Inevitably, I suppose, it began with Shakespeare. Even the lamest secondary-school curriculum — and these days, rather a lot of them are unable to maintain any sort of footing — must at least mention the Bard of Avon, if only to denounce him as an irrelevant Dead White Guy. (Correlation between this specific attitude and the lameness of the curriculum: above 0.95.)

I consider myself fortunate, I suppose, to have studied Shakespeare in slighly more depth. This point, or something approximating it, I remember from my own studies:

Shakespeare's plays are filled with "ghost writers" — "legible erasures" that forecast debates about their authorship. How much of these plays did Shakespeare write himself? What was co-written, or added by an actor or a compositor or a later editor? Anxieties about this, my professor argued, are linked to the ghosts and ghostwriters that haunt the tragedies. Figures connected in turn to other in-between states, like madness, uncertainty, and illegibility. "Present absences," these ghostly traces belong, as she saw it, to the world of the uncanny, making audiences question the very concept of the "real."

Inevitably, one wonders about those additional hands behind the scenes, and whether the wielders of same were anything like this:

Ghostwriting wasn't a "present absence" for me, it was a job — one that was helping pay my way through grad school, one that I was trying to keep hidden (isn't that part of the nature of ghostliness, to be barely visible?). It was a job that led to constant second-guessing (should I really keep doing this? What kind of impact was this having on my scholarship? On my "real" writing?). Ghostwriting felt like the flip side of my life as a full-time graduate student. But much as I worried about it, it was also a job I loved.

It began, as you might expect, purely accidentally:

One night, a friend of my father's — an established children's book author — invited me over for dinner, and Francine Pascal had been invited as well — she was a friend of a friend, I think. There were eight, maybe nine people at dinner. Everyone was older than I was, and settled. Successful. When people asked what I did, I talked about the publishing house. About applying to PhD programs. I must've also mentioned I was trying to write a children's book and I think that was when one of the guests told me Francine had created a romance series for teenagers. It was a runaway bestseller, and they were looking for new writers. Francine confirmed this was all true. When she said goodnight to me at the end of the evening, she suggested I try writing for the series.

And that's how Amy Boesky, now professor of English at Boston College, wound up writing Sweet Valley High books. The contrast between her "real" work and the work that actually paid the bills was marked indeed:

It took me five years to produce a 300-plus-page dissertation on early modern utopias and another five to turn it into a monograph that would eventually sell 487 copies. And yet, in a matter of a weekend morning, I could produce a chapter — a chapter! — of sparkling, exclamation-studded prose about those Wakefield girls. The Elizabeth Wakefield in me loved the discipline, the reminder that while my twenties rolled on and I trudged back and forth from Eliot House to the library, lugging books in my arms like a woodcutter, I was producing pages — daily, weekly — that were being turned into actual books (OK, books with pastel covers, books without my name on them anywhere, but still!) — books that were selling, that were being translated (Hebrew, Danish, Dutch), that generated fan mail (OK, addressed to Francine and not to me). Books girls loved. The books I wrote as Kate William, the "author" name that came built in to the series, had readers.

Having readers is something I've never quite gotten used to. In the early days of this site, evidence of actual visitors was downright astonishing; despite my presumed familiarity with the concept by now, more than a decade and a half later, I seem to be developing a small fiction following, in a universe at least as unreal as Sweet Valley High. And while I sometimes think I should be slightly embarrassed by this fact, I must admit to being delighted. One individual signed onto FIMFiction this weekend for the first time, and his profile lists three favorite stories — all of them mine. I am forced to conclude that his venture into this universe was motivated by, well, me. In terms of sheer squee potential, this surpasses about 80 percent of everything I've ever done: should an actual fan approach me at an upcoming pony convention, the bar will be raised almost out of sight.

So while I shouldn't, I suppose, relate to Professor Boesky's adventures in YA series fiction — I mean, no one's asking me to slap a pseudonym on an actual book or anything — I find it heartening that it's somehow possible to maintain one's focus on the job at hand and still do fun stuff on the side. And yes, it is fun, despite the daunting amount of work that has to go into it: there are few pleasures to compare with seeing your own work from a distance and thinking, "Hmmm. Not bad. Not bad at all." Not that I'm ready to claim that it's good. Yet.

The Vent

  10 March 2013

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