Successful authors are those with clear, distinguishable voices. Jane Austen’s work is marked by an amused fondness for the British landed gentry, while Stephen King’s iconic characters and tone are easily identifiable and relatable. But it requires another skill set entirely to capture another person’s voice—a skill set some famous authors with their own distinct voices mastered. You may be surprised to learn that these famous authors dabbled as ghostwriters before their careers were established.
1. Sinclair Lewis
Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930, writer Sinclair Lewis garnered attention for his commentary on American life in Babbitt and Main Street. After graduating from Yale University, he made a living by selling literary plots to Jack London, who used the plots to generate The Assassination Bureau and a collection of short stories. Lewis’s ghostwriting career led to a gig with American tennis player Maurice McLoughlin, for whom he ghost wrote Tennis as I Play It.
2. H.P. Lovecraft
Horror fans will recognize H.P. Lovecraft as the creator of many supernatural horror/sci-fi classics. The gaunt writer earned his reputation after the literary magazine Weird Tales bought his short stories, including the famed “The Call of Cthulhu.” Lovecraft was hired by Weird Tales founder J.C. Henneberger to ghostwrite Under the Pyramids, a supposedly true account of magician Harry Houdini. Impressed by the final product, Houdini hired Lovecraft and C.M. Eddy Jr. to ghostwrite The Cancer of Superstition, an analysis of superstition throughout the ages. The 31-page manuscript was auctioned in 2016 and sold for $28,000.
3. Katherine Anne Porter
After an abusive relationship and a near fatal diagnosis of bronchitis, Texan native Katherine Anne Porter’s white hair became a symbol of her perseverance and trauma. She relocated to Greenwich Village in 1919 and wrote children’s stories in addition to being a ghostwriter. She ghostwrote My Chinese Marriage, published in 1921, for Mai Tiam Franking. Porter was best known for Pale Horse, Pale Rider and won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Collected Stories, a series of vignettes based on her Texan heritage.
4. Richard Flanagan
Australian writer Richard Flanagan, best known for Gould’s Book of Fish, has penned literary fiction, political essays, and a collection of speeches. He also ghostwrote an autobiography for Australian criminal John Friedrich, a conman indicted for fraud against the National Safety Council of Australia. Offered $10,000 to complete the autobiography in six weeks, Flanagan agreed to the deal—even after Friedrich committed suicide three weeks into the process. Codename Iago, the autobiography, was published posthumously. Inspired by his ghostwriting experience, Flanagan’s most recent novel First Person is a chilling thriller about a ghostwriter and his conman client.
5. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette
With books as radical as her vibrant distaste for social norms, French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was renowned for her explicit feminine sexuality during the early 1900s. (You may recognize the name, after Keira Knightley’s portrayal in the 2018 biopic Colette.) Her first four novels, the Claudine series, were semi-autobiographical—and published under her husband’s name, Henry Gauthier-Villars. Already regarded as a well-known literary figure, he locked Colette in their home and forced her to write. Only after their separation in 1906 did Colette reclaim her writing and produce famous works like Cherí and Gigi.
Honorable Mention: Before his critically-acclaimed debut album Channel Orange was released in 2012, rapper Frank Ocean penned songs for other artists. Acting as a ghost-songwriter, Ocean tailored his own writing voice to complement or mimic his clients. Eventually, the act of ghostwriting was a performance Ocean wasn’t invested in and he focused on bolstering his own career instead. He certainly built his persona through notable writing credits, which include: John Legend’s “Quickly”, Beyoncé’s “I Miss You”, and Alicia Keys’ “One Thing.”
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