Tuesday, October 15, 2002

The Ghost of Hiram Plink
by Ken Goldstein

"Boil the breakfast early, Ma. Me and Seamas is goin' fishin'!" Hiram read that opening line, looked up over the manuscript page and gave me a sly grin, then went back to the draft before him.

I am the ghost of Hiram Plink. That is to say, I am his ghostwriter; he has hired me to write his "autobiography." But Hiram likes to refer to me as his ghost.

The process to this point had taken nearly a year; a little longer than usual. We started with months of interviews, just the two of us, meeting over coffee or a light meal, avoiding the formal setting of my office, only the tape recorder on the table to point out the nature of our relationship. When I am hired to write somebody's autobiography they are inviting me into their life. It is a bold step, and my first job is to make them comfortable enough to open up.

Writing somebody else's book for them requires you to adopt their attitudes, their style, and their voice. Hiram's reaction to the opening showed that I did my job well. Over the next two hours I sat and watched him read. Smiling, nodding, and giving me signs that it is the book he would have written himself. During that time I recalled our year together.

On projects such as this I will often write the memoir from just a few interviews with the subject. There have been occasions when this has transpired entirely with phone calls, the "author" of the book and I never meeting face-to-face. Hiram, however, wanted to hold nothing back. Early on in our relationship he invited me to his home to meet his wife.

Florence Plink doted on her husband in a truly loving way, and accepted his assessment of other people; if he said somebody was friend, that would be good enough for her. When I entered the house and Hiram introduced me as his ghost, she embraced me like a long lost brother, welcoming me into their home and their lives.

Before long I'd met each of their four children, their spouses, and the grandchildren, and all took me aside to tell me stories that "just had to be in the book." They made me part of the family and included me birthdays and holiday celebrations. All took their lead from the patriarch of the family, Hiram, with even the seven-year-old grandson introducing me to a stranger as "my grandpa's ghost."

With other ghostwriting assignments, I've always had a clear client-author relationship. With Hiram it became more of a partnership, but it still took him five months to introduce me to a key character in the later part of the book; his doctor. Hiram was being treated for lung cancer. Or rather, cared for, but not treated; his cancer was inoperable and what care he received was only to make his final months more comfortable.

Hiram had known this fact from before he'd hired me, yet I'd had no idea he was dying. From the constant laughter in the family house and the positive attitudes of everybody I'd met, I had to wonder if I was the first to find out about Hiram's diagnosis. When the doctor explained the path of the treatment to me I looked over to Hiram, shocked and mute. He must have understood what I was thinking because he replied, "Yes, they all know."

In the best of assignments, I am invited into my subjects' life. In agreeing to write Hiram Plink's autobiography I was invited into his death. This was not a part of the story I was used to writing, and was at a loss as to how to accomplish this.

I attempted to incorporate his acceptance of his fate into the final several chapters. Writing in Hiram's voice I gave his thanks for seventy wonderful years, full of love, and luck, and all that could be desired. In Hiram's own words I closed the book by saying that to ask for any more would be purely conceit, then went on to tell how much he loved his family and would miss them.

Then, sitting, watching him read that section, I saw the first signs of disapproval in the long time he'd been reading the draft. He tried, without success, to sit himself up in the hospital bed, an impossible task with all the hoses and wires and needles attached to various parts of his once strong, now virtually disintegrating body.

"Did I tell you to end the book with that maudlin crap?" Hiram demanded of me. "Have you learned nothing? This book is to be a celebration of life. Yes, you've got to mention the cancer, but it's not take up fully one-third of the book. You're not done with this project yet, young man. Not by a long shot."

I didn't know what to say. Each day, the doctors expected would be his last. "How do you want me to wrap it up, then?"

"You'll know when the time comes. You'll write it without me, after I'm gone."

"But, Hiram," I said. "The job of a ghostwriter is to work with the subject. I can't do this on my own. We need to finish it together."

"Have you paid attention at all to my story? Forget the rules, this is our book, and I trust you to go on without me. I need you to go on without me. I've finished my part; it's time for you to do yours." With that he settled back into his pillows, exhausted. Florence stepped forward and pulled his blanket up to tuck him in, then she led me out of the room to allow him some rest.

When I returned to the hospital the next morning Hiram was gone. His youngest son was still there packing up his personal items. He took me in his arms and told that Hiram had passed a little after midnight. We then rode together to the funeral home where the rest of the family was busy making arrangements for the memorial.

For several weeks after that I walked around the city in a daze, ignoring calls from our publisher asking where the final draft was; ignoring the calls from Florence asking how I was doing. I couldn't write anything, not even a note to my agent to say that I was giving up writing. I thought about my career: seventeen books, and not one of them with my own name on the cover. I'd always been a ghost, never able to create anything on my own. None of the great novels I'd envisioned in my head ever making it to paper.

Then, one Sunday, I turned on the TV and saw an old interview with Hiram being replayed on "60 Minutes." A young Hiram sat with Mike Wallace telling him that the secret to his success was being too damn stupid to realize that failure was an option. It's not that he was any more brilliant than anybody else; it's only that he got out there and tried.

I turned off the television and fired up my computer for the first time printing out the draft that I'd taken with me to the hospital the night Hiram died. I opened a new document and started typing; "I am the ghost of Hiram Plink."

(© copyright 2002, K.R. Goldstein, as is everything original I post here)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Twitter Feed