. I thought putting sex in the book was like taking a beautiful fruitcake and piling potatoes on top. But the sex was an ingredient that he needed. He promotes himself as a womanizer."
Erdal purposely wrote the sex scenes "over the top," so that he would recognize it and insist that she take them out. Instead, he loved the exaggerated and embarrassing description she used of sexual relations. When the critics reviewed the books, they were kind until it came to the sex scenes, and uniformly they suggested the books would have been better without them.
But when a critic criticized anything, Tiger thought Erdal should write a letter to complain. "I thought that was such a bad idea. But I had to hear him out and try to talk him out of it subtly. My feeling is that once you have a book out, you have to take it on the chin. It's like your children leaving home to enter the world."
Ironically, Tiger announced not long ago that he would write his own memoirs and the first of three volumes was issued quite quickly. Titled "The Old Ladies of Nazareth," it appeared as an answer to Erdal's book.Comment on this story
"He wrote it in three days," said Erdal. "I am capable of looking at a sentence and telling if he wrote it or not. This book is very different from other things he has written."
Erdal quoted one British reviewer as saying that "he rushed into print as proof he can hack it on his own. He can't. It is coy and embarrassing. Unghosted, Tiger is a shadow of himself."
Tiger's second volume, "The Boy of England," is due to appear in May. That one reportedly took three weeks to write.In the meantime, Erdal's book is now selling well in the United States, and she is working on a novel of her own. But she refuses to make "any grandiose claims for a literary career."