Ghostwrite Books for Celebrities. These three skills helped me succeed.

  • Johnny Rodgers is a novelist and ghostwriter for celebrities, athletes, and CEOs.
  • After working with a celebrity she met through her literary agent, she built a network of clients.
  • What has contributed to her success is empathetic listening and finding purpose in someone’s story.

Writing was the life raft I climbed while undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in my early thirties. I’ve always been an avid, interested, talented reader, but I’ve never dedicated myself to actually writing a book. Cancer treatment has left me devastated physically, emotionally and financially and forced me to live in a secluded place where writing is the only thing I can do.

My first novel, Crazy to Experience, which I published in 1996, actually saved my life. It was followed by a second novel, Sugarland in 1999, and then I wrote a memoir about my experience with cancer called Bald in the Land of Big Hair in 2001, which became an international bestseller.

While my third novel was in the making at HarperCollins, the wife of a literary agent spoke with the mother of a celebrity at a cocktail party, and she randomly got into conversation. The two decided that helping the celebrity’s mother write a memoir would be a great idea for me. My agent called the next day to ask if I wanted to be a ghost writer.

I said, “Sure.” “What is a ghost writer?”

When you see a book written by a rock star, professional athlete, CEO, or other extraordinary person who isn’t a writer, it’s likely a professional writer who either wrote it for them or holds their hand through the process. I’ve done both of these things and everything in between.

Having worked with this celebrity’s mother, the editor of that book entered me into a political memoir. Then the editor of that book gave my name to a colleague who was editing a book with actress Roe McClanahan, whose agent recommended me to Broadway actress Kristin Chenoweth, who was dating playwright Aaron Sorkin, who had a party where I met actress Swoosie Kurtz. Through word of mouth, I found clients and built a brand that included a talent for voice, an ear for more meaning, real TLC for my clients, and a history of delivering merchandise on schedule.

Reading taught me how to write. Publishing taught me how to edit. As a ghost writer, I reinvent the wheel for every client: No two books are the same, and each has its own unique process.

Fifteen years and many books later, I have fully embraced the ghost life. My work has taken me to film and television, behind the scenes of a Broadway play, understage on a rock star’s world tour, to parties in Hollywood, flea markets in rural France, the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, a damp basement filled with smashed crime scene photos, and so much more. Other places I would not have seen if I had chosen any other field of work.

In my experience, three core skills have made a huge difference in how I succeed in this role.

empathetic listening

studies The brain’s “supportive listening” process has been linked to the production of amino acids and oxytocin, which contribute to neural repair and plasticity. In other words, being involved, paying attention, and allowing yourself to see the world through someone else’s eyes actually makes you smarter and better able to process your thoughts and experiences.

The key to compassionate listening is to ask questions that open the doors to the deeper story.

Years ago, a client of my political memoir told me a story about a difficult experience she had in the 1950s. I listened without interruption and then asked, “What shoes were you wearing?”

“What difference does it make?” I asked, stunned and slightly offended.

“If you’re wearing heels,” I said, “that means you’re expecting someone to drive you home.”

“Pumps,” she said. “Navy blue with a three inch heel.” Then the real story broke: A friend who wouldn’t turn up, a judgmental mother, a long walk that left her feet stiff and bleeding, and a lifelong inability to trust anyone again.

Purpose-driven storytelling

I always start the memoir process by guiding my clients through a timeline of their lives. I create a document that every year includes the book with cultural and historical tags (world events, blockbuster movies, top 10 movies, etc.) that help my clients come to terms with their memories. I don’t ask questions. I listen for questions to introduce themselves.

Looking at pivotal moments from the perspective of an observer rather than a participant is a powerful exercise that allows us to examine the motivation behind certain choices in life. I listen for inflection points — plot twists that take the story in a new direction — and ask about the purpose of each pivotal action and reaction.

Playwright David Mamet says there Three Magical Questions Which must be answered in each scene: Who wants what and who? What are they willing to do to get it? why now?


As a young novelist, I was thrilled to see my name on the cover of a new book. But as a ghost, I’m happy to let my client do the public-facing work while I work undistracted from my beach house in Washington State, far from the wonderful worlds I write about.

It’s easy to lose yourself in a great diary or novel. The hard part is maintaining your voice by making time to do your spiritual projects. That is why I continued to write my novels.

Sometimes my name is on the cover of a client book, but more often than not, I do what ghosts do: disappear. Many people are baffled by the idea of ​​letting clients take credit for my work. In theory, I think ghost writers should always be recognized in some way, but for me, invisibility goes hand in hand with peace and productivity.