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When is a ghost-writer not a ghost-writer? My answer is, when his or her name appears on the cover. I’ve worked with six people to help them produce their autobiographies. Four books have resulted; one that was written remains unpublished and another is nearing completion.

Working with Fred Hollows was a joy. Fred had tremendous recall of the high and low points of his life, of his feelings at these times and his sense of himself in a wider context. It would have been impossible to produce a dull book about a man who had shucked off religion and joined the Communist Party, who could do microscopic eye surgery and remove the differential from a Land Rover; who had climbed Mount Cook, culled wild horses in outback Queensland and who loved poetry and music.

That job set the pattern. The book appeared as Fred Hollows: an autobiography, with Peter Corris, in 1991. It sold over 100 000 copies, contributing a lot of money to the Fred Hollows Foundation.

Subsequently, I was ‘with’ environmentalist John Sinclair, who had saved Fraser Island from the sand miners and Joh Bjelke-Petersen; veteran actor Ray Barrett, he of the sand-blasted complexion; and Captain Ken Blyth, whose oil tanker had been hijacked by pirates in the China Sea. I was supposed to have been ‘with’ actor Bill Hunter, but that’s another story.

The Sinclair, Barrett and Blyth exercises had their moments, though none was as successful at the Hollows book. I accompanied John Sinclair on one of his eco-tours of Fraser Island and interviewed him around the campfire at night. The island and the man were inspirational. Fighting for Fraser Island was published in 1994 and is widely consulted by people interested in environmental politics.

I had admired Ray Barrett in films and on television for years. His roles in the TV series Mogul and The Troubleshooters had earned him awards and made him a star in Britain, but he also willingly lent his talents to Australian filmmakers like Bruce Beresford, for Don’s Party. Ray was a good sportsman, a cricketer, sailor and golfer and I played a round of golf with him. My relations with Ray were good, though not great with his wife (whose role in curbing his drinking was acknowledged in the book); she disliked the way I had shaped Ray’s recollections. She claimed she knew people who had never heard of Peter Corris and wanted my name to be in small print on the cover. My then agent, Rosemary Creswell, replied there were people who had never heard of Ray Barrett, and my name appeared in a respectable font.

Captain Blyth was a brave and resourceful man but it was difficult to extract an interesting story from his experiences, which had been harrowing and frightening enough. Our sessions were awkward, with our personalities and interests not congruent, and he was apt to say he’d been too busy to think or feel anything when held captive and threatened. The book, published as Petro Pirates: the hijacking of the Petro Ranger in 2000, was not a success.

This kind of work involves projecting oneself into the role of the subject, and in that respect it is not unlike writing fiction, though with the material already provided and with certain restraints on the imagination. And when the job is done, the subject’s life story becomes part of the writer’s source of material. An ophthalmologist, an environmentalist and a veteran actor have emerged in in my novels, but a stolid, soccer-loving Presbyterian sea captain? Not yet.

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