Book Box: The Ghostwriter and the Prince

Jan 16, 2023 10:23 AM IST

A ghostwriter speaks for a prince in this must-read memoir. Also, meet Nishka Rathi who reveals the secrets of good ghostwriters.

Dear Reader,

Shoe Dog, Spare, Open. PREMIUM
Shoe Dog, Spare, Open.

I met JR Moehringer 14 years ago.

He appeared in the acknowledgements of a favourite book — Open by Andre Agassi.

He should have been on the cover, said Agassi.

Some years earlier, while playing his final US Open, Agassi had discovered The Tender Bar by JR Moehringer. He was so struck by this memoir, he spent all his free time reading it. Soon after, he invited Moehringer to dinner, at his home in Vegas. With that, was born a partnership which would go on to make Moehringer the world’s most famous ghostwriter.


The book that emerged from their collaboration, the bestselling Open, pulls us in, from the very start. Here’s how it begins:

I open my eyes and don’t know where I am or who I am. Not all that unusual—I’ve spent half my life not knowing. Still, this feels different. This confusion is more frightening. More total.

I look up. I’m lying on the floor beside the bed. I remember now.

After Open, Moehringer wrote another bestselling memoir - Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike.

Shoe Dog, like Open, is earthy and tactile, it blends action and reflection, capturing the struggle of a man who is trained as an accountant, but wants more. We follow Knight as he gets on flights with his little guidebook of how to do business with the Japanese, as he forges alliances with sportspersons and builds the world's most famous sports brand.

Shoe Dog.
Shoe Dog.

Here’s how Shoe Dog opens:

I was up before the others, before the birds, before the sun. I drank a cup of coffee, wolfed down a piece of toast, put on my shorts and sweatshirt, and laced up my green running shoes.

And now, Moehringer is back.

This time, he speaks for a rebel prince, a man who decided to walk away from his family and his royal titles. If that were not story enough, the family that he walks away from, is the same one that has held much of the world in thrall for centuries, the family that continues to claim the moral high ground in ways of communicating and living.

Spare is the counter-narrative to that story.

It’s worth a read for just that reason. It also helps that it’s written in such a vivid and compelling way. And that it raises issues that affect us all - like how we should bring up our children, why purpose is so primary, and the stranglehold of cultural conditioning and war.


Admittedly, there is a fatigue factor with this family fight story, with its many renditions and rehashes already, tabloid reports, interviews and documentaries.

But there is a difference with this version.

It is a book.

This gives you, dear reader, the chance to engage with the larger canvas of this family saga, and to reflect on the depths and nuances of this conflict on your own. Plus, reading JR Moehringer is a pleasure in itself. He is, after all, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

Closer to home, meet Nishka Rathi. This banker-turned-ghostwriter describes how she draws out people’s stories to create compelling books. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Nishka Rathi.
Nishka Rathi.

Tell us about your childhood reading.

I read newspapers, old Readers Digest magazines, my mother’s hoard of Women’s Weekly magazines, everything I could get my hands on. We had a cardinal rule that we don’t buy books, except on special occasions like birthdays. So the rest of the year, I re-read the books I had. We had annual trips to Agra (my Nana's house) and my mom would take out her hoard of British Women’s Weekly magazines to the sun. I would sit next to that massive trunk as they were pulled out and choose some for that day. I started reading those romances from the time I was 5. Just read them without understanding and let the words wash over me. This was a ritual for years, and soon, I could understand them!

Has your reading changed?

Over the years, my reading has changed, but one thing remains constant — I love re-reading the books I like. I see it as a way to understand the flow and rhythm of words because the story is now well-known and I am not surprised by it. That way, I look at the way the words flow, and the chapters are created.

When did you ghost-write your first book?

I graduated with an MBA in 2004, worked in a bank and realised that banking life was not for me, but I didn’t know what else to do. Then a few years after my daughter was born, I started working as a technical writer and blog writer.

One day, I received a proposal “I have a project… a client wants a book written, would you do it?” In my naivete, I thought, book-writing would be an extension of blog writing. I wrote my first few books like that, without meeting the author. Even questions would be answered via email. They were basic books, but they trained me in outlining an idea and building an interesting narrative.

Later, I started working directly with authors. I learnt how to speak in my author's voice, understand the idea from their perspective, and most importantly, I learnt to ask questions.

Tell us about your writing process.

I begin with an empathetic listening process which is designed to build a framework for ideas. Often, authors don’t have a clear idea of what they want to share, or they have too many ideas and think that all those ideas will fit into one book. We have 4-5 days of discussions. Everything is recorded and then transcribed. I go through the notes, find gaps, and ask more questions. After this, I write chapter by chapter, taking reviews at every stage. By the end, we have a fully written book, but it’s not perfect. The author has their whole idea written down, they can ‘see’ it well. That’s the creative process, we go through the entire book and re-shape it. This can be drastic or basic. But it is a very important stage and shouldn’t be missed in the rush to create a book.

Sometimes authors think they will tell you everything in a few sittings and then you will write it down perfectly in one go. But I tell my authors, if you want your book to be authentic and have your voice, I need time with you, to get into your head, and see things from your perspective.

My work also involves a lot of emotional responsibility. Even if my authors aren't the ones writing, they feel the same insecurities and doubts of a writer. I need to guide them, talk to them, and help them through those processes.

Do you have any role models for ghostwriting?

When I started ghostwriting, I knew no one who did this. Then I discovered Ghostwriting by Andrew Crofts. A few years ago, I met Derek Lewis who is a ghostwriter based in the United States. I was mentored by him and read his book, The Business Book Bible.

What are the skills needed to be a good ghostwriter?

You need to listen deeply and hear things that are unsaid. They form the basis of most of your questions because, when people tell you things, they don’t really explain the background or the reason why they feel a certain way. They think it’s understood.

The second thing is to keep asking questions. You are building a mental picture in your head, understanding the milieu, the niche, and the technicalities.

And then, of course, you have to be empathetic. You have to have the ability to put yourself in your author and target readers' shoes and think from that position — of what matters to them.

And finally, what are you reading currently?

The Mahabharata by Ashok Banker

Let’s Build a Company by Harpreet Grover

The Family Chao by Samantha Chang

Next week, we return to The Life-Changing Magic of Reading Plans with books to help you reinforce your reading resolutions. These insightful books on habits in human beings will help you make the changes you would like in your life and stick with those changes.

Until then, Happy Reading.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at

The views expressed are personal

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