Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Gene Stone (page 2)
 Talking with
Gene Stone
page 1
page 2
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You came up with this idea and sold it to a publisher, but how did you manage to write it so quickly, and how did you get the other writers to contribute to the project?
I was able to write the book in five days because I have an odd capacity to speed up my mind when needed. However, after I finished, my mind fell into a deep dull slumber from which I do not think I’ve recovered. The writers who were willing to contribute to the book did so mostly because they felt, as I did, that a Bush victory would be a very difficult situation to tolerate, and that we’d all need every bit of help we could get.
When we met, you were living with Thurston Clarke in his apartment on the upper West Side of New York City. How did you meet up with Thurston?
When my best friend from high school, Andrea Schweitzer, heard that the Peace Corps had posted me in Niger, she told me about her current boyfriend, Thurston Clarke, who was writing a nonfiction book set there — so she introduced us. (The book was titled The Last Caravan and, I believe, your wife was Thurston’s editor.) Thurston and I became friends overseas and saw each other frequently while I was stationed in Niamey. When I returned to America, still not sure about what I wanted to do with my life, Thurston told me that his last roommate had moved out and invited me to move in. So I did. Thurston also helped me find my first job, as an editorial assistant at Harcourt Brace.
Thurston went to Yale and then into the Peace Corps. What about you?
   I went to Stanford as an English major, then to Harvard for grad school. I got a masters but never finished the Ph.D. That’s when I jointed the Peace Corps. I knew that academia wasn’t the right place for me and I had no other ideas of what to do with my life. I also felt that this might be the only time I could just pick up and do something unusual. I’d like to say that it was also predicated on my desire to help other people, but in reality, at some level, it was probably more about my desire to help myself. I don’t know if I did much to improve Niger, but Niger did me a world of good; I matured more in those two years than in the previous twenty-two.
What led you into writing full time?
Well, I was a book editor at Simon and Schuster, Bantam, and Harcourt Brace, then a magazine editor at Esquire, a newspaper editor for the Los Angeles Times — but after I was fired from my last job, as editor-in-chief of a California magazine, I thought: why do I keep editing when I’d rather be writing? So, thanks to having no debts or responsibilities, I made the switch. It was very difficult at first, because as an editor I had developed the skill of writing/editing in other people’s voices. I had no voice of my own. That’s probably what lead me to ghosting — the lack of a prominent voice doesn’t do much for you when writing your own book, but it’s a great help when writing someone else’s.
Have you ghosted many books?
I’ve ghosted over 20 books, but I can’t talk about some because I signed confidentiality agreements barring me from disclosing the collaboration. Other projects have included books with Steven Hawking, Gail Evans (the former exec VP of CNN and now, of course, best selling writer), the medical directors of Canyon Ranch, and many others.
How do you go about “ghosting” a book with another person?
Each book is different. Some people are controlling and want to be included in every part of the process. Others don’t care as much, and some don’t even read the book once it’s done. Mostly, though, it’s a process of coming up with the right idea, drawing up an outline, writing a proposal, selling it to a publisher, and then doing hours and hours of interviews on tape until we’ve accumulated enough material. Then I usually go off on my own and write the book. When done, I show it to the co-author and we go back and forth and up and down until something approaching a finished manuscript results.
When you ghost a book, are you hired by the publisher or the subject of the book?
Ghosted books usually come through an agent. I have worked with several throughout my career. But sometimes they come through word of mouth, where one author refers another to me, sometimes through friends who’ve met someone who wants to write a book but needs help, and sometimes through publishers who have signed up a personality and need a writer.
What do you find most interesting: the research, writing, or something else?
Each book is different, some aren’t interesting at all, some are amazing. I once did a book with a political figure who told me rather shocking stories about some of the people in the present administration, but then he got cold feet and decided to keep it all out of the book, and I was left with all this great knowledge that I can’t reveal to anyone. But all in all the best part of the ghosting experience is being able to move into another person’s life for a year, learn more than you ever could think possible about another human being with whom you have no other connection, and then have the option of departing gracefully. Most of the people I work with are truly wonderful people, but a few aren’t. Some end up becoming close friends, and some disappear forever.
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