GhostwriterCrown Jewel of La Autora
When the day of the launch arrived, she’d already forgotten all the trouble surrounding her novel. It was time now to celebrate. The rest was behind her. This included one small detail (well, not so small to some): the book that bore her name on its cover was not, in fact, the product of her pen.
There were certainly worse sins, she thought. She was, for all intents and purposes, la Autora. The idea was hers—no doubt about that. She had come up with a setting, sketched out a plot, jotted down bits of the story here and there. Her own ideas, all of them. But then had come the real struggle, the countless sheets of paper. So she hired someone to “facilitate.” Just to get it done. Technically speaking, to help her “write” it. But that’s not how it was—not in reality (not in her reality anyway). In the end, she had not a single doubt that this was her novel. She would never acknowledge that her original idea had been altered, almost entirely, by her “helper.”
Let’s take a moment to consider her reasoning. As we’ve established, she came up with the idea. (Okay, a sketch of the idea… which would eventually be taken in an entirely new direction.) And then, with a hand from her friends, she found someone to help her “polish” the book. She wrote out a check to this “helper” (and not with her husband’s money, either, but with her own money that her dad had given her for her 30th birthday). She found an editor. She got several people to write blurbs for the back cover. Not just any old people, either—established authors whom she had previously worked for with the utmost dedication. And what’s more: she had sent them the text for those blurbs to save them time, and to have a hand in shaping her own image as an author. (Though she herself did not write the blurbs, rather a friend of a friend did.) And finally, she promoted the book. How could anyone question her authorship?
She had reached the status of a true Autora in every respect, now she just had to become renowned. It would be easy, she thought: First, give interviews. Get the novel out there. Make sure there are copies in libraries all over the country, in every bookstore, in the offices of friends, family, and anyone who does business with friends or family. Word of mouth would be key. In no time at all, she would win the respect she deserved.
It had been seven years since she’d taken her first writing workshop (well, not a workshop exactly, but something like that). She didn’t actually go all that often, and when she did, she got there late; but her absence was justified because she had a baby and was pregnant with another. Still, she was sure her determination merited all of the honors she was finally about to receive.
That long-ago workshop awakened in her a literary ambition, as she liked to call it. So she asked the workshop instructor (something of a writer himself) to recommend her for a fellowship from a prestigious foundation. But this asshole had the nerve to refuse her, telling her (most condescendingly) that she had no promise whatsoever as a writer and that it was a ridiculous request on her part. What he didn’t realize was that the foundation would give her the scholarship; she just had to ask for it, she was convinced. Her husband did business with one of the foundation’s benefactors. And she and her husband had all the benefactors over for dinner at their place. The asshole instructor was clueless, a hack. She quickly crossed him off her list. No big deal. And, it goes without saying, she dropped the workshop immediately.
She was both diligent and charismatic. She watched YouTube videos of the most esteemed, important authors talking about their profession. She hung on their every word. And she could repeat these little speeches, adding her own personal flair—the lingo of the girls from her part of town, the talk of her city, the language of her social class.
During her creative writing masters program, she had studied with three or four very well known authors, and a few lesser known ones. All of them had books published, though, and had connections. She was at the center of the literary world.
She was already thinking about her next novel. She began with her “research” phase, asking around about what the theme of the book should be. She had long conversations with her editor about what would interest readers most, what would help her hit it big. Drugs, no. Human trafficking, another no. Perhaps la Frontera… People living their lives with one foot in Mexico, the other in the States… Even better: a combination of all of the above (adding a pinch of sex, of course). What did it really matter at the end of the day? Success was all about luck. Luck and connections.
With regard to luck, there were things she could do. For starters, remember to go to Mass. Not because she was spiritual, but because in her eyes, church was a must. As for connections, she already had her whole family (immediate family, extended family, political and business “family”) helping her promote the book. Her mom at full speed. Her husband at full speed. Her brothers… half speed. They were both serious professionals, and they suspected that she—the irresponsible one, the silly one, la Frívola, as they called her during their frequent phone conversations—did not, in fact, write the book she was getting published.
At her family’s beach house, during their Semana Santa vacation—which coincided with their mom’s birthday; they always got together to celebrate—her older brother asked, “Is this thing readable? Or is it totally abstract?”
She burst out, “Abstract? It’s a novel! Of course it’s readable!”
After that, she didn’t speak to him for two days. She forgave him, however, when she remembered that her brother, while working as a professor’s assistant for a few semesters, taught with Harold Bloom. ¡Harold Bloom! The sheer mention of that name excited her. She hadn’t yet read his work, but she had his books in her living room, including his entire volume on Shakespeare, a masterpiece, she called it (a masterpiece she had yet to even browse through).
She admired Harold Bloom quite a lot. And she knew that getting close to him was her best shot at becoming truly established. But between her and Harold, there was her brother, the little bastard. So she forgave him for insulting her, and spent the last day of vacation discussing with him the virtues of her novel, which were many, and which she had carefully practiced articulating. She was preparing—training—for the upcoming round of interviews and readings. She almost managed to convince her brothers. At the very least, they were less skeptical than they’d been before the vacation.
Her dad simply adored her. She was his only girl, and the baby of the family. In his opinion, his sons had no ambition. She did. It wasn’t hard for him to be of help to his daughter; his job working close to the President gave him access to all the heavyweights la Autora could hope for.
“You should publish before the President’s six years are up,” was his only advice. “Let me know before it comes out, and I’ll order 300 copies for my friends.”
“Just 300, Daddy?”
“You’re right—600, then… actually, make it 1,000.”
She had married very young, and in love to some extent, to the extent her husband’s temperament allowed. He had made a fortune through two extremely lucrative business ventures, during two different—but similarly short-lived—booms. In the time it takes for lightening to flash, strike, and disappear, his business had made millions, and he hadn’t had to invest a single penny of his own.
He was constantly traveling on business. His time away gave la Autora the chance to educate herself in the art of lovemaking under the tutelage of various teachers. Quite interesting men: reporters, academics, super-intelligent diplomats. As we’ve discussed, there was no shortage of businessmen and politicians in her “family.” She was entirely convinced of her irresistibility. Her easy access to her husband’s wallet served as a powerful magnet to these other men. It’s not that she was ugly (she wasn’t), but the money didn’t hurt. In fact, it was the ultimate sex appeal—the men saw her as a money pipeline, a direct connection to bundles of dollars, a nozzle that sprayed la billetiza.
Her husband wasn’t a fool. He was Protestant, a literalist, he believed in her words and his own feelings, and everything went smoothly for them. She, on the other hand, was a true Mexicana—she always said the right thing, but what she did was entirely different. Her husband was satisfied, though. His background set him up for a different understanding of what the truth was.
The party for the book launch was going to be at a respectable place, a literary place, founded by writers who our celebrated novelist tried to forget, whose names she had actually never heard of. All that mattered to her was that they were “established.” But they weren’t all that established. These founders, the ones who would bestow such honor upon her, were hacks, she said, people with no ambition. Ambition was the key word.
She was meticulous in her preparation. She listened to audio-books at the gym. She wanted to make sure she wouldn’t embarrass herself like Vicente, that friend of her uncle’s. Vicente, who’d been the nation’s president, but who apparently could not pronounce the name Borges. “Borgues,” he said, with the hard ‘g’ of “burger.”
Around the same time, she’d had her own embarrassing moment but believed no one had noticed. While name-dropping the Spanish playwright and poet Lope de Vega, she said “Loop” instead of “Lo-pay,” because she assumed he was English, and his works had been translated into Spanish. This was during her first writing workshop (or non-workshop, as the case may be), the one she occasionally attended. They were talking about translators, and she said, “I do believe Loop’s Aguilar translation is superior.” Did anyone realize she’d said translation, instead of edition? Loop, instead of Lope? If they did realize, they (prudently) kept their mouths shut.
She herself realized her mistake the following week. She was enjoying a moment of peace, after her son went to sleep, when she received a visit from one of her teachers-in-the-art-of-lovemaking. This lover, a German poet and admirer of Lope de Vega, picked up the book on her shelf and said “Lope.” Not “Loop.”
“You mean to say, ‘Loop,’ mi amorcito,” she said.
“No. What’s ‘Loop’? Lope. Lope de Vega.”
She opened the book and immediately saw the rest of this “Loop’s” name: de Vega. She looked for the English-Spanish translator’s name on the second page, on the third page—nothing. This “translation” was not a translation at all, but an edition. She opened the Encyclopedia Britannica and—alas!—Lope de Vega did not write in English, not even in French, but in regular old, simple, vile Spanish. We should forgive her this error, though: the degree she’d received from her private women’s college was in Public Relations, not Literature.
In all honesty, the lovemaking lessons her husband’s travels allowed her were not all that interesting. One high level diplomat from Thailand had trouble getting it up (with her, only with her, he insisted). His erectile dysfunction embarrassed him enough that he couldn’t bring himself to ask her for the money he desperately needed. He could’ve saved himself the anguish, though; she wouldn’t give him a dime, regardless. Not to him, not to any of her lovers.
Now all of this was behind her. It was her moment of glory. Her novel was out, and there were parties, friends, acquaintances, the media… The book was put out by a hip publishing house that had published some of her teachers. First class. The first guest speaker at her launch was going to be one of Mexico’s hottest women writers, a charming journalist/partier/fanatic churchgoer (a characteristic that fit well with the current presidential administration). Some time ago she had written very timely and well-researched academic essays, which she spiced up using her vast knowledge of celebrity gossip and teen-magazine dirt, as well as her obsession with fashion (dresses, above all, were her forte). The second guest speaker was a commentator, presently in the national spotlight. He had confessed publicly that his preferred lover was his dog, and insisted that it was not zoophilia, but true love. He spent a year crusading for the legalization of marriage between man and dog (his family had means and hired a legal team for him). He had a slew of personal theories on this matter. He claimed, for instance, that if Hitler had been truly gutsy, he would have married Blondi, his German Shepherd, instead of Eva Braun. The commentator added with a giggle, “Our kleine Eva would not have popped a single cyanide pilule—one less victim of Nazism.” Not to mention that this guy’s French was perfect. But we’ll put him aside for now… even though he’s a fascinating character, as is his dog (a Labrador, incredibly smart and handsome, in fact, too handsome to marry his owner even if it were legal)… He is not our main focus, and it’s unfair to steal the camera’s attention away from our Autora.
The book launch would take place in the capital, a city lucky to count la soon-to-be famous Autora as one of its own. For the launch in the Southeast, she’d invited another fiction writer, something of a leftist (very political), and an archbishop. In the North: a white collar priest and a self-help author. She had not studied Public Relations for nothing.
The moment of the launch arrived. At last, she was in the Major Leagues, a huge success. Anyone who was anyone was there. Her dress was gorgeous. It had been hard to pick out; she had to look serious and put together. In the end, she went for a dress that did not scream designer.
Up to this point, everything I’ve told you has been strictly truthful. I heard it first hand (first hands, if you will, as I have various sources). From here on, however, I will resort to my imagination.
Right when our Autora reached the launch venue, her editor broke the news that the charming journalist would not speak as planned.
“Did she at least send her speech?”
“No. She got sick,” the editor said.
Oh well. Nothing that night would rain on her glorious parade. She immediately blocked out any thoughts about the journalist. A popular actress would read a passage from the novel instead.
Upon entering the reading hall, she was surprised to see her so called “helper,” who had assisted her in finishing the novel, sitting in the back row. But on second thought—why shouldn’t he be here? An important day, important event. Yes, even he was here to applaud her.
The ghostwriter. He was tall and blond, formidable for various reasons. First, and most notably, for how he handled his liquor. The man had the drinking capacity of an authentic and impressive Cossack. Second, his last name. Our protagonist had no idea that her “helper’s” father had been Secretary of the Interior during the oil boom. As a result, he had a ton of connections, was a friend of the Vatican, even. His son, a drunk, embarrassed him considerably, especially because he was convinced his boy—his only boy—had talent. And this talent was just wasting away. His son was already in his thirties, and he hadn’t done shit with his life. The only way his dad could put any pressure on him was by denying him financial support. “Let’s see if this helps him get his ass in gear.” But nothing, nada. The son stayed in his own preferred gear, which essentially meant drowning himself day after day in whiskey. And when his father cut off his allowance, all the better—he just raided his father’s wine cellar instead.
On one of these cellar incursions, the formidable blond brought a friend, a woman. Looking at them, they could have been brother and sister. Like him, she was blonde, beautiful, and carried the same drinking gene. They had other things in common: as little kids they attended the same parish, the same Catholic school, the same ceremonies with the same priests, which needn’t be elaborated here. Besides this, there was no kinship between them, even though they looked alike.
Down in the wine cellar, the blonde woman lost her composure. “This is something to brag about!” she shouted. “What the fuck does your dad do? He must be a millionaire.” And on and on, practically singing, about how amazing the wine was. We can forgive her: she was thoroughly inebriated.
All the noise drew the attention of the cellar-owner, the blond’s father, who was upstairs on the sofa watching A Clockwork Orange dubbed in Spanish. He paused the movie, put on his slippers, tied his robe, and went downstairs.
No one was in the living room. No one in the study. No one in the kitchen or the dining room. Soon enough, more shouting from the woman led him down to the cellar. He was at once impressed by her beauty, and furious with his son.
“This warrants a serious conversation. Upstairs. Come with me, we’ll have a drink,” he said, and he showed them to the library.
It had been a long time since the father and son had sat down for a talk. Or better said, since the father had paced back and forth, lecturing his son. The site of the blonde woman revved him up. He wanted to seduce her in whatever way he could, and he knew no better language of seduction than a sermon.
Our formidable blond writer (because to us he is the most formidable of the three) reacted as never before. He was not about to let his father treat him so condescendingly in front of his best (and prettiest) drinking buddy, his partner in crime, his soul mate. Her presence in that room emboldened him. He let his father have it.
“Well, you know what, Dad? I wrote a book. An entire novel. Not only that, but my work was commissioned. It’s pretty good, and it only took me three weeks to write it.”
The woman chimed in, “It’s not just good! It’s amazing. I read it myself.”
“What? What do you mean ‘commissioned?’” the dad asked incredulously. He went on and on, wanting to know everything. For a man of his generation, this was the height of corruption. It was all right for him to take advantage of his political office for personal gain, to set up an illegal oil sales network, and destroy large expanses of his nation’s land; all of the practices he’d been permitted to execute as Secretary of the Interior were fine by him.
But this would not do. This was the straw that broke the burro’s back.
Allow me to add here that the ex-secretary’s judgment was affected by one detail his son shared with him: the telling last name of this “Autora.” ¡Impostora! Her name against that of his son made him see the whole situation as a battle between the opportunistic, upstart Partido Acción Nacional versus the venerable Partido Revolucionario Institucional, his beloved PRI. Hence the burro’s broken back. He left the two of them and went to his study. At least the internet was working. He soon found la Autora, her publisher, the title of “her” novel, and the exact hour and location of her book launch.
By this time, the two blonds were so drunk that we cannot say for sure if the father eventually slept with the young woman or not. My guess is no. First, because all of his energy was focused on la Autora and how to win this match histórico against her. Second, because, drunk as the blonde woman was, she ceased to be attractive.
I’ll spare you, dear reader, the details of this story’s inevitable ending. One simple telephone call to the ex-secretary’s reporter-friend, and the scandal was revealed to the public. The well respected journalist who was going to speak at the launch saved herself from embarrassment thanks to a tip; she was no newcomer to the field.
In the middle of the launch, just after the commentator/dog-lover’s speech, a gossip columnist spoke up: “Would the author permit me a question?” He said he was from such and such newspaper, and he’d heard that the author paid such and such amount on this date and that date. Bam, there it was. In front of the room full of listeners, he asked her, “Is all of this true?”
La Autora, controlling her nerves, took hold of the microphone like a true professional. She proceeded to deny it all, directing her voice to the back of the reading hall, speaking directly to the formidable blond, her ghostwriter. This was not the smartest move, she realized, as the gossip columnist shouted, “Him!” The man she was addressing now was the very one she’d paid to write her book. La Autora kept repeating the same denial into the microphone until her voice grew haggard.
“I’m going to sue you! You said you wouldn’t say anything! You signed a contract!”
Her husband was there, having returned from the U.S. city where the couple had a second residence. Although he didn’t speak Spanish, his neighbor in the audience (not knowing he was the husband) filled him in on the details. Everything else came out in the papers. The news spread like an oil well fire through dry grass, especially because it was the end of the presidential term, election season. The presidential challenger was a diehard of PRI stock, and this was the perfect opportunity for him to impress his flock of PRIístas.
The ex-secretary’s blond, formidable drunk of a son declined to give interviews, but wouldn’t refute the story either. His father threatened to kill him if he dare deny having written the book—which was, indeed, pretty good.
La Autora’s mother’s ulcer burst.
Her two brothers swallowed the difficult pill of public humiliation and privately celebrated the fall of la Frívola.
Her editor washed his hands of her. The publisher’s marketing department tacked on an addendum to the novel: “Ghostwriter—Crown Jewel of La Autora.” And eventually, the reporter stopped printing his weekly column harping on the story.
Her father said the whole thing was a PRI conspiracy, defamation. He went so far as to claim that narcotraffickers had paid the blond “writer.” He did not distribute the thousand copies he’d ordered.
Literary critics praised the novel.
The book sold like hotcakes - promoted by all the talk, and maybe helped by its own merit, too, because it was pretty good (so they say; I don’t read these things).
The formidable blond began to write his next book. Same setting, same characters, a different moment in their lives.
We can’t provide the minute details of all that happened to la Autora, and so we will stop here (if we wanted to be entirely accurate, we’d have stopped even earlier). Dear reader, you’ll have to forgive our giving way to fantasy; the only thing we know with certainty is the beginning, the ending we invent so we don’t get depressed.
Carmen Boullosa is a prominent and prolific Mexican novelist, poet, short story writer, and playwright. Roberto Bolaño regarded her as Mexico’s best female writer. She has published seventeen novels, five plays, and six collections of poetry. She has published short stories and poems in a wide variety of venues. Four of Boullosa’s novels have been translated into English. Other works have been translated into German, French, Italian, and Dutch. Boullosa’s work has been praised for its imagination, playfulness, and dazzling language.
With Salman Rushdie, Boullosa co-founded the Mexico City House for Persecuted Writers in Mexico City (Casa Refugio Citlaltépetl). She also co-founded Café Nueva York, a group of New York-based, Spanish language writers. She was a Cullman fellow of the New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers, and taught at New York University, Columbia University, and City College, CUNY.
Kate Berson is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she works as the Delaney Fellow with the innovative fiction press, Fiction Collective Two. She has been awarded the Harvey Swados Fiction Prize and a Graduate School Fellowship from UMass, as well as the Morton N Cohen Prize for creative writing from Tufts University. She is also working on a collaborative translation of poems by Chilean writer, Gabriela Mistral, with Dr. Velma García. Her stories have been published in Monkeybicycle, Green Mountains Review, The Rumblr (via Route Nine), Foundling Review, and other journals. Wigleaf included her story “Bird Again” on their 2014 Longlist.