The Secret of Ghostwriting

I’ll never forget the day I got the call. I was sitting in the hairdresser’s in Hollywood, my head half wrapped in foils, when my agent rang and asked me how I’d feel about writing a new Sidney Sheldon novel.

“I’d feel great,” I told him. “But wouldn’t Sidney Sheldon mind?”

I wasn’t aware that Sidney had passed away the year before. Nor was I aware that continuing an author’s legacy posthumously was something that ever happened. What I did know was that Sidney had written some of the best, most gripping, suspenseful novels I had ever read. As a teenager I devoured all of them and even now, in my thirties, I could rattle off the names of his heroines as if they were old friends. Which, in a way, they were. Some, in particular, had always stayed with me: the murderous, exotic, and obsessed Noelle Page from The Other Side of Midnight; brave and daring con artist Tracy Whitney from If Tomorrow Comes; Jennifer Parker from Rage of Angels, the brilliant lawyer made reckless by love and grief. Sidney Sheldon was always known as “the master of the unexpected” for his gasp-inducing plot twists and the breathless pace of his stories. To me, he was also synonymous with strong, complex, flawed female characters. He was a feminist, at least in his writing, and I loved him for that.

The Secret of Ghostwriting

Ironically, when I published my own first novel, Adored, I wrote to Sidney, sending him a copy of my book and telling him how much his writing had inspired me. (His life story, by the way, is every bit as improbable and gripping as his novels. If you haven’t read his autobiography, The Other Side of Me, I strongly urge you to buy a copy right now.) He sent me a long, encouraging, and kind reply, something that I now know was typical of him. I have it framed above my desk in London, the same desk where, five years later, I began work on my own first Sidney Sheldon novel, Mistress of the Game. Sometimes life’s coincidences can be truly extraordinary.

Writing a novel in somebody else’s narrative voice is not an easy thing. Sidney had an extremely distinctive style of writing—short sentences and paragraphs, very limited use of pronouns, a tendency to jump right into dialogue without too much setting the scene—which is both a good and a bad thing for a ghost writer like me. Good because you know what you are supposed to sound like. Bad because, if you miss the mark, there is no hiding place. Your mistakes echo through the text like a dropped glass, shattering the illusion of continuity and breaking the reader’s trust. This is even truer when working with characters originally conceived by Sidney, such as the iconic Tracy Whitney, the heroine of the Sheldon classic If Tomorrow Comes, as well as of my most recent two Sheldon books, Chasing Tomorrow and Reckless.   On the one hand, it is part of my job to update Tracy, to make her relevant and believable to a new generation of readers. If Tomorrow Comes was written in 1985, when I was twelve years old. I’m forty-two today, and the worlds of banking and fraud and art theft and international travel in which the original Tracy operated have all changed beyond recognition. Yet at the same time, the essence of Tracy, her spirit and courage and femininity and sharp wit, all need to remain intact and recognizable as the woman the author conceived so brilliantly three decades ago. It’s a fine line, and walking it can be treacherous.

Not that I’m complaining. Writing these Sidney Sheldon novels has been an honor and a joy. If someone had told me, when I was twelve and I read the last page of If Tomorrow Comes at my English boarding school, desperate to know what happened to Tracy next, that would one day be chosen to carry on her story—I would have thought I was dreaming. The idea that I could do that and get paid for it? Well, that would have made me laugh out loud.

Sometimes, it still does.

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