Like most writers, I’m surrounded by characters. But unlike most writers, my characters are real. My characters have won Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Tonys. They’ve won Super Bowls, World Series, and Olympic gold medals—a Presidential primary, even. They’ve explored the depths of the oceans, the bowels of our criminal justice system, and the halls of Congress.
I make my principal living as a ghostwriter. I write books for actors, athletes, politicians, entrepreneurs, game-changers—people you’ve heard of, and people you’ve never met until their books start to make noise. I help them to give voice to their experiences, and to speak into their lives in a meaningful way.
That’s the idea, anyway, and somewhere in there I suppose I also find a way to shed a shaft of fractured light on the human condition. Some of that light makes its way into my own books, which I guess is inevitable, because what you discover in one aspect of your work is bound to follow you into another.
Taken together, these collaborative efforts have helped me see what it takes to succeed at the very highest level—or, at least, they’ve left me thinking about it. Also: what it means to stumble, how to hold a dream out in front of you and find a way to reach for it, when to bet big on yourself and when to play it safe.
For all the successes and adventures my characters have had, they’ve also known hardship and pain. Krystyna Chiger, my co-author on the memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater, hid with her family for 14 months in the sewers of Lvov, Poland, now part of Ukraine, during World War II, through the worst of the German occupation. (The title comes from the green sweater knitted by Krstyna’s grandmother, which the then seven-year-old wore during her terrifying confinement. It was later displayed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and in touring exhibits all over the world.)
Richard Picciotto, an FDNY battalion commander, was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center when it collapsed on September 11. He was in the seventh-floor stairwell when the building came down around him in an avalanche of steel and concrete and glass. When the dust cleared, he thought he’d been buried alive, but by some great confluence of miracle and moment he was able to clamber to safety. I had the privilege of helping him tell the tale in his book Last Man Down. Together, we walked the “pile,” still smoldering, in the weeks following the attack, and I listened as he shared what it was to crawl from darkness to light, to rebuild a life from no life at all.
An Alaskan bush pilot named Ed Hommer survived a small plane crash on Denali during the worst of winter. Two people were killed. A heinous storm kept rescuers from the site for five days, and Ed Hommer lost both legs to frostbite. When his life spiraled out of control in the months following the crash, Ed decided to climb back up that mountain, and after he became the first person to summit North America’s highest peak on prosthetic legs, he recreated those moments for me in interviews for our book The Hill and taught me about the force of an iron will and the measure of resilience.
Each time out, there are lessons to be learned from the stories of my “characters”—lessons that come into play when I sit down to write fiction and look to tap my own voice.
Consider: my latest novel is out this month, and it seems to have something to say about legacy and belonging. In Balloon Dog, about a brazen art heist gone sideways, I ask readers to reflect on the meaning of art—something I find myself doing when I’m breathing the rarified air of some of the celebrated “characters” that are my writing partners. The story turns on the bungled theft of a massive Jeff Koons sculpture, setting in motion a tangle of variously broken characters out to shake some of the disappointment from their lives.
The idea for the book came to me in bits and pieces, in and around the time I was hanging at Aoki’s Playhouse, the spectacular home of DJ Steve Aoki, while we were working on his memoir Blue: The Color of Noise. Steve lives and breathes on the cutting edge of popular culture, is one of our leading tastemakers. The music he plays in clubs and festivals all over the world, sometimes to audiences of more than 100,000 , pulses with the beat of a freight train and sets the tone for the music that finds us on the radio, in our local clubs, in the air around. But it’s not just about music with Steve. He’s also an avid art collector with a keen eye for beauty and color. The walls and surfaces (and nooks and crannies!) of his home on the outskirts of Las Vegas, overlooking the strip, are covered with contemporary art—art that I could never afford or hope to understand. Art that demands your attention. Art that pushes you to reflect on the place you’ve made for yourself in this world, and the body of work you might leave behind.
The centerpiece work in Steve’s living room is a playfully menacing Banksy sculpture of Mickey Mouse being eaten by a snake, from the artist’s legendary “Dismaland” exhibit. The piece made me laugh and think about the subjective nature of art. Who decides what’s good and what’s not-so-good? What are the market forces at play that determine which artists resonate with collectors, or which authors resonate with readers? How do we decide what to embrace and what to ignore? I hadn’t known it just yet, but these questions were very much on my mind as the idea for this book took shape, perhaps because I’d gotten to a place in my career where I was very much in demand as a ghostwriter, and not so much as a novelist. (On my website, I refer to myself as a “widely-underread novelist”—a line that amuses me and eats at me, both.)
Eventually, I got to imagining a story that would leave me room to explore the meaning of art and the disappointment that often comes with a creative life.
In each of my novels, I’ve populated my fictional worlds with characters that have sometimes been inspired by my work as a ghostwriter. In Balloon Dog, for example, certain peripheral characters bear an uncanny resemblance to some of the schemers and dreamers I met while I was hanging around with Daymond John of Shark Tank to co-write his book The Power of Broke. One particular moment in the novel channels the angst and uncertainty of Mika Brzezinski, of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, as we shared in her memoir All Things at Once, in which she worries about her ability to be a good and attentive mother while actively pursuing a career as a broadcast journalist.
And between the lines, there’s the uncertainty and out-of-placeness that I came to understand while helping to write the story of a young man named David Good, the son of a Yanomami tribeswomen from the remot corners of the Venezuelan rainforest and an American anthropologist from the wilds of New Jersey. More and more, with David’s story in mind, I found myself thinking about what it means to have a foot in two distinct worlds, to move about the planet both from a place of need and a place of plenty. That tug-and-pull also made its way into Balloon Dog. From the late Gilbert Gottfried, I learned of the disarming power to be found in being outrageous and outspoken—a power that often masks a quiet vulnerability. From Serena Williams, I discovered things I didn’t know I wanted to say about perseverance and the pursuit of greatness. From former First Daughters Maureen Reagan and Ivanka Trump, I learned what it means to look out at the world through a lens distorted by privilege or celebrity, and how the ways we see ourselves and our families don’t always align with how the world looks back in turn. And on and on…
One hand washes the other, but both wash the face. That’s a familiar proverb that goes back over 2,000 years to Seneca the Younger, and stretches all the way to a Kanye West lyric that still feels vibrant and relevant. I offer it here as a reminder that the work we writers do on the one hand can’t help but color the work we do with the other. Fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, memoir—my book or theirs—it all part of the same stew in the end.