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Ghost to the Stars : William Novak Is the Invisible Writer Behind Memoirs by Lee Iacocca, Nancy Reagan and--Soon--Magic Johnson

September 17, 1992|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWTON, Mass. — For a writer who's made the bestseller lists five times in the last 10 years, William Novak has an identity problem. How else to describe a man who wrote one of the most popular nonfiction books of all time, yet is unknown to most Americans?

Soft-spoken and urbane, Novak is not a fixture on talk shows or a regular at Elaine's. But when it comes to the celebrities he's collaborated with on books, millions of readers would know him instantly: Lee Iacocca, Nancy Reagan, Oliver North, "Mayflower Madam" Sydney Biddle Barrows, former House Speaker Tip O'Neill and, in an autobiography coming out next month, Magic Johnson.

"My wife jokes that when we go to parties, she should wear a sign that reads, 'With William Novak,' " says the author, a wry, enigmatic fellow in his early 40s. "But then again, that might confuse some people."

Or clue them in to a private joke. Novak is a ghostwriter, perhaps the best in the business, and when high-powered publishers look for someone to help ink a million-dollar memoir, his name is on everyone's short list. Yet it's nothing he ever planned, and to a writer who prides himself on his own voice and view of the world, the experience has been puzzling.

"No kid ever grows up believing he wants to be a ghostwriter," Novak says, looking down the tree-lined streets of his suburban home near Boston. "And as a writer, obviously there are things I want to do on my own. I plan to do them. But this work can be seductive. Very seductive indeed."

Let us count the ways: It isn't just that Novak, a basketball fanatic, earned a healthy six-figure advance and got to spend hours with Magic Johnson on their forthcoming book. Or that he interviewed other NBA all-stars, like Kareem and Bird. When Novak needed more time, Johnson invited him to come to Hawaii. On other occasions, when Novak flew to Los Angeles, he stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel. His sons got to meet Johnson, and a home snapshot of Magic, his wife, Cookie, and their baby is taped to the author's refrigerator.

For his earlier books, there were White House meetings with the Reagans, visits to O'Neill's elegant home in Cape Cod, clandestine interviews with North and high-powered sessions with Iacocca, the Chrysler CEO. The work is demanding and often driven by tight deadlines. But it's never dull.

Ten years ago, when Novak was a struggling writer, he earned $45,000 plus bonuses for "Iacocca," a monster bestseller that is the all-time leader in hardcover nonfiction sales. The ghostwriter never got a penny in royalties for the book, which sold 2.7 million copies and sparked the boom in tell-all celebrity memoirs.

Today, Novak has more clout in the industry. He's been a quiet, steady presence behind the scenes, and most readers would be amazed to learn about the Real Bill Novak--a man who once wrote a controversial book about marijuana use and whose secret goal is to study kosher culture. He comes up with ideas for offbeat books every week--but business always gets in the way.

"In terms of sheer, raw success, I believe Bill is the best," says Peter Osnos, a Random House vice president and the editor of four Novak titles. "There are a number of extremely good people who do this kind of work in today's marketplace, and they succeed. But nobody has his consistency."

Novak works quickly, often under enormous pressure, Osnos says, adding that his colleague "is the equivalent of a great character actor--someone who has the ability to subsume his own character, no matter how interesting the part that he's playing. You can't make the person you're writing about sound vastly more articulate or insightful than they really are, or goofier and sillier than they are. Somehow, you have to capture their real persona."

Not an easy task, says Novak, especially when Nancy Reagan announces in her first meeting with you that she'd rather not chat about astrology. Or when Barrows, the madam of a notorious Manhattan call-girl ring, refuses to talk about sex. Life gets absurd when you're holed up in a hotel room with Oliver North and Ollie hides in the bathroom every time room service delivers a ham sandwich. As a ghostwriter, Novak says, you have to cater to each individual--and the final product has to be believable.

Commercial, in other words, and that raises some sticky questions: Doesn't Novak tire of putting words in other people's mouths? Isn't it deflating to crank out an official history, instead of a more freewheeling book? And hasn't he given up something precious--his independence--simply to make a buck?

The writer smiles and notes that, with the exception of his own books, he rarely reads celebrity autobiographies. He gestures to the titles stacked on his living room shelves, a mixture of politics and current fiction, and reminds a visitor that books like "Iacocca" are a job, not his life's work.

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