GHOSTING,  by Jennie Erdal



Ghosting: a Memoir by Jennie Erdal

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Giving voice to the invisible man

By Rhoda Koenig

Published : 05 November 2004

What kind of man sends his wife a ghost-written love letter? Naim Attallah is the man, but it's hard to think there's more than one of his kind. For nearly 15 years from their meeting in 1981, the publisher of Quartet Books, a Palestinian businessman with a shaky grasp of English, employed Jennie Erdal to write non-fiction books, novels, articles, a newspaper column, and even "perfunctory thank you notes" in his name.

Attallah, with whom five minutes' conversation made it seem implausible that he could construct a grammatical sentence, was an exotic bird among the dreary old dogs of English publishing.


His fingers flashed coloured stones, and his jacket linings, which he shared with the world, practically blinded it. But though the aristocrats he courted sometimes laughed at him, they were also flattered and fascinated. How charming, how quaint for a wealthy foreigner to back a funny little firm that produced, along with rubbish, some rather good books.

Besides, he employed their daughters. Attallah's editorial assistants intensified to caricature the stereotype of such women as beautiful, high-born and brain-dead. His graphic talk about sex could be creepy, but his manner was sexless - indeed, childish. Not even Private Eye, which called him, to his glee, "Naim Utterly-Disgusting", dug up anything improper.


Jennie Erdal


                                                 Picture: BRENDAN MACNEILL            


When conducting interviews (questions researched and transcripts edited by Erdal), Attallah used his one genuine quality, a disarming intensity of interest, to draw interesting revelations from the well-known and great. Not content with this, he told Erdal, who had never written fiction, to produce a novel, then a second to prove that the first had not been a fluke.

As the excerpts in Ghosting show, she was brilliant at her work, especially as Attallah kept raising the bar. One fictional female had to experience what he called "orgamsi" when the super-virile hero, thousands of miles away, made love to her friend.

About half of Ghosting is great fun. Attallah calls Erdal "Beloved", she calls him "Tiger" (his name is never mentioned in the body of the book). Tiger has spectacular tantrums and obsessions; he takes her shopping for huge ivory phalluses.

But, instead of digging into Attallah's background or psyche, Erdal pads out this short, frustrating book with banal childhood memories, discussions of her writing technique, and little essays on big topics ("To understand the world is a basic human longing, powerful and urgent"). There are plenty of self-protective assumptions (she writes dishonest book reviews, but says "perhaps this is not very different from the way a lot of reviewing works") and pointless puns ("talking wounded", "daylight snobbery").

Erdal stays well away from the question that exercised all Attallah-watchers (where did the money come from?) and writes not a word on her boss's private life. Though spooks can waft through walls, Erdal remains in the background, never attempting to answer the question with which her book and this review begin. It is Attallah who, in the end, is the ghost.






Jennie Erdal Canongate, 273pp, £14.99
ISBN 1841955620

Reviewed by Celia Brayfield

It was a Faustian deal. For more than a decade, a young Scottish academic wrote everything from acclaimed literary novels to love letters for Naim Attallah, the flamboyant Palestinian-born millionaire who at the time owned the Literary Review and a publishing house, Quartet Books. It began in 1981, when she was 32, a graduate in Russian and philosophy who had just translated the memoirs of Leonid Pasternak, father of Boris. Why, on meeting a potential publisher with a mad hairdo, bejewelled rings, a wild mink overcoat, bad English, a fetish for nude sunbathing and a tigerskin on his office wall, did she not run like hell?

He published her book and, against his posh-totty hiring policy, offered her a job as an editor at Quartet. Clearly bedazzled, she regarded him as her sheikh, her sultan, her bird of paradise and her emperor, finding it glamorous, rather than absurd, to serve a boss whose demands might include "Find me an orchid, darling". She seems also to have been hampered by a good heart. "There was still a lot of class about in those days," she observes drily, nevertheless taking a kind view of the girls in pearls who staffed the office - Davina, Sabrina, Cosima, Nigella and the rest, all with famous fathers and most with not even a tenth of Erdal's talent. If she was jealous, it doesn't show. And it is easy to see, in this eloquent account, what Attallah hired her for. Writing: a crap job, but somebody's got to do it.

Erdal describes her upbringing in a small mining community in Fife, daughter of a strictly Protestant family that was proud of owning the first indoor bathroom in town. However, she stops short of pro-testing that her past life did not equip her to navigate literary Soho. Without an ounce of self-pity, she charts her progress down the primrose path to a ghost-writing career. It was all downhill after her husband walked out on her and their three small children. When their house was about to be repossessed, the emperor seized the day. He gave her the job of writing his book about women.

Women, he announced to the great and good of the book world at his glittering launch party, had "so much mystique. You know, even their sexual organs are on the inside." Nobody muttered: "You don't say." Not an eyebrow was raised. Erdal saw in this "a kind of innocence", rather than a kind of manipulative insanity. He paid her £8,500. Nor does she have any hard words for her ex. Clearly, this woman is too nice for her own good.

By the time he wanted a great novel knocked out, her children were going to university. He installed a dedicated phone line at her house in Scotland, then took her off to his house in the Dordogne to write for a few hours, in between the naked lolling by the pool in which he could not swim. Her new husband had to lobby hard before she broke free, which she finally did when the empire was running out of cash and the emperor was talking about a third book. His farewell gift to her was a Mont Blanc pen. She cried at their parting. She was obviously way back in the queue when God was handing out cynicism.

Erdal's only protest was a passive one, making the novel's erotic content (which Attallah called the "fucky-fucky") so revolting that, she hoped, he would drop those scenes. Rather, he loved them. His own employee Auberon Waugh, who edited the Literary Review, had founded the Bad Sex prize but forbore to award it to the book. Attallah had been nicknamed "Disgusting" by Private Eye. And yet Erdal was not the only gullible one. The reviewers mostly grovelled. Mark Lawson and Germaine Greer were voices crying doubtfully in a wilderness - although it must be said that they were joined by another critic who is now deputy editor of the New Statesman.

Attallah, who is never actually named in Erdal's memoir, was the literary equivalent of Mohamed Al Fayed, a Middle Eastern plutocrat who owned what he mistakenly imagined to be a cornerstone of elite British society, but who did not understand how that society works and what its ethos is. His millions maintained a bond between aristocracy and literature that should have been broken many years earlier, and created the long false twilight of our Brideshead years. Up against the shrieks of the posh totty and chaps in tweeds, many small-town kids with big-time talents failed to get their voices heard, to the ultimate impoverishment of British culture. This writer survived to tell the tale, wittily and well. Perhaps now she will go back to writing her own books.

Celia Brayfield is a novelist and retired ghost-writer

The TLS n.º 5301, November 5, 2004 


Sarah Curtis

Jennie Erdal


270 pp. Canongate £ 14.99

1 84195 5 620

Naim Attallah is remembered not only as the flamboyant proprietor of Quartet Books publisher of the Literary Review and the Oldie, managing director of Aspreys and Mappin & Webb, but also as the author of several lauded collections of interviews, columns of popular journalism and two novels. He retired from business and the literary scene at the end of the 1990s. Jennie Erdal explains in Ghosting why he stopped writing: she had ghosted every word he wrote and after nearly fifteen years she had decided to lay down her pen.

“We made a great team, you and I”, Attallah said when they parted, and with this conclusion most will agree after reading her astonishing story. As she shows when she analyses their relationship, they were mutually dependent. Without her research, he could not have asked the questions in interviews that elicited frank replies and sometimes confidences from the beautiful and famous, starting with 300 women and continuing with prominent male public figures. It is also clear that he could never have transcribed and edited the tape recordings, even if he had the patience to do so. Her ability to write easy, polished prose is demonstrated in this book.. As well as a lifelong fascination with words, she has a wide knowledge of literature, philosophy,  and psychology. She shows here how limited Attallah’s acquaintance was with all these subjects.  But without his inspiration, his manic drive, there would never have been a project. It was his name at the end of each letter she penned that persuaded his subjects to agree to meet him. It was he who conducted the interviews and had the listening skills to impress most of those he met, even if not all saw him as the dazzling figure she did. Woodrow Wyatt, who resented both the waste of time taken by his interview, which lasted over two hours, and the money Attallah would doubtless earn from it, found him gloomy, a curious fellow but with “a kind of appealing. dog-like face”. Wyatt felt sorry for the man.

To Erdal, however, he was Tiger and she was Beloved. She initially met him in her role as translator of the memoirs of the artist Leonid Pasternak. When he offered her the job of managing a Russian list for his publishing house, she asked him what she should call him. He replied she could call him what she liked but he would call her Beloved, which was what he called all the well-born, well-educated and beautiful girls who adorned his office (a Bonham-Carter, a Sackville West, Nigella Lawson, badly paid  young women on the first rung of the literary ladder). She said that in that case she would call him Tiger after the tiger skin that hung behind his desk. The pluck and wit as well as the ability of this young married woman, who has three small children up in Fife and was from a different background to the other girls in his empire, no doubt delighted him from the start. In addition to the story of her ghosting career with Tiger – she never identifies him by his correct name which adds to the feel of fantasy generated by the tale – she paints a comic picture of her dour Church of Scotland childhood and gives a moving account of her sudden abandonment by her husband when she had been working for Tiger for some years, mainly from her Scottish home. His desertion was cruel but it probably enabled her to bury herself still more willingly in her work for the most demanding of taskmasters.

We are used to pop and sports stars paying others to write their autobiographies. Politicians use researchers freely to help with theirs, and after the event we sometimes learn that speech writers have coined famous phrases for their employers. But writing novels for other people?

At first it seems bizarre that anyone could or would create a work of fiction at another’s behest, receiving the barest framework from the “author”. Tiger’s outline for the first novel was that it should be about the love between a married man and a woman. Everything else, from the plot to the hero’s introspection and discussions of moral philosophy (which the TLS reviewer among others noted), was calculated by her to reflect his romantic views but was her invention, including the detail of the sex. The sex was a problem for all the reviewers and Erdal worried about qualifying for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Prize. For the second novel, Tiger’s main specification was that two women, cousins born on the same day, based apparently on women he knew, should be so finely attuned to each other that they had simultaneous orgasms when one was in London and the other in New York. This was one requirement which, to his disappointment, Beloved couldn’t meet.

How could this intelligent woman lay her talents so completely at the disposal of another, with the compensation only of enough money to keep her afloat? She was not a Colette, with her husband taking over work she had initiated. She traces her progression with humour and insight, beginning with her childhood wish to please and her days as a translator when she had liked to be invisible. Later she found “a strange sort of liberation” in concealing her identity. She explains her growing  delight in the absurdity  of their joint enterprises and the power she felt in creating a new personality for her employer through her efforts. In this way she was his Svengali as much as he was hers, even occasionally having to check biographical details she invented for articles about him, such as whether it was possible to see the hills of Galilee from the location of some childhood scene she had conjured. Nor does she dodge the difficult of writing a work of fiction  without total commitment. Readers may find him an outrageous bully, but to her Tiger was like a child who must have instant gratification. He installed a dedicated telephone line in her house from the start so that he could contact her at any time of day or night, insisted on taking complete charge of her on their trips abroad together, first to the Frankfurt Book Fair and later to Dordogne estate to write “his” novels, holding her passport in airport queues and making her eat breakfasts she didn’t want. (She says she didn’t mind having to sunbathe naked with him by the swimming pool but she hated his precious Doberman dogs.) In later years, when he “wrote” a newspaper column, he did not even allow her to take a holiday. Her saintly lack of resentment seems only to change when her second husband begins to challenge Tiger’s dominance over her life.

Why did no one rumble the ruse? Why did no one find in conversation that Attallah had never heard of Philip Larkin, for example, when his published works suggested he was a knowledgeable intellectual? There was one close shaving at a publishing party when Erdal told someone she hadn’t read his novel and was then introduced to the same person as his editor, but Tiger used his overwhelming assurance to brush the awkwardness off, as he did so much else. In this book, Erdal exposes a publishing trick as well as her own exploitation but her affection for Tiger permeates her account: Ghosting does not appear to be an act of revenge. She gives convincing reasons for her compliance over the years and we learn a great deal about her personality. She never broaches Tiger’s life, however, except in relation to herself, a tantalizing lacuna in an otherwise illuminating exposé of quixotic natures and the credulity of the literary world.



The TLS n.º 5302, November 12, 2004 

Kiss and tell

Sir, – Like Jennie Erdal, I worked with Naim Attallah for many years and even make the odd appearance in her fictional memoir. I’m the loud-mouthed, untrustworthy toadie. Whilst I’m content to be this for I, no doubt, have equally skewed memories of her, it is not right for your reviewer Sarah Curtis to represent Ghosting (November 5) as an affectionate account.

Attallah spent much of his life, energy and most of his money supporting endeavours which enabled countless diverse writers to get published, provided many people, often young and inexperienced, with a chance to start their creative careers and did this mostly in an atmosphere which provided much jollity along the way.

That he was autocratic, often short-sighted (he trusted Mrs Erdal, for example) and difficult does not detract from his generosity, warmth or fundamental honesty. He deserves a much better account of his achievements and failures than this highly selective and unjust “literary” kiss-and-tell.


36 Dennington Park Road, London NW6.

Evening Standard

Monday 18 October, 2004

Haunted by his own ghost

Naim Attallah, the publisher and socialite, did not write his own books says former employee Jennie Erdal. But Attallah is determined to have the last say - in writing. By David Sexton (literary editor)

Not a word of many current bestselling autobiographies was written by whoever's name is on the cover. They were ghosted. Some are upfront about it. After all, nobody would expect Gazza to be capable of writing a book all by himself, and credit is duly given to his penman, Hunter Davies. Others are more coy. Jordan did not personally compose her memoir, Being Jordan, either, but the casual reader is given no hint that other hands were involved - although, when questioned, her publisher, John Blake, is perfectly happy to name the ghostwriter involved (Rebecca Farnworth).

There seems to be no great shame or commercial disadvantage attached any more. We all know that many political speeches are ghosted for ministers too busy to bother themselves. We cheerfully assume they've at least spoken to their minions about what they want and then these proxies have put it on the page for them, correctly spelt and competently punctuated. What's so wrong with that? It's only a step on from the editing that many writers need. Isn't it just like having a chauffeur instead of driving yourself?

Not quite. Writing is not one of those activities that can readily be farmed out. It's intimate. Our words are us, or as much of ourselves as we are able to manifest. Both sides are traduced by ghostwriting - both the ghostwritten, who have words that don't belong to them put into their mouths, and the ghostwriters, who have their own words taken from them.

In a fascinating and notably well-written memoir, Ghosting, Jennie Erdal explores the consequences of this transaction more revealingly than anybody has done before. She describes how she came to work for the ebullient publisher "Tiger" (transparently, Naim Attallah) in the early Eighties, initially as a translator and editor for his imprint, Quartet. After she had been painfully divorced and run into money troubles, her job became more demanding. Attallah had an idea for a book of interviews with famous women. He'd do the interviewing, Erdal would devise the questions, sort out the transcripts and "finally put the book together." Fair enough. So far, she was more super-sec than ghostwriter.

Women, a gigantic volume of 1,200 pages, published in 1987, was quite a success. Several more collections of Attallah interviews followed. The pair evidently worked well together. So well that in 1994, Attallah decided they should move on to novel-writing. In his house in the Dordogne, they concocted a story "about a man who loves two women," arguing intensely about the way it should develop. Attallah insisted on the sex scenes, Erdal recalls, "Each day when I returned from the studio, he would ask, 'Have we done the fucky-fucky yet?'"

The novel, A Timeless Passion, was published under Attallah's name in 1995 and reviewed as such, favourably enough, apart from the sex scenes. Attallah was sufficiently encouraged to commission Erdal to write him a second novel featuring another man with two lovers, cousins, born on the same day, so close that when one girl has an orgasm, so does the other, wherever they are. Erdal quotes Attallah telling her: "Look, it's simple! If one woman is in London, say, and the other is in New York, when he is fucking the one in London, the one in New York feels it in her fanny also!"

While completing this novel, Tara and Claire, Erdal discovered that book "was not after all a complete sham." She had put more of herself than she had realised into her work: "Writing is always personal. You reveal yourself to yourself." She began wanting to write on her own behalf.

The arrangement nevertheless continued. Attallah and Erdal collaborated on a weekly newspaper column. She wrote Erotic Review pieces for him about knickers and female ejaculation. Only after Attallah's financial empire had begun to totter did Erdal stop - although she presents it as primarily an internal decision, following her realisation that Attallah was making demands on her time that were disrupting her second marriage, and that she had begun to sign away her soul. She wanted to write her own story, under her own name. She has done so in Ghosting, insisting that we find her life of interest, too.

'Following her resignation, Erdal confidently proclaims that Attallah's literary careeer is over'

Erdal has comprehensively spilled the beans about an arrangement that lasted for nearly 20 years, much to her profit. This is, obviously, a direct betrayal of trust. It's also a wounding portrait, even though readers might discern through her gibes a remarkably generous man, pouring her out Chateau Margaux to celebrate another chapter here, arranging an interest-free loan to save her from losing her house, there.

She herself is less generous. She confidently proclaims that after her resignation, Attallah's literary career is over. There she's wrong. Naim Attallah has, partly in response to this book, begun writing his own life story, in the guise of a novel, too. He composed the first of three volumes in just three days this August and will publish it next week. The Old Ladies of Nazareth is a brief, lyrical story, told in the third person, about the lives of his grandmother and her sister in Nazareth in the Forties. Although they were poor and illiterate, their independence of spirit inspired the boy who was to become Naim Attallah, as he confesses at the end.

The second volume, The Boy in England, 65,000 words written in three weeks, is nearly finished and will be published next May. In his comparatively modest office in Mayfair - Attallah, now 73, still owes £1 million to the bank - he shows me the callus on his finger worn by the pen, as though to emphasize it is truly from his hand this time.

"You see what happened, I didn't intend to write anything. You know that very hot Sunday this summer, people said it was the worst heatwave ever that day? We live in Mayfair and we opened the French window on the balcony. It was dark and we were looking at the stars, and suddenly I saw a vision of my grandmother and her sister. They were the great influences of my life, they were like Mother Earth to me - and I thought to myself, I'd like to write about them. So I went and took paper and I started and I couldn't stop. My wife said to me, 'You're obsessed, stop!' I said: 'I can't!' I started writing and writing and I didn't rest until I did it."

Attallah has no intention of replying directly to Erdal. Bron Waugh always told him, "ignore it, never sue," he says. "Anyone that worked for me, I would never say anything bad about them. It is sacrosanct."

Nevertheless, he is understandably agitated. In Ghosting there are "details that you don't normally put in a book," he protests. Moreover, it's like opera - completely exaggerated. "I don't recognise myself, so therefore what am I going to say? I don't want to cause a controversy, I'm not employed to sell her book!"

Talking to The Bookseller a few months ago, Erdal was oddly optimistic about Attallah's reaction: "I like to think he wouldn't want me or anyone else to tell their story." She wrote to him three weeks ago, seeming to think they could still be friends. But Attallah exclaims: "That's it! I never responded."

He admits her book is well-written - and even now, in a way, claims some credit for that, for he chose her to write for him originally and he is proud of what his former employees have subsequently done. "One of the things I have achieved, I recognise talent, if you like."

Ghosting is the ghost's revenge, come back to claim a life of her own. But Erdal has attempted rather more than that. She has presumed to tell Attallah's story, too, in some way to command, even silence, him. In that she has not succeeded. On the contrary.

Ghosting by Jennie Erdal is published by Canongate on 4 November. The Old Ladies of Nazareth by Naim Attallah is published by Quartet on 21 October.


October 31, 2004

Time & Place: Retreat from life’s lows

Famed for ghost-writing for a high-profile publisher, Jennie Erdal found St Andrews to be the perfect place to recover from heartache

The home I lived in longest is four miles from St Andrews, in a village called Boarhills. It was where my three children spent their childhood. The children are all grown up now and I no longer live there.

Boarhills is a small village — though it has a kirk, there’s no pub and no school. Our home was part of a small cluster of houses set a little apart from the village, where there used to be a railway station. In fact, the wee track beside the houses was referred to by the villagers as Station Road.

It wasn’t a grand house. It was typically Scottish, with its dormer windows, wooden staircase and whitewashed walls. The garden was, however, really special. To the side of a long, level lawn section, there was a huge vegetable patch and an orchard — pears, apples and plums.

Beyond that, the land fell away towards the Kenly Burn, which flowed through the woods to the sea. It was a beautiful little river, dotted by old grain mills dating back to the 18th century — some renovated and inhabited, others ruined.

We moved into the house in 1976, the year my eldest child, Emily, was born. There are so many happy memories associated with the place, and also a few lows. In 1985, my husband, who had been working in Australia, met somebody else and left the family. I can still feel the raw emotion of it. It was so sudden, a terrible shock.

For a while, the house seemed to absorb the sadness. The marriage break-up was in November, so we had a long, dark winter to go through. However, the house gradually seemed to come into its own. It was dependable, solid and reliable while much else seemed to be crumbling. The house and what it signified became very important to all of us, and I was determined to stay and work my way through the hurt. Living in that place in the country helped in several ways. There was huge energy devoted to the garden and the area by the Kenly. We built slides across the burn, made fires, roasted potatoes. Gradually, I scythed my way through the wild part of the garden. Together, we hauled huge fallen trees; I sawed them up by hand and split them into logs, swinging my axe like some mad thing. All this helped us to recover.

My middle child, Jonathan, became a furniture-maker. There is no doubt he developed a love of wood from that time. A botanist who lived two doors down, a lovely man, taught him all the Latin names for the different woods.

When Jonathan was 12, he started turning wood on a lathe. He was shaped by the environment he grew up in. We all were. The children are all quite artistic.

They are also musical. The house had a music room and, since it was detached and quite isolated, we could make all the noise we wanted. There was a piano, a cello and two violins. Sometimes — this was a great joy — I’d soak myself in a hot bath, the place lit only by candlelight. It had a high ceiling and great acoustics. Emily would plonk herself on the loo seat and play Bach on her cello. It felt like my own St Martin-in-the-Fields, in the East Neuk of Fife.

In 1991, there was another shock. At the bottom of our garden, next to the burn, the body of one of the villagers was found murdered. He had lived in a cottage nearby.

I was interviewed six times by the police. They seemed especially keen to find out if there was a man living in our home, which there wasn’t. The case remains open and has featured on the BBC’s Crimewatch. That was an anxious time, and the children were quite disturbed by it.

Boarhills was such an idyllic place, though. The neighbours were also lovely, if sometimes a little offbeat. One couple — good friends — lived in one of the converted grain mills and were very Good Life, with their cow, sheep and pigs. There was always some excitement, if only just rounding up stray livestock.

I had an office in the house that was fitted with a glass door. The children were very respectful of my job — they knew how important it was to all of us. If I was on the phone, they knew not to come into the office. Sometimes it would get to the point when the three of them would be queuing outside, jostling for position. Most people thought I was simply an editor, working for Quartet Books from home. And I was, and it was great to be able to work at home, which allowed me to be with the children.

But I also ghost-wrote for the chairman and owner of Quartet Books, Naim Attallah. I worked for him for 20 years, ghost-writing for him for 15 of these years. It was a surreal existence, and to some extent that was what kept me interested. I’d go to his book launches and people would ask me if I had read his book. What made it doubly surreal, of course, was that I was having to get into the head of a man. Eventually I wrote his novels, which had to have a certain erotic content. Weird.

Jennie Erdal’s book, Ghosting, is published by Canongate tomorrow. Interview by Mike Wilson




The Scotsman


David Robinson

My life as a ghost

Sunday Herald


Lesley McDowell

Secret confessions of a reformed ghost writer

The Times


Jeremy Lewis

Memoir: Ghosting by Jennie Erdal




A kind of self deception

Die Berliner Literaturkritik



Hinter den Kulissen

The Daily Telegraph


Anne Chisholm

The Ghost materialises

The Spectator



Her Master's Voice

The Economist



Ghostwriting: The Tiger burning bright



Donald Morrison

A Writer's Writer

Finantial Times


Michael Skapinker

The ghost of Naim Attallah

The Age


Judith Amstrong


The Times


Valerie Grove

I wrote Naim Attallah's every word

The Times


Letter to the Editor



Susan H. Greenberg




John Walsh

Giving up the ghost

The New York Times



Crouching Tiger, Hidden Ghostwriter

        Read these articles here                 






The New York Times



Crouching Tiger, Hidden Ghostwriter

San Francisco Chronicle


Carlo Wolf

His glory rested on her words

Los Angeles Times


Merle Rubin

Living like a modern-day Cyrano

VOICE OF AMERICA  News in Russian


Лев Лосев

«Работая призраком» Дженни Эрдал

The Globe and Mail


Freda Garmaise

The Ghost in the Machine

Los Angeles Times


Susan Salter Reynolds

A former ghost takes to the light

  Read these articles here                 






from the book



The invisible woman

Jennie Erdal wrote letters, speeches and articles for a flamboyant London publisher. But when he asked her to write a novel - a passionate romance - in his name she faced her biggest challenge

Saturday October 23, 2004
The Guardian

For nearly 15 years I wrote hundreds of letters that weren't from me. They ranged from perfunctory thank-you notes and expressions of condolence, to extensive correspondence with the great and the good: politicians, newspaper editors, bishops, members of the House of Lords. The procedure I followed with a more intimate letter was to type it up, double-spaced in large font, and print it out. My employer - the sender of the letter - would then copy it painstakingly on to embossed notepaper using a Mont Blanc pen and blotting paper, signing it with a flourish at the bottom.

Aside from the correspondence, I wrote a great many newspaper articles, speeches, the occasional poem, and several books. The books generated many reviews and profiles of the man whose name appeared on the cover. A number of literati entered into correspondence with the "author", unaware that the replies also came from a hired hand. We make a great team, the author often said. And we did.

Ghost-writing is not new. It might almost qualify as the oldest profession if prostitution had not laid prior claim. And there is more than a random connection between the two: they both operate in rather murky worlds, a fee is agreed in advance and given "for services rendered", and those who admit to being involved, either as client or service-provider, can expect negative reactions - anything from mild shock and disapproval to outright revulsion. A professor at my old university, a distinguished classicist with feminist leanings, was appalled when she heard what I did for a living and pronounced me "no better than a common whore". This - the whiff of whoredom - is perhaps the main reason why people opt for absolute discretion.

Over the years I learned a great deal about vanity, the desire to belong, the lengths a man will go to in pretending to be something other than he is. And the lengths a woman will go to in colluding with the pretence.

I had never met anyone so strange and flamboyant - like a rare and tropical bird. His plumage was a wonder to behold; when he flapped his wings the lining of his jacket dazzled and glinted like a prism. He wore a large sapphire in his lapel, a vivid silk tie, one pink sock, one green. There were two gold watches on his right wrist and a platinum one on his left, and on his fingers a collection of jewels - rubies, emeralds, diamonds.

"You are going to enjoy working for me. I have a good feeling about it," he said. "My motto is when we work, we work, and when we play, we play. That way everybody is happy, isn't it?"

His office was a spacious penthouse overlooking the heart of Soho. The first thing I noticed were the pictures on the walls - an assortment of naked or semi-naked women and several large cats clawing their way out of gilt-edged frames. But the centrepiece, mounted on the wall behind the leather-topped desk, was not a painting at all: it was a huge tiger skin complete with head. Apart from the fact that it was dead, it seemed very alive, its bold orange and black stripes setting the wall ablaze.

"I identify with the tiger," he said, without a hint of abashment. "The tiger eats everything, but nothing eats him. He will even eat a crocodile if he wants to! He is King of the Mountain, King of the Forest, King of the World." He drew himself up, regally, in his chair. The tiger's head was just above the talking head, its eyes shining brightly, curiously round and manlike. For just a second, in that little corner where fantasy and reality collide, the two heads merged and became one.

"What would you like me to call you?" I asked as we shook hands on parting.

"You can call me what you like," he said. "I shall call you Beloved - all the girls who work for me are Beloved - but you can call me whatever you want."

"In that case," I said, "I shall call you Tiger."

"I like it," he said, and kissed my hand.

Arriving in Tiger's publishing house for the first time was like turning up in someone else's dream. It seemed a very long way down the rabbit hole. It felt high-voltage and slightly dangerous. There were abnormally high levels of emotion - lots of spirited laughter, shrieking and embracing. The atmosphere seemed to teeter on the edge of hysteria, and it was hard to work out the sounds. Were they angry, or were they just loud? I suppose I had the mistaken idea that only clever, serious people worked with books, and that they probably operated in a quiet, meticulous and, well, bookish manner. I had pictured earnest men of letters, old-fashioned gentlemen, slightly tweedy and with pale skin that was seldom exposed to natural light.

In fact, the building sizzled with youthful vigour, in the shape of stunning, sophisticated young women. They had patrician accents, exceptional poise and uncommonly long legs. Their skin was not pale but healthy and bronzed. And there wasn't a man in sight. Here in this office, in 1981, women ruled. Yet there were no bluestockings, only silk stockings. The offices covered four floors, with staircases slightly aslant and walls off-centre. The furnishings were quite shabby and a layer of black London dust rested on the surfaces. Everywhere there were piles of books and high-rise manuscripts. And, curiously for a publishing house, there were clothes suspended in doorways and draped from light fittings, as if the premises might actually be shared with a dressmaker. Boas and belts hung on the backs of chairs, and on several doors there were coat-hangers bearing evening gowns and stylish jackets. In the loo I found underwear, tights and nail varnish.

Tiger had a conglomerate of companies connected with publishing, fashion, films and theatre. He had been dubbed "a cultural tycoon" by the Times and he lived up to this dubbing assiduously. The ethos in the empire was not one of profit and loss, but of name and fame. Like its proprietor, the publishing house was sui generis, and it had a reputation quite disproportionate to its size. It was known to be radical and risk-taking. Tiger took chances with books and seemed to act mostly on impulse. He would meet people at parties and sign them on the spot. Sudden ideas were converted into improbable publishing ventures, and books were invented that ought never to have existed. He acted speedily and never flinched from taking a decision. He loved controversy, courted it indeed, and any whiff of scandal merely strengthened his resolve to publish. "Let them sue! Let them sue!" he would say, rubbing his hands together. "But I am a fighter, and I fight to win!" Tiger basked in this image, and we basked in it too. By association, we felt as if we were also fighters, that we too would win, and although at editorial meetings there was hardly ever a discernible rational plan, the atmosphere was highly charged and there was a lot of heady talk about noble ideals.

"Do you like my girls?" Tiger asked not long after I had started my new job. "They are amazing, isn't it?" His girls were scarcely ever out of the gossip columns and they always knew somebody who knew somebody. Their most important work, as Tiger himself affirmed, was done out of office hours - at dinner parties, first nights, charity events, gallery openings, fashion shoots and hunt balls - for they ensured that news of his latest exploits was trawled through London's most fashionable hotspots. The smart outfits hanging from the office doors began to make sense. I was introduced to Cosima, Selina, Lucinda, Davina, Samantha and two Sophias. There seemed to be a conspicuous homogeneity of Christian names. Surely there ought to be a collective noun for this phenomenon, I thought, this concentration of cognates. An assonance perhaps? An artillery? I then met Andrea (a Baroness) and Sabrina (an heiress), and in due course, Alethea, Nigella, Eliza, Candida, Mariella, Zelfa, Georgia, Henrietta and Arabella. It was a lot to take in, the sort of list I would have been made to learn by rote at school, like books of the Bible or irregular Latin verbs.

It was clear that I did not belong in this world. I was looked upon, with some justification, as one of Tiger's whims; I lived in Scotland, worked largely from home, and turned up in London only for editorial meetings, staying for just a few days at any one time. I didn't know anyone. Not even anyone who knew anyone. At home in Scotland, there were two small children and a baby, the centre of my universe. But in the London office I never mentioned the fact that I was a mother. I was at pains to fit in, and I sensed that talk about children would not be wise. I therefore pretended to be someone else, someone I was not.

My initial work as a translator fed into this pretence. To be any good as a translator you have to do a kind of disappearing act. As the years passed, I moved sideways and took another sort of invisible presence, one that also tried to catch the voice of the author and be a conduit for his creation. I became Tiger's ghost.

Our partnership produced lots of newspaper articles, interviews with well-known figures and several non-fiction books. But although they brought Tiger a sense of fulfilment, there was no lasting contentment. Eventually he became convinced that the way ahead for us lay in a different sort of publication. The real test was the novel.

"We need to evolve," he said.

I did not demur.

It is 1994 and we are in Tiger's house in France. Tiger believes that France is the best place in the world to create a work of art. "We will have everything we need - the best food, the finest wine, a high-tech music system, a studio to work in, the fresh Dordogne air."

How to write a novel? How to write someone else's novel? These two questions seem absolutely central. "What sort of novel are we thinking about?" I ask.

"We are thinking about a beautiful novel, very beautiful," he says, and he looks somewhere into the middle distance, smiling rapturously, already transported by the sheer imagined beauty of it. "And it will have a beautiful cover. We will make sure of that." He taps out the last six words on the table.

"But what genre are we talking about? Are we thinking of a romantic novel? A thriller?"

(These conversations are always conducted in the first person plural.)

"It will be thrilling, oh yes. And also romantic. Very romantic.

"Oh, yes."

"So, a love story then?"

"But of course! It has to be a love story. People associate me with love. I am famous for love."

"What sort of love story do we have in mind?" I ask, as if we are discussing wallpaper or home furnishings and he has to pick one from a limited range. "Is the love requited or unrequited?"

"Definitely requited. Oh yes, very requited."

"And who are the characters?"

Even by our standards this is becoming an odd exchange.

"Sweetie," he says, his tone long-suffering as if humouring an imbecile. "It has to be the love between a man and a woman. Do you think I could write about poofters? No, it has to be a man and a woman - a beautiful woman and very sexy. There will be lots of sex, but very distinguished. We will do the sex beautifully. Isn't it?"

"And do we have a storyline? Do we have any idea of what it is about?"

"Of course, Beloved! I have thought of everything." He squeals the last word in a spasm of exuberance. "Let me tell you the idea. It is very simple. There is a man ... he is like me somewhat ... he is married ... he falls in love with a woman ... there is a huge passion and then well, we will see what happens after that, isn't it?"

How to proceed? Write what you know, they always say. But what did I know? Suddenly I knew nothing. In a bid to avert panic I decided to make a list of things in my favour. The list was not long but it was a start:

1. I have written a lot already (just not a novel).

2. I have read lots of novels.

For the first of these to count as an advantage you have to believe that all writing comes from the same place. I'm not sure that I do believe that. Writing prose is not writing fiction. The most I could hope for was that the experience of writing journalism, literary pieces, book reviews, and so on would act as some sort of training ground for writing a novel. As for reading a lot, there is, sadly, no causal connection between the fact of having read fiction and the ability to write fiction. I know this at an instinctive level, and I think perhaps I have always known it, but this did not prevent me gathering together dozens of novels and taking them to France in my suitcase. I did this partly in the hope of discovering how to write a novel, and partly because I thought the systematic approach might compensate for lack of inspiration. The next two days were spent dipping into books by Penelope Fitzgerald, Anne Tyler, Carol Shields, Beryl Bainbridge, Alison Lurie, Anne Fine, Jennifer Johnston. At the end of the second day I realised that I had been reading only women writers, surely a foolish exercise if I was to learn to write like a man. For the next two days, fighting off a slight feeling of frenzy, I read William Trevor, John Updike, Ian McEwan, Tim Parks, John Banville.

What I discovered was that when time changes are handled well, you scarcely notice them; as a reader, you are perfectly happy to move through days and weeks and years, in either direction, provided your author has a safe pair of hands. The devices are subtle - the judicious use of a pluperfect tense, for instance, or the foreshortening of a character's history. The same applies to point of view: the narrator - even when the story is told in the first person - has various tricks up his sleeve to allow the reader to know what the other characters are thinking and feeling. And the handling of dialogue was a revelation. Critics are fond of saying, "The dialogue doesn't work," but when it works well, it is, paradoxically, a kind of dialogue that people believe is spoken, or feel comfortable with, not what actually is spoken, which would not work at all. Often the very best dialogue is not in the least authentic.

Who was to be "our hero", and the woman with whom he was to fall in love? The man, according to Tiger, was married, so perhaps his wife would also play a part in the story? Which made a total of three. From one or two remarks Tiger had made, I had a hunch that he already identified with the main character in the book. Confirmation came from an unexpected source, an interview with Tiger that appeared in the Scotsman newspaper around that time.

"... His whole demeanour suggests passion constrained. He cannot sit still for long. He talks quickly, almost imploringly, and the words tumble over each other ... From now on he is going to be a novelist. This is what is fresh. This is what is now. 'It is not going to be a beeg novel ... It will be more a philosophical and a literary book. It's about my love of women and what would happen - what the consequences would be of such a love if ... well, anyway, it's about a man who loves two women.'"

"My love of women." There, I knew it. A dead giveaway. If it was a slip, it was surely a telling slip. There was now little doubt in my mind that Tiger saw himself as the protagonist. In some ways this simplified things - at least there was an abundance of source material to work on. But I soon realised that the fictional version of Tiger would have to be based on his own self-image. He could not be, like the most interesting characters in fiction, seriously flawed. No, our hero would have to be sensitive, compassionate, successful in business, of strong moral fibre, devout, impassioned and wise. He would probably also be something of a self-styled philosopher and he would have to have a great capacity for love. And so, to work. I sketched out a plan in which the main character would be a wealthy businessman whose ordered life would be turned upside-down by an extramarital affair. This would arrive like a bolt from the blue and would coincide with a crisis in his life - the death of his beloved mother. I tried this out on Tiger. He pulled a face. Something wasn't right. It wasn't immediately clear what it was.

"Darleeng, PLEEEase, do we have to have the death?" He spoke imploringly, drawing out each word.

"You don't like the death?"

"I don't like the death."

"Well," I said, caught a little off-guard, "I do think we need to have some sort of crisis, and a funeral is always quite a good focal point in a novel." Then, gaining in confidence, "Also, the emotional upheaval associated with bereavement would be a neat way of allowing the affair to take place. It would make it more understandable in a way." Now the coup de grace: "I mean, we don't want to make him an uncaring bastard who cheats on his wife, do we?"

The mention of an uncaring bastard would surely be enough to win him round, but instead he pulled another face. I wasn't sure what was bothering him. He stroked his lower jaw and made a prolonged moaning noise. Eventually he said, "It's no good. We have to find another crisis. You see, my mother is still alive and, well, I don't want to upset her."

Gently but firmly, I suggested that it was important that the life of the main character was not matched in every single aspect with his own, indeed, it was essential that it wasn't; that the proposed book should be, in essence, a work of imagination; that it would be a pity if the critics dismissed it simply as a replica of his own life rather than a serious literary endeavour; and that it could quite properly reflect his own concerns while at the same time retaining its own artistic integrity. After which, he agreed - albeit somewhat ungraciously - to the death of his mother.

For the next week or so, I tried to free up the flow by telling myself that it was just another job that had to be done, that none of this mattered, that I was free to write anything that came into my head. But the fact that I was writing with a mask on bedevilled the whole process.

I decided to call the main character Carlo and make him a successful advertising executive living in London. The novel would begin with Carlo's return to his native Italy to attend his mother's funeral. The reason for giving him dual nationality was twofold: it fitted very generally with Tiger's own background, and it would act as a metaphor for further conflict and dichotomy. The trip to Italy was surely a stroke of genius: it would allow for our hero's journey in all senses - physical, mental, spiritual and emotional. It would also enable the affair to take place in the hot and steamy Mediterranean climate and, finally, it would conveniently provide the backdrop of Catholicism - Tiger's professed faith - which would in turn introduce the familiar tensions between faith and reason and passion. I warmed to my theme.

I tried to think myself into what I imagined Tiger's style might be, but the more I searched for his voice, the more I caught my own breaking through; the more I tried to realise his literary aspirations, the more my own seemed to intrude. The novel did not grow organically; it was force-fed and boosted with steroids. Set pieces and ruminations on the human condition were thrown about like salt. It became a stilted, studied thing. I was consumed by doubt. The characters were not "real"; they were mouthpieces for various ideas, which shoved them around and kicked them to the ground. André Gide said something to the effect that the true novelist listens to his characters and watches how they behave, whereas the bad novelist simply constructs them and controls them. Without a doubt, I was constructing and controlling.

Almost the one thing I didn't mind was that it was to be a love story. After all, what else is there? It's only half a life without love. And a novel would be surely nothing without it. The prospect of writing about love was even faintly appealing. It is one of those eternal themes that can be endlessly reworked. But every silver lining has a cloud; as I had feared it might, love was coming perilously close to denoting sex.

Tiger was obsessively concerned with its place in the novel. Each day when I returned from the studio he would ask, "Have we done the fucky-fucky yet?" I counselled against it, as anyone in my place would have done, suggesting that discretion was the better part of ardour. But he pooh-poohed and said that a novel by him would be unimaginable without sex.

"Beloved, we need the jig-jig! Don't you see?"

He laughed and clapped his hands, willing me to share his enthusiasm. But I didn't see. I held out for a long time, pointing out that countless authors had believed they could "do" sex in a novel and had ended up falling into a terrible black hole. I reminded him of the Literary Review's Bad Sex Prize, awarded annually by Auberon Waugh, a friend of Tiger's and a man who had made it his mission to discourage the tasteless and perfunctory use of sexual description in the modern novel. Surely he agreed with Bron? I argued that sex in the novel was nearly always bad sex, and that it was best avoided. "You are talking like a nun!" he said. "What's got into you? Trust me, Beloved, we will do the sex beautifully! It will be very distinguished."

The literary treatment of sex is beset with vexed questions. First there is the problem of getting the characters to take their clothes off - buttons and zips and hooks can be so awkward, and you couldn't ever allow a man to keep his socks on. Then there are the body parts, which either have to be named (very unwise) or else replaced with dubious symbolism. And what about the verbs, the doing words? How can you choose to make people enter, writhe, thrash, smoulder, grind, merge, thrust - and still hope to salvage a smidgen of self-respect? The sound effects are even worse: squealing, screaming, the shriek of coitus. No, the English language does not lend itself to realistic descriptions of sex. We are too used to irony. What to do? What to do? Then, a sudden flash of brilliance, and I knew what to do. Tiger had an abhorrence of bodily fluids. His hatred of people who coughed or sniffed or spluttered was legendary. Provided that the sex scenes could be made sufficiently liquid, he might decide to abandon them altogether. Nil desperandum. Bodily fluids would be my deliverance. I set about my purpose with a devil-may-care recklessness.

"Strong and gentle as the waves, he swells and moves towards her like the sea to the shore. He dips and dives, eagerly but hesitantly, still fearing rebuff, until that moment of absolute clarification, when her ardour too is confirmed beyond doubt. Her lissom limbs quiver and enfold him into the sticky deliciousness of her sex."

Of course, one thing led to another, and it was hard not to get carried away. Tiger, far from feeling squeamish, seemed relieved that at last the lovers had got down to the business. I pressed on, telling myself it was a means to an end. He would soon change his mind. Every new splash or splosh was a fresh hell. But still Tiger held out. There was no capitulation. In fact he was exultant. He opened a bottle of Château Margaux and we drank to sex. "Bravo!" he said - his highest accolade. This wasn't working out as planned. I would try one more act of sabotage. I had to make certain this time. Go for broke:

"They play with each other like wet seal pups, their bodies making succulent, slipping sounds. With his tongue he caresses her and spins a silver spider's web from the threads of her wetness. The pathway to heaven pouts like the calyx of a flower turned to the sun, the inner petals drenched in nectar. Her beautiful mound rises and falls as she rubs herself against his chin.

"As she trembles and gasps and comes, he feels a surge of happiness and an infusion, of supreme power. Her juices trickle down like a cluster of stars from the firmament. He can do anything now. He is God in one of his incarnations, spreading love and joy. Her amber thighs rear on either side like the waters parted for Moses. He rises and enters her."

At least four things happened as a result of all this incontinence. Tiger was overjoyed; he raised my salary; the Sunday Times described the novel as "a strong contender" for the Literary Review's Bad Sex Prize; and my teenaged children were mortified. The novel was launched in the spring of 1995. It was a glittering occasion with all the usual suspects, beautiful creatures plucked from London's fashionable set. Tiger had a well-deserved reputation for throwing the best parties in town. Lots of glamour and glitz and permanent tans. People asked if I knew Tiger and if I had read his novel. On the whole, the critics were kind; there was scarcely any venom, and derision was reserved for the sex scenes. According to the TLS reviewer, "It is only in these scenes that the author comes close to losing control of his spare, precise prose." The Sunday Telegraph reviewer wrote, "I prefer to forget those brief, explicit embarrassments," while another review was entitled simply: "Less sex please."

This is an edited extract from Ghosting: A Memoir, by Jennie Erdal published by Canongate price £14.99.


Whose book is it anyway?

Jennie Erdal faces a creative crisis as she faces up to the prospect of ghostwriting another novel for a flamboyant publisher, known as Tiger

Saturday October 30, 2004
The Guardian

In the summer of 1995, just a few months after the publication of Tiger's first novel, we were back in France. We were there to begin another novel. I set about it with a joyless heart. This only made things worse because Tiger loathed low spirits in others. It was joie de vivre he loved - he often said so - and he could not bear even the slightest lack of enthusiasm for something he favoured.

With this new novel he had explained that I could have carte blanche - "You can do whatever you like," he had said, and he clapped his hands together like a pair of cymbals, sealing his lavishness. He then sat back in his chair and smiled benignly. But it wasn't true. It turned out there was a requirement, though to hear him, you might easily have imagined it was nothing at all. He was talking it down so much - "It's just a small idea, that's all, it's not anything big" - and as he continued it got so very small that I imagined it as a tiny dot on an old television screen, disappearing into the void.

Alas, this scarcely-a-requirement-at-all, this small thinglet, this little idealet, slowly began to take on monstrous dimensions. As before, there were to be two women and a man. The man, so Tiger explained, was to be the lover of both women, and each woman would be aware of the other and quite relaxed about the sharing arrangement. The women were to be cousins who had been born on the same day - "Under the same star sign, so they're more like sisters," said Tiger. Sounds quite manageable so far, I thought. There followed a lot of eager talk about how very close sisters can be, how twins can feel each other's pain, how they seem almost to inhabit each other's bodies. "It's like they're one person, not two," he said.

"Yes..." I said, beginning to wonder where all this leading, looking out for the catch. I was not prepared for what came next.

"So," he said, clasping and unclasping his large soft hands, working up to the pièce de résistance, "when the one girl gets orgamsi the other gets orgamsi also!"

"How do you mean exactly?" I asked. I felt sure I had missed something. I took a few moments to consider the possibilities before venturing: "Are we talking about simultaneous orgasm?"

"Precisely!" he purred in a go-to-the-top-of-the-class way. "Simultaneous orgamsi. You've got it! Bravo!"

But I knew I hadn't got it. Not really anyway. As far as I was aware, simultaneous orgasm happened - if it happened at all - between the two principal players, as it were. It was not something that could be dispensed at will to a third party, not even a close cousin.

"And how do you see that working exactly?" I asked, matter-of-factly. We might have been discussing a new business plan or profit-sharing scheme. "Is the man stimulating both of them in such a way that they climax at the same time?"

Wrong question. Tiger smote his brow with the palm of his hand. It was his God-protect-me-from-imbeciles gesture. "Daaarleeeng, you don't understand!" He was right. I didn't. I had led a sheltered life. "The women are not together! They are miles apart!" He was shouting now. He always shouted when stupid people failed to grasp the essential point. "I'm afraid," I said - and for once perhaps I was a little afraid - "you're going to have to spell it out. I don't quite get it."

He fixed me with a look that said, how can you be so dim? The explanation when it came was bad-tempered and delivered de haut en bas. The gist of it was that the two women would be so closely harmonised, so much in tune with one another that, even if they were separated physically, even by oceans and by continents, they would be capable of experiencing the heights of pleasure at the same time.

As he spoke he became more and more animated, his tiger eyes shining brightly in his head, his whole body in motion, semaphoric, balletic. And since I had been so obtuse, he did not mince matters. The speaking got plainer. To remove any lingering doubt he spelled it out: "Look, it's simple! If one woman is in London, say, and the other is in New York, when he is fucking the one in London, the one in New York feels it in her fanny also!

"Now do you understand?" he said, regaining his composure.

"I understand," I said.

   * * *

I sat alone in the studio wondering what to do, how to begin. It was a blow to be required to write another novel, especially so soon after the first. I felt curiously depleted, emptied of the will to repeat the exercise. If I was to commit to another novel, I would have to move away from what I saw as the flat, two-dimensional, soulless canvas. It had to be something layered and fully imagined, something more from the heart. Then again, whose heart? Can one write from another person's heart? I am not sure it can be done.

Without a doubt there is something intrinsically contradictory about ghosting a novel. It is possible to fake fiction, but it is difficult to see how it can be meaningful or eloquent. You have to write from inside your own skin, otherwise there is too much of a psychological struggle. It's like trying to fake sincerity. Being intent on getting the job done makes you concentrate on the technical problems, but it leaves no room for the spirit of the thing. You report for duty each day and you hope that the target number of words will be written. You consider the architecture of the book, the dramatic structure, the characters, the voice. The trouble is that you don't believe the voice, and you don't quite trust the characters. This time I wanted to change all that. I wanted the writing to be alive at the centre, not just a technical exercise. I wanted it to be something that sprang from my own energy. I had to write about something that moved me.

   * * *

In 1987 I had read Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, a chilling piece of fiction that starts with the disappearance of a young child, Kate, while on an ordinary shopping expedition to the supermarket with her father. The assumption is that the child has been snatched, but there are no clues, no leads, no ransom demand. No body is ever found. When I was reading The Child in Time, my own daughter Kate was just seven years old and this no doubt led me to identify even more closely with the story. I was tormented by the book, and it went on haunting me for years. The snatching of a child - how could one bear it? How could one go on? How might one go about surviving a loss of that order?

Eight years on I sat in the cool blue light of the studio on a hillside in the Dordogne, and as I looked beyond the trees and back in time, the scent of that fear came wafting back. I would start Tiger's second novel with the disappearance of a child and see where it led. I opened the laptop on the desk and typed the first paragraph.

"The summer's afternoon when it happened was to be etched, as if by a splinter of glass, in the hearts of all those who were there. The memory was validated by pain and the sharp sounds that broke a perfect Sunday in two."

   * * *

A week or two later, the nuts and bolts were in place. The setting, the main characters and the voice had all been decided, though there was a whiff of compromise about all three. I had started out in the first person, hoping to achieve the immediacy and conviction that can come with a first-person perspective. But it felt too personal, too intimate, and I soon abandoned it for the third person. I chose a sleepy Oxfordshire village in middle-class England as the setting. This is not my territory at all, but it allowed me to make one of the characters an academic at Oxford University (my daughter was there at that time and I had come to know it a little). I drew up a list of main characters: the two married couples, their remaining two children, the vicar next door and his long-suffering wife.

One of the more pressing difficulties with the book was that I did not feel confident about being able to fulfil Tiger's orgasmic stipulation. I had hinted to him that there might be complications in the literary execution, but he continued to regard it as a sine qua non of the action. I had been proceeding on the assumption that Tiger's idea was a male sexual fantasy. Men love the idea of having a third person in on the act - or so women think. A little elementary research, however, led me to believe that it was not an absolutely standard male fantasy, yet I still thought it would be best to treat it as fantasy in the novel. I broached this line of reasoning as delicately as possible, but Tiger was having none of it.

"What nonsense!" he said.

"But surely, it's the only way," I said. "Otherwise it won't be plausible."

"How can it be plausible if he doesn't do it? It can only be plausible if he does do it. Why don't you see that? We have to make him do it."

There was a lot at stake here. I had to hold my ground.

"If he just thinks about it," I said, "if it stays in his head, then it will be more convincing. People have all sorts of strange fantasies. The imagination is a weird place. I think we can make it work at that level."

"But who are we going to convince if it's all in his head? It will only convince him! And what's the good in that? He has to do it! It has to happen! For people to believe it, it has to happen! Isn't it? What's the matter with you? What is this nonsense?"

His heart was clearly set on it. The book would be a travesty without it - Hamlet without the Prince. Each day after I had finished in the studio he would ask for a progress report. "Have we reached the orgamsi yet?" he would inquire with dispiriting regularity, although it is only fair to say that the question never seemed salacious or even coarse. It was more like a child asking that familiar question from the back seat of the car: "Are we nearly there?" Tiger was obviously keen to break new ground, in the sense that our hero, and he alone, would be capable of producing this amazing synchronous effect on two women in different parts of the globe.

Of course, illusions have to be rendered, but how do you stop yourself from pricking them? As I understood it, the joint cousinly climax was contingent upon the exceptional closeness of the women in question, so, unless they were both virgins, not to mention unlucky in their experience of lovemaking, they must surely have climaxed concurrently before. With someone else. Someone other than our hero. And if not, why not?

Thus the armature of contrivance kept breaking through, and I was continually hampered, not by a failure of nerve exactly, rather by humility before ordinary reality. An inbuilt crap detector is an awkward piece of equipment for any woman trying to carry out this kind of mandate for a man. Yet it had to be done, so I pressed on. The hero in John Banville's Shroud says: "I cannot believe a word out of my own mouth," and I suppose I had arrived at a similar position.

   * * *

In the circumstances it was not an easy matter to deliver quality orgasms to those taking part in the story. And so, a compromise was reached, though it had all the drawbacks of a trade-off and no obvious benefits, at least not for Tiger, whose high hopes were cruelly thwarted. The idea of the two families remained, but I simply could not effect the needful with grown-up, sexually mature, sane adults. So instead, and in a spirit of greater realism, the cousins - together with their fanciful frolics - were switched to the younger generation.

This is how the ground was prepared: establishing the bond early on allowed it to be infinitely strengthened by the disappearance of the young boy - the brother of one of the cousins. Ordinary life is suspended after the tragedy and the days seem to merge one into another. The adults are so busy coping with their own grief that the girls - by now 15 years of age - are left to get on with life and their own feelings largely by themselves. They befriend the boy next door, only son of the vicar who is helping the bereaved parents, and gradually they retreat together into their own world, all three bound by a common neglect.

Tiger did not conceal his disappointment. It was absolute and comprehensive.

"But they're children!" he scoffed. "Why are we writing a children's book?"

"It's not remotely a children's book," I said, slightly horrified. "It's an adult book with children - young adults - in it."

"They are children!" he insisted. "They haven't even done it before!"

"That's the beauty of it," I said, glimpsing a straw that might be clutched, "they're not yet set in their ways."

"And they're doing it all together! They are not apart at all. We agreed they would be miles apart! We've made it into an orgy!"

So sudden, this prudery. So unexpected.

"Well, it's hardly an orgy," I said, trying to placate. "They are just feeling their way. It's a kind of innocence in fact. And anyway they love each other."

This was desperate stuff.

Tiger was not to be appeased. He scowled as he read the passage again. Then came another objection, overlooked the first time.

"We don't even say that the girls have orgamsi together. At the same time. Why don't we say it? How can people understand if we don't say it? We have to say it." And so we said it, but it was a terrible letdown for Tiger. It was not what he had dreamed of. The pinnacles reached were not transatlantic, and our hero, far from being a representation of the author, was a 16-year-old spotty youth.

I finished the book at home in Scotland. I travelled to London and handed it over, glad to be free of it. When I arrived back in St Andrews a few days later, a large package was waiting for me. The covering letter informed me that the author had delivered his typescript and it was now ready for editing. Could I kindly turn it round as quickly as possible?

The party to launch the book was a bizarre event for me. People asked if I'd read the new novel, and what did I think of it. Sometimes I said, yes, and that it was very good, and sometimes I said, no, but I was looking forward to it. What I said didn't matter, I told myself. But later that same evening it did matter, because Tiger took me by the arm and introduced me to one of the guests, a well-known (but not to me) literary agent.

"This is my editor," said Tiger to well-known agent.

"But she told me five minutes ago she hadn't read your book!" said well-known agent to author.

"Bloody hell, if she hasn't read it, I'm in trouble!" said Tiger. Awkward laughter all round.

   * * *

The reviews of the new novel were mostly kind. But the dishonesty was beginning to weigh more heavily. My mouth was filled with half-lies and half-truths. At dinner parties people asked me, and what do you do? I'm an editor, I said, or sometimes, I'm a researcher. But this seldom put an end to the questions. (And what do you research? What sort of editor?) Eventually I began to take a perverse delight in saying that I was a housewife, even though by the mid-1990s this risked pity or scorn by the bucketful. There's no harm in dissembling, I told myself. But there is. If you can't say what you do, if you can't talk about your daily life, there is a penalty to pay.

Curiously, despite all the lies I told, or perhaps because of them, a truth was uncovered: that you can't go on living that way without suffering a loss. Over time I became a martyr to social events where I might have to give an account of myself. I avoided questions, even from close friends, and was deliberately vague about my work. Secrets and lies are corrosive, I discovered, and when they begin to take over it is hard to get back to yourself. At times I felt I was living someone else's life, occupying someone else's head. And losing the way in my own.

No more novels, I had decided. But Tiger had different ideas. In a review of the first novel in the Independent, Andrew Biswell had written: "[the author] has written a book that is big despite its brevity... he proves he is capable of writing an outstanding novel."

"You see," said Tiger, "he says we can write." In my head I heard strange sounds, like circuits shorting. I could tell he had another novel coming upon him.

And indeed he had. It turned out that his imagination had been fired by the opening story in Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 Chapters, in which there is an account of Noah's flood, told from the point of view of a woodworm.

"It's so clever, don't you think? Don't you agree?"

"Yes," I said.

"It has given me an idea," he said. Which was to draw on another Old Testament story, namely the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

"It will be amazing," he said. "Can you imagine? Everyone will want to read it."

"What makes you so sure?"

"Because of Sodom and Gomorrah! Let me explain. With the flood there's no sex, but with Sodom and Gomorrah we can put all the sex we like! And sex sells! Isn't it?"

He rose from his chair and launched into the now familiar ardour for a new project - how beautifully we would do it, how simple it would be to write, how the critics would love it, and so on. At these times he reminded me of a Harlem Globetrotter - fast, deft, agile, bouncing his enthusiasm around the room, potting a new shot every minute or two, yet taking the time between goals to impress and bewitch. As always it was a masterful performance. But my own spirits were diving. I had been in this place before and I just couldn't face another novel. Even so, I didn't refuse outright. Instead I said I would have to research the subject and think about it.

"But we shouldn't think for too long," he said, "or someone will pinch our idea."

This is an edited extract from Ghosting: A Memoir, by Jennie Erdal published by Canongate price £14.99