weekend-readsThe Ghost Writes Back

Amy Boesky

There was nothing surprising about my professor’s lecture on Shakespeare until, out of the blue, she started talking about ghostwriting. I was in the back of the packed auditorium with the other teaching assistants. Taking notes, working fast to revise my plans for discussion section the next day in response to what she said in lecture. The ghostwriting reference stopped me short.

Ghosts are all over these plays, she pointed out. Shakespeare supposedly played the part of the ghost in Hamlet, but it didn’t stop there. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with “ghost writers”—“legible erasures” that forecast debates about their authorship. How much of these plays did Shakespeare write himself? What was co-written, or added by an actor or a compositor or a later editor? Anxieties about this, my professor argued, are linked to the ghosts and ghostwriters that haunt the tragedies. Figures connected in turn to other in-between states, like madness, uncertainty, and illegibility. “Present absences,” these ghostly traces belong, as she saw it, to the world of the uncanny, making audiences question the very concept of the “real.”

There were more than eight hundred of us in the auditorium that day, but I think I may have been the only one who heard the word “ghostwriting” and thought not of Derridean “erasure,” but instead of the unfinished manuscript sitting on my desk back in my apartment. Ghostwriting wasn’t a “present absence” for me, it was a job—one that was helping pay my way through grad school, one that I was trying to keep hidden (isn’t that part of the nature of ghostliness, to be barely visible?). It was a job that led to constant second-guessing (should I really keep doing this? What kind of impact was this having on my scholarship? On my “real” writing?). Ghostwriting felt like the flip side of my life as a full-time graduate student. But much as I worried about it, it was also a job I loved.

 

For six years during my twenties, I worked as one of the principal ghostwriters for a mass-market series for teenaged girls called Sweet Valley High. Years later, I’m still trying to make sense of what these books meant to me—why I wrote so many of them, and why (eventually) I stopped. The books are packed away in my attic now—dozens of them, with their lilac and dusty-pink paperback covers—but the experience is harder to sort out and put away.

Each book opened in a similar way: descriptions of an ersatz southern California landscape (pan shot of beach, ocean, red-tiled roofs). Blonde twins identical down to their dimples, eyes “blue-green as the Pacific ocean,” perfect “size-6 figures,” matching lavalier necklaces. (I followed suit from earlier books, but I never really knew what a “lavalier” was.) Then, each narrative bounced off in its own direction, chasing complex plot lines: the janitor’s son who turned out to be wealthy; the neglected rich girl who shoplifted for attention; a parade of “outsiders” who came to Sweet Valley for one reason or another, each burdened by some kind of excess (too studious, too absorbed in a single sport or instrument, too vulnerable, too heavy, too East Coast). Just “too.” I knew the dangers of such excesses all too well. Hadn’t I had always been too much of one thing or another?—too Midwestern. Too focused and bookish to the world outside academia; not focused enough inside it. But in these books, differences got smoothed away. The task of each narrative seemed partly to absorb it, or cast it out; people fit in to Sweet Valley and its ethos, or the narrative expelled them.

There were sixteen books in the series when I started writing for it, and somewhere around ninety-two when I stopped. Each starred sixteen-year-old twins, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield—their identical appearances introduced by a string of glossy-magazine adjectives: pretty, blonde, sparkly, slender, fashionable. In an ingenious move, Francine Pascal, the creator of the series, made them physically twinned but “opposites” in temperament. Elizabeth was responsible, earnest, diligent, the consummate “good girl”; Jessica was her identical opposite—daring, mischievous, funny, irreverent. The one who gets into scrapes and gets away with it. A suburban, middle-class, romance-teen-girl version of Huck Finn. It was their interconnection that worked, Elizabeth’s well-intentioned efforts to quash Jessica’s antics, and Jessica’s clever designs to evade Elizabeth’s restrictions that gave the series its energy. To my mind, as the writer-who-read and the reader-who-wrote, that deft touch made the clockwork of the series spring to life. It went right to the core of adolescent identity—the same/different axis around which so much yearning and affiliation spin themselves out, one generation after another.

Sweet Valley High set its fables of “same and different” in a 1980s world of new wealth and upward mobility, latching on to an innovative publishing reality: create a mass-market paperback series for young female readers, keep the price point low enough that it could be absorbed by a middle-class allowance, and use the books themselves to advertise each other by “seeding” the plots of each subsequent book in the final chapters. After almost a decade of new realism offered to teen readers by Judy Blume, whose heroines had scoliosis or weight problems or pimples and worried about getting their periods and struggled about whether or not to believe in God, Sweet Valley High offered a pastel, romantic antidote: a world of action instead of contemplation, a world in which bodies were seen soft-focus, free of the slightest blemish or appetite. Mysterious illnesses aside, this was a disembodied world, where corporeality was hinted at solely through actions: the twins “sped” in their shiny red Fiat Spider convertible; “dashed” to the mall; or “raced” upstairs to phone a friend. Rhetoric mattered here as much as action—the books were filled with dialogue, and talk was everywhere—gossip, confidences, promises, avowals, protests, demurrals. I never knew, before I started writing for Sweet Valley, how many synonyms there were for the verb “said.” The twins by and large didn’t “say” things—instead, they chuckled and giggled and whispered and murmured and sighed. They “gasped” over good news or bad. They lived in a fantasy world, these girls, and as long as I was writing about them, to some extent, so did I.

Before I started ghost-writing, I was a poet at an Ivy League college, and then a graduate student at Oxford, slogging away at the Bodleian Library, reading sermon after sermon in the collected prose of John Donne. I was a graduate student because I wanted to be, but there was a part of me that grew tired of the drabness and the drizzle, the black gowns, the bluebooks, the endless one-upmanship of academia. The people I studied had been dead for centuries. Once in a while—skulking around the edges of a period that ended hundreds of years before I was born—I wondered why I cared so much about people who lived and died in the 1600s. I read alone, I wrote alone. Sometimes I ate dinner alone at a vegan restaurant I liked and I’d look at people—other people, laughing and sitting together—and wondered if they could even see me. I suspected not. Maybe it was because I was an American, living in Oxford. I wasn’t sure. The “real world,” with its innovations and complexities, whorled around somewhere above or below me, and I felt (at times) like I had no part in it.

Sometimes, as a graduate student, I felt like a kind of ghost.

People—other people—had histories they talked about, outside of books. Courtyards I could half-see where people were dancing. Lives formed, marked by things I didn’t know. In Oxford, living near sweet-faced boys in black gowns who hinted of public schools I didn’t know and joined secret societies and vanished up into stairwells, laughing, I realized there were spaces that opened up somewhere—into big rooms, filled with light and people—that I couldn’t see. Had never seen. I floated at the rims of things. I was the eye, the ear, the pen. In high school, I had kept a journal, entry after entry, of isolation, of disquiet. The scratchings and yearnings of a ghost.

The year I found Sweet Valley High was the only year of my life when I wasn’t attached to a school somewhere, either as a student or a professor. The master’s degree I’d done in England was two years long, and I had to decide if I wanted to go on and get a PhD once it was done, and if so, whether to go back to England (the expedient choice) or start over again back home here in the States. I was living in New York while I was trying to figure all of this out. It was, to use the terms of my Shakespeare-professor-to-be, a “liminal” time. I was in between things. I’d taken a job as an editorial assistant, and I was struggling to pay my bills. This was a period of confusion and anxiety: of a roommate who wrote her name on her hardboiled eggs so I wouldn’t eat them; of a boyfriend who cheated; of a cross-town and down-town bus to the publishing house where I Xeroxed and typed letters on mimeograph paper while around me, people line-edited manuscripts written by other people. Crossing out sentences, refining words. I’d dreamed of sitting around in conference rooms talking about how to turn manuscripts into literature, but at bottom, this publishing gig looked more like business than art. I wasn’t cut out for it. I applied to PhD programs that winter and while I waited to hear back, I scoured the classifieds, looking for a way out. Caretaking someone’s country estate in Bedford. Importing woolens from Edinburgh. I was unmoored, twenty-three, too old to depend on my parents and too young to make a life yet on my own.

One night, a friend of my father’s—an established children’s book author—invited me over for dinner, and Francine Pascal had been invited as well—she was a friend of a friend, I think. There were eight, maybe nine people at dinner. Everyone was older than I was, and settled. Successful. When people asked what I did, I talked about the publishing house. About applying to PhD programs. I must’ve also mentioned I was trying to write a children’s book and I think that was when one of the guests told me Francine had created a romance series for teenagers. It was a runaway bestseller, and they were looking for new writers. Francine confirmed this was all true. When she said goodnight to me at the end of the evening, she suggested I try writing for the series.

There was a whole protocol for trying out. I wrote a sample chapter, and the editors must have liked it, because I got hired to write Book 16: “Rags to Riches.” (Given the state of my bank account, the irony wasn’t lost on me.)

Imagine, superimposed on the gray-and-grainy screen of a floundering, slightly depressed twenty-something, the shimmery outlines of an idealized adolescent world. All drawn—I just had to color it in. I could pick any colors, as long as they were pastel! The characters were already invented. They had “histories,” personalities, but I could add nuances. The plots were already there. Who could have dreamed of such adventures? A plane crash in a Cessna. Hysterical paralysis following a bad break-up. The rich posing as poor and the poor as rich. The tennis star that longed to be ordinary, the ordinary girl that longed to be a starlet. Differences smoothed away by the sameness-machine of narrative. The teachers with secrets, the students with secrets, the secrets revealed, the revelations turned into new secrets. The core secret—the one I knew, and harbored myself, and saw in those around me—the bland central core of “sameness,” of normalcy. How different were any of us, despite our attenuated lives as graduate students, from anybody else? The darkest of dark secrets: how much I hadn’t read, and didn’t know. How little I felt I had to say that was different, or new, or mattered.

Your task, my thesis advisor in Oxford told my tutorial partner and me, is to be original. Your thesis won’t pass otherwise.

I haunted the bookshops, certain my argument had already been written. Afraid to ask him: is original the same thing as different? As important, or relevant, or even good?

Writing for Sweet Valley High, I wasn’t supposed to be original. Or different. My job was to pick up somebody else’s thread and follow it: just write the story. Spice it up with dialogue, add a toss of a blond curl here, a sparkle of a blue-green eye there. Create a subplot and weave it through the narrative.

What did I get in return? Why did I go from writing one book to two and then five and then fifty? Was it the money? At first, to some extent, yes. After “Rags to Riches” and “Crash Landing,” I quit my job at the publishing house and took the summer “off” to write two more books. I’d already decided to go back to graduate school in the fall, but instead of making the reasonable decision to write one or two or even three books every summer, when I wasn’t in class full-time or teaching, I started graduate school, bringing Sweet Valley with me, and plowed ahead full steam.

For the next five years, Sweet Valley became my other, hidden life—at night, on weekends. Over vacations. The whole time I was getting my PhD, I wrote more or less every other book in the series, alternating with another “principle” writer whom I never met. It was like I’d somehow become twins during that five year stretch. In one version of myself, I was a twenty-something, Jewish, academic version of Elizabeth Wakefield. In that life—the earnest, responsible one—I was a resident tutor, writing fellowship letters for cream-of-the-crop seniors in exchange for room and board; a graduate student in seventeenth-century British literature, taking comps and Orals and picking a dissertation topic. After my coursework was done, I worked as a TA for one professor after another—running discussion sections and grading bluebooks and papers and sitting in the back of the hall while my professors lectured. Elizabeth-Wakefield-as-PhD-student, I saw why the real credit for Sweet Valley High belonged to Francine Pascal and not to me. Graduate students understand behind-the-scenes work. One semester, I was a TA for three different courses, teaching fifty or sixty students at a time, grading so many papers and bluebooks that the third finger of my right hand developed a funny ink-stained bump where my ballpoint rested. I didn’t complain—I was grateful for the work.

In sections, when my students disagreed with the professor or pushed back, I nodded sagely, like I was taking their side. I’d scratch down little notes, like I was planning to go take this up afterwards, argue with the professor, try to change her mind.

I didn’t own the arguments. My place was in between, fielding questions, clarifying things. When I disagreed with the professor’s interpretation, sometimes I said so. But usually I didn’t.

 

One year turned into two, two into three, three into five. “You’re STILL writing those things?” the few friends who knew would ask, perplexed. Shouldn’t the novelty have worn off by this point? And why so many? Writing two books a year—or three—well, people could understand that. But five or six or eight a year? That seemed more like addiction than moonlighting.

Partly, I think I kept ghostwriting for the same reason I kept signing on to be a TA. I was afraid of becoming dispensable. If I stopped—even for a few months—someone else would grab my place. The editors would stop needing me. They’d forget how quickly I wrote, how dependable I was, how few corrections my manuscripts needed. Just like being a teaching assistant, “more” for me meant “better.” If I taught three sections a semester, that meant I was in demand. Eight books a year meant they wanted me. Me. The OED says the word “ghostwriter” was first used in the 1920s to mean a “hack” hired to write another person’s story. OK, hack, then. So be it. But a hack-in-demand. A hack they wanted. A type-A hack, the Elizabeth Wakefield of hackdom!

 

Here’s another thing: the books reminded me I could write.

I liked the discipline of writing SVH, the structure. Francine created the story plots, which arrived in my mailbox in manila envelopes and, when I took them out and studied them, read like long, free-verse poems. Eight or nine pages of single spaced directives that laid out exhilarating and implausible fables of duplicity, innovation, risk, and triumph. My task was to turn these into “chapter outlines,” adding my own subplots, mailing them back to my editor, and waiting for his approval. Once I got the green light, I worked with the precision of a Swiss clock.

It took me five years to produce a 300-plus-page dissertation on early modern utopias and another five to turn it into a monograph that would eventually sell 487 copies. And yet, in a matter of a weekend morning, I could produce a chapter—a chapter!—of sparkling, exclamation-studded prose about those Wakefield girls. The Elizabeth in me loved the discipline, the reminder that while my twenties rolled on and I trudged back and forth from Eliot House to the library, lugging books in my arms like a woodcutter, I was producing pages—daily, weekly—that were being turned into actual books (OK, books with pastel covers, books without my name on them anywhere, but still!)—books that were selling, that were being translated (Hebrew, Danish, Dutch), that generated fan mail (OK, addressed to Francine and not to me). Books girls loved. The books I wrote as Kate William, the “author” name that came built in to the series, had readers.

I’d heard the arguments. Librarians hated series books. They kept kids from reading “real” literature. On the other hand, some reading specialists thought that the act of reading—comics, pulp fiction, mysteries, anything—was important. Lay down the habits, they argued.

It wasn’t one side or the other of the arguments that fueled me. It was the addictive nature of audience. Knowing (for good or bad) that I was being read.

So I kept writing, imagining somewhere out there, in Des Moines or Bloomfield Hills or La Jolla or Minsk, a girl something like the girl I’d once been was plowing through these books, eyes flicking over the pages as fast as I could churn them out.

 

But then, of course, I wasn’t all Elizabeth. I was Jessica, too, in some inchoate form. She was the one I wanted to be, at bottom, when the day had too much Elizabeth in it, and the bills were paid and the library books taken back and the fellowship letters written and the exams passed and the presents wrapped and the groceries put away and some voice inside me cried, Enough!

Maybe Jessica, if I’m being honest, is why I kept writing those books. Took on three or four of the “super” editions, where the twins became sleuths or went on holiday to Europe. Even tried my hand at the prequels, where the girls were eleven instead of sixteen. I loved Jessica Wakefield. I loved her even as I tried to help sustain her in prose. Even knowing that Francine had created her, and not me. I loved her wit and her subterfuge and her ballsy disrespect for every rule and convention that I’d so deeply internalized I could only write about her in neat, hour-long sessions, eye on the clock.

When she begged Elizabeth to take a test for her (as if!), or took a part-time job as an elf at a mall, wearing a trash bag, or stole the vile Bruce Patman from Lila Fowler or admired herself in the mirror or plotted—endlessly plotted—to infuse her idyllic but intrinsically dull suburban world with recklessness and fun, she was the one I wanted to be. I knew, at some level (wasn’t I reading Bakhtin in my narrative theory classes?) that the point of these books was to “tame” the Jessica in every girl who read them—to rein in anarchy, to have reliable, disciplined Elizabeth rule the day, but that wasn’t what propelled me. Maybe the Elizabeth in me was the one signing the contracts, fitting the writing in so it wouldn’t disrupt my “real” life—my life as a graduate student. Forcing myself to sit down at my desk. But it was the Jessica in me that did the writing. And kept coming back for more.

Finally, Sweet Valley High offered the lure of another world. I liked having a space so refreshingly different from scholarship—so resolutely light. On bad days, when my advisor hated what I’d written and I was dispirited and sick of academic posturing, I liked pulling my desk chair up and conjuring a diaphanous world where nobody cared about Donne or Milton. Never heard of them! Do they go to private school? Ghostwriting these books became an escape hatch for me, a place I could shoot down to from my customary cloud cover. It was the sky jump and the parachute and the soft-focus destination, all in one. Why would I ever give that up?

 

My friends—the ones who knew—were mixed about my ventures. Wasn’t I prostituting myself? How did these “little books”—it took three or four to add up to a Vintage classic in heft—relate to my “real” writing? The children’s book author who first introduced me to Francine Pascal invited me over for tea before I left New York. I’d already written two Sweet Valley books and was starting my third. She was clearly surprised to hear this, and then she thought it over, and told me that actually, she was concerned. She thought what I was doing was creatively “risky.” How did I know that every word I ghost wrote wasn’t depleting my creative arsenal? What if you’re only born with so many words, and you use up the ones you’ve been allotted on writing somebody else’s stories? Then what?

 

I was just starting out at that point. Sure of myself, of the boundaries between words and worlds. I brushed her off. An allotment of words!—as if! But later—thirty, forty books later—I remembered what she’d said, and mulled it over.

I pictured a well of words. Over and over, I was dropping the bucket down, pulling it up. My store of adjectives down by half. Almost out of “gushed” and “murmured” and “sighed.”

And what if, after so many hours at it, the formulae were all I knew? The parties, the subterfuge, the chase scenes, the sobbing and collusion? Could I shake this, or would it haunt whatever other kind of writing I chose instead?

 

One day, late in my ghostwriting life, I was invited to a friend’s daughter’s middle school as a “Guest Author”—part of We Love Reading! Month. The kids were in seventh grade. We convened in the library. I brought stacks of books as props. The girls at this school were obsessed with Sweet Valley High. The boys hated it, but they were forced to come (they huddled at the back). I talked for fifteen minutes or so about the characters and the series and which ones I liked best and what I thought were the funniest moments, and then it was time for Questions and Answers.

That part didn’t go so well.

They couldn’t figure out why I had a different name from “Kate William,” the “writer” whose name was on every book’s inside cover. Every book said the same thing: Created by Francine Pascal; Written by Kate William.

They understood I wasn’t Francine Pascal—their teacher had explained that part. But was I trying to tell them that I wasn’t Kate William, either? That seemed like a bad trick. I wasn’t sure what to say. (We Love Reading! Didn’t seem like the right venue for a meditation on the death of the author). I tried to inch the discussion over to safer ground. But kids this age don’t let go.

“Why isn’t your name on the books anywhere, if you write them?” one girl asked.

She had a point.

 

Post-eighteenth century, we associate writing with “name.” With copyright. It isn’t the money that’s at issue in ghostwriting—many ghostwriters are well paid for their endeavors (not all, but many). And many writers are thrilled to publish for free.

Harder and more problematic is the idea of name. Authority, credit. Ownership. I could’ve told these kids that John Milton didn’t sign his name to any of his works until he wrote Areopagitica, in 1644. But I don’t think that would have satisfied them. (Like the Wakefield twins, they had no idea who Milton was. To them, “Milton” was a local private school.)

Giving up on pinning down my exact role, they changed directions. Moved on to ask about the characters. For a few minutes, that went well—we traded favorites. Enid. Regina. Todd. Bruce Patman.

Then, they wanted forecasts. What was going to happen to Todd and Elizabeth? Were they going to stay together or break up? What about Jessica and Bruce? Would they ever get together again?

I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know what was going to happen to anybody. Only Francine knew that.

I’m just a writer, I told them weakly. I really couldn’t say what was going to happen next.

 

Was that why I stopped? Why, after six years, I shut the cover on the beach, and the convertible, and the lavaliers, and the sparkle and the glimmer and the giggle and the head-toss and the Valley, with its red-roofs and perpetual sunlight?

 

It wasn’t invisibility that ended my gig as a ghostwriter. In fact, in some ways it was the opposite. I was afraid of exposure. My twenties came to an end. I got my PhD. I was lucky: the year I was on the market, there was a spike in assistant professor jobs in English literature, and I ended up with some choices. I packed up my stuff and headed south. What came with me? Boxes of notes. Books. And in the mix, Sweet Valley High files. Contracts, chapter outlines. I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I was starting a new life, and at this point, my classes would be my own. My own name would be on my office door.

 

I told people I stopped writing for Sweet Valley High when I started teaching—real teaching—because I didn’t want any “conflicts of interest.” I’m not sure. Maybe the Elizabeth in me felt it would have felt wrong to me to keep writing these books once I became an assistant professor—and confusing for my students, now that I was asking them to write my name on their bluebooks. To see me as the authority teaching them about Milton, about the fuzzy borders of another period’s ideas of authorship.

Maybe the Jessica in me was afraid. What if my new colleagues found out? Academic writing is carefully vetted, “peer reviewed.” Where on my CV would ghost-writing fit in?

In any case, I stopped. Packed up the contracts and the plot outlines and the pastel paperbacks and put them all away. As if it were that easy—as if we can do things, and stop, and then it’s over. As if we aren’t all haunted by ghosts of our former selves.

 

For long stretches, I forgot about Sweet Valley. I went on to write things that I was proud of—works written “under my own name,” as somebody once put it, in a phrase I found both interesting and peculiar. I finally published my children’s book. Some short fiction. But in the years when I was working around the clock trying to get tenure, I didn’t have time for creative writing at all. It was all scholarship. I turned my dissertation into a monograph. I wrote articles on utopias, on Milton’s poetry, on timekeeping and museums in the seventeenth century. Articles dense with footnotes, published in scholarly journals—articles that took upwards of six months to a year to write. Articles written “under my own name.” I lost myself in the research this work required, and I thrived on it, and—as always—the interplay of words, the construction of sentences and pleasure of articulation—compelled me as much as the material itself. But every once in a while, sitting in the library or working upstairs in my study, tussling with a footnote, checking and re-checking a source, struggling to make a contribution in a field crowded with smart people, I would sit back and remember the ease of Sweet Valley High. The words that came so easily, and gave me so much combined pleasure and guilt.

For me, the books promised writing: easy, paid-for, publishable writing, over and over again. You can do this. And then, for whatever reason, I couldn’t. The endings unraveled, thread by thread, and I was left (finally) with that uncanny other option: “writing under my own name.” Such a funny concept, really, to reclaim what was mine to start with. A name.

 

It seems to me now that part of the compelling power of Sweet Valley High’s vision of identical twins lay not in the obvious assignation between our split selves (id and ego), but instead, in the ways in which writing itself—real writing, difficult, strenuous, hard-won, “under your own name” writing—always stands in an uneasy relationship to its enchanting, seductive, rule-bending twin. The one who always seems to win, to get away with it—as if, in the end, only a toss of a golden head or the sparkle of an aquamarine eye can carry the day. The theorist George Lukacs called the “entertainment novel” the “caricature” or bad twin of serious fiction, and in a sense, for me at least, that was both the allure and the potential hazard of ghostwriting mass-market books. I wanted, as long as I thought I could risk it, to stay in the pastel, exclamatory world of the light and the popular, the world of fast cars and faster verbs, the world where difference was traded for sameness and the blondes triumphed and the eyes sparkled and the parents stayed married and the brother stayed away “at college” and the paralysis was curable and anything and everything could be resolved by the final chapter. I wanted the machine of narrative to work the way popular literature has it work: difference going in one side, and out the other side coming the reassurance of sameness. The same people, the same formula. You can do this, the books hummed to me as I wrote them. You can do this, they hummed to the girls who read them. They promised a way of being. A kind of inoculation against the difficult, liminal world of the real. A world we sometimes know only in relation to the fantasies that counter it. The pastels that turn it gray, rendering it more ghostly than we would like. Or sometimes bear.

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