I thought of Cass, and the fact that human beings required food and shelter. The money from this book would give us one very good year—even more if I was careful. If nothing else, I reasoned, Nick spoke as if I were already his friend, and his openness would only make writing the book easier.
No one could claim that Nick Felles suffered from a dearth of audacity or good luck. He had gotten into TV soon after his video game franchise, Honor Code, had exploded onto the marketplace, outselling even some Grand Theft Auto games. With the hope that I might see a different or at least more nuanced side of my new client, I tried playing Honor Code on a friend's son's PlayStation, but I couldn't even pass level one. Within seconds, a woman soldier in a black bikini appeared, the words sexy cherry572 floating above her head, and ripped off both my arms and exploded my head like a ripe melon against my opponent's fortress wall. She then stomped all over my brain matter.
"Your parents let you play this game?" I asked Connor, who was eleven. "How are you able to win?"
"Maybe you just need to practice more or be, like, younger," he said.
By the time Nick was twenty-seven, he had won three Video Game Awards, three Emmys, two Hugos, and had bought himself a modern five-bedroom in Malibu with an infinity pool and views that stretched from the Santa Barbara Islands to Point Dume. How many other people, he said, could claim to have done any of these things before the age of thirty?
He sent the thinnest of drafts for me to fill out, and on the page, he came across as even more shameless than he had over the phone. I got to work and tried to make him more likeable wherever I could. I gave him a larger appreciation of his vast fortune. I played up his relationship with his mother and dialed down his many public escapades with a South American model. I opted not to include the monologue that he had delivered to me about the ideal nipple size.
Over the following weeks, I was relieved to learn that Nick had another side, a surprisingly kindhearted one. He donated big money to the NAACP and Boys Town, as well as Planned Parenthood. He was curious about me and how I had gotten into ghostwriting, and about Cass, too. We had a long conversation about the need for more diverse characters in certain children's programming. Most of my previous clients treated me more like a therapist, a husk of a person whom they could trust to be gentle with their truths. Very few asked anything about my son or my life.
After I sent him a few chapters to make sure that I was on the right track, he texted: Dude, u made me sound like a twinkle bitch.
Can I ask what you mean by 'twinkle bitch?' I replied.
He wrote, A douche-nozzle. An ass-hat. Just keeping it real Allie cuz we are friends, right? The part about my fans was good. But u probably wouldn't use the words "twinkle bitch" just like I would never say "My life has been a series of precious gifts" or "As I look out over the ocean sunset, a glass of wine in my hand..." I told u I'm a whiskey guy. Can u add a huge amount of sack?
Any response that is less than stellar about your writing can, in the moment, be diminishing. Once the sting of his blunt criticism passed, I tried to think of how to reply. I had already written for a man whose oil company was later sued for actively covering up climate-change science. Was Nick any worse for this planet than Bob Smelnick? Finally, I texted, Tons of sack coming right up!
I could not have had less in common with Nick: I was a newly solvent forty-three-year-old who preferred British TV mysteries to Skinwalker Ranch, weed to whiskey, Bob Dylan to Kanye, books to video games, privacy to ostentation. But ghostwriting is a form of acting, method acting really, as well as improvisation. You must become your subject, whether they are a Kennedy, a congresswoman, or a guy who espouses anarcho-primitivism and might frequent urbandictionary.com.
I had to start thinking more like a man. No one was asking for grace or modesty here. I had a son to support, as well myself. And I had never worked with Nick's editor, and for all I knew, he was cut from the same cloth as Nick.
I downed a mug of black coffee and returned to the so-called drawing board.
I am living the life I have always wanted. I've been called a "wunderkind" and a "ratings machine." My shows can be seen in Japan, Australia, on airplanes, and at American military bases in Iraq. I've got a candy red Ferrari Enzo, a first edition of Dracula, and Axel, my reticulated python, has his own climate-controlled bedroom with a killer view of the Pacific. But I never take my success for granted. I still sign every autograph and talk to every fan. You have to keep it real.
Sustaining this amount of sack for a whole a book would be challenging. Maybe, I thought, I should go back to Nick and suggest that just a hint of douche-nozzle might not be the worst thing for his memoir. Of course sack was who he was, and who he was, for better or worse, was a major success.
I thought ruefully of other clients who had shackled me with their fears of exposing the slightest unflattering truths. Most panicked about coming across as too cocky, too lucky, slutty, overly opinionated. Invisible electric fences were everywhere. The congresswoman's memoir had to have been my most frustrating book. I'd had to downplay her wealth, avoid any mention of her sister who had killed someone in a drunk driving accident, avoid her first two marriages, cut a long section recapping her critical thoughts of a sex-trafficking prevention bill. I might as well have been writing marketing copy for the state of Connecticut itself.
I have to admit that, with time and practice, sack came to feel liberating. Very little of Nick's life was off-limits to me; the work almost seemed more like transcription than anything else. He was enthusiastic and forthcoming and consistent, and soon enough I could even predict some of his answers to my questions. He liked to philosophize with me about human nature. He tended to overuse the words primitive and transformative. We had long phone conversations about Abraham Lincoln, the creative process, family relationships, skin care, and the versatility of avocados.