A short story that bemoans the thankless job of a ghostwriter…

by: Alan Swyer

On a Wednesday morning, just as on the previous two days, Bert Berger had trouble dragging himself out of bed. Generally, during the rare times he was feeling blue, Bert was able to console himself by recollecting that he was one of the most read writers in America, if not the entire world. But when really in a funk, that ploy was undermined by the realization that the statement, though true, came with an asterisk. While his work had indeed appeared on many best-seller lists — he stopped counting at ten — his name remained unfamiliar to all but a handful of people in the publishing world. That was because he was a “With,” an “As Told To,” or sometimes just a random name on a long list of acknowledgments.

He was, depending upon the circumstances, an amanuensis, a ventriloquist, or a ghostwriter. That meant he was tasked with honing in on the key moments, both known and not-so-known, in the life of a public figure, so as to create a compelling narrative. Then, trickiest of all, it was on him to find an appropriate voice — sometimes official, other times colloquial — that enabled readers to feel they were getting an insider’s look at someone they’d love to get to know on a personal level.

This was not a life Bert aspired to. Nor was it a craft he sought or chose. He never woke up and announced that instead of wanting to be Michael Jordan, Ray Charles, or Buzz Aldrin, his goal was to spend countless hours with a celebrity asking questions, taking notes, and, on far too many occasions, trying to keep from falling asleep.

Realizing while still in high school that he wasn’t skilled enough to be a professional ballplayer or musician, Bert decided instead to follow in the footsteps of his literary heroes: Hemingway, Kerouac, Thomas Pynchon. The obstacle, talent aside, was something called reality. With no trust fund, no connections, and no name recognition, he needed to find a way to earn a living while attempting to write the Great American Novel. What followed was McJob after McJob. He waited on tables, did a brief stint as a film critic for a free weekly, then was commissioned by a fly-by-night press to write a paperback called The Wonders Of Yogurt. That led to a largely bogus European travel guide, for which he contributed the section on Amsterdam despite never having spent a day there. Then came a break. Because of a piece about a Harlem playground legend that Bert wrote for a sports website, he was recruited to pen three different profiles for a non-paying Blues magazine — first of Ray Charles, then Solomon Burke, and finally Little Richard.  Because of those, he was chosen by a magazine, one that actually paid , to approach a notoriously ornery Irish rocker who was known to worship the founders of Rock & Roll. With the singer quizzing him about Ray, Solomon, and Richard while Bert was eliciting quotes, he had surprising success with both the interview and the article that resulted. That gave him new-found credibility in the eyes of certain editors and publishers.

It also yielded a realization that proved to be the key to every interview he subsequently conducted. It wasn’t enough for Bert to arrive knowing as much as he could about the person he was meeting. He also had to be armed with bits and pieces of information that would tickle the interviewee’s fancy. Once there was a sense that their time together would be fun rather than dutiful, it was clear sailing.

But those modest tastes of success were at odds with what mattered most to him: writing fiction. As Bert Berger, gun for hire in the world of profiles and interviews, he was becoming a commodity. As Bert Berger, literary voice, he was consigned to obscure literary magazines. Occasionally a short story managed to find a home, yielding, if lucky, a handful of readers. That wasn’t so, however, with either of the novels he labored on night after night, and weekend after weekend, while normal people were going to dinner, seeing a movie, or even dating.

A quantitative leap, at least from a remunerative point of view, came when a notoriously private actor he’d profiled, who uncharacteristically opened up when Bert let it be known that they were born in the same hospital and grew up in the same neighborhood in Newark, was approached about writing — or at least collaborating on — an autobiography.

“Only if you bring back my homie!” the actor told the editor. 

That Bert was able to get someone famous for being monosyllabic to wax nostalgic about feasts with James Gandolfini at Forno’s in the Portuguese Section, late night runs for his favorite pizza at Francesca’s in the Ironbound, plus hi-jinks at Branch Brook Park and concerts at Symphony Hall, which he, like many Newarkers, still referred to as the Mosque Theater, impressed people in the book world and beyond. For Bert, more and more doors suddenly opened.

Bert’s follow-up assignment involved a future Hall of Famer on the Yankees. After that, he was matched with the controversial head of a labor union.

Then came a monumentally awkward and trying experience. Approached about collaborating with a Civil Rights activist, Bert expressed his excitement even though he was warned that there were two caveats. First, it would mean delivering a manuscript in record time, so that the book release could be synchronized with a multinational conference taking place in the Hague. Further, the fee, if he were to get the assignment, would be significantly less than his usual rate. Because Bert was an admirer, he agreed, only to find himself having to wait. And wait. And wait some more.

The hitch, he learned, owed to fear. One of the editors, a patrician with an affected way of speaking, was terrified of the potential hue and cry if it became known that the activist’s collaborator wasn’t Black. The impasse continued until the activist requested a face-to-face in which he asked how Bert came to write so knowledgeably about a Harlem playground legend. “I used to lie to my parents about going to the movies,” Bert explained. “Then take a bus to Port Authority and hop a subway to the Rucker.” “Did you see Earl Manigault?” the activist wondered. “Or Herman the Helicopter? “Or Jackie Jackson?” When Bert nodded, the activist beamed. “I want to hear all about it,” he announced, making it clear the assignment was Bert’s.

In addition to being gratifying, the book that resulted proved to be an anomaly in yet another way as well. On other projects, even if the weeks or months spent listening, delving, and writing proved to be enjoyable, which wasn’t always the case, both Bert and the person he’d been interrogating, prodding, and coaxing — first in the gathering of information, next in the winnowing from the overlong rough draft, then finally during the extended editing process — had seen enough of each other to last a lifetime. That meant they rarely stayed in touch. But the opposite was true with the activist, with whom Bert was still in contact via email, text, and Whatsapp. Plus every so often they got together for coffee or beer during which, after solving all the world’s problems, they lamented about the NBA becoming nearly unwatchable with the exception of Steph Curry.

Just as no two people are alike, nor were any of Bert’s professional experiences. Some subjects tended to sit stone-faced. Others rattled on endlessly, often about experiences that were extraneous to the main narrative, or repetitive and dull. Some proved to be overly self-effacing, while others bragged mercilessly. Worse, the boasting often included embellishments, exaggerations, or attempts to steal credit for things done by others. On more than one occasion, tales even strayed into the realm of sexual conquests, including some for which the statute of limitations likely hadn’t expired.

Often it was incumbent upon Bert to redirect the flow of a monologue or rant, or simply to interrupt. Other times he had to pry relentlessly, or force a refocusing on an incident that, consciously or otherwise, his “victim” wanted to avoid. Then there were instances where he had to dredge up an anecdote, or crack a joke, in order to change the flow or distract.

With some of his subjects, a tape recorder was an immediate inhibitor, nonstarter, or complete no-no. Others found its presence comforting, likely believing, among other things, that it would keep Bert from putting words in their mouth, or fabricating.

The only certainty in Bert’s line of work was that every new memoir-to-be was an adventure.

Usually that was a positive. Each new voyage took Bert into uncharted terrain, which meant that neither his work, nor his life, could ever be on automatic pilot, and nothing could be done by rote. Every new day was a potential journey into the unexpected.

Still there was no guarantee. Some commissions were less exciting than others. Some days, weeks, or months wound up being less exhilarating, fulfilling, or enjoyable.

Yet never, except for a rotten case of the flu, had Bert ever before found himself wanting to stay hidden under the covers on a given day, let alone three days in a row.

That turn of events began when Bert agreed to join forces with a politician whose stellar reputation he, like so many others, had never questioned.

The public version of Senator Bob Brennan — gleaned from television, newspapers, and social media –—was positivity personified. Upbeat, forward-thinking, and seemingly tireless in pursuit of a better, fairer, more just and equitable world, Brennan presented himself as a beacon of hope.

Bert’s initial meeting with the Senator — arranged for the two of them to determine if the chemistry between us was right — proved promising. Unlike many public figures he’d dealt with, Brennan didn’t peer over Bert’s shoulder to see if anyone potentially more important might be around. Nor did he immediately judge the clothes Bert was wearing, or sneak peeks at his watch. Studying Bert with his steel blue eyes, Brennan’s attention conveyed openness, sincerity, and warmth.

“Because of my job,” the Senator explained, “my time isn’t entirely my own. Okay if our get-togethers are pretty much catch-as-catch-can?”

That was not a problem, Bert replied, choosing not to add that down time would be devoted to his ongoing fiction habit.

“If we proceed,” Brennan then began, “what’s the single most important thing you’d need from me?”


The Senator smiled. “Since that’s the key to my reputation, what else?”


Brennan gave me his familiar, telegenic smile. “Proof you’ll get,” he promised.

Though offered the opportunity to become a part Brennan’s world — getting a room in D.C. for “when available” moments, plus accompanying him on his travels — Bert had no desire to be a supplicant, or one more person at Brennan’s beck and call.

Instead Bert put the onus on the Senator, demanding extended periods each and every weekend he came home, supplemented by Zoom calls during time spent in D.C. or elsewhere.

“You’re putting pressure on me,” Brennan playfully grumbled on a Sunday in October when he made it clear he would prefer to be watching football on TV.

“You can always write the book yourself,” Bert replied.

“Guaranteeing it’ll never help me become President,” the Senator acknowledged with a shrug.

Bert had been around enough public figures to expect a certain number of overstatements and romanticizings, most of which would be easily excised from the final version of the book. So he wasn’t surprised when Bob Brennan described himself as a street kid, even though Bert knew he grew up in an affluent New Jersey suburb. Nor was Bert dismayed when he claimed to have attended Princeton on a full baseball scholarship, though the Ivy League doesn’t allow athletic scholarships, and baseball, unlike football and basketball, is not a revenue producing collegiate sport.

But Bert didn’t question Brennan or balk, figuring the boasts would be eliminated during the editing process.

Left unchecked, the Senator’s questionable assertions quickly increased in both frequency and credibility. One Saturday morning he asserted that because he played two years of minor league ball before tearing up his shoulder, he was the very first professional baseball player to serve in Congress. “You’re forgetting Jim Bunning,” Bert interjected, referencing a Hall of Fame pitcher who served five terms in the House Of Representatives, followed by two in the Senate. “Just testing you,” countered Brennan with a wink.

Two weeks later, Brennan took credit, while in the House, for introducing the Equity and Excellence in American Education Act of 2015. “That was you?” Bert asked. “Absolutely,” Brennan insisted, though upon checking Bert found it was introduced by a Representative from California named Michael Honda.

Sometimes in Bert’s work there was uncertainty as to whether someone was willfully trying to mislead, or simply having a lapse. Two-and-a-half years before, while doing a profile on a rapper, it was stated not once, not twice, but on three separate occasions that Berry Gordy was the first Black record label owner. Bert let it go the first time, then the second as well. Though he risked having the project blow up, when the assertion was made the third time, Bert spoke up. “Not so,” he stated, drawing a reproachful look. 

“What the fuck’s that mean?” the rapper spat out.

“In the 1920’s there was Black Swan, Sunshine Records, and a company called Black Patti,” he explained. 

“I mean real labels. That mattered.”

“Don Robey started Peacock in 1949, which became Duke-Peacock and had Big Mama Thornton, Gatemouth Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and for a while Little Richard.”

“How do you know that?” the rapper asked.

“Aren’t I supposed to?” Bert insisted. “Plus I haven’t even mentioned Vee-Jay in Chicago, with Jimmy Reed, Jerry Butler, the Staple Singers, plus at one point the Beatles.”

Though the rapper didn’t take umbrage, that was not the case with Bob Brennan. The more Bert spoke up when something didn’t seem right, the more indignant the Senator grew.

“Goddammit!” he bellowed when, after touting a bill he claimed to have introduced about affirmative action, Bert questioned whether the the actual sponsor wasn’t Cory Booker. “Who’s in charge here?”

“It’s not a matter of being in charge,” Bert countered.

“Then what is it a matter of?”

“Getting things right.”

That ended the conversation for the day.

Because Bert tried to keep professional relationships from becoming personal, he didn’t want Brennan to think he had become an adversary. Nor did he want him to fear that any day — or worse, every day — could result in a pissing contest.

Yet even when there weren’t lies by commission, there were more and more untruths by omission.

Every so often, Brennan would point out, or reflect upon, the myriad ways his life had changed from the day of his wedding onward. Bert kept allowing that to go by without comment until one Saturday morning in December. After a largely sleepless night, followed by a drive through a snowstorm to get to the Senator’s house, he couldn’t stay silent anymore. When, once too often for his taste, Brennan referred to how his life changed after getting married, Bert finally spoke.

“Don’t you mean married again?” he said.

“Whoa!” snarled Brennan. “Whose side are you on?”

“It’s not about sides,” Bert said in the hope of lowering the heat. “Public figures don’t get to choose their own version of the truth.”

“Still —”

“Still, nothing. You’re hoping one day to be President, right?”

Brennan took a deep breath. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Let me hit you with some names. John Edwards. Gary Hart. And worst of all, Thomas Eagleton. You’ll be under not just a magnifying glass, but an electron microscope. Think you can play Houdini and make your first wife, who helped put you through law school, disappear? Better for you to have it out there on your terms, rather than have someone throw it in your face.”

Though Brennan was temporarily placated, there was no hiding the fact that ill will was rapidly morphing into full-fledged animosity.

For Bert, what mattered was a book that accomplished what he was asked to do. For Brennan, what seemed to matter was for everything to be his way, his version, his truth.

In the days that followed, Bert found himself suspicious of everything Brennan said. That led to a search for anything that seemed even the slightest bit questionable. When Brennan mentioned Blacks or Latinos, Bert found himself wondering if there was, perhaps, even a hint of racism. When reference was made to the gay community, was there the slightest trace of homophobia? If someone Jewish was invoked, was there even a hint of implicit antisemitism?

The problem, Bert came to understand, owed not to the Senator, but mainly to himself. He didn’t like Brennan, and he didn’t like working with him. More significantly, he resented being a combination lackey and glorifier. In his eyes he’d become a sex worker, selling not his body, but his soul and whatever modicum of talent he possessed.

Little wonder that one, two, three days in a row he had trouble dragging his unhappy self out from under the covers.

So what was the answer? Though part of him wanted to walk away and never set eyes on Brennan again, he knew he could never accept thinking of himself as a quitter.

It was funny that he, who long considered himself as a cynic, was blaming a politician for not being the second coming of Mahatma Gandhi.

Despite his personal shortcomings, Brennan’s stance was largely identical to Bert’s own on issues like race, environmentalism, housing, and immigration. If, Bert recognized, he helped him run for the presidency, his opponent would almost certainly be someone whose values he loathed, detested, abhorred.

The next step, it suddenly seemed clear, was to finish the assignment to the best of his ability. Then, before he completely lost both his sense of self and whatever remaining talent he possessed, Bert needed to focus all of his attention, all of his energy, and all his remaining will power on his own dream before it faded out of sight.

Instead of being an amanuensis, a scribe, or a ghostwriter, he would finally have to be himself, and write like himself.

Instead of one more coming-of-age story, like his first unpublished novel, or one more tale of unrequited love, like his second, Bert’s next effort would have to be informed by the events that led to this existential moment in his life.

Bert’s new novel, which he was tentatively titling Ghosting, would be based on his ups-and-downs, his feelings of elation and frustration, and the combination of financial reward and emptiness he’d experienced as a shape-shifting pen-for-hire.

If it failed — if he failed — instead of having to live in on the street, he could hopefully return to earning a living being a “With,” an “As Told To,” or maybe a random name on the list of acknowledgments for memoirs by rockers, skateboarders, or who-knows-what.

But at least he’d know that he tried.


Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera, plus a new one called “When Houston Had The Blues.” In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.

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