A ghost in KC: After years of writing for others, author now has a book of his own
If you ever meet Tim Vandehey, resist the urge.
“I get this all the time,” he said, “‘What do you do, Tim?’ I’ll be at a party or whatever. ‘Oh, I’m a ghost writer.’ ‘Really.’
“The same question follows 90% of the time. ‘Who have you written books for?’ and the next thing almost always follows, ‘If you can tell me.’ It’s supposed to be this big hush-hush thing.”
It’s not. The Waldo resident said he has ghost written more than 60 books, of which only one or two included a nondisclosure agreement. He said the “hush-hush thing” is among several misconceptions about his profession.
“I haven’t written for anybody big enough for that to be an issue,” Vandehey said. “That might change if I did a Prince Harry or something like that.”
Actually, Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer (best known for “The Tender Bar: A Memoir”) has spoken openly about ghosting this year’s “Spare” by Prince Harry, although his name doesn’t appear on the cover.
That usually also is the case for Vandehey, whose books are mostly in the advice or business categories, with subjects including parenting, wilderness survival, financial planning and beyond. Among them was the 2017 New York Times bestseller “The Wait: A Powerful Practice for Finding the Love of Your Life and the Life You Love” by then-husband and wife Hollywood producer DeVon Franklin and actress Meagan Good. That book credits “With Tim Vandehey” on the cover.
He also has collaborated with former football players Merril Hoge and Vince Papale (the inspiration for the movie “Invincible”), actress/TV host Melissa Rivers and animal behaviorist Annie Greer.
Vandehey said his clients have one thing in common: They aren’t writers.
“There shouldn’t be any shame in saying, ‘Look, I have all these ideas and a story, but I’m not a writer and I’m bringing in someone who is,” he said. “How’s that different from saying, ‘I’m not a carpenter so I’ll bring in a carpenter to help build my house’?”
Vandehey has now built his own house, metaphorically speaking.
“Swipe: The Science Behind Why We Don’t Finish What We Start,” a book he co-authored with organizational psychologist Tracy Maylett, will hit bookstores March 21. Vandehey had ghosted two previous books for Maylett, but their third book became his baby.
“We started talking about this thing of people being distractable, in the same vein as swiping on their smartphones,” he said. “I started thinking, this is really about people quitting the things they keep trying to finish, over and over again, whether it’s a workout or something else. … A lot of people seem to have an issue with finishing what they start.”
Vandehey said one of the challenges in writing “Swipe” was a lack of research on the topic.
“There’s research on procrastination,” he said, “but that’s not the same thing.”
As a ghost writer, he doesn’t have the luxury to procrastinate, saying multiple projects keep him busy. In addition to extensive interviews and planning, the process involves uncovering his client’s voice.
“The funny thing is that most people don’t have any idea what their voice really is,” Vandehey said. “It’s understandable. Most of the people I work with have never done a book before.
“The key issue is really understanding the person’s values and their message, not so much the syntax of their speech or anything like that. Do they want to be funny? Do they have a good sense of humor? Are they sarcastic? Are they very serious? Are they warm?”
The final product reflects the author’s story and ideas, he said, with his job merely to expand on them.
Madeleine Morel, a literary agent who works exclusively with ghostwriters, said Vandehey has mastered one of the profession’s most important elements.
“I think he puts the writers at ease,” she said. “They let him show the right way, but he knows how to ask all the right questions to get a book that’s really interesting and revealing about who the person is.”
Vandehey was writing advertising copy in his native California when he ghosted his first book for a marketing client in 1999. He turned to ghosting full time by 2005.
In 2000, he met his future wife at — this was California, remember — a yoga class. She had grown up in the Northland and still had family here, which is how they wound up moving with their two daughters to Kansas City about 10 years ago.
“I love it,” he said of his adopted hometown. “People say, ‘You moved from LA?’ Yeah. Kansas City’s got LA beat in 20 different ways, apart from just the traffic alone.
“I think it’s one of the great underappreciated cities in the country, I really do.”
The location matches the profession.
Ghost writers not only must endure suggestions that what they do is unethical or underhanded, they also must cede all the acclaim to their clients.
“You have to be willing to disappear as a ghost writer, even if you call yourself a co-writer,” Vandehey said. “Even if you’re a credited collaborator, you still have to be ready to take a backseat.
“I’m usually the guy behind the curtain. I’m not the one out there signing books; I’m the one making sure there’s a book to sign.”
That changes with “Swipe.” Time to work on that autograph.