Ghosting the Dead: ‘Numb’ by Louis La Roc
There is much controversy about this book – is it a ghost written memoir or a work of fiction? Here ‘Louis La Roc’ puts his case:
I write in the dark. When I go outside, I deny what I do. Although I’ve global book sales of 2 million, nobody knows my name. It’s because I’m a ghostwriter. I’m paid to pen the life stories of celebrities. Acclaim goes to the ‘author’ whose name appears on the book. I stay mum, my ego parked in the garage.
I quit practicing law in Ireland to ghostwrite for a global pop star, a Hollywood actress, a world-famous football manager and a deceased war reporter. Under my pseudonym, Louis La Roc, I blog about my exploits in the ghostwriting trade at www.louislaroc.com.
The last book I wrote – and which I’m allowed acknowledge – is the strangest yet. Numb: Dairy of a War Correspondent (Liberties Press) recounts the true story of a recently deceased English journalist, who I call ‘Alan Buckby’. He was in Syria and Iraq as Jihadi John beheaded other journalists. Numb is the terrifying biography of a psychopathic war reporter who got away with murder, torture and rape. Not even his wife knew about his double life.
How do I explain bringing such horrors to life in a book? Easy. A bricklayer lays blocks, a chicken lays eggs and I pen words. We all deliver and get paid. Who am I to judge another person’s life? Does a bricklayer judge an architect’s work? I never met Buckby. He died in October 2014. I simply put his dairies together. I live in grey. I’m a blurry sort. I mean, the judgment call: do I take the job or pass? If I didn’t take the ghostwriting job another ghostwriter would have.
Usually ghostwriting jobs come my way via leading publishing houses or through my website. But Buckby’s diaries came via a friend of his wife. In October 2014, I met ‘Kay Buckby’ in London. At first she was wary. Nervous. Could I be trusted? I guess it was understandable, given the material she was sitting on.
I asked her about the good times with her husband. It helped her relax. Then I asked about her motivations in wanting to publish the double life of her husband. It wasn’t revenge she was after. She thought it was important to get the truth out. Call it therapy. How deceived she must have felt. She never knew anything about her husband’s goings on. She hadn’t the slightest inkling of his psychopathic tendencies.
I was non-judgmental. Well, that’s not entirely true, but I was coming to the end of a different project and there were holidays to pay for and so I listened to her husband’s story. I met Kay Buckby a few times, always in London.
The second time we met I suggested a public library even though I’m not gone on surveillance cameras. Kay brought Alan’s laptop and piles of his notebooks. She had sorted the notebooks by year. The computer files were also well organised. Initially, Kay wouldn’t let me take the notebooks, but she let me download Alan’s computer files. I went home, poured a drink and read. After an hour, I knew I was sitting on a bomb, something disgusting and criminal. But you can’t prosecute the dead.
The word ‘morality’ kept cropping up. But publicans peddle alcohol, pharmacists push drugs, lawyers scam and people google ‘beheadings’. A fact? One of the top ten internet search terms in the US was the word ‘beheading’. That was in 2004, after the beheading of Nick Berg. Imagine how that top ten looks now after the American journalists were beheaded by Islamic State.
The next issue was style. Of course Alan Buckby could write; he was a journalist. But could I clip his long-windedness? His diaries were written in haste. The question was: could I massage the style more in keeping with my own? My style is more staccato. For me, reading should leave you feeling like you are falling down the stairs or taking a punch to the face. More work was involved as, stylistically, I was given rein to shape the Buckby diaries more to my liking.
What to cut and what to keep? How to structure Buckby’s life was a major obstacle. Buckby had kept a diary since his teens and died in his mid-fifties and so there was a tempest of material. It was insane. I told Kay that the quickest way to whittle it down was to decide on the angle I was to take. What were we looking for? What was the endgame? To hide the truth or reveal it? Kay explained her motivations and, with that hurdle cleared, decades of Buckby’s life disappeared. Suddenly I could bin 75 percent of his life.
A further problem was figuring on a paradigm, a framework. Ought I to work through all the wars Buckby reported on? Or was it Buckby I was following and not the wars? I chose the latter route. I followed Buckby and the things that drove him on, and that became the book’s skeleton, instead of a traditional chronological timeline.
I latched onto Buckby and what made him the way he was. I even chatted to a psychiatrist to try and understand where Buckby’s behaviour came from. He had no soul, no remorse. He was an animal. It was hard to find any redeeming features. Should I have found one, faked one? Editors always want us to get readers onside, to get them to empathise with the protagonist. But Buckby was Buckby and I was being asked to bottle him straight. What a thrill to have such license.
The book jumps around, so the result is more a profile of Buckby over a straight-up biography. It was a conscious decision to employ a cinematic jump-cut style. The other issue was how to ensure that Kay Buckby’s real identity would never be found out. Although I’m a lawyer, we all got independent legal advice. After all, Kay gave me freedom over her husband’s work and promised not to censor the way I edited Buckby’s life, so, for my part, I had to ensure that her life wouldn’t be destroyed if she was found out. Plus, I have claw-backs in my contract.
It may sound weird, but writing Numb was liberating in many ways. Only a dead man was looking over my shoulder. I work with publishing houses and they can be tame, too tame. When I write up a celebrity, they edit my work into blandness. Editors hate any real bite or punch. They like contained outrage. So here was Kay Buckby paying me and giving me freedom. It was mesmerising, Buckby’s double life was. He was a nutjob. Jekyll and Hyde. At home, he faked being a family man and then at war . . . well, the thing is Buckby was impenetrable, to everyone, and all his life long. It takes some energy to keep up that front.
Do I know the real identity of Alan Buckby? That question is unavoidable, but I should not be in the middle of this. It’s like asking a bricklayer to explain an architect’s plans. Try this: when a lawyer represents an alleged murderer, do you know the only question the lawyer never asks the alleged killer? Did you kill the victim. The lawyer doesn’t want to know if he committed murder. It’s irrelevant to the defence he’s preparing. In fact, if he knew his client killed the victim, he couldn’t in good conscience plead that his client was innocent. So he’d come off record and another lawyer would be appointed.
But writing Numb affected me. My health suffered. Alan Buckby was a vile man who loved torture and death. But his journalistic sources allowed me tap in to key Islamic State contacts. That, in turn, put me in the spotlight of MI5. I’ve since held talks with MI5. There is now even an opportunity to write the biography of a disaffected Islamic State insider. But it’s too much. I’m sick of depravity, just at a time in my life when I’d like to restore value to myself.
(c) Louis La Roc
Numb thrusts us into the memoir of Alan Buckby*, as told in his own words. A war correspondent for more than two decades, he led a double life, appearing to be a regular family man while at home in London, but immersed in sadism and depravity while on overseas assignments. He didn’t just document the violence – he became directly involved in it. This book is not just chronicle of Alan Buckby’s life and work. It is also a chronicle of his efforts to understand his own fascination with torture, sexual violence and murder, and his wife’s attempt to understand how the man she knew as her husband and the father to her children could have been involved on such horrors. Buckby’s memoir lurches backward and forward through time, not only providing a tour of the mind of a seriously disturbed individual, but touching on everything from the Margaret Thatcher years, to the Arab Spring and the current war in Syria and Iraq. Buckby died in 2014 and it was then that his wife Kay discovered his secrets in his diaries and notebooks. Working with a ghost writer, she reconstructed her husband’s real life. This book is the result.
Born in 1959, Alan Buckby died in 2014 and is survived by his wife, Kay, and two sons. For over thirty years he operated as a freelance reporter for various international news organisations.
* Author’s name has been changed to protect the identity of his family.
Numb is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here.