A Q+A with Margie Thomson, ghostwriter of Straight Up by Ruby Tui, the best bestseller of 2022
As the ghostwriter of books by Ruby Tui, Stan Walker, John Kirwan and many others, do these as-told-to books of yours fall somewhere between journalism and PR? What sort of space do you occupy, do you think?
I would say that ghostwriting is a little bit like lots of things, but not exactly like anything else. It’s its own territory.
The very existence of these books could be seen as a kind of PR exercise – that they exist to promote a person, to shape public perception with the goal of buffing up a personal brand. All I can say in response to that is that the people I’ve written for have genuine stories to tell – stories that readers are interested in, and which add value to people’s lives, and fill out our awareness of the world we live in. If books are armchair tourism, then these memoirs take us into the lives of people who might not be able to/ don’t have time to write their own story. So, quite legitimately, they employ someone else to write it for them, while they get on and do the thing that we all love them for doing.
In regard to the PR question, the people I write about don’t set the frame for the questions I ask, or the direction I might take in our conversations together. While every book I write for someone is the story of their life, it would nevertheless certainly be quite a different book were someone else to have written it – not better or worse but just different. Different things would have been accented and drawn out, different aspects of their personality and story might have been emphasised or de-emphasised (of course this is true of journalism, or certainly feature journalism, too).
Yet neither are the books really like journalism. Journalism usually employs the third person or, if it’s in first person, it is the journalist’s own ‘I’ we are engaged by. In these books, I write in the first person, but I am channelling someone else. Which when you think about it is pretty weird.
I sometimes think ghostwriting is like translation: how do we take meaning from one language, and turn it into something meaningful in another language, when we all know that languages to do not precisely equate with each other in neat word-for-word matches, or in worldview? In this sense, I’m talking about the translation between spoken language, and written language. Creativity is required, even though that is not necessarily apparent to the casual reader. Or perhaps it’s like acting, where you take on the voice and character of a different person; where you channel another person through yourself. I don’t mean to sound grandiose about that. I’m just trying to explain what it’s like when you write using someone else’s first-person pronoun.
What makes these kinds of books meaningful, I believe, is the subjects’ honesty and self-reflexiveness – qualities that go well beyond public relations or journalism.
None of the people I’ve worked with have ever attempted to cover stuff up or to gloss over failings, other than out of respect for someone else. In fact, of the people I’ve written about/for, almost all of them have been startlingly willing to go deep, and to explore the things about themselves that are difficult, unflattering, even sometimes not very nice.
By stripping themselves bare, Stan and Ruby call people in to their stories
This was brought home in something that John Kirwan expressed to me. We worked together on his All Blacks Don’t Cry in 2010. All Blacks Don’t Cry has continued to be a landmark book in the area of mental health (an updated edition is to be published next year), and it’s easy to forget – now, when we speak relatively openly about mental illness – what a risk JK took when he went public about his struggle with depression. In the intervening years he has had thousands of encounters with others who want to share their own stories and struggles with him. This is what he said: he made himself vulnerable in that book, and that enabled people to be vulnerable right back.
I think that’s it in a nutshell with all these books – the subjects are so honest, and speak so generously of their struggles and successes, that readers feel enriched and connected. They feel a sense of shared experience. Maybe they feel they’re not the only one.
This same principle was operating with my two most recent books, Stan Walker’s Impossible and Ruby Tui’s Straight Up. Both Stan and Ruby brought their whole selves to the project. Both their careers exemplify effort and hard work – what Ruby would call ‘greatitude’, that is, demonstrating by their actions their gratitude for their opportunities. By stripping themselves bare, they call people in to their stories.
Did you become close to Stan and Ruby? Stan told you some really intense things about his childhood, including sexual abuse. Ruby also shared very personal stories of a pretty tough childhood.
The ghostwriter/subject relationship is unlike ordinary journalist/subject relationships which are more obviously transactional and brief – a life in an hour, kind of thing. Ghostwriting is far more intense and personal. We are together over a much longer time, and I’m aware that I’m going right inside someone’s life, and asking a lot of them in terms of detail, reliving past events and so on. It’s a curious mix of intensely personal and intensely professional and respectful.
That is, the relationship is really important. It’s not friendship – it’s too one-way for that – but it is a sort of love, on my part. It has to be, because I am going to live inside their lives for months.
There’s no doubt it’s an unusual set up – for someone to tell a total stranger all this personal stuff – but on the other hand, we do that with counsellors. And that makes me think that part of ghostwriting is really more aligned with counselling (counsellors might disagree). My job is to listen and inquire and it’s not my job to judge, although it is my job to empathise. What I’m saying is, the job is as much about the listening and the empathising as it is about the writing.
Do you look on them as assignments, or do they evolve into something far more personal?
They begin as assignments of course. The publisher rings and asks if I’m interested, and I may or may not have heard of the subject before. I do a bit of backgrounding and then we meet to see if we like each other and feel we can work together – and it’s one of those curious things about people that you can feel straight away if there’s a connection. And then we make a time to meet and we get started. So in one way it’s straightforward and transactional, but how can you stay in that mode when someone is telling you things they might never have spoken of before? It’s impossible. It definitely becomes personal, for me at least. And really, right from the beginning you know it’s going to become personal, because it has to.
Are there challenges in working with people who are…very different from yourself?
I’m thinking here of Doug Avery, the ‘resilient farmer’. When Penguin Random first suggested to him that I might be a good person to help him write his book he googled me and almost collapsed when he saw I was active in the Green Party. In my turn, I quickly realised he’s passionately committed to the National Party. Green, blue. Urban, rural. By some measures we shouldn’t have liked each other. Yet we really did. He’s one of the most emotionally open people I’ve ever met, and he brings his whole heart to caring for his farming community. At his book launch, bloke after rugged bloke stood up and recounted times of emotional and psychological hardship when Doug had tirelessly and wisely supported them. That’s the privilege of the ghostwriter – to see these people close up, past all the surface stuff, and into the heart.
Ruby would like to have had a Pasifika co-writer but none was available….I could only be me – middle-aged palagi – and just did my best to listen and learn and reflect
In the case of Ruby Tui, I knew about her team and had for quite some time been fascinated by its culture, although I had missed the moment that brought her into the public gaze, where she gave a hilarious off-the-cuff interview to the BBC after one of the Black Ferns Sevens games at the Tokyo Olympics. But I ‘profiled’ Portia Woodman – in that life-in-an-hour way I referenced above – for my 2019 book Womankind and became entranced at the magic of those players and their joyous energy. So when Jenny Hellen of Allen & Unwin rang I was excited at having the chance for a more in-depth understanding, and as soon as I met Ruby I knew she was going to be a dream subject.
Anyone can straight away sense Ruby’s honesty and her commitment, and those are really the key attributes for this kind of book, with general wonderfulness, decency and a sense of humour being the icing on the cake. Ruby would like to have had a Pasifika co-writer but none was available. If she had, no doubt her book would have been a different one, with a different emphasis and greater insight into some aspects of her life. That phantom ‘other’ writer sat alongside me for some of the time I worked with Ruby, but in the end I could only be me – middle-aged palagi – and just did my best to listen and learn and reflect.
It was the same with Stan Walker – I knew who he was although I hadn’t paid much attention, but as soon as I met him I just felt very comfortable. Yes, he’s half my age, is Māori whereas I’m Pākehā, and his life story is different to mine. Not to mention that he’s way cooler. So it’s an interesting question, isn’t it, about what can draw us to feel a sense of connection to each other.
I’m not downplaying the significance of those identity markers – ethnicity, wealth, class background, gender – as they do indeed determine so much about our life experience. But I also believe that we are more than just our demographic tick-boxes. Thank god, because otherwise there would be no hope for us. We are all indigenous to this planet. That is, there are human qualities that we all share and can relate to. So maybe it’s about being interested and respectful and caring – and if you can be those things, you can develop that warm sense of connection with people who on the surface seem to be very different. I just keep trying to de-centre myself, and to remember that mine is not the only view in the room.
How often do you meet for interviews?
With Stan, we did most of our interviews at my house, in my small office. I’d make him food and coffees, and he would bring shopping bags full of crackers and those little salty pretzels, and salads from the deli across the road. The interview tapes are full of munching. And he’d often stay for hours at a time – four hours, six hours – that’s a powerful and exhausting amount of talking. He was often away and living his busy life, so these marathon sessions were the only way of putting in time.
With Ruby, we ‘met’ by zoom during second lockdown, and continued that way. We did more than 40 hours on zoom over maybe twenty sessions, as well as emailing and whatsapp-messaging. Before the end of the Auckland lockdown she was able to return home to Tauranga, and her life has been crazy busy ever since – I was so lucky to have that brief window where she was available. During our ‘get-togethers’ her partner Dani might wander past, or bring Ruby coffee or breakfast; my dog was on the field for the whole game (that is, on the carpet at my feet) and even got a credit in the book. We didn’t physically meet until the semi-final of the World Cup – that impossibly narrow, heart-attack victory – when I got to give her a hug after the game and what I thought was: man, she is so muscly!
Our interview confirms what I suspected: to be a good ghost, you have to be a good person. Do you have ongoing friendships with the people you write for?
Not really – not in the sense of doing stuff together, or even being in regular contact. But we remain warm towards each other, and if I ever see them, I would definitely give them a big hug and have a catch-up.
Straight Up by Ruby Tui as told to Margie Thomson (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is selling out fast at bookstores nationwide.