In this week’s episode, we spoke to Daniel Paisner, ghostwriter of seventeen NYT bestselling books among many, many others. Daniel is also a podcaster and author of his own novels, the latest of which came out this year. His long-spanning career includes writing with and for Gilbert Gottfried, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Aoki, Anthony Quinn, Serena Williams, and more.
We dove into Daniel’s experience ghostwriting, what makes a good collaboration and collaborator, ghostwriting advice, why and when he decided to write his own works, and more. Our conversation was extremely interesting and informative, and we got to hear about his own podcast, As Told To, a show where each episode features a conversation between Daniel and another ghostwriter.
Daniel’s latest book, Balloon Dog, is available now on Kobo. You can find out more about Daniel and his work on his website, or by visiting him on TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook.
- Daniel talks about how he started his writing journey, from his interest in journalism to freelance ghostwriting to a ghostwriting career
- We ask Daniel about the ghostwriting process, and how that collaboration pans out
- Daniel discusses how ghostwriting has developed, getting credited as a ghostwriting, and the changes in the publishing industry
- Daniel talks about his latest novel, Balloon Dog, a “bungled” art heist novel, and the inspiration behind it
- We get into how Daniel writes in different genres, and across different voices, and how he honours the authorial voice of others as well as himself and his own writing voice
- Daniel talks about what he’s working on now, and what he’s looking forward to writing next
- We hear about Daniel’s podcast, As Told To, where he chats with other ghostwriters and collaborative writers
- And much more!
Daniel on Twitter and Facebook
Daniel Paisner is a journalist, author and podcaster, with more than 70 books to his credit, including 17 New York Times best-sellers. He is the “voice” of Serena Williams, Steve Aoki, John Kasich, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington, Ray Lewis, Ron Darling, Gilbert Gottfried, Anthony Quinn and dozens of other name-above-the-title celebrities. He is the winner of two NAACP Image Awards for his work with Shark Tank panelist and serial entrepreneur Daymond John, and his novel “A Single Happened Thing” was named an Indies Finalist as best book of the year by the editors of Foreword Reviews. He has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, ESPN: The Magazine and on National Public Radio. New York magazine once called him “the world’s most prolific ghost,” which may or may not have been a compliment.
Over the course of his ghostwriting career, Paisner has taken on the real-life personas of dozens of compelling individuals, including a World Series of Poker champion; the son of a Yanomami tribeswoman; a plus-size supermodel; an FBI hostage negotiator; a three-term Democratic Mayor of New York City; a three-term Republican Governor of New York State; a daytime television talk show host; another daytime television talk show host; still another daytime television host; a #1 ranked women’s tennis player; a bilateral amputee mountaineer; an Oscar winner; an Emmy winner; a Tony winner; an “Apprentice” winner; two First Daughters; two network television weathermen; an unlikely prisoner of Libya’s civil war; a New York City bail bondsman; an undersea explorer; a world champion surfer; a foul-mouthed, misogynist comedian; an urban fashion mogul; a Cosby kid; an Olympic swimmer; an autistic high school student; an NFL Hall of Famer; and on and on.
Paisner hosts the podcast As Told To, which features long-ish, freewheeling-ish interviews with fellow authors about their experiences ghostwriting and collaborating with notable figures. His forthcoming novel, “Balloon Dog,” will be published by Koehler Books in June 2022.
Transcription by www.speechpad.com
Rachel: Hey, writers, you are listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Rachel, promotion specialist at Kobo Writing Life.
Tara: And I’m Tara, director of Kobo Writing Life.
Rachel: On today’s episode, we sat down and chatted with Daniel Paisner. Daniel is a journalist, author, and podcaster with more than 70 books to his credit, including 17 New York Times bestsellers.
Tara: We chatted to Daniel about his illustrious career as a ghostwriter, and how he got into that field from journalism, how he sort of captured the tone of the very different people that he’s written with, and then also how he got into writing his own work, and what’s his writing process alongside ghostwriting, and then writing his own fiction.
Rachel: It was an excellent conversation and we are really excited to share.
Tara: Welcome. We’re talking today to Daniel Paisner, who is a journalist, author, and podcaster with more than 70 books to his credit, including, and this is a long list now, but 17 New York Times bestsellers. He is the voice of Serena Williams, Steve Aoki, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington, Ray Lewis, Ron Darling, Gilbert Gottfried, Anthony Quinn, and dozens of other above the title celebrities. Thanks, Daniel, for joining us today.
Daniel: Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
Tara: Such a lengthy kind of…so many books to your belt there. I’m just wondering if you could tell us, like, how did you get your start in writing? Were you a writer first yourself, or was it a ghostwriter first? Just how did it begin for you?
Daniel: I’ve started out as a journalist. I always wanted to be a writer, and I came of age sort of in the post-Watergate era when I was starting to pay attention to the news and to the world around, and I decided I wanted to work in a newsroom, and I wanted to span the globe, and be a swashbuckling journalist, and an ink-stained wretch. And it never quite worked out that way. I worked in a newsroom for a little while. I did some freelance work for newspapers and magazines. I always had a novel cooking in my desk drawer. And I just sort of by happy accident fell into this ghostwriting line of work, and it was meant to be a one-off. It was a freelance assignment. It was one gig that was gonna run six months or eight months that paid well, and that was gonna be the end of it.
But lo and behold it was something I found either that I was good at it or that I was good enough to fool people into thinking I was good at it. And another one found me, and then another one after that, and here I am lo these many years later with all these books to my credit. I mean, part of the reason for that long list, Tara, that you read off is, you know, I’m an old guy, so if you do anything for long enough, you start to compile a list of credits. So that’s what I’ve got on my bookshelf.
Rachel: So I would love to just talk a little bit about the ghostwriting process, and what that collaboration is like between you and the person who you are ghostwriting for.
Daniel: You know, it varies from project to project. Everybody’s different. I’ve worked with people who consider themselves writers and are not, but they need to be honored and indulged in that. I’ve worked with people who consider themselves writers, and indeed they are. So that’s a different process too. It’s a true collaboration as writers. And then I’ve worked with others who recognize that what they bring to the table are the stories they have to share and their lived experience, and they’re happy to sit down across from me and shoot the shit for a bit, and see if we can tease a book out of them. So it kind of is an elastic process that has mostly to do with the comfort zone and the abilities of the people that I’m working with. So there is no… I mean, the reason you don’t study this stuff in journalism school or as an undergraduate is because there is no one way to help somebody write their book. You gotta sort of bend and adapt.
Rachel: Now, do you find one of those collaboration processes easier? I can only imagine the challenge that comes from working with someone who thinks they can write and they might be thinking incorrectly.
Daniel: Yeah, those are the worst. The easiest ones are the hands off ones where they trust you to kind of run with it, and they take what you write, and we send it off to the publisher, and very often, you know, they don’t even read the thing, which makes me uncomfortable. But those are certainly the easiest lifts on my end. The most rewarding are when they truly do roll up their sleeves and write along with me, and they find a way to grow the material I write on their behalf, and then I can find a way to grow the material that they write. The maddening collaborations are the ones where the person on the other side of the desk really doesn’t know how to construct not only a sentence, but how to build a paragraph, or structure a narrative. And it sort of makes double time work on my end. You know, I very often have written a book, sent it off to my partner, they kind of tear it up and rewrite it in ways that make them happy, but basically means I have to write the whole thing again. And then, of course, I have to say to them, “Oh, you’ve done such a wonderful job. The book is so much richer for your fingerprints.” But in fact, it’s just different. It’s just another version of the book that essentially I’ve written for them.
But, you know, it all works out in the end. I feel like my job is only done when they can stand in front of this book and feel a sense of ownership and a pride of authorship, whether or not they’ve ever sat down at the keyboard and written a word. It all comes from them and it’s all genuine to their experience. So I want them to feel like, in fact, they did write it. This is writing of a kind, it’s just not writing with a sharpened pencil on a blank piece of paper.
Rachel: And is the editorial process as collaborative as well, once the manuscript is finished? Does it go to both you and the person you are writing for?
Daniel: It does, but that’s kind of where the nuts and bolts of what I do come into play. So part of the service I typically offer is that I’ll be the point person on that. So I’ll deal with the publisher on a line edit and tracking, you know, copyedited changes. And will only flag things for my partner’s attention that I think they’re gonna want to see. It just makes the thing go a lot in a more streamlined way. Most of the folks I work with are very busy people. It was hard enough to get them to sit down in the first place to produce the book. And harder still to get them to follow this process through to publication.
Tara: I’m curious a bit about how you are able to use your sort of, like, skills as a journalist and as a writer to capture the tone of each author because, you know, journalism is like a very neutral tone, whereas sort of these books would be heavy on the personality. So how does that… How do you shape each one that you’re doing? Like, is that challenging?
Daniel: Yeah, I think you have to shed the idea that it’s journalism. At best it’s maybe journalism adjacent. You know, I’m working with one person’s account, one person’s point of view, and service of one person’s agenda. So it’s not as if we were setting out to create a balanced portrait and to cover all sides of the story. So I’m not…I very often will interview friends and family and colleagues, and I’ll second source things where I think it’s necessary, but mostly I’m reaching out to other people as a kind of lubricant to stir the memories of the people I’m working with. Just think of in your own life, if somebody were to ask you to tell them about your last vacation that you took, you’ll certainly be able to tell us where you went and who was with you, but you might not be able to step into the dailyness of what that time might have been like in your life.
However, if we sat down with the two or three people who were with you on your adventures, and you started talking, and maybe you guys were having a beer or having a meal, and it was a casual thing, memories would get stirred up. And out of that, I could find my way into some details of the story I’m gonna need. So I’ll talk to other people mostly for that purpose, to kind of jumpstart their…you know, to kick loose the cobwebs and get at the story that they might have forgotten on the surface.
As far as tone, you asked also about tone. I mean, that really comes from being a good mimic. The same way you could see an impersonator on “Saturday Night Live,” you know, really capture somebody’s voice or their inflection or their tone or their attitude. I’ve been able to do the same on the page. And, you know, your writers among your listeners will certainly know that there are little ticks of speech that people have, little phrases, little ways people have of speaking that are like signatures that you can find a way to attach to their commentary over the course of a whole book, and make it feel genuine, and of a piece with that person’s persona.
Rachel: I don’t know if you can answer this, but is there a personality or a tone of voice that you really struggled to capture? Has there been somebody that was really difficult to get their personality on the page? No pressure to answer.
Tara:. You don’t have to name anyone.
Rachel: You can just …
Daniel: I can speak generally. You know what, happily, that hasn’t been the case. I mean, they are wildly different. I’ve worked with people who are not educated at all. I mean, they haven’t even gone to high school, and it doesn’t mean they’re not smart people. It just means that their tone and the language that they use needs to sort of honor the life that they lived. So I tried to match my style to the way these folks are in real life. And if they’re not academics, if they’re not scientists, if they’re not politicians who are practiced in the art of speechifying, you know, let’s say they’re an athlete, I’ll try to make the book sound more conversational than written. Maybe my goal will be to have it feel like a bunch of stories spun over a campfire than to sit down to have something spilling out of somebody from an ivory tower smoking a pipe with leather patches on their elbows. So you find your way to the tone, and the style, and the voice that matches your subject matter, and lets that person go out into the world, and feel as if this truly reflects who they are and what their sensibility is.
Tara: Do you read a lot of memoirs, or is it too much close to the work that you do?
Daniel: I do. I find I read a lot of them. In recent years, I’ve been happily surprised at the depth of emotion and sort of the raw unhinged kinds of revelations that you’ve seen in a lot of contemporary celebrity memoirs. The culture has sort of shifted, you know, these things used to be kind of airbrushed in saccharin, and they felt as if they were put out by a committee of highly trained publicists who were schooled in the art and practice of putting their client’s best foot forward. Now we seem to want to see warts and all, and have people bear their souls. And when you think about it, you know, it’s a very intimate transaction between the author and the reader. Think of how you read books, where you read books. People read books in the bathtub, in bed, on the toilet, on the subway. You’re alone with your thoughts. It’s a very personal exchange, and I think readers today are able to smell a fish. You know, if they feel like someone is not being organic and genuine and true, or if they’re holding something back, I think that comes across. People want the real deal, and more and more celebrities who are leaning into these types of books are prepared to go there.
Tara: That’s sort of that, you know, real want for authenticity, leads a little bit into my next question, is the fact that you are very openly a ghostwriter for some of these books. You know, I think a lot of them you’re, you know, credited as the author, whereas historically, it would’ve been that level of secretiveness or anonymity around the fact that somebody has ghostwritten a book. So just wondering about how…if you can talk about like, is that normal? Is it always the case? Is that something that you try and push forward to have a sort of writing credit on certain books? What’s that like?
Daniel: Well, I mean, that’s where the term comes from. We’re ghostwriters because the work we do is unseen. We work in the shadows. And, you know, there’s a long history in publishing, probably going back to magazine and newspaper publishing, where writers were hired to give voice to, you know, a big baseball player, or a movie star, or to help a politician with a stump speech, or whatever it was, and we would do that in an uncredited way. The culture has changed a little bit. The conceit has changed. We are still ghosts, I still embrace the term. A lot of people I know who do this type of work prefer to be called collaborators, or story architects, or editorial consultants, or whatever you want to call it.
Tara: Oh, I like the sound of those last two. Those are very fancy sounding.
Daniel: Yes. Then we call, you know, our garbage men sanitation engineers, right?
Tara: Exactly. Artists, sandwich artists.
Daniel: Right. So to me, it doesn’t really matter what you call me. And it also in some ways doesn’t matter whether or not I get credit, I don’t have… I don’t think you can have ego in this type of work. You need to sort of separate yourself from the task at hand and from the agenda at hand. It’s not my story, it’s not my vision. I’m working in service of somebody else’s story, somebody else’s vision. Where credit becomes important to me and where it is negotiated, it’s my calling card. You know, if I have success with one book, if my Serena Williams book, for example, is successful, I want the publishing community to know that I’m the guy behind that book, so that maybe when there’s another tennis star who wants to write a book, that maybe that publisher or that athlete will think of me. So I don’t need it as an ego boost. I don’t need to stand in front of the window at Barnes and Noble and say, “Hey, hey, look at my name on that book.” But it does become an important credit that is currency of a kind in this type of work.
Rachel: Now you mentioned off the top that when you started in journalism, you always had a novel kind of going in your drawer, and we are gonna talk about your latest novel, “Balloon Dog.” But I’m curious if ghostwriting has kind of changed or shifted who you wanted to be as a writer or your writing style in general?
Daniel: I don’t know that it’s changed my writing style in general. I mean, the goal has always been to be able to write my own stuff and to make a living writing my own stuff. As exciting as some of these collaborations are, and some of them are truly exciting partnerships, you know, I’ve made very good friendships, in some cases sustaining lifelong friendships with people that I’ve worked with. I’ve helped to contribute to the national conversation on this or that issue. I’ve done books that are important, and will be read for generations. But I’d also love to just do my own shit. You know, I’m tired of waking up in the morning and helping carry somebody else’s water.
Has it changed my voice? I don’t know. I think it’s made me more efficient as a writer. I think it might have made me a better, cleaner storyteller. I think I’m better able to get at the heart of what I’m trying to say. I waste less time. I’ve learned…you know, I grew up with this romantic notion put out into the world by people like Hemingway who would say, you know, “You just gotta sit down and write.” I think Hemingway, I think his line was, “You have to just bite the nail,” right? “Some mornings you gotta sit yourself up and bite the nail and write.” And I find that quite the opposite is true as a novelist. You know, when I’m working on my own fiction, if it’s not coming, it’s not coming. I don’t know that that’s helpful to the writers among your audience, but to me, the stuff that’s pulling teeth for me is gonna read like pulling teeth on the page. So I think the better approach is when it’s not happening that day just to shut the faucet off, and go out for a walk or a run or do something else.
So by having sort of these two writing jobs, I’m able to…if things aren’t happening for me as a novelist, there is work lining up for me so that I can fill my days productively as a writer, a different kind of writer. I’m using different muscles, but I’m working and I’m being productive. And on those mornings when my own books happen and they have their own momentum, I’m fast enough and efficient enough in the other work I do that I can set them aside for a stretch until the fiction gods look elsewhere and smile on some other schmuck, and leave me alone for a while.
Rachel: I was gonna ask if you are usually working on your own work in addition to other writing projects, you usually have multiple things on the go at once?
Daniel: Well, we have to define work, Rachel. What does work mean? You know, sometimes if I am out for a run, or if I’m working out, or even if I’m just taking the dog for a walk around the block, it’s work of a kind, right? I’m noodling, I’m thinking of an idea. So I do always have a novel percolating. It might not be on the front burner, but there is something I’m mapping out in my head. I’m thinking through the arc of the story, the thrust of what it is I wanna say, the plot points that are giving me trouble.
When I am actually writing in full-on writing mode, I do like to be able to work in uninterrupted stretch. You know, there’s something thrilling to me about that breakneck pace where it’s coming and everything’s kind of flowing. And when you stop at the end of the day, you know exactly where you’re gonna start in again the next day. So I love those moments when I have the luxury of finding them, but because one type of writing is my job, and one is sort of not, even though these books get published and they make me teeny weenie bits of money, they don’t put my kids, you know, in orthodonture, you know, they don’t pay the tuition, they don’t pay the mortgage. So I forgot where I was going at the beginning of that sentence, so I will just trail off and let you ask another question.
Rachel: Well, I’m gonna ask a slight follow up along the same lines. So if you are in the midst of writing a novel of your own, but you are also writing from somebody else’s voice, do you ever have a hard time separating the two? From letting, like Gilbert Gottfried, for example, slipping into your own work?
Tara: Because he has very distinctive voice.
Rachel: Very distinct voice.
Daniel: Yes. I believe that would annoy the hell out of my readers. No disrespect to Gilbert Gottfried, the late great Gilbert Gottfried, who was a one of a kind talent, but his voice would certainly grate if it seeped into one of my novels unintentionally. By design, maybe it would serve a purpose. You know, one of the conceits I grabbed at for my new novel, “Balloon Dog,” was I put it in the voice of four different characters. You know, the story was told from four different perspectives. The idea was you’re inside that narrator’s head, even though they’re not directly narrating, but the way they think, the way each of those passages is written is distinctly different. And I think one of the reasons I leaned in that way was because it drew on whatever skills I’ve been able to develop over the years as a ghostwriter, channeling the personas of these people that I’m working with.
So, once I knew these characters well enough to feel like I could get inside their heads, I was then able to write as them, almost like I was ghostwriting their passage for them. So I felt that in this case, this wasn’t true for my previous novels, this is the first time I worked in that way. But I thought the way this book was set up, the way I, I guess, intentionally set this book up was that I allowed whatever talents I might have as a ghostwriter, I found a way for them to spill into my work as a novelist.
Rachel: That was actually one of the questions that I had for when we got into “Balloon Dog,” was how ghostwriting helped you inhabit the four narrators within the story. So…
Daniel: Okay, we can take that one off the list. Done.
Rachel: Chuck it off.
Rachel: So this seems like a great way to segue into “Balloon Dog.” For our listeners who haven’t had a chance to read it yet, could you give us kind of a brief synopsis about what it’s about?
Daniel: “Balloon Dog” is essentially about the bungled, ill-conceived theft of a Jeff Koons’ balloon dog sculpture. We’ve all seen versions, perhaps the kitchy versions of these Jeff Koons’ balloon dogs are everywhere. They’re ubiquitous. They’re kind of like the annoying smiley faces of our time. But some of these sculptures are enormous. I mean, they can fill a plaza in a city square, and some of them sit on a mantle piece and are kind of tiny, and they sell for tens of millions of dollars. And Koons does other work, this is not a knock on Koons. He does… You know, he is a brilliant sculptor, a brilliant artist. But here with his balloon dog series, he sort of tapped into the culture in a way that I found intriguing. And when people tell you, “You should write what you know,” well, what the hell do I know? I’m a struggling mid list, widely under-read aging novelist, right?
So, like the character in my book, Harrison Klott, you know, I’m trying to get a hearing, I’m trying to get eyeballs to what I work. And here’s a guy who just can’t quite make it happen for himself. And he’s at a place in his life as a writer where he’s wondering what he has to do to find an audience, and in fact, to even finish his next book. And lo and behold, he stumbles across this art heist, which leaves our characters questioning, who decides what is a valuable piece of art? Who decides what we’re gonna pay attention to as a culture? What books, what pieces of sculpture, what television shows break through the noise and become part of the conversation? And I love the idea of having something as familiar as this balloon dog sculpture stand as a representation of that.
So the book is about the theft of this sculpture from a very opulent home. The sculpture is stolen in plain sight, and it sets in motion a series of events where the bad guys can’t quite figure out what to do with it, the good guys who watch this sculpture get stolen don’t really realize it’s getting stolen. They simply think it’s being moved because, of course, great art can’t be stored outdoors in the winter in a mountain town. So great art can’t even be seen, it has to be warehoused, which leads into a whole other line of questioning and thinking among our characters, “What the hell is the value of this art if we’re squirreling it away and hiding it out for six months out of the year?” And anyway, things happen, adventures ensue, and awakenings occur.
Rachel: I’m just curious where the idea, like the first seed of this novel came from, because like you said, it’s about an art heist, but it’s also kind of like a meditation or an investigation on that moment when you wake up, and you look in the mirror, and you realize that you are much older than how you envision yourself in your head. So I’m just kinda curious, what was the first seed? Was it the kind of looking at what life is like when you reach that point? Or was it, you know, “It’d be fun writing an art heist.”
Daniel: So, no. So, the seed was an actual art removal moment that I had not expected. I was visiting a house of a friend of mine who happened to have…it was actually the brother of a friend of mine, who happened to have a fabulous sculpture on his front lawn. And it was kinetic. It was like a mobile. And it had to be moved with the seasons because you couldn’t leave it out during the winter. None of us who were staying in the house… And we were all sort of, you know, drunken idiots on a Saturday morning after a wild night of drinking fine wine. None of us knew that this sculpture was being moved, but nevertheless, there’s a knock on the door on a Saturday morning when we’re all half in the bag, and these eight guys, six or eight guys come, they got a flatbed truck, they got a crane, they have a couple of other vehicles, and they announced that they were here for the sculpture. And like idiots, we said, “Yeah, go ahead, take it.”
So we’re outside taking selfies. And it’s about an hour into this enterprise, and we’re fascinated by the crane lifting, you know, these two-ton pieces of metal. It occurs to somebody to call the homeowner. Now, happily, these guys were legit. They were there with portfolio. The sculpture was meant to be moved. We didn’t know that. And in that moment of not knowing, I had this idea for at least the jumping off point for a book. And if we go back to what we were talking about earlier, when are you working on a novel and when are you not, I walked around with that idea for a long time, you know, “What do I do with that story?” And at some point, all that noodling bumped it up against some of these other issues that I was, you know, turning over in my mind. You know, how does… Who decides what we’re all gonna read? You know, what books are gonna be talked about next season? How do I write one of those books?
And somehow these two threads kind of wove themselves together in my mind, and I wrote a fictional version of that art heist, and sort of imagined how that could go wrong from the bad guy’s perspective, who’s also wondering how it is that he might get caught up in the same currents that move the rest of the world. You know, he’s a somewhat educated guy, he’s around great works of art all the time. He knows what it is to move valuable pieces of art. He’s in and out of homes of fabulously wealthy people. But he never really gets his, he never gets to bite at the same apple that he’s visiting every day. So he’s going through some of these same thoughts himself. And then there’s a cuckolded soon-to-be divorcee who’s going through some similar issues of her own, and the wife of our frustrated writer who is herself frustrated, and taken together, I take these four characters and sort of rubbed them up against this conceit of a story. And lo and behold, we get this book “Balloon Dog.”
Tara: Nice. Can you talk a little bit about the writing process for these four characters, for example, like, did you plot out their lives and how it would be intermingled, or like, did you let them sort of direct you? Like what did this look like for you?
Daniel: Well, I think the answer to that probably reveals why I’m a wildly under-read novelist. So I really don’t work with an outline, and I didn’t really have a plot other than the ignition for this idea. What interests me, what amuses me, what entertains me and keeps me, you know, going back to my computer each morning when I’m in the middle of writing one of these things is I’m turning the page the same way the reader is. I wanna find out what happens. So I was content that I didn’t start writing this thing until I had four people I liked, four people with points of view that I wanted to explore, and I was able to position them around this story in ways that each one of them would add something of value, and help to turn it in a different direction. And then I went and saw what the hell happened, just like the reader is going to see what the hell happened.
So, I didn’t know where it would take me. Once I was happy with the persona and the voice that I had for each character, once I was familiar with what was at stake in their lives, what sort of pivot point were we meeting them at, and how are we gonna help them turn on that pivot point, then I was content to kind of go and run with it. The ghostwriting piece, I think, was helpful in forming a template for how those passages would sound, what the rhythm and tone of those pieces would be. But after that, it was kind of off to the races.
Another device I reached for here was I used a snatch of classic rock lyric to sort of accent each passage in each of these characters’ voices. With the idea being that the tone of that song itself, a classic rock song itself, like “Satisfaction” from the Stones, or, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” the Motown hit, or…I can’t even remember what else was in there, but each one of them would also speak into that space, I thought in a subtle way that might actually resonate with the reader. And even if I wasn’t ham-handed about bringing that across to the reader, my hope was that it would subtly seep into those passages as well.
Rachel: And when you were writing each of the four characters’ individual stories, did you stay in one voice and kind of go start to finish? Or did you find yourself jumping from point of view to point of view, like how the novel is set out?
Daniel: No, I kind of stayed in each of those characters’ voice, or at least their mindset. I mean, one of the things I’ve learned over the years, and for me it just came naturally. It wasn’t anything I studied and it’s not anything I’ve consciously developed, although I guess I’ve developed it the same way Malcolm Gladwell puts forward his 10,000 hours thing. I’ve been doing this for a shit long time. So eventually this stuff happens more easily for me than it might for somebody else.
So no, I didn’t really stray from their voices once I was inside their heads. I did have, as I was plotting, I did face that dilemma that every storyteller has, you know, “This bit of story should be told from whose perspective?” I sort of had to struggle, you know, “Was this part of the story Klott’s story to tell, or was it the bad guy Lem Devlin’s story to tell, or was it the wife’s story to tell at that point?” So I did struggle with who to hand the keys off to for the next passage, but once I was in those passages the voice sort of flowed fairly freely. Does that answer your question a little bit?
Rachel: Yeah. Did you ever write more than one and just decide, “No, it’s better off this way,” or…
Daniel: No, I never did. Nothing winds up on the cutting room floor. We don’t waste anything at this book factory. We use it all.
Rachel: Precious words. Yes. I will say, I do think it’s funny you keep referring to Lem as the bad guy because throughout the whole reading process, that’s who I was rooting for, which I think maybe says something about me.
Daniel: Well, I mean, he was doing a bad thing. I liked him too. He’s sort of my favorite. I mean, he was a bad guy with a thoughtful heart, you know, he wanted more and he didn’t quite know how to get it. He didn’t know where to reach for it. And I like… I don’t want to give away the ending, but to me he turns out to be a good guy, you know? But there’s no mistaking the fact that he engineered this theft.
Rachel: I guess that’s fair. When it comes to your writing process in general, do you find that the, like, action of sitting down and writing differs greatly between writing fiction, you’ve written non-fiction books as well, and ghostwriting, or is your sit-down-and-write process pretty much the same?
Daniel: You know, the process is pretty much the same. The writer’s block piece that writers often talk about doesn’t really come into play when I’m writing a non-fiction book of my own, or when I’m working on one of these ghostwriting books because the story has up and happened, you know, I’m writing about a lived experience. There is a path from point A to point B to point C, I know what the story is. With “Balloon Dog,” I didn’t really know what the story is. So there were some days I’d sit down and nothing would come, and those are the days I would get up and go do something else. So I sort of forgot your question because I was so busy talking, but does that answer it a little bit or do you wanna hear…
Rachel: Yeah, I was just curious if you tackled different genres differently, but it sounds like the process itself is the same, aside from the writer’s block piece.
Daniel: The process is the same. And with…you know, most of my ghostwriting projects have a very firm deadline because these people who have lived these book-worthy lives, you know, they’re not having their 15 minutes of fame. Very often, they have longer than 15 minutes allotted to them. But the publisher is on board because there’s something timely about what they have to say. So there is an urgency and we do have to meet a deadline. With my novels, nobody cares when they’re done. When they’re done, they’re done. So those can always be set aside. I don’t have the luxury with a memoir on someone else’s behalf of saying, “Hey, it’s not coming today.” I better move on. If I have to write 10,000 words in a week, then I have to write 10,000 words in a week. And maybe they won’t be very good, but they’ll get us closer to our deadline.
Tara: So “Balloon Dog” came out this year, the summer of 2022, so did you write this during the pandemic?
Daniel: I did actually. It was my project that kept me sane during that first summer of COVID. So the book, as you know if you’ve read it, was set in primarily in Park City, Utah. It’s also set in New York. Curiously, I live in Park City, Utah and in New York. How does that happen? So I wrote this in Park City and I had a pocket on my schedule where I guess because of the pandemic, a lot of my other work with…you know, as a collaborator was quiet. COVID has kind of changed the way I work. We do a lot of Zooms. I don’t have to fly around the country and meet with people the way I used to. But in those first three or six months, we didn’t quite know that yet, and I was still of the mind that these books work best when I’m in the same room with my subjects. I still believe that to be the case. However, you know, Zoom is a great workaround. The telephone is a great workaround if we can’t be together.
Nevertheless, I had this pocket of time where I didn’t have a busy schedule. And I finally had an idea of where I wanted to go with this book “Balloon Dog.” So I would sit down on a deck that we had outside our house in Park City, and I’d get up every morning early because even when I’m there for a long stretch, I still stay on East Coast time. So I was up every morning at like 6:00 in the morning and I’d be writing. And it got to where I could kind of, you know, sort of time when the sand cranes would come for a visit on the lake that’s beyond our house.
And even for a stretch of time there was this hang glider dude who would launch off a mountain behind our house and land across the way from us daily at the same time every day. And I mentioned this to a Park City publication that did a feature on me when the book came out, and within an hour after this piece went online, I got this friend request by this outdoor adventure enthusiast in Park City with a very active Instagram of hang gliders and hot air ballooners. So I sent him a note, I said, “Are you this guy that would come by every morning?” He says, “I can’t tell you that because the cops are still looking for me.” So apparently you’re not allowed to land across the way from where I live in Park City without a permit on a hang glider.
So yes, it was a COVID project and it was deliberately not set in COVID times. If you read the book, you’ll notice it was very current. I wanted it to be sort of in these weird post-Trumpy times, but I wanted it also to be in these pre-COVID times because I wasn’t sure how to write about that. I’m not sure how people feel about that. I don’t know what place we’re gonna make for that in our rear-view mirror as we move forward. Will it be a blip? Will it be a defining moment? Will it be something we’d sooner forget? So I decided to take the chicken shit way out and avoid it entirely, but I didn’t wanna lose the contemporary piece. So I wanted it to be as close to of the moment as possible. So it was set like in 2018 or 2019 or so.
Tara: Yeah, that’s a really interesting problem about whether to include it or not. I know it’s the same with like other media with like TV shows and stuff. I don’t know, personally, like, let’s never talk about it again, but I totally understand. It’s this huge historic event like, you know, ongoing.
Daniel: I mean, I could certainly see a story that might have to do with it and in that case, you know, you write into that moment. But if it’s simply the backdrop to a love story or to the struggle of these hardworking, well-meaning people trying to lift themselves onto a better platform, and a more meaningful life, it seemed to me extraneous and that it would only get in the way. So I set it aside. Maybe if I were to sit down now to write it, I might approach it differently.
Rachel: I was gonna ask if writing during the pandemic was a challenge because we’ve talked to a lot of writers that found the isolation challenging. But it sounds like you had a great system going.
Daniel: You know, I think writers are always isolated, right? Everybody’s talking about working from home and how it’s changed their lives. I’ve always been, you know, the idiot who sits in his underwear and writes books all day, you know, and so it really hasn’t changed the dailyness of my work that much. It’s changed the sort of the hunting and gathering aspects of my ghostwriting work when I have to go off and hang with these folks in their own environment, that part disappeared. So for me, writing a novel in that sort of isolation bubble was of a piece with the way I’ve lived my life as a writer for the last 30 years. I can’t imagine writers really minded it all that much unless they didn’t get out of the house at all.
Tara: I think the extra distractions I hear, because usually they get the house to themselves. So I think some of the challenge was kids being home or partners and…
Daniel: Oh, this is true, this is true. Yes, we did not… Some of my adult-ish kids decided to give up their apartments and to live with us here in New York and in Utah. And there’s not enough work stations to go around when you have three or four people working at home. So yeah, that could be a wearying part of it, but it was all good.
Tara: So what are you working on now? Are you still using the hang glider as a clock or how is that going?
Daniel: I’m working. I’ve actually been very busy on the collaborative front as it often happens in this type of work. I can’t talk about these things until these books come out. Very often, many of these books are not even announced in the trades until they’re ready for publication. So I’m working on a few books that have me a little bit excited. And I’ve also got the whiff of a germ of a hint of an idea for another book that I’ve been walking around with for a while which has me intrigued, but I’m not yet at the writing phase, so I have not visited the sand cranes or the hang gliders. So I do sit out on the porch and write every morning, but I’m writing other people’s shit, not my own.
Tara: So we’ll come back to you in a year, and you can tell us all about it.
Daniel: Come back to me in a year. Yes, please do. Please do.
Tara: I won’t press and ask if one of the things you’re working on is the new Britney Spears memoir.
Rachel: Oh, my God.
Tara: I won’t press you to answer that.
Daniel: I am not, that book has passed me by, that book did not even come to me. There was a time, interestingly, Rachel, you know, I’ve been at this long enough where there weren’t a whole lot of ghostwriters doing this when I started out. So whenever there was a big name above the title, hot shit celebrity memoir that was being announced, it would often come to me as a possibility. I wouldn’t get all the gigs, but I would at least some…you know, my name would be in the mix for a lot of them. Now, there are a lot of people who do this kind of work. There are a lot… And I talk to a bunch of them on this podcast that I started a year ago, which was another one of my pandemic projects.
I figured I’m talking to these people anyway, you know, we belong to these like ghostwriter support groups. I might as well run a microphone and see if I can, you know, find a way to institutionalize it and monetize it. But there are a lot of writers who do it as kind of a one-off, or maybe they have writers’ block and it’s a stop gap, and they have a certain skill that they can apply to this other type of writing. So they replenish their coffers for a little bit and take a breath from their own work, and they go off and do this for a little while.
I’ve talked to teachers who started out in a whole other career and find themselves leaning in this way. So there are all kinds of ways to do this now. And it means, I think that probably explains, going back to what we talked about at the top of this conversation, why a lot of these celebrity driven memoirs have gotten so much better and so much more intimate over the last few years. I think because people are working in this way with a fresh lens, you know. You don’t have the same tired old hacks like myself doing these books and phoning them in. People are bringing something exciting to the table and they recognize that there is a vulnerable, or compelling, or a helpful story that they can help put out into the world. And they’re bringing a different set of tools to it. So that’s kind of great.
Tara: Well, if you’re ever writing a book about say, ABBA or the History of the Eurovision, and you need to get some research, I’m happy to help you out.
Daniel: Well, let’s define research there. What does that mean?
Tara: You know, if you just need someone to talk to that can fill you in about, maybe mostly about how… I’m from a town that hosted Eurovision, I was very obsessed with it, and like studied it as part of a university course once. So.
Daniel: Really? Okay.
Tara: Yeah. And then Rachel can fill you in on anything Buffy-related…
Rachel: That is true. Yeah.
Tara: You passed up Britney. We can’t offer you that.
Rachel: I’ve learned more about Eurovision since starting at Kobo than I ever needed to.
Tara: It’s extremely political. It’s very interesting.
Daniel: I needed to do a deep dive into the world of EDM when I worked with Steve Aoki a few years ago. You know, this was music my kids were listening to. I certainly wasn’t listening to it. And, you know, in order to spend time with Steve, who’s all over the place, I mean, this guy famously does not sit still. There was an Netflix documentary on him called “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” So if you blink, this guy’s halfway across the planet. So I had to travel with him on his tour bus for a week or so. And we would bounce from all these…he was on a Midwestern tour, so he went from like Milwaukee, Detroit, I don’t remember where else we went. Chicago, Columbus, who knows where we were. And the only times he would sit still was when we were barreling from one city to the next at 3:00 or 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. And I kind of had to immerse myself into that world in order to write about it on his behalf. So I went to a bunch of his shows, and I came away with an appreciation for what he does. So, you know, maybe ABBA is next for me. Who knows?
Rachel: Well if it is, you know who to call.
Tara: Yep. You’ve got my number. It’s great.
Daniel: Okay. You can be the editorial consultant’s editorial consultant.
Tara: Oh, happily.
Rachel: Before we let you go, because I am cognizant of the time, you mentioned that you have your own podcast talking to ghostwriters. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about it.
Daniel: So it’s called “As Told To,” and it’s distributed and produced by the Writer’s Bone Podcast Network, which does a bunch of writer-centric shows out of Boston. They have like a dozen shows in their quiver. This is one of them. It’s available wherever podcasts are sold. And what I do, it’s a long-form conversation, a lot like this conversation, where I talk to other ghostwriters and collaborators. and we talk a little bit about craft, how the sausage is made. It’s kind of like a car talk for ghostwriters, but it’s one guest and we really kind of go at it, and look at how they got started in this line of work, what they’ve gotten from this line of work as writers, you know, whether this is something they’re gonna keep doing, or if this is something they’ve parked behind them and they’ve moved on to something else.
It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a good creative outlet for me. It’s a way to build community, I think, among a group of people who have defied community just by our choice of careers. You know, we work as lone wolves, and we’re very rarely in the same place at the same time together. So we can’t swap trade secrets. So it’s been a lot of fun.
And then I’ve expanded the format where we’ve included some songwriters who work in collaboration with others. I’ve had some joke writers on, comedians who started out, you know, writing jokes for $6 a pop for Joan Rivers, that kind of stuff. And Stevie van Zandt came on when his memoir was out last year because he quite famously wrote this book himself without the help of a ghostwriter, so I wanted to talk to a iconic celebrity, you know, this great rock and roller. I wanted to talk to somebody who felt that they can go it alone, who didn’t need a schmuck like me to help them, to talk about what that process was like for them. So it’s been great. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s called “As Told To: The Ghostwriting Podcast.” And we can use some listeners, so send some of your folks our way, and we’ll do the same to you.
Tara: Absolutely. So where can listeners find out more about you or find you online?
Daniel: I am active on the Twitter. What is my Twitter name? I don’t really know. Do you have show notes you can put it up on?
Daniel: I think it’s @DanPaisner or @DanielPaisner. I’m on Facebook @DanielPaisnerBooks. And I am now on TikTok @DanielPaisnerBooks. And I don’t know why or what the hell I’m doing there, but people say this is where you’re supposed to be. So tell that to the three or four followers that I have over there. It’s not really moving the needle on book sales, baby, but…
Rachel: TikTok is wild. I don’t understand it either. I’m just a lurker, I just scroll through. I don’t post. But good luck.
Daniel: It’s really smart though. When you scroll through, it kind of knows what you like and where you stop so that each subsequent time you scroll through, you’re getting more and more of what might hold your interest.
Tara: Yeah, I love them. It’s wild.
Daniel: It’s very strange. It’s really very strange. I don’t like myself when I’m on the TikTok, but nevertheless, I am on the TikTok.
Tara: Oh, well, it’s been so lovely talking to you today, Daniel. Thanks so much for taking the time with us.
Daniel: Thank you both for having me on. All the best to you.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the Kobo Writing Life Podcast. If you’re interested in picking up Daniel’s books, we will include links to them in our show notes. And if you are enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com. And be sure you’re following us on all socials. We are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter, and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Tara: This episode was hosted by Tara Cremin and Rachel Wharton, with production by Terrence Abrahams. Editing is provided by Kelly Robotham, and our theme music was composed by Tear Jerker. And thanks to Daniel for being such a great guest. If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.