An Interview with Ghostwriter Hilary Liftin
Hilary Liftin has two large Amazon boxes waiting for her when I walk up to her Sherman Oaks home. When she opens the door I ask her what she ordered and she says, “Earthquake supplies for the Big One.”
In earthquake terms, the threat of the Big One is still fairly vague—sometime in the next twenty years. But Liftin is about to experience her own personal big one on July 21st, when her first novel debuts: Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper. The title’s built-in meta-ness is warranted, because over the last ten years, Liftin has published fifteen memoirs under the names of other people. She’s one of America’s top celebrity ghostwriters.
Lizzie Pepper resembles a certain story we’ve all seen before—a young actress with glossy brown hair from a beloved American television series that could almost be Dawson’s Creek (but isn’t) is seduced into a fairy-tale romance by one of the world’s top actors who is part of a cult that could almost be Scientology (though it absolutely is not.) The relationship thrives, then falls apart, under the omnipresent lenses of the paparazzi.
On the surface, Liftin has created a beach read of the highest order, but at its heart, Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper is a very sound rumination on human loneliness and existential alienation. And it is further complexified by Liftin’s career of encouraging Hollywood A-listers to share their secrets with her—the book is labeled as fiction, but is it Jurassic Park or The Devil Wears Prada? Or something else entirely?
Hilary Liftin and I spoke for over an hour, over coffee, on a Tuesday afternoon. She was warm, smart, and evenly hilarious. Her earthquake preparedness kit does not have a gun in it, but she’s thinking of buying cyanide capsules.
—Kathryn Borel, Jr.
I. A ONE-SIDED RELATIONSHIP
THE BELIEVER: How does a person make the decision to say to themselves, “OK, I will make my career writing as a ghost”?
HILARY LIFTIN: My big break in ghostwriting came when I was still new here in LA and I had no life. That helped, having no life. My book agent put me up for a job for which I didn’t have the credits. It was a book for an A-list actress on a hit TV show and—
BLVR: Can you tell me who it is?
HL: No! But she made the unusual request of the three candidates to write a sample chapter in her voice, over that weekend, without having met her. I turned to my husband and said, “These other two ghostwriters who have both ghostwritten New York Times bestselling books probably have other plans for the weekend…”
BLVR: And maybe they won’t be able to make the deadline.
HL: Exactly. Or, maybe they don’t want to work all weekend. So by sheer man hours I’m going to clinch this one. I spent all weekend on it, and I got that job. Then I had my first ghostwriting credit. No one grows up thinking they want to be a ghostwriter. No one plans on that job. But what I discovered over the course of that job—and the subsequent books—was that this was actually a perfect writing gig for me… It had all the elements that I love and none of the elements that I don’t really want to do.
BLVR: What are those elements?
HL: First off, it’s collaborative. You’re not sitting by yourself trying to have brilliant ideas. Secondly, I really love memoir. I’d already written two very personal books. So I was done talking about myself. But I still really loved the intimacy and self-revelation of that form. Working with somebody who has a more interesting life than I do—and getting to take on that life temporarily—is an endlessly interesting way to have the experience of writing memoir.
BLVR: Because part of the appeal of writing, in a way, it the fact that you put an artifact in the world that, in a way, inoculates you against your inevitable and eventual death.
HL: You create a legacy.
BLVR: And when you’re writing someone else’s story you are subsuming your own voice in favor of theirs. But that voice also might not have the same value system as you. How do you reconcile that potential gap?
HL: I have a particular role: to represent the person I’m writing for and to create a voice for that person. But the other thing that I bring to it is empathy. There are certain jobs I don’t take because I feel no connection to the person. But if somebody is open with me, and honest about their motivations, and has some level of self- awareness, then I’m going to understand them. The same way you’d feel if you sat down with a criminal and they told you their life story. You would probably understand the crime and forgive it. None of my clients are criminals, but to a much lighter degree that’s what goes on. I hear the story, and I hear it with the level of detail that breeds empathy.
BLVR: Is it escapist at all?
HL: Well, it’s a little bit of being a therapist and a lot of being organized. I’m handed a bunch of existing data. My job is to put that in the best narrative form. That is a puzzle I love to solve.
BLVR: You talk about creating a voice for your clients. In the case of actors, for example, whose job it is to rid themselves of their selves and take on the mantle of whoever they’re playing, is the job of “creating a voice” more difficult?
HL: I’m not creating a voice out of thin air. Everyone has a public voice, and a lot of actors have developed sound-bitey public voices. But that doesn’t translate to paper. That’s why they can’t just dictate a book, even if they’re good storytellers. So the question is: how can I manifest the quirks and thoughts and uniqueness of their own personalities? In part, I do that by typing when they talk. I don’t record. That is a way for my brain to take in the voice. My goal is that when my client reads a book they feel like, "Hilary did something but mostly she just made it happen quickly.” I think people dismiss celebrity memoirs as unreal, contrived and maybe partially made up. But that’s definitely not true for anything that I write.
BLVR: Can you give a specific example of someone whose brain you couldn’t get into?
HL: I went to an interview once and it was at a hotel across the street from where the person lived and she was three hours late. I pretty much knew then that I wasn’t going to take that job.
BLVR: Has anyone ever been unhappy with the way you’ve characterized their lives?
HL: Ha. Not that I’ve been told. But I’ve had people have second thoughts about significant chunks of content that they just decided they weren’t ready to share.
BLVR: Do you have a flop that you feel in your heart is a flop?
HL: I wouldn’t call it a flop. There’s one book that I felt didn’t hit its potential. Two maybe.
BLVR: What were the circumstances? Were they not being revealing enough?
HL: I had a person who decided to protect others. That limited the content but I respected that. And I had a person who had amazing stories but was not a natural storyteller.
BLVR: A function of your job must be to very quickly foster intimacy with these people. That must feel like a real friendship. How do you leave that after you’ve finished the book?
HL: It’s a one-sided relationship, and even though we share things together, the basic structure is that they tell me things and I listen. It’s hard to make a transition to an ordinary friendship after that. But if someone’s going to share their secrets with me then I’m loyal to them for life.
BLVR: Do you ever get the midnight phone call from your clients?
BLVR: Has anyone ever fallen in love with you?
HL: No, at least not in the context of ghostwriting!
BLVR: Have you ever fallen in love a little bit with anyone? Actors are great at seducing people!
HL: I’ve taken on some of the emotional weight of the stories I’ve worked on. I was writing about a very difficult time in the life of one of my clients and I burst into tears at a small, crowded café. My husband, who was on his computer across from me, was completely freaked out because I’m not a crier at all in my own life. Maybe that’s why I’m a ghostwriter.
II. I’M NOT SURE THAT’S THE VACATION I WANT
BLVR: This is a good place to transition into talking about your book, because what struck me about it was how quickly you were able to conjure compassion within me for the other-worldly, charade-seeming affair that was the marriage between Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise. Because Lizzie Pepper and Robert Mars are based on Katie and Tom, right?
HL: Lizzie Pepper is pure fiction! The character is pulled from tabloids. But I think we all look at these celebrity marriages and invest in them. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner just broke up and people were sad. We exploit celebrities by caring about shallow things like whether they’ve gotten a facelift. And we violate their children constantly. But we also love them in a way. So I think one of the big things that’s come out of ghostwriting for me is real compassion for the complexity of fame.
My main character, Lizzie, is very young when she starts to act. So she never really knows what she’s signing on for. But she admits that as a hungry actress she would have done it anyway. These people obviously don’t get any sympathy from the public because they’re rich. But it’s much better to be a rich financier than it is to be a celebrity, because financiers keep their privacy. The fictional Lizzie is more willing to risk the public’s ire in being honest about her situation. In the book we see her celebrity through the lens of, “I know I’m really lucky to get to vacation on a private island, but I’m not sure that’s the vacation I want.”
BLVR: You can’t go home for Christmas anymore.
HL: Or it won’t be the same. I was trying to write about that in a way that people wouldn’t mock. And also to do it without exploiting any actual celebrity’s privacy.
BLVR: One of the biggest takeaways from the book was that privacy is the hottest commodity in the world.
HL: And you pay for it.
BLVR: And it’s so, so expensive.
HL: You wonder how all these celebrities go broke, and maybe it’s because they spend all their money on privacy. “I need a private plane…” “I need a compound…” “I need a driver…” “I need to rent out a restaurant instead of going in to eat with everyone…” And it’s like, boo hoo, poor them. But it is a thing money cannot buy.
BLVR: Is that a gripe you’ve heard from your clients?
HL: No, they are grateful. By the time I get them they’ve come to terms with it. But it’s different when it comes to their kids. I think the intrusion on their kids’ lives is a surprise. It’s a surprise for Lizzie too, in the book. That nobody gives a shit.
BLVR: You see it—the paparazzi are totally happy to put a huge lens into a three-year-old’s face.
HL: I saw a paparazzo yesterday and I looked at him and was like, “I do not see that guy caring.” But he needs this job, and he needs his money, and he’s going to get it. I understand his side of it, but last year they made a law against harassing kids by photographing them and I’m all for it.
BLVR: The book felt like an articulation of a Faustian bargain. Because it’s so exhilarating and escapist and fun for Lizzie in the front half of the story, and then she has twin baby boys and suddenly she is protecting them not only from what is an incredibly cruel world, but from becoming actual currency in that cruel world. And that is so alienating. More alienating than early motherhood already can be.
HL: Yes, you could look at it that way. Ambition makes her blind to the bargain she is making. Then it comes time to pay up, and she starts to understand what she has sacrified. Imagine not being able to trust anyone. And for Lizzie, there’s a cult involved. But I think that just amps up this feeling of there always being a lens.
BLVR: Are you allowed to talk about how the cult in your book, One Cell, is based on Scientology?
HL: It’s a made up cult. It’s a mind-body cult based in California. It’s small and it’s new.
HL: The cult is its own character in the book. I had two things I specifically needed it to do. I needed it to be something that we could believe my character, who is not an idiot, would go for. It had to be intriguing to her. She had to be caught up in it enough to roll with it for a while. It had to offer her things she might want.
BLVR: Like privacy for example.
HL: Yeah. An escape, an opportunity to develop more as an actress, and the promise of bringing her closer to her husband. And bonus it’s supposed to make you thinner! Which is important for every Hollywood movement. I also wanted it to shine a light on the marriage. Even though this is a marriage between celebrities and it’s very Hollywood, ultimately I wanted it to be a book about what goes wrong in a Cinderella story. In part it’s about rushing into marriage. Prince Charming comes along and he does everything right. So you say yes and then you ask questions later. That’s obviously inflated but what it represents is the initial romance and dawning practicality of marriage, and how kids change things. I wanted her issues and the way she thought through them to be normal. Her first thought when things go wrong is, “I have to stay for the kids.” A common and admirable stance. And then for every person there’s a point of no return. That’s supposed to feel recognizable to the reader.
BLVR: How much research did you do?
HL: That was the fun stuff. I had to research, “If I were going to get married and I were a celebrity, where might I go and what would it be like and what’s a really cool spot in Ireland?“
BLVR: What was the most opulent detail about celebrity life that you discovered in your research?
HL: My favorite “lives of the rich and famous” detail was that you can rent these movie trailers that have LCD screens instead of actual windows. The screens project the image that the camera is seeing right outside your trailer. So it’s this contrived sense of what’s happening outside – a fabrication of what the view is. Yet nobody can look in.
BLVR: I know that One Cell is not Scientology but do you fear backlash from Scientologists?
HL: The book is fiction, so no.
BLVR: How many lawyers do you think combed through your final manuscript?
HL: [Laughing] It just went through the regular publishing process.
BLVR: What’s your greatest hope for the book?
HL: Other than that people will be entertained… Well, I think that the celebrity memoir as a genre is looked upon as a lesser form. One of my missions as a ghostwriter has been to elevate that form. Maybe that sounds pretentious! But I don’t think you can take a whole genre of very popular books and say, "This is all trash!” When we read a memoir that isn’t by a celebrity, we feel like we’re about to go on a journey and we don’t know where the journey will lead. But when we read a memoir by a celebrity we feel like we already know the journey and we just want to travel it. Part of my goal is to say, “You might not know what journey you’re taking.”
BLVR: What’s your greatest fear about this book coming out? I mean other than it doing poorly and being in the bulk bin under the counter for $1.99.
HL: I’m so used to being separate from the publication process. I turn in the book to the editor and then I’m done. And then it gets published and it does what it does and I’m on to the next project. I’m much more invested in the publication of this book. I’m working hard to get my friends to talk about it and to make sure it falls into people’s hands. But the stakes are different for me than they are for a first time novelist because I’ve been writing books without ego for a very long time. I feel like it will get what it deserves. Or won’t get what it doesn’t deserve. Either I’m a little alienated from my own book, or protected from the agonies of first time publication.
BLVR: Based on recent rumors do you think Tom Cruise will leave Scientology?
HL: Oh God.
Kathryn Borel Jr. is the Interviews Editor at the Believer.