Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bitter Tea for the Ghostwriter

By Meakin Armstrong

I haven’t read activist Greg Mortenson’s memoirs, Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, but in their spirit, let’s pretend I have. They tell the story of a man who, after inspirational encounters with various Pakistani villagers (and an eight-day kidnapping misadventure by the Taliban), comes to build schools for the poor in various troubled areas. That Mortenson has done a great deal of good with his schools has been verified by independent sources. The trouble starts, however, when we discover that many of his more memorable published claims have been proven to be false.

Mortenson hasn’t spoken extensively to the press since reporter Steve Kroft subjected him recently to a classic 60 Minutes takedown (complete with an on-camera ambush in the old Mike Wallace style). Instead, he has issued a defense of his works: one to his local Bozeman, Montana paper and the other to Alex Heard, in an interview with Outside magazine.

Of interest to us are these lines concerning his ghostwriter, David Oliver Relin:
He did nearly all the writing, and along with hundreds of interviews of those involved in the story, I helped him piece together the whole timeline, and from that we started creating the narrative arc and everything.
That sounds proper, and a good working solution.
David insisted on writing the book in third person, which is really awkward. The publisher said, Greg, you’re too understated, so this needs to be in the third person. My wife, Tara, also told me that if I wrote a book, it would be a pamphlet.
Again, fine. We all have to make our narrative choices. But Mortenson didn’t want to make these choices? Was he bullied?

Or had he made a Faustian bargain, instead? In the name of a compelling narrative that would sell, he would lie? He goes on to say:
What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different. In order to be convenient, there were some omissions. If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003, it would take three books to write it. So there were some omissions and compressions, and. … I don’t know, what that’s called?
As an ex-fact-checker I’d say that’s called a lie. It doesn’t follow that you “recreate scenes” when you switch from first person to third.

Mortenson seems to claim that confusion and misguided trust of his ghostwriter led to where he is today: a bug wiggling under a pin thrust into him by Steve Kroft. Was he bullied? Is the ghostwriter at fault? I find it wrong to blame the ghostwriter. He’s a ghostwriter -- it’s not his name on the book. He’s not the one on TV making the claims. The subject is. The subject needs to retain control, in the name of the story (and it goes without saying, that story’s inherent truth). I find it an odd contention that one could bully Mortenson. In my experience with clients, I’ve not been able to bully anyone.

Few people know what a ghostwriter is. And because so few do (and because they have such a spectral name) it could be assumed they’re powerful beings who bully their clients -- is that Mortenson’s last-ditch hope? He also throws in the publishing company (and by implication, their corporate greed) for aspersion and blame. I don’t think this washes, especially since Mortenson has repeated the various “compressed” claims in other venues (for example, on Bloomberg TV).

Ghostwriters make sense of a story and deliver a narrative. They clarify matters. If they “compress” a story, yes, that’s wrong. But ultimately the subject has a story that’s all their own. They are responsible for it.

Armstrong is a freelance writer and ghostwriter based in New York


Kathryn said...

Can Mr. Relin hear us from under his bus? I'm not even a ghostwriter, and I noticed how quickly Mortenson shunted responsibility to others for the artistic work. Was he as effusive during his many, many speaking engagements? Or did he keep the praise, fees, and royalties for himself? My admiration and respect to you spectralsmiths who share your gifts with us, quietly or otherwise.

Bookpod said...

Shouldn't the ghostwriter also be responsible for searching out the truth -- or is he/she simply a hired gun with no journalistic ethics?

Phil Quin said...

Mortenson's defense, not only with respect to the role of a ghostwriter, is a disgrace. The suggestion that he has "done good" and that this excuses all or part of his deception is far too generous. In fact, it appears that Mortenson insults his supporters twice: first, by lying to entice their cash, and then by squandering it. I wrote about it here:

Anonymous said...

In the interest of a compelling narrative, I'm not unilaterally opposed to strategic alterations of the truth including compression of time - though I've never employed these methods in my clients' books nor any of my own writing for that matter. I am also a former fact checker and old habits do indeed die hard.

However, if a writer chooses to go this way, I think it's her responsibility to fess up to the reader in a disclaimer at the front of the book that describes the nature of the changes, with as much specificity as possible. Also I think each proposed change must be subjected to a litmus test by asking: "In changing this detail, are we altering the fundamental truth of the story?" In other words, "Is this fair?" That's always a question that a responsible ghost and/or author must ask. And if the answer is yes, it shouldn't be made.

Randy Burgess said...

A comment I just posted has vanished. I hope it's an error with Blogger and not censorship on the part of Gotham. That would be ill-advised.

My comment pointed out that:

1) Ghosts ought to be held responsible for their projects to the extent they could have and should have known something was up; they ought not to claim immunity simply because they work for hire.

2) Relin is apparently not commenting on the matter, but is still prominently featuring "Three Cups of Tea" on his web site. In a previous interview, before the crap hit the fan, he said he did a ton of research on the book and that the byline should have been his alone. Doesn't sound too repentant.

My own POV as someone who has done his share of ghosting is that Gotham doesn't stand to benefit by defending shoddy work by ghostwriters - the industry has a bad enough name already, why make it worse?

I actually don't know if "Tea" was shoddy or not - I'm about to read Jon Krakeuer's ebook on the subject to see what he thinks, but I don't know if I'll go further and read the actual book.

Randy Burgess said...

P.S. on my comment - the Krakauer ebook is quite short (I've just finished it) and worth reading. Krakauer himself donated money to Mortenson's schools effort before he began to suspect the man's stories were BS; he says the total number of friends, employees, etc. fooled by Mortenson is "legion."

He also relates that Mortenson hired two ghostwriters for his 2nd book, "Stones Into Schools." The one who did most of the writing is Kevin Fedarko, a journalist who'd done a Parade article on Morteson. In his end notes, Krakauer defends Fedarko thusly (I've snipped for space):

"There is no evidence to suggest that Kevin Fedarko was aware of the falsehoods published in 'Stones into Schools.' Because of the extraordinary deadline pressure he was under ... [he] had no choice but to accept Mortenson's word."

Interestingly there's no similar defense of Relin.

And either way I'd say, I'm sorry for Fedarko - but you get what you agree to. Hopefully he'll be more careful next time.