I was first approached in 2014 by a mutual friend to ghostwrite an autobiography for Gary Skyner, one of the first UK thalidomide babies. Gary grew up to be a high-achieving comedian, motivational speaker and tireless campaigner for compensation for thalidomiders. If I’d known what a protracted task it would be I doubt I would have taken it on. I went to the first arranged meeting, thinking ‘what if I don’t like this bloke? I won’t be able to do it.’
However, we got on like a house on fire so provided with some literature and cuttings on Gary’s life I began researching the thalidomide disaster from the postwar period to the present day. It proved a fascinating journey and I became deeply immersed in the injustices at a personal level but perhaps more importantly in the failure within the national and international context to deal fairly with these people to this day, chiefly through corporate greed and political indifference.
For a year I listened to Gary’s story through a series of recorded interviews. It was a story of breathtaking courage and laughter in the face of terrible adversity but also a tale of heartbreak as the family was torn apart by the tensions of caring for a damaged child. Taking a chronological approach, I wrote up each chapter after each recording, incorporating my historical literature research as I went along. I was writing in the first person, as Gary, and of course the great difficulty was trying to capture Gary’s personality and not letting my own thoughts and ideas invade the text too much. Gary is a great joker so I put in all the funny stories he included in his interviews and I also tried to let his anger show at the way thalidomiders worldwide have been treated by governments and the pharmaceutical firms. In his career Gary has met many famous people, particularly sports celebrities and he has many photos of himself with footballers, boxers and TV personalities, as well as family photos, so these too had to be incorporated into the book. We decided on black and white photos throughout the text and to include a colour plate section at the middle or end of the finished book.
At last it was finished after two years of writing and editing. At the beginning of 2016 we began looking for a publisher. Several showed interest but eventually declined. Keen to see the book in print and confident of selling copies at his gigs and speaking events, Gary decided to publish the book through Troubador/Matador a professional self-publishing package. A tediously long re-editing process ensued . There were difficulties with the photos which had to be sent separately and their position in the text labelled in a separate document. This led to lots of problems of them being put in the wrong place and the captions going missing, partly our fault as Gary moved one of the pictures to another place in the text and that threw all the others out! However, it was so important that everything should be right so meticulous checking and re-checking of proofs could not be avoided. The first cover design we were offered we didn’t like but the final one is wonderful. We also went through several titles before settling on You Can’t, You Won’t: a Life of Unarmed Combat. The book was finally published in June of this year and Gary and I are very proud of the final result. It was a wonderful experience to open the first box of copies and actually hold it in my hands.
Overall the experience has been profound. I made a friend for life and I am honoured to have helped bring this account and the issues involved to the public arena. It’s a personal story but also exposes what happened and is still happening to all those people in a world where mothers-to-be took a remedy they were told was safe only to feel responsible for the injured children to which they gave birth. I think it’s a story that needs to be told. Older people vaguely remember the tragedy but younger generations will likely know nothing of it. Although law and practice on drug trialling changed because of the thalidomide disaster, drug companies are still motivated by profit and the potential for tragic mistakes is ever present.
The downside of the experience was that I virtually ate, breathed and slept this book for over three years with little time or thought left for my own writing. I got emotionally involved with the issues and though that may seem unprofessional – I mean, if you make a career of ghostwriting can you let yourself be sucked in by every book? – it meant my heart went into the book and I think the book is the better for that.
Since the book was published I’ve had more enquiries about ghostwriting for others but I’ve turned them down. I’m a fiction writer by nature so I want to concentrate on the novel I practically abandoned to write Gary’s book. Would I ghostwrite again? At present the answer is no. It was a hard struggle and the positive outweighed the negative, I wrote a great book and I learned so much about thalidomide, but now it’s time to get back to my own thoughts and ideas, my own voice. If I did consider ghostwriting again, I’d have to get on with the subject and I’d have to be sure that the person’s story was one that addressed issues of value to the wider community. Maybe one day…………..You Can’t You Won’t is available from Amazon and all good bookshops
Coming soon —- my new novel ‘Mere’ a dark ghost story is to be published by Thunderpoint publishing in May 2018.