Story and storyteller are inexorably intertwined. Who tells us the story is every bit as important as the words being spoken. Perhaps the teller haunts her own story, changing our perception, if not the words we hear. Writing, ghosts and the strength that guides a gentle soul are the heart of Pretend I’m Not Here: How I Worked with Three Newspaper Icons, One Powerful First Lady, and Still Managed to Dig Myself Out of the Washington Swamp by Barbara Feinman Todd. Todd is a ghostwriter, most famously of Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village. Her memoir is a page-turning meditation on politics, identity and the writing life.
As it begins, Todd’s story is achingly familiar. She graduates from college with a writing degree and an interest in fiction, but gets a job at the Washington Post as the post-Watergate glory days unfold. She finds her footing and soon enough ends up working with Woodward and Bernstein. One thing leads to another – as is common in America’s working world – and she finds herself ghostwriting books, an occupation that requires her not simply to write, but to become another person.
Todd’s a very engaging and smart writer, who knows how to ratchet up the tension with genuine emotions and events. We all know where she is headed; we also know that the upshot of her attaining the highest point possible for her profession, ghostwriting for then First-Lady Hillary Clinton will not end happily. Todd’s secret weapon is crystalline prose deployed to explore the murkiest human relations, where celebrity and an endless, hostile spotlight conspire to annihilate anyone who is not a Teflon-coated soulless sociopath. That’s not our narrator, we love her. Her struggles amidst the shoals of so-called big-fish are the stuff of our lives.
The characters that haunt this book are most assuredly not ghosts. Woodward, Bernstein, Clinton and the human remoras that follow them are sharply evoked. She found Bernstein, “…a welcome break from the long days and too many nights hunched over my computer reading Woodward’s drafts or transcribing taped interviews or trying to find some needle-in-a-haystack fact buried within an intelligence document. Carl brought some much-needed levity to our regimented work environment…” Elsewhere we learn that, “Mrs. Clinton was cordial and had a way about her that made you feel like she was really listening.” Todd knows how to incorporate details to create our larger-than-life size figures on a more of a 1:1 scale for readers.
Of course the central character here is the ghost herself, and it is here that the true strength of the book lies. Barbara Feinman Todd hunkers down and gets the work done, both as a character and as writer. She treads the dangerous depths of writing about her attempt to sell a novel with grace, and makes us glad that she had the opportunity to apply her talents in the manner she has thus far. Crafting a literary novel may feel more artistic than ghostwriting a memoir, but Todd help us understand that art is in the application, not the genre.
Ghostwriting itself is fascinating, and anyone who is interested in writing as a profession will find Pretend I’m Not Here an excellent examination of how it does and does not work. As Todd takes us through her life and the increasingly tense confrontations with the human machinery that alternately guides and goads the Clintons, the book becomes impossible to put down even as we’re immersed in the method-acting that necessarily alienates the ghost-writer from herself.
Pretend I’m Not Here looks pretty low-key and you might be tempted to think it reads that way as well. It is true that Barbara Feinman Todd manages to portray the deadly serious nature of the games she’s involved in without taking herself too seriously. When you’re writing about the powder-keg where politics and press meet, she keeps the keeps the lights bright but not incendiary. It’s a hard balance to keep and not an easy story to tell. Dear World, Barbara Feinman Todd suggests here. This is how I haunt you.
Sense and Sensibility are the reasons I write here and speak with the authors. Barbara Feinman Todd offers a perfect example of this. In our conversation, you can hear Todd’s remarkable knowledge and perceptions as well as her ultimately low-key approach. Her story, so compelling and timely, is filled with the rich history of America’s press politics and an uncanny access to those at the top of both. It’s the paradox at heart of the life and this book, which is both a ghost story about a haunted nation, and the story of the ghost who tells the tale.
Here’s a link to our “lightning round” interview, an executive summary for the man or woman on the go. Or enjoy below!
And here’s our complete conversation; take your time and enjoy the smart storytelling of Barbara Feinman Todd.