An author dies. Then the newly discovered texts surface. They’re drafts, notes, sometimes entire manuscripts. They appear in the clutter on a desk, or in the publisher’s computer, or among newspapers and dead spiders in a summer cottage chest. Sometimes they spill forth as if from a horn of plenty (see: Tolkien). Sometimes they’re more successful than the works published while the author was alive (see: Kafka). Naturally, the authenticity of the work is sometimes questioned. There are copycats out there after all, and greedy publishers and family members; there are so many ways of forging a manuscript. Still, there is one way that you have probably not even come close to imagining. Let me put it like this: by its nature, a posthumously published work comes out after the author’s death. But death doesn’t necessarily stop an author from working.
I’ve signed a non–disclosure agreement with no end date. The penalty for breaking this agreement is dire, even though the chance that anyone will believe what I have to say is minuscule. Still, I have to try. I know that many readers of this publication are in the business, and some of you are already part of a conspiracy I am about to reveal. I wonder if you have understood, really understood, what you’re in for.
If an author reaches a certain status and produces work of a certain quality, that author will sooner or later be approached by an agency. This agency will offer the author the opportunity to upon his or her death, if the corpse is in a suitable condition, be reanimated and continue working for as long as he or she can produce publishable material. A manuscript that is up to standard is sold to a publisher, who markets it as a “found” or “unfinished” work. The publisher, who is perfectly aware of the situation, owns the acquired rights for ten years, after which the rights revert to the author’s estate. The agency takes 60 percent of the advance. 30 percent goes to the estate, along with extremely modest royalties.
It sounds completely insane, right? Why would any author go along with this? The answer is simple. The offer is an author’s last chance to get published. An author’s chance to say a few last words.
But with their ruined eyes and numb fingers, reanimated corpses can hardly write on their own. That’s why ghostwriters exist. They’re the ones who get the last ten percent.
The ghostwriters are usually young and hungry for work, lured in by platitudes like “a stepping stone to new possibilities,” “a chance to develop your skills,” and “an opportunity for exciting encounters”—and by the promise of payment to boot. Until they’re hired, they have no idea what the job actually entails. The ghostwriter signs a non–disclosure agreement, the one I mentioned in the prelude. It works sort of like an electric dog collar. If you try to talk about what the agency does, you get what feels like an electric shock, if shocks came along with acute anxiety and the sensation of being watched by an inconceivably huge and hungry presence. The non–disclosure agreement, as I said, has no end date. The job itself pays well, but employment is only on a per project basis, and there are no work benefits, no security net. The agency counts on your being desperate for a job, and they know you can’t report them to the union—they’re unspeakable, after all. It’s perfect.
I was twenty–three years old when I decided to give writing all I had. I signed up for a one–year creative writing course at a community college north of Stockholm, just to get off my ass. During the years that followed, I managed to publish a few short stories in magazines and fanzines and wrote a lot of columns and fiction for role–playing games. But it was slow going. I wanted to publish a book with a real publisher, but it felt so incredibly distant, and I was impatient. I failed my goal to debut before twenty–five (unrealistic, but I didn’t know that back then). As I approached thirty, things looked bleak. It was only when I got a temporary job at a media company that something finally happened. The project was to create little artificial personalities to keep as “make–believe friends”. My task was to act a fictitious personality out in a chat, then document the other participants’ reactions, all of which fed back into the project. Old role–player that I was, this stuff was second nature to me; I was a fish in water. And apparently people noticed.
Johanna was a good friend of mine. She was a Finnish–Swedish pop culture journalist and writer, well on her way to become intellectual Sweden’s new darling. We sat in the same office, her working on another project for the same company. We’d watch episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on lunch breaks, swap comics, discuss experimental role–playing games. She had a stuffed bunny that she sometimes put on her head (or mine) while working. It’s probably the best work environment I’ve ever been in.
What I didn’t know was that Johanna had been keeping tabs on me. About at the same time that my own project came to a close, she asked if I’d be interested in writing commissioned text for someone else. I was over the moon. Sure, I wouldn’t be working with my own material, but I would get to write. It could be a way to get into the business.
“The job’s a bit odd,” she said, “but I know you don’t have a problem with weird stuff.”
“Sure,” I said. “What is it?”
She opened her mouth, but jumped, as if she’d received a shock (and she had).
After a moment she said, “It’s sort of like ghostwriting.”
The agency was located in an anonymous–looking building in the northern part of Stockholm. The man who received me introduced himself as Henrik. He looked as generic as the Ikea–neat office: white, blond, forty–something, business casual. He offered me coffee from a shiny espresso machine and looked at my CV, work samples, and recommendations. A recommendation from Johanna counted for a lot. We talked about myself and my work experience in general terms, and he gave me a spiel stuffed with marketing lingo and broad descriptions that said nothing about the agency except that they hired ghostwriters. Then he set a document in front of me on the table. It was a non–disclosure agreement.
“I can’t give you any more details until you’ve signed this,” he said.
I thought it strange to have to sign a non–disclosure agreement before finding out what the job really was, but I was desperate for the job. In my case this clause proved unnecessary. When Henrik had told me what my job would be, I said yes almost before he’d closed his mouth. What geek wouldn’t? Magic, for real. My greatest childhood dream. Everything I had fantasized about as a teenager with Book of the Law and Necronomicon on my lap. That’s when Henrik brought out the actual contract.
This part was a letdown. When someone says, “You’re going to take notes from dead writers,” it’s not unreasonable to expect a contract on vellum, some Latin or Hebrew, a pentagram or two, something that says ritual magic and secret masses. But no. It looked like any other service contract, and I had to sign it with a regular pen. But then Henrik brought out a lancet and asked me to hold my hand out. He pricked my left thumb, then had me put my thumbprint next to my name. The instant I touched the paper, I had the sensation of being watched by an intangible Something.
“Welcome to the agency,” Henrik said and shook my hand.
I had no regrets. Magic existed. It was a dry sort of magic that smelled more of new car than frankincense, but it was there. It was only when I went to bed, and felt that presence watching me, that I wondered what I had gotten myself into. But by then it was already done.
My first assignment was for a client who had committed suicide at the tender age of thirty–two. Her career had only just begun, but the two novels she’d published had both won multiple awards, and she was already considered one of the brightest stars of our generation. She lay in the apartment for several days before she was found; by the time the undertaking firm had turned her over and the rituals were performed, her body was disintegrating. The embalming process fixes the cells in place and helps the resurrection spell to take hold, but it can’t repair what’s already broken. The spell skidded along her broken nerve–paths. The trial run had mostly yielded incoherent ramblings, Henrik said. I’d probably have to compile them into diary entries or prose fragments. It was standard practice in cases like these.
He showed me into a dimly lit office. The air was bone–dry and smelled of chemicals and cloying rot. It could have been an office like any other—bookcases along the walls, an adjustable desk with a computer and some potted orchids—if it hadn’t been windowless, and if there hadn’t been a corpse stretched out on a red velvet chaise longue. Henrik told me to sit down at the desk, and took a small wooden box from his pocket. He opened it and produced a red wax sigil, which he broke in two. He walked over to the chaise longue, pried the corpse’s jaws open and stuck in one half of the sigil. He put the other half under my tongue. Then he patted me on the shoulder and left, locking the door behind him.
As soon as we were alone, the dead woman spoke inside my head. Her voice reverberated through the roof of my mouth, intimate like a lover’s whisper. The words tumbled out in a stream. I did my best to keep up. When Henrik came to get me after a couple of hours, I had managed thirty pages, which I spent the afternoon organizing. This routine was repeated the next day and the next. After two weeks, the author fell quiet in the middle of a sentence. Henrik explained that this was how it happened. They talk until they run out of juice. Sometimes they start up again, sometimes not. My client didn’t speak another word. I was given a month to prepare the manuscript.
I turned my transcript into a poetic prose journal which the Daily News celebrated as “a sojourn through the darkest catacombs of humanity.” My client is still mourned. Teenage girls in black eyeliner and torn tights quote her on Twitter.
I rarely knew what shape a client would be in, only that the agency had done a trial run and chosen the ghostwriter accordingly. Some clients just mumble a few random words, and this requires the ghostwriter to do a lot of work. If that happens you’ll need to be familiar with the author’s body of work and able to replicate the style. If even then you don’t have enough material to create a full manuscript, it’ll either be sold as “fragments” or not at all. “Not at all” means that the ghostwriter might not get more assignments. It’s pointless to hire people who can’t produce readable material, after all.
So it’s always nice to get a clear–headed client who produces coherent stories or poetry. All you have to do is take notes and clean the transcript up. Some authors actually improve with death. They have nothing to lose, so they take risks: say things they never dared to say in real life, explore formats and genres they didn’t visit before. The readership isn’t always happy. Some of them want to remember the author that was, not the experiments found in the author’s desk drawer. Of course, that was none of my concern. As long as I delivered a readable manuscript that the agency could sell, I got paid.
The deal is offered to a lot of authors, but certain groups are more interested than others. Most clients I met, and heard about in the lunch room, were people who had never been allowed to be just “writers” but were always designated something else: women writers, immigrant writers, minority writers. People who weren’t allowed to represent humanity, only their gender or skin or faith or origin. No matter how successful they were alive, in death they were pictured as less important, less universal, or even written out of the literary canon. The author and playwright Anne Charlotte Leffler rivaled August Strindberg in her time, but while we were plagued with Strindberg I never got to read about Leffler in school. Karin Boye’s political commitment was gradually erased from cultural memory until all that remained was her black bob and some melancholy poetry. Only one of Katarina Taikon’s books is in print, despite the fact that her work is one of the few vaccines we have against the new wave of Roma persecution going through Europe. And so on, and so forth. A lucky few are chosen to be immortalized as representatives of their group, but there are only so many spots and not even the icons are safe.
But everyone loves a fresh corpse. The author has an upswing, and agencies and publishers have a brief window in which they can make a profit on readers making mourning purchases. That’s the whole business concept.
Authors who choose to sign this contract during their lifetimes know or hope that they will still have things to say, or are acutely aware that they might be forgotten. The contract is really not a guarantee for being remembered, or even published. It’s still all about what the agency thinks is sellable. But authors take what chances they get.
I’ve worked for all kinds. The poet whose ghazals ran like filigree from my fingers, from whose sessions I exited into a world that was brighter and sharper. The furious working–class author who talked so fast I couldn’t keep up. The children’s book author whose personality changed and who chanted obscenities until I broke down. That particular contract was cancelled ahead of time.
To cancel a contract ahead of time is to shut the resurrection spell down before it has run its course. I wonder if the consciousness that gets shut down like that, is torn away instead of gradually evaporating, finds its way to wherever they’re going. Perhaps it gets stuck in some kind of no man’s land. Or perhaps it’s all just electricity, synapses that stop firing, a biological computer that switches off. But could a biological computer write those ghazals?
Most ghostwriters eventually move on to other work. Writing for the corpses sucks the power out of your own prose; by the time you get home you have nothing left for your own writing, and even if you did, your fingers hurt too much. Somehow I managed to work on some projects of my own, and I’m very grateful for the training the agency gave me. I wrote two novels, three fragment collections, a handful of short stories and a poetry collection for the dead. Then I published my own debut, the short story collection Who Is Arvid Pekon?, and stopped taking assignments.
The agency called me in June 2013, after three years of silence. Like my very first assignment, the new one they were proposing concerned a woman in her thirties who had suddenly died. But this time it was Johanna. I was probably in shock, but it was so bizarre I burst into laughter: she had been crushed under a falling piano.
Just like I had predicted, Johanna’s career had skyrocketed. She had signed a post mortem contract, and the agency wanted me to do the job. Her death hurt so much I almost didn’t take the assignment. But I didn’t know who they’d asked before me (I wasn’t necessarily their first choice) or who they’d pick if I said no. Better me than someone who might not understand her work or mindset at all.
A relative in the funeral business once told me how hard it is to dress bodies that don’t assist you, how hard it is to make them up to look like something more than dolls. Someone had made an effort with Johanna. She rested on the chaise longue in a long–sleeved blue cocktail dress, covered from the waist down by a quilt that didn’t hide the fact that her lower body was obliterated. Her head was undamaged. Her dark, fine hair was combed into a wave across her forehead; her cheeks were discreetly rosy, her lips stained a gentle pink. Her eyes, those enormous dark pools that had always made her look a little wistful, were closed and probably filled with something so they wouldn’t sink. I was grateful for that. I couldn’t have handled seeing that bottomless gaze in decay.
Johanna was as productive in death as she had been in life, and she had a clear agenda. We wrote the last installment of a manga, completed some unfinished columns and made it halfway into a YA novel. Then the ramblings started, if they were indeed ramblings. Johanna stopped herself in the middle of a sentence and began talking about the dark. That it was dark inside her head. That it was cold. That she was cold and wanted to go home.
No one had told me where the authors thought they were. I had assumed that they lay in some kind of torpor between sessions, and came to only when someone put a sigil in their mouth. From what Johanna said, I realized they were awake the whole time. They lay there in their embalmed bodies, hour after hour, day after day, while the spell whittled down the remains of their intellects.
“I want to stop now,” Johanna whispered. “I don’t give a shit about what comes after. I want to go.”
But there was nothing I could do. The postmortem agreement stipulated that the author was to dictate for as long as he or she was able, and my own agreement forced me to continue. So I kept taking notes, and went back to my hotel apartment to weep over the phone to my husband, who thought I was just editing the notes Johanna had left behind.
Johanna left a big hole. Her friends threw an apocalyptic blowout of a party in her honor at a farm in Småland; two hundred people camped out, they were at it for three days. It became a festival. I wouldn’t have gone even if I’d been given leave. How could I look people in the eyes when I sat with her talking corpse all day?
The agency refused to let go of Johanna. They wouldn’t let me quit taking notes, because among her whispers sometimes new material emerged. The most excruciating part was that I could never reply. All Johanna knew was that someone was listening. She couldn’t feel my hand on hers, my voice in her ear. She was alone in there. And she lasted for months.
That fucking piano.
The Call to Arms
I started out by saying that the ghostwriter contract makes it almost impossible to uncover the business. This text took me almost a year to finish. I’ve had to do it in increments since every word cuts into me, literally and figuratively. It feels like being gnawed on from the inside. I discovered that it was easier to write about the agency in English (which makes sense, since the contract was in Swedish). Still, I’m in pretty bad shape now.
I’m doing this for you, for my colleagues. For the principle. I haven’t been offered a postmortem agreement myself; I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. If it does happen, it’ll be hard to say no. But the terms have to be reasonable. Most authors already toil for ridiculously small amounts of money; they’re used, spit out, forgotten. Those who get an offer sign a contract they don’t understand, because they don’t want to disappear. Then they lie there, trapped in their own bodies, only then realizing that they won’t be free until they literally expire. They have to be allowed to die when they want to. As for the ghostwriters: writing for a corpse is traumatizing. You can’t just make someone do that and then chuck them into the street without helping them process the experience.
As long as people die, and as long as certain groups of writers keep getting written out of history, I doubt that this agency will go out of business. That’s why the Writers’ Union must form a postmortem branch and negotiate a boilerplate contract for deceased authors and their ghostwriters.
I ask ghostwriters and those who have signed the postmortem agreement: talk about it, even if it hurts. I ask those of you who have no previous knowledge of this: ask your publishers questions. Ask them about the agreement, about the agency. We can’t afford to be desperate.
With hopes for a brighter future,
(Editors’ Note: “A Call to Arms for Deceased Authors’ Rights” is read by Erika Ensign, and Karin Tidbeck is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 7B.)
© 2015 by Karin Tidbeck