• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

How I Became a Ghost Writer (Part 3) by Shane Dunphy

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Shane Dunphy

Shane Dunphy

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In April of 2019 Stephanie Hickey and I sat down in a house she had rented solely for the purpose, and over two days I recorded 12 hours of material.  I was very conscious when preparing for this process that it could be quite upsetting for Stephanie (I was, after all, asking her to relive some awful experiences), so I structured it in such a way that the traumatic material relating to the abuse was covered first thing in the morning and was over by lunchtime at the latest, and we then covered more pleasant, easier, happier memories in the afternoon: Stephanie’s running, happy times from her school-days, her father’s music etc.

I also asked if I might be shown around the area to key locations, so I could get a clear picture of the buildings, places and localities where the events took place.  Geography and atmosphere are very important for me in my writing – I always want to know how a place feels and smells.  If it becomes real for me, then it will for my readers, too.

When the recordings were done, I set them aside and didn’t even look at them for four weeks.  I had other books in various stages of completion, and I wanted to clear my head.  Two days of very intense interviewing is, needless to say, tough for both parties involved, and I knew that, if I was to do Stephanie’s story justice, I would need a bit of objectivity and distance.

So I took some time.

It was June when I dusted off my recordings, and spent a week listening back to them, making notes on where in each session specific events were discussed.  This was a much more involved process than I had expected.  For example, I had one four hour session that was solely about the court case, but Stephanie also made reference to it in the interview we did on her decision to press charges, and in a section on her relationship with her family, and again when she talked about one of her running coaches and how he had supported her.

I wanted to be sure I could access every nugget of information quickly and easily, so I logged the exact positions in the recordings where these discussions started and ended (for example, I would note that in the recording I had labelled ‘Running’ Stephanie talked about the court case from 23 minutes and 13 seconds right through to 31 minutes and 5 seconds, and I made sure this was noted in the file I had on ‘Court’ and the file I had on ‘Running’).  I saved all my logs as Word doc files, so I could search the topics using the ‘Find’ function on Word’s ‘Home’ menu .  This worked really well and is definitely a technique I’d use again.

My interviews safely logged, I started to write the book proper.

I had made an arrangement with Stephanie that I would send her chapters each evening, so she could read the book as I wrote it and hopefully pick up any glaring errors early with a view to correcting them as we went along.  It was important to me that she feel connected to the process – I was adamant from the beginning that I was not the author of this book, Stephanie was.  I was just a tool, a mechanism to get her story out there.

And that brings me to my greatest challenge: making sure the book was written in Stephanie’s voice, and not mine.  I had to constantly check to ensure I wasn’t drifting out of ‘Stephanie-speak’ and into ‘Shane-speak’ (that’s how I came to think of it).  My method was simple: at the end of each chapter I would go back and read aloud what I had just written.  If I felt the rhythm and syncopation of the text felt like something Stephanie would say, I was happy.  If it didn’t, if it seemed somehow incongruous and just not right, I would scrap it and start again.

And I think it worked.  Stephanie paid me a huge compliment one evening, at about the halfway mark, by telling me that she felt I just ‘got’ her.  When she said that, I relaxed.  My efforts were clearly paying off.

The other significant challenge I had on Running From the Shadows was my decision to write the book mostly in the present tense.  It was how Stephanie told her story during the interviews, so it just felt right to adopt it for the book, too.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think it is quite beautiful, in places, but I lost count of the amount of times I cursed that decision.  I never realised before how dependent I have become on writing in the past tense, and I constantly, even right up to the end, found myself drifting back into it and having to rewrite entire chapters.  It was worth it, in the long run, but it was bloody hard going!

I wrote the first draft knowing that large sections would be changed.  Having written nine non-fiction titles I am well-used to legal readings and the kind of comments a lawyer will make on a text, but I wanted Stephanie to have a version of the story that was exactly as she had told it, warts and all.  That was the first draft.

In the end, I was surprised that so little needed to be changed, but once Hachette’s lawyers were finished, I had a day of structural edits to contend with.  Some scenes were dropped, others were added, a few people were taken out of the story completely, and one or two individuals were given different names to protect their anonymity (Stephanie and Deirdre had waived theirs so Prendergast could be named in press reporting of the case).

That said, the second draft did feel like a different book.  And I was okay with that.  In some ways it was gentler, more thoughtful, less reactionary.  It was as if the edges had been sanded off.  I’ve always said that writers should embrace the editorial process – it is your editor’s job to make you look better, after all.  Running From the Shadows was a good example of that in action.

The book was published in February of 2020, and quickly entered the non-fiction bestseller lists, peaking at Number 3.  It hung around in the charts for four weeks before dropping out of the Top 10, but to my great pleasure is still lingering in the Top 20 and continues to sell really well.  I think it’s an important book – it shows that even when  life is at its darkest, joy can be found in simple things like the smile of a family member or hearing your favourite song on the radio or going for a run as the sun is rising.

In Stephanie Hickey I have made a lifelong friend.  The book is out now and is making its way in the world, but Stephanie and I speak most weeks over the phone, and I hope to see her for another long chat over copious cups of tea  very soon.

And my next ghost-writing job is already lined up.  Once again I did not seek it out, but a story I just couldn’t resist came out of left field – and what is a writer supposed to say when that happens?

(c) Shane Dunphy

See Part 1 of this article here and Part 2 here.

About Running from the Shadows by Stephanie Hickey:

In Running from the Shadows Stephanie Hickey tells, in her own words, how she survived abuse at the hands of a trusted family member and of how running, a simple physical activity helped her achieve mindfulness, but also to rediscover love and faith in her body – to reclaim it.

Charting her life growing up in the rolling countryside of Waterford in the safety of her beloved family to the moment her childhood was shattered, to the court case where she waived her anonymity, to how she was able to reclaim a sense of herself through the sport which became like a therapy, Running from the Shadows is told with humour, strength and incredible courage — a book that reveals how, even when things seem at their bleakest, a run through the Irish countryside, can bring you back into the light.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Shane Dunphy is an Irish and London Times bestseller, and the movie adaptation of his memoir, The Boy They Tried to Hide, is in development with Hollywood production company Rumble Films. His series of non-fiction titles, relating the years he spent as a child protection worker, have been internationally successful and sold in translation across several territories. These include the Number 1 bestseller Wednesday’s Child, and The Girl Who Couldn’t Smile, which spent five weeks on the London Times Top 10 list. Shane Dunphy also writes as S.A. Dunphy.

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