I worked as a writer for almost 50 years before my first novel was published.
Not that I didn’t publish other books during the intervening years. There were 120 titles, give or take a few, including 43 entries in the Murder, She Wrote series (original murder mysteries based upon the popular TV show, with the byline shared with Jessica Fletcher, who doesn’t exist except as a TV character); 27 novels in the Margaret Truman Capital Crimes series (mostly bylined by Truman, my close collaborator—my name is on only the most recent entries, released after her death); nine westerns written under the name J.D. Hardin; Coffee, Tea or Me and three sequels (bylined by Rachel Jones and Trudy Baker, former airline stewardesses); and assorted comedies, investigative journalism books, biographies and autobiographies, and potboilers written for others whose bylines proudly occupy the covers.
While I usually had a room of my own in which to write (something Virginia Woolf strived for), until recently I didn’t have a novel of my own—a book that came solely from my imagination and that hadn’t been presold to a publisher. In writing my book, there was no delivery date and no one providing editorial input; no deadline to spur me on; no expected word count; no collaborator to run the manuscript past before submitting it to a publisher. It was my own novel.
Almost 50 years into my career, it’s finally happened. Lights Out!, which I started writing in 2003 and found the time to finish in 2013, was published in the U.K. in February by Severn House; the U.S. edition will be released in May.
The idea for the novel came to me during the massive blackout of 2003, which brought down electrical power for the entire East Coast of the United States, and a good portion of Canada. The electrical grid that failed was located in Canada, and as I thought about it, I started down the classic “what if?” road. What if someone could create a similar blackout, and sell to others the precise date and time it would occur? Obviously, those “others” wouldn’t be nice people—they’d be criminal types, maybe even a terrorist or two, who could take advantage of the information to engage in myriad nefarious activities, without lights and alarm systems getting in their way.
My antihero, Carlton Smythe, a disgruntled former engineer at Toronto’s largest power plant who is stuck in a loveless marriage to a wealthy woman, meets the voluptuous Gina Ellanado during a business trip to Argentina. He falls in love and puts into motion a scheme to cause a blackout. He sells the information to an assortment of bad guys and plans to live in carnal bliss with Gina for the rest of his days. Smythe is a man with a monumental midlife crisis.
That it took me 50 years to see my own novel published was not due to a paucity of ideas, or a half-century of writer’s block. It was because I didn’t want Samuel Johnson to consider me a blockhead: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” the esteemed Mr. Johnson once said. I’ve made a living all these years as a ghost who makes others sound good. I’ve been a journeyman writer (and proud of it). I’ve attacked every book with the philosophy that it’s the most important book I’ve ever written, and maybe the last I will write, no matter whose name is on it. Ghostwriting permeates the publishing industry, and always has. Many of the men and women for whom I’ve ghosted books had forged impressive careers in their own fields; why should anyone expect them also to know where to place commas, or how to structure their stories in publishable form? Mozart ghostwrote music for wealthy patrons. Mark Twain ghosted Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir. The great British moralist Kingsley Amis ghosted under Ian Fleming’s name for the James Bond series. Did Moses have a ghostwriter for the Ten Commandants? That’s the rumor.
For me, writing for others has not only provided a decent living but also prepared me for writing Lights Out! I learned something about writing from every book I wrote. Tackling all these books exercised my “writing muscles,” as Renée Paley-Bain, my wife, and my most recent collaborator on the Murder, She Wrote series, describes it.
Will the publication of my own novel change what I do? No. While it’s nice having a novel of my own, I’ll continue to ghostwrite books for and with others, because that’s what I do. And I’ll take satisfaction from all these books, no matter who gets the byline.
As the old man who’d been run over by a New York City taxi said to the woman who rushed to help him and asked whether he was comfortable, “I make a living.”
Donald Bain is a prolific writer. He is represented by the D4EO Literary Agency, and can be reached via www.donaldbain.com.