Death of the Author: Ghostwriter Maya Sloan Gives Life to Celebs' Stories
Maya Sloan's intensely collaborative writing process defies conventional understandings of ownership, authorship, and the personal brand.
Image by Angela Deane
Although she makes her living as a writer, Maya Sloan has a problem with pronouns. Specifically, first-person pronouns. When Sloan talks about her job as a ghostwriter, it's unclear if she should say I or we--or even if she should call herself a ghostwriter at all.
My relationship with Sloan started with her correcting me on a couple of things. First, the thing about what to call her job: I emailed her to talk about her career as a "celebrity ghostwriter"--she's not a celebrity ghostwriter. "Not that there's anything wrong with the title," she wrote, "but all my books are co-authored (except one), and I do write my own novels as well."
Then, there was the fact that I had, unwittingly, already written about her. "When you work on some of the projects I do, you learn to harden yourself to negative press," she wrote. "But in this case...well, I did want to say something regarding what I posted below." I was nervous.
What Sloan had posted below was a quote from a link round-up I had written for a literary blog I used to run. There were so many layers involved that I had to read both the post and Sloan's criticism several times before I knew a) what I had been talking about or b) what she was talking about. Basically: I had posted a recommendation for a critical review of one of Sloan's books, in a snarky and flippant tone. I hadn't actually read this book, an eponymous novel based on the viral, anonymously run Tumblr Rich Kids of Instagram, or even, apparently, really paid attention to the part of the review that explained that the book was an eponymous novel based on the viral, anonymously run Tumblr Rich Kids of Instagram. Given that I feel a particularly bitter distaste for the type of human lampooned by that Tumblr--and that I love finding apparently legitimate reasons to hate things--I jumped at the chance to assume what many people had assumed about Sloan's novel: that it was an inside joke among rich kids and the adults that make them that way. I also don't think I realized it was fiction.
Over coffee, it was clear there were no hard feelings. These kinds of interactions are common in the life of a sort-of ghostwriter, a glamorous-sounding job that, like most glamorous-sounding jobs, is widely misunderstood. Besides, Sloan is effusive and energetic, always willing to offer another story, a further telling detail. She had gotten her sweater--it had some cool-looking faux fur around the sleeves and collar, reminiscent of the Lizzie McGuire wardrobe closet (a good thing)--for $2 at the Salvation Army, which is the same price she cited when a staff member at the Chateau Marmont complimented Sloan on it.
Sloan's anecdotes often involve places like the Chateau Marmont, or the Hamptons, or riding alongside a paparazzo chasing Katie Holmes; if you imagine the novelist's life as hours of quiet contemplation hunched over a computer screen, meeting Sloan disrupts those notions very quickly. There are many ways to describe the collaborative writing work Sloan takes on--co-writing, co-authoring, "with" credits, and "as told to" are the most common--and they all mean slightly different things. Her past projects include helping Will Smith's dad write a novel, ghosting a sci-fi YA thriller with Kylie and Kendall Jenner, and the blogger-confusing Rich Kids of Instagram. To complicate matters even more, Sloan doesn't only collaborate with her clients; she also works with her husband, the Danish illustrator Thomas Warming, whom she asked to bring along to our meeting, on everything she does. He calls himself "the ghost to the ghost!" She alternates between calling him a "co-creator" and "baby."
Although she says she "wouldn't trade [her] job for anything," the prevailing understanding of what Sloan does--I'm going to keep calling it ghostwriting, for ease rather than accuracy--is tinged with indignation and injustice. In a Washington Post article about the practice, the "lot" of a ghostwriter is added up to be...not much. The peg for the article is the release of Hillary Clinton's book, Hard Choices, which was written by a "book team" who reportedly churned out 635 pages in exchange for $500,000 and a tepid, vague acknowledgement near the conclusion. At times the article reads as if Clinton had enlisted servants to produce her book, rather than hired free-willed professionals to provide a service (the terms of which were, no doubt, outlined in a detailed contract).
Sloan had thought her life as a writer was going to go the way so many MFA graduates' lives do: a smattering of stories in literary magazines, a debut novel, teaching to fill in the financial gaps--though she did "sa[y] 'Fuck you'" to a full-time, tenure-track job. (For his part, Warming quit a high-level advertising job in Copenhagen to pursue creative work less rigidly defined.) But when she started the teaching part of that path, adjuncting a class on African Americans in film, her charisma landed her an unexpected opportunity. She invited the actress Sheryl Lee Ralph to speak to her students, and after a rousing lecture from Ralph, the star jokingly suggested that her life was so dramatic, she should write a book. Sloan volunteered to help immediately.
Still, despite her portfolio's star-studded cast, Rich Kids is by far the most interesting thing Sloan's done, inasmuch as it fucks with everything we think about being an author. It's sort of like a ghostwriting project in reverse: The creator of the source material remains anonymous, Sloan's name is on the cover, and it's best described as inspired by the blog, sponsored by the creative agency managing the anonymous blogger. "They go, 'What can you turn this [the RKOI Tumblr] into?'" Sloan says. "That's literally what it is: take these images and turn [them] into a novel." Warming storyboarded the whole thing, as well as provided illustrations for each chapter.
Research is a key component of Sloan's work. That Sloan had dug up a particular throwaway blog post among months of my throwaway blog posts is indicative of her thoroughness. (During our conversation, she also referenced no fewer than four of my past pieces for other publications.) Sloan insists all her clients meet her in person; she has them fly her to wherever they live/work, and she conducts hours and hours of interviews that she then transcribes herself, so she can "get the person's voice under [her] skin." Before and after, she immerses herself in secondary sources. For the Jenners' book, that meant reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy; for Rich Kids of Instagram, it meant, tragically, crashing parties in the Hamptons.
Warming jumps in. "I think one of the interesting things is that it's things that we don't know anything about. I didn't know anything about Rich Kids of Instagram--"
"I didn't know anything about rich people!" Sloan laughs. "We had informants! It's amazing how hard it was to get within the rich community." They only got busted once.
This is not how all ghostwriters work, Sloan says. "This is hearsay," she says, lowering her voice conspiratorially, "but the guy who wrote Snoop's book--this is a very high-level ghostwriter--apparently that book was written entirely based on internet research. I will never do a book like that."
Sloan talks a lot about how growing up in Oklahoma may have influenced her current preoccupation with celebrity, notoriety, and wealth. Still, she says she only gets starstruck around writers; she's a fan of people like Margaret Atwood, who "isn't confined to one genre."
"I met Jay McInerney," she says. "Thomas said I was acting nervous and giddy. And he kissed me on the cheek."
"I almost punched him!"
This line about succumbing to only the most intellectual of celebrities sounds good, though I don't totally believe it. When Warming playfully begins to tell a story about how the pair once ended up at a party in the Meatpacking District and ran into, as he puts it, "all the Housewives," Sloan gets a little pink in the face.
"Baby, really?" Sloan says, mock desperately. "You're going to do this? Really?"
"The Real Housewives, you mean?" I ask.
"Babyyyyyyyy," Sloan moans.
"The Housewives," Warming confirms. "All of them. And this one dude--"
"His name is Slade, and how embarrassing you are," she says.
Warming gets serious. "The point is that he was way more interesting to you than meeting, like, Will Smith and all these people."
Sloan's ears do seem to perk up more for notoriety than for glamour. When we met, Sloan and Warming were working on a couple of things they couldn't talk about, or could only talk about in broad terms, and I suspect she took pleasure in telling me she couldn't talk about them. Throughout our conversation, the self-proclaimed lover of US Weekly would periodically lower her voice, lean in to the table, and interject things like, "Don't you just love what's going on with Nicholas Sparks, by the way?"
Ghostwriters have a unique relationship to gossip: They are often privy to information they legally can't talk about in public, yes--it was hard to find ghostwriters willing to talk to me for this reason. But if the non-disclosure agreement doesn't go both ways, a ghostwriter can also become the subject of speculation. Last July, Sloan woke up one day to discover her name "on the web two million times"--thanks to @kyliejenner, who'd Instagrammed a group picture of herself, Kendall, their creative director, and Sloan, revealing Sloan to be the woman behind the sisters' book. Sloan didn't know her name was going to be released. (And the picture has since been deleted.)
Giving up authorial agency is a prospect that would make many writers balk--especially writers who have two MFA degrees in writing, like Sloan--so the Jenners' acknowledgment of Sloan's work may seem valiant. We think very, very highly of books, and art making in general; it's surprising--though not necessarily from the extended Kardashian klan, who have made their name by offering the public access to the ins and outs of their celebrity--that the sisters would so openly admit they "obviously can't write a sci-fi novel on [their] own." However, as in the case with the Clinton memoir--and with my stupid blog post--here a standard publishing open secret became a funnel for resentment of celebrities and wealth. The press and its commentariat quickly turned Sloan into a victim in order to slam the Jenner sisters in the process. (A post about the book on Perez Hilton went: "We find it kind of rude that in the acknowledgement area, Kendall & Kylie only mention Maya by thanking her for her 'tenacious and creative spirit.' But not thanking her for, ya know, WRITING THE ENTIRE BOOK??") It didn't help that the book-called Rebels: City of Indra, about two sisters (who turn out to be twins!) who live in a future dystopia and have superpowers-did about as well as you'd expect it to.
In other words, ghostwriting is not necessarily the kind of thing that deserves even a tepid, vague acknowledgment near the conclusion. Whether the ghostwriter(s) receives credit depends on several factors, all of which should be negotiated in a contract before the beginning of the project. Particularly in this age of the personal brand, if a ghostwriter has a public writing career of her own, taking credit for writing a book on behalf of another person might create a conflict of interest. A PhD in gender studies, in need of extra cash, might decide to do a memoir for an athlete that includes his unapologetic stance on, say, domestic violence. An editor specializing in literary fiction, in need of extra cash or just because he wants to, might ghost a pulp romance novel with flat characters and gross dialogue. If the client wants a boring protagonist who is ambivalent about hitting his wife, the ghostwriter has to cede authority to the person whose name is going to be accountable for the book (and for the ghostwriter's paycheck).
Neither of these reflects Sloan's experience, though. Far from expressing resentment about the Jenners, she is fiercely protective of them, to the point that she refuses to talk about them. Even when we get into what I think is a pretty theoretical discussion about the difference between fame and notoriety and I ask about where the Kardashians would fall on that spectrum, she shakes her head and says, simply, "Girlfriend, I'm not. I can't."
"As controversial as some of my clients are," she says, "I like them!"
Popular ideas about the relationship between celebrities and their ghostwriters--that celebrities are idiots who are incapable of articulation, that the ghostwriter is simultaneously both being taken advantage of and sacrificing her integrity to make a quick buck--oversimplify the industry significantly. At the end of the day, ghostwriting can involve both, as Sloan says, "artistry" and paying the bills. "I know that there are writers out there who do this work and feel like they're degrading themselves and secretly want to just be publishing their own novels," she says. "It is work for hire. But even when my name is not on something--which happens--I am doing the highest quality work I can."
"If I ever felt bitter about what I was doing or didn't like what I was doing," she says, "I would fucking stop doing it."