Lifting The Veil: The Secret Lives Of Ghostwriters
In her 20s, Amy Boesky lived a double life.
By day, she was a Harvard graduate studying 17th century British literature at Oxford. By night and on weekends, she was a ghostwriter for the popular teen book series Sweet Valley High.
"It was ... a sort of [an] antidote, a kind of escape hatch from the more rigorous world of scholarship and academia in which I was living," she tells NPR's Lynn Neary.
Over the course of six years, Boesky wrote more than 50 books for the series under the pseudonym Kate William. Boesky, who is now a professor of English at Boston College, revealed her past in a piece for The Kenyon Review.
At the time, only the people closest to Boesky knew about her life as a ghostwriter. Her professors and advisers had no idea.
The blockbuster series centers around the 16-year-old blonde Wakefield twins — Elizabeth, the diligent one, and Jessica, the mischievous one. Each book takes readers on a rollercoaster of teen drama in suburban California, with sensational plot twists involving boyfriend seduction, plane crashes and vacation adventures.
Before she started writing for the series, Boesky had never actually heard of Sweet Valley High.
Boesky met Francine Pascal, the creator of the series, at a friend's dinner party about a year after the books launched. Since Boesky was interested in writing and was trying to get her own children's book published, someone suggested that she should try out to write for the series.
Boesky had to write one chapter and a chapter outline.
"I discovered that the voices of these girls, not only Jessica and Elizabeth, but their friends, resonated with my own," she says. "And I found that enormously fun to write."
Meanwhile, Boesky was writing her dissertation on the utopias of the 17th century. Oddly enough, she found some similarities.
"The world of Sweet Valley was this ... very 1980s, Reagan-era, suburban utopia," says Boesky. "I think maybe it did help, in some ways, for me to theorize what these idealized places are that we're so drawn to. "
Before starting each book, Boesky would receive a plot outline from Pascal that was about eight or nine pages long.
"I would be reading with bated breath to see what was happening with the characters, especially as I got more and more involved in it."
Then, she would devise a subplot.
"With my subplots, it would always involve Jessica, who I loved. Jessica was always trying to get ahead, get in the way of other people."
Her first book was the 16th in the series, Rags to Riches — where the poorest boy in town turns out to be filthy rich and Jessica tries to steal him away from his girlfriend.
Boesky says that fleshing out these plot outlines helped her to hone her writing skills and find her voice. The series that had 15 books when she began, had nearly 100 when she stopped writing.
She finally stopped ghostwriting after she finished her doctorate program and got her first job. When she started teaching at Georgetown University, she thought it would be too weird to continue her crafting the teenage tales.
"I think for me, it really had a lot to do with what I've talked about as moving into writing under my own name, which is such a funny concept."
Boesky, author of the memoir What We Have, teaches early modern literature and creative nonfiction at Boston College. Since writing about her ghostwriting days in The Kenyon Review, Boesky has received a lot of delayed fan mail from readers.
"I've been getting these wonderful letters from readers, who are women now — who are lawyers, who are doctors, who grew up reading these books, sort of, under the covers with their flashlights. And their parents wanted them to be reading Jane Eyre or something more serious.
"I think many of us have a kind of guilty pleasure about some of this lighter cultural material, and I think there's room for both."
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
And now, we turn to ghostwriting. While in her 20s, Boston College English professor Amy Boesky lived a double life. She was working at a publishing company, wondering what she wanted to do with the rest of her life when she get a chance to write for the popular teen series "Sweet Valley High." At first, Boesky thought she'd write for just pay for just a short time. But over the next six years, she was a struggling graduate student by day and a ghostwriter by night. Her professors knew her as Amy Boesky, but her readers knew her by her pseudonym, Kate William. We'll talk to Amy in just a minute.
But first, if you have worked as a ghostwriter, we want to hear from you. What don't we understand about your job? What do you love about it? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now is Amy Boesky. She's an English professor at Boston College. She's also a former "Sweet Valley High" ghostwriter. And she joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Amy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
AMY BOESKY: Thanks so much, Lynn. Thanks for having me.
NEARY: So this all began one night at a dinner party, as I understand it. Tell us about that.
BOESKY: That's right. I had come to dinner with a friend of my father's who was a children's book author. She knew I was trying to publish a children's book myself. And a friend-of-a-friend was there that evening, Francine Pascal, who had created, the previous year, what was turning out to be a blockbuster, best-selling serial set of stories about the Wakefield twins, Elizabeth and Jessica, who were similar - identical in appearance, but were very different in personality. And somebody suggested that maybe I try out to write for the series. I did. I enjoyed it enormously, and I found myself getting hooked.
NEARY: And thereby hangs a tale. Had you ever heard of the "Sweet Valley High" series before that?
BOESKY: No, I hadn't. I had just finished doing an M.Phil. in 17th century British literature at Oxford. I was working as an editorial assistant and - though I grew up on the Nancy Drew mysteries, so, I, you know, I'd certainly known about such ghostwritten fiction myself as a reader, I didn't know these books until - and in some sense, as I think in the past, as I'm writing them, I was reading them with great pleasure.
NEARY: Now, you were studying John Donne, am I right? Is that right?
BOESKY: I was studying, essentially, all the literature of the 17th century that was - British 17th century that was not the drama - so, yes, John Milton, et cetera.
NEARY: So you were going from very high brow to...
NEARY: ...kind of low-brow, we might say. Now, did you have to - you said you had - did you have to kind of try out for the job? How did you go by getting the job in the first place?
BOESKY: I did. There was a tryout. You wrote a chapter and a - you wrote one chapter, and you wrote a chapter outline. And I discovered that the voices of these girls, not only Jessica and Elizabeth, but their friends, resonated with my own, I suppose, nostalgia, at that point, as a 23-year-old, for my own high school experience. And I found that enormously fun to write.
NEARY: Now, I know there's probably a lot of "Sweet Valley High" fans out there. We might hear from some. But there may be some people who really know nothing about the book. So just kind of quickly give us a little sense of what these books were about.
Sure, sure, sure. So this is in the early '80s, and I think, in some ways, a kind of response to the realistic fiction that had come from Judy Blume - who I adored, by the way. But these books were one of first blockbuster series, and they - every book started with - the Wakefield twins were 16. They lived in a very idealized, mythical California setting. They went to a public high school. They had a bunch of friends.
BOESKY: And there were always these sensational plots. I mean, they involved hysterical paralysis or plane crashes, or someone trying to steal someone else's boyfriend. There was always something, you know, extreme that was going on, and - as well as a range of ordinary things like the school paper and math class. And...
NEARY: So did you get to come up with the plot, the dramatic plot? Was that what you got to do? I mean, I'm certain you had to follow a certain template for part of it.
BOESKY: We had. We - so ghostwriters - and I was - for the five or six years that I wrote for the series, it was mostly myself, and I was alternating with another ghostwriter. We would receive plot outlines that looked a little bit like free-verse poems. They were eight or nine pages long. And then I would devise a subplot. And I often tried to think about balancing the main plot - so something that was lighter if the main plot was melodramatic, et cetera.
NEARY: So, like, can you give an example of what this would look like when you would get this little plot outline that would say, what - it would - I don't know...
BOESKY: Well, imagine that you're taking this out of a manila envelope - because this is all pre-Internet, right. And it's eight or nine pages that really look like almost free-verse poetry. And I would be reading with bated breath to see what was happening with the characters, especially as I got more and more involved in it. So, you know, Lila Fowler's - Lila Fowler, who's the very, very wealthy girl who was kind of always up to difficult machinations...
NEARY: Causing problems.
BOESKY: ...her father - causing problems, of course. Her father - you know, somebody has moved to town and is dating her father, and Lila's going to - there's going to be a triangle that she - Lila doesn't get along with her, and she's going to try to oust her. And - but the - but it would be much more intricate than that. So Francine was writing these plots, and she was wonderful at writing these plot outlines. They may have looked easy as you were reading them, but when I tried to do my own plotting, I realized how - actually, how tricky and intricate it was.
NEARY: Do you have a favorite subplot that you created?
BOESKY: With my subplots, it would always involve Jessica, who I loved. So Jessica was always trying to get ahead, get in the way of other people, get these bizarre jobs. In one that I remember being really fond of, she got a job as an elf at the mall, but she ended up being really upset because she had to wear a plastic trash bag, and she didn't look beautiful the way she wanted to. So I really tried to inject humor, if I could.
And - but they, you know, they involved all sorts of things. There was a mini-class where Jessica ended up - she didn't want to, but she had to take - she had to sort of be with all the engineering geeks, and she ended up making a lie detector device.
NEARY: All right. Well, let's - we're talking about ghostwriting, and we're talking about ghostwriting with Amy Boesky, who is an English professor at Boston College. But in her previous life, she was a ghostwriter for the "Sweet Valley High" series. And we're going to take a call from Kim in Utah. Hi, Kim.
NEARY: Are you a ghostwriter?
KIM: I am, actually. I'm writing for a new series that's being produced by a local publisher. And I'm actually writing books seven, eight and nine in the series, and the first six books have not yet been produced.
NEARY: So tell us, what do you like about the job? What - do you think that people don't understand ghostwriting? Or...
KIM: I think what I like about it is that it - I have actually seven books under my own name published. And what I like about this is that it sharpens my skills. It, you know, in most cases in ghostwriting, you're working on a contract and you're being paid by the page, or by, you know, a certain number that you produce. And so in order to really capitalize on that, you have to learn to be fast and efficient. But you still have to write really well. So this is really sharpening my writing skills in a way I hadn't anticipated.
NEARY: Do you still get to do some of your own writing, as well?
KIM: I do, yes. I - in fact, I'm in the middle of revising a novel that will come out in October. My publisher just sent me all of the line edits. So, yeah, I still do that, as well.
NEARY: So you get to earn a living by writing, and you still get to do the kind of writing you like. Sounds like a good deal.
KIM: It is. For me, it is.
NEARY: Well, great. Thanks for calling, Kim.
NEARY: Did you find that, Amy, that - did you find that having to write - ghostwrite according to a sort of template sometimes did help your skills, in a way?
BOESKY: Well, it's interesting. I think, you know, ghostwriting is much more widespread than some people realize. And, you know, there's the famous example, the Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, et cetera. You know, there's the Kate Fansler mysteries that were written by an English professor, Carolyn Heilbrun at Columbia. So it's, you know, it's kind of a widespread phenomenon. I think people do it for lots of different reasons. For me, it was a discreet period in my 20s.
It was this five or six-year period, and I think that it was a kind of mixture of an apprenticeship, absolutely, as the caller was just saying. I think that's absolutely right. There can be a way of sharpening and honing your skills as you're trying to kind of find your voice. People ghostwrite for money - that can be very helpful - and for gratification and pleasure. And I think for the period in which I was writing these books, it was all of those, absolutely.
NEARY: Now, did you tell people what you were doing? Did people know you were ghostwriting?
BOESKY: Some people did. The people closest to me did. My dissertation advisers - I don't know if they're out there listening - they did not know.
NEARY: You kept it a secret from them.
BOESKY: I did.
NEARY: So you were writing your dissertation at the same time that you were writing "Sweet Valley High" books?
BOESKY: I was. And actually, it was on utopias of the 17th century. And, you know, I was thinking about that, and in some ways, there's no question that the world of Sweet Valley was this - I mean, it was a very 1980s, Reagan-era, suburban utopia. But it was a utopia of sorts. And maybe in some ways, it also helped me.
It was a kind of - I talk about it in the essay that I just wrote about this recently as being a sort of antidote, a kind of escape hatch from the more, kind of, rigorous world of scholarship and academia in which I was living. But I think maybe it did help, in some ways, for me to theorize what these idealized places are that we're so drawn to.
NEARY: Maybe you have a "Sweet Valley High" dissertation in there, in due time.
NEARY: "Sweet Valley High" is the ultimate utopia.
BOESKY: I think I wrote the books, instead of writing that. I think I - you know, that was my way of kind of getting there.
NEARY: Did you think that it would work against you in some way if your dissertation committee had found out? I mean, were you really worried about that, that were in the academic life, that they would - I don't know - that it would affect you negatively somehow if they knew?
BOESKY: You know what? I - it's very interesting. I wrote - in the essay I just wrote about this, I talk about the fact that my - one of my advisers was talking about ghostwriting and Shakespeare. And, at the time, I was reading theory, Foucault and Bakhtin, and kind of trying to understand what we mean by the author function. And so, you know, at a theoretical level, I think that all of this was very interesting, and I don't think they'd mind at all now. But when you're sort of in the trenches working on scholarship, I don't know how they would felt about it then.
But, you know, I think there was a guilty pleasure for me, and you talked about the kind of high-low culture aspect, and I was very, very aware of that - I mean, these books with their pastel covers and their - they were so resolutely light.
And I think that for many of us - I've been getting these wonderful letters from readers, who are women now, who are lawyers, who are doctors, who grew up reading these books, sort of, under the covers with their flashlights, and their parents wanted them to be reading "Jane Eyre" or something more serious. And I think many of us have a kind of guilty pleasure about some of this lighter cultural material. And I think, you know, there's room to be...
NEARY: For both.
BOESKY: For both. Exactly, exactly.
NEARY: Amy Boesky is an English professor at Boston College and a former ghostwriter for "Sweet Valley High," a series of novels aimed at teenage girls. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
All right. We're going to go to Jen, and she's calling from Cincinnati, Ohio. Hi, Jen.
JEN: Hi. I just wanted to thank you for the books. They were absolutely - utopia is a great word for it. But I think, like, being a child of the '80s, and they were an escape from, you know, the traumatic lives that our parents were having to deal with. And it was this perfect little world, and they became your friends. And I just tried to give my daughter my entire shelf of the beautiful, pastel books. And she looked at me, like, mom, I really don't want to read these.
JEN: And it kind of broke my heart, because I had boxed them up, and I was like, well, how long do I hang on - I've been toting them around to every apartment we've lived in, and it's like, OK. It's time to give these to Half Price Books and let somebody else delve into them. And right now, it's about - I have a little over 200. And I have the "Sweet Valley Twins" series, as well. So, I loved them. Thank you so much. It's part of my growing up.
BOESKY: Thank you.
NEARY: Thanks so much for calling, Jen. Let's go to Dave. He's calling from Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi, Dave.
NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.
DAVE: Well, I published my first book back in 2008, and have found myself helping people write their own stories, kind of, just by virtue of when I was pushing my book. And, you know, you see a lot (unintelligible) between the fiction and the non-fiction, but - you know, and what people remember and what reality really might have been. But what's most interesting is we've seen the evolution and just the process for people to remember their stories and write them down and then have them - even to self-published, if they want to, or to share mostly with their family as they get older and no longer have that rich heritage access as people pass away.
NEARY: So, Dave, are you functioning kind of as an editor, or are you actually ghostwriting for people?
DAVE: Well, what I found is a lot of people have great stories, but really aren't good writers. And I think we all have discovered that people will think they have great stories to tell who try to write are miserable at it. I don't want to sound elitist, because - then I set great expectations from my own work. But very realistically, people are terrible and awful writers, unless they've, you know, have been trained at it, or they really go out and take classes and train, be good at it.
So I find myself actually writing and using other tools where we incorporate, you know, them speaking different parts of it. And, you know, with technology today, we can make almost a movie on our PCs and use them telling their stories, as well the written items that can go along with it, that make it a multimedia - if you want to call it that - experience.
NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for your call, Dave.
DAVE: Thank you.
NEARY: Amy, it sounds to me like ghostwriting was a pretty good experience for you. What made you give it up, eventually?
BOESKY: You know, that's why I wrote this essay, because it's interesting. There's the writing of these books, which happened a long way back for me. And then I recently wrote this essay called "The Ghost Writes Back." And it was about that question, which was: Why were they so compelling, and why finally did I stop? You know, for me, there was a really kind of fairly neat trajectory that the span of time in which I was pursuing my doctorate, that was the time in which I was writing these books.
And I think there were a lot of ways - a lot of things ended. The '80s were ending. My doctorate program was ending. I took my first job. I was moving down to Georgetown to teach. And you know what? It's - I suppose like this happens with many people when they're - there's a sort of voice inside you that says, you know, it's time. This has been a good experience, but it's enough now.
And I think for me, it really had a lot to do with what I've talked about as moving into writing under my own name, which is such a funny concept, in a way, but it became - and I suppose it's sort of part of - for me, anyway - it was working through my 20s and sort of figuring out the kind of writing that I wanted to do. But it just became increasingly clear that, for me, that was the sort of - the path I needed to take.
NEARY: You were moving on. And we should mention that Amy - and Amy mentioned, she wrote about her experience for the Kenyon Review. And you can find a link to that piece on our website. Amy, thanks so much for being with us.
BOESKY: Thank you so much for having me.
NEARY: Amy Boesky is an English professor at Boston College and a former ghostwriter for the "Sweet Valley High" series. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with former Vice President Al Gore. And we'll be back here on Monday. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.