From ghost to author – Kate Thompson
By Kate Thompson
The world of the ghostwriter is a strange one, shrouded as it is in mystery. For many years, when I used to tell people that I worked as a ghostwriter, they would look at me strangely, as if I’d just told them I was an extra in Sixth Sense. But there’s no mystery to the profession; it’s a ghost’s job to write someone else’s memoirs on their behalf, and bring to life their unique story in a cohesive, compelling and entertaining way. ♥
For three years, it provided me with a wonderful and varied source of income. I met some incredible women who inspired me, made me laugh and cry in equal measure, and whom I can honestly say, hand on heart, I feel privileged to have met. The very fact that someone trusts you enough to take their life history and bring it to life in literary form is humbling. The biggest way you can repay that trust is not to impose your ‘voice’ over theirs and ensure that what you write remains authentic to them.
The ghostwriting world is of course peopled with other ‘ghosts’ and once every three months I would meet fellow writers in a London pub and we would swap stories and share advice over too many spirits (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Along my ghostwriting journey, I shared innumerable pots of tea with Brenda Ashford, Britain’s oldest living nanny and the closest living person you will ever get to Mary Poppins. Then there was irrepressible Mollie Moran, whose saucy antics as a 1930s scullery maid, made Philip Schofield blush on This Morning, and who at 96, became the oldest author ever to top the Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller list when her memoir, Aprons and Silver Spoons was published. Who knew a butler’s bum could be so firm you could bounce a penny off it? And I could never forget the harrowing story that Jennie Smith confided in me. Jennie was one of Britain’s early domestic violence pioneers and the first women ever through the doors of a woman’s refuge in the 1970s, back in the days when police regarded it a man’s right to beat his wife. When Jennie revealed her inspiring story to me in her tiny kitchen over plates of Oxtail stew, we had no idea her book too would go on to become a bestseller.
I feel proud to have had a hand in, and shaped the stories of these astonishing women, and I could merrily have gone on ghosting my way into old age. Except, out of the blue my agent put a question to me: ‘Have you ever considered writing fiction?’ And that changed everything. The honest answer to that was, no, I had never in a million years thought that I could write a novel. Writing someone else’s story, with the boundaries of fact imposed upon you? Easy. Writing something conjured up solely from your imagination? That’s another story. Literally. But like a scratch you have to itch, I couldn’t let the thought go from my mind, and so I began casting about for something, anything, that sparked an idea.
I knew from ghosting that I loved all things nostalgia. To me, the life that women lived in the 1930s and 1940s exists in a golden glow in my mind. I know life was tough back then in those pre-NHS, pre-welfare state days, but it was infinitely more straightforward and governed by a wonderful sense of camaraderie and community, so wartime Britain seemed a fantastic place to start. Plus, I had the added advantage of having some base knowledge on that era.
I shan’t bore you with the whys and wherefores of how Secrets of the Singer Girls came to be born, but after hours of research and countless trips to the East End of London, the seed of an idea was sewn.
Treating the novel in the same way I would approach a ghosted memoir, with lashings of research, really helped me to structure the book and make it feel less daunting. The fun part was colouring in the characters and creating their worlds. The freedom that seemed so daunting at the outset, suddenly felt quite liberating.
When I decided to have one of my characters trapped in a loveless and violent marriage, I didn’t have to go too far for help with research. In short, the nostalgia knowledge I gleaned through years of ghostwriting was of immeasurable help when it came to tackling the novel. But of far greater value in penning my first novel, was the confidence that had gradually grown from ghostwriting. I had already experienced the thrill and euphoria that comes with writing ‘The End’ on a book, and so starts my new beginning as a novelist. I won’t pretend it’s been plain sailing. It’s taken me the best part of two years, a 20k word cut, and countless rewrites, but with the help of an inspiring agent, we got there in the end. An endless stream of strong coffee, and a genuine love for a bygone era helped. Secrets of the Singer Girls is my homage to the wonderful women I have met along the way.
Kate Thompson is a journalist with over fifteen years’ experience as a writer for the broadsheets and women’s weekly magazines. She is now freelance and, as well as writing for newspapers, she’s a seasoned ghostwriter. Secrets of the Singer Girls is her first novel.