Ghost to the Stars : William Novak Is the Invisible Writer Behind Memoirs by Lee Iacocca, Nancy Reagan and--Soon--Magic Johnson

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a writer who's made the bestseller lists five times in the last 10 years, William Novak has an identity problem. How else to describe a man who wrote one of the most popular nonfiction books of all time, yet is unknown to most Americans?

Soft-spoken and urbane, Novak is not a fixture on talk shows or a regular at Elaine's. But when it comes to the celebrities he's collaborated with on books, millions of readers would know him instantly: Lee Iacocca, Nancy Reagan, Oliver North, "Mayflower Madam" Sydney Biddle Barrows, former House Speaker Tip O'Neill and, in an autobiography coming out next month, Magic Johnson.

"My wife jokes that when we go to parties, she should wear a sign that reads, 'With William Novak,' " says the author, a wry, enigmatic fellow in his early 40s. "But then again, that might confuse some people."

Or clue them in to a private joke. Novak is a ghostwriter, perhaps the best in the business, and when high-powered publishers look for someone to help ink a million-dollar memoir, his name is on everyone's short list. Yet it's nothing he ever planned, and to a writer who prides himself on his own voice and view of the world, the experience has been puzzling.

"No kid ever grows up believing he wants to be a ghostwriter," Novak says, looking down the tree-lined streets of his suburban home near Boston. "And as a writer, obviously there are things I want to do on my own. I plan to do them. But this work can be seductive. Very seductive indeed."

Let us count the ways: It isn't just that Novak, a basketball fanatic, earned a healthy six-figure advance and got to spend hours with Magic Johnson on their forthcoming book. Or that he interviewed other NBA all-stars, like Kareem and Bird. When Novak needed more time, Johnson invited him to come to Hawaii. On other occasions, when Novak flew to Los Angeles, he stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel. His sons got to meet Johnson, and a home snapshot of Magic, his wife, Cookie, and their baby is taped to the author's refrigerator.

For his earlier books, there were White House meetings with the Reagans, visits to O'Neill's elegant home in Cape Cod, clandestine interviews with North and high-powered sessions with Iacocca, the Chrysler CEO. The work is demanding and often driven by tight deadlines. But it's never dull.

Ten years ago, when Novak was a struggling writer, he earned $45,000 plus bonuses for "Iacocca," a monster bestseller that is the all-time leader in hardcover nonfiction sales. The ghostwriter never got a penny in royalties for the book, which sold 2.7 million copies and sparked the boom in tell-all celebrity memoirs.

Today, Novak has more clout in the industry. He's been a quiet, steady presence behind the scenes, and most readers would be amazed to learn about the Real Bill Novak--a man who once wrote a controversial book about marijuana use and whose secret goal is to study kosher culture. He comes up with ideas for offbeat books every week--but business always gets in the way.

"In terms of sheer, raw success, I believe Bill is the best," says Peter Osnos, a Random House vice president and the editor of four Novak titles. "There are a number of extremely good people who do this kind of work in today's marketplace, and they succeed. But nobody has his consistency."

Novak works quickly, often under enormous pressure, Osnos says, adding that his colleague "is the equivalent of a great character actor--someone who has the ability to subsume his own character, no matter how interesting the part that he's playing. You can't make the person you're writing about sound vastly more articulate or insightful than they really are, or goofier and sillier than they are. Somehow, you have to capture their real persona."

Not an easy task, says Novak, especially when Nancy Reagan announces in her first meeting with you that she'd rather not chat about astrology. Or when Barrows, the madam of a notorious Manhattan call-girl ring, refuses to talk about sex. Life gets absurd when you're holed up in a hotel room with Oliver North and Ollie hides in the bathroom every time room service delivers a ham sandwich. As a ghostwriter, Novak says, you have to cater to each individual--and the final product has to be believable.

Commercial, in other words, and that raises some sticky questions: Doesn't Novak tire of putting words in other people's mouths? Isn't it deflating to crank out an official history, instead of a more freewheeling book? And hasn't he given up something precious--his independence--simply to make a buck?

The writer smiles and notes that, with the exception of his own books, he rarely reads celebrity autobiographies. He gestures to the titles stacked on his living room shelves, a mixture of politics and current fiction, and reminds a visitor that books like "Iacocca" are a job, not his life's work.

"People want to know about Nancy Reagan," Novak says. "They're curious about who the real Oliver North is. They want to learn about Magic Johnson, and to do that, you have to ask some tough questions. This is not such easy work. At times, you have to be firm."

In the Johnson book, for example, Random House executives agreed that the former Lakers star had to address the issue of how he contracted the AIDS virus. When he retired from basketball last year, Johnson said he became infected through unsafe heterosexual sex. There were also persistent rumors about Johnson's alleged homosexuality--which the NBA star has denied--and readers wouldn't buy a book that skirted such issues, Novak says.

"Everyone knew this material had to be in there," he notes. "But everyone also knew it had to be done with great dignity and good taste. Neither he nor the publisher nor I wanted to dish the dirt. I wasn't interested in graphic descriptions of sexual acts. So you have to find some compromise."

Novak's been through the same drill with other celebrities. Sometimes it's a question of conveying personal style: Iacocca spoke in clipped sentences, while O'Neill spun lengthy yarns. Other VIPs had to be coaxed into uncomfortable areas. Nancy Reagan did not want to talk about her feuds with former White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, but Novak told her she had no choice. North felt awkward talking about his psychiatric hospitalization years ago, but the publisher, HarperCollins, insisted he tell the full story.

Along the way, Novak made surprising discoveries about people he thought he knew. The former first lady was not the personification of Lady Macbeth, as he had feared, but "a woman who was fragile, vulnerable and always treated me well. A person who was always real with me."

Similarly, Novak altered his view of North as a fascist zealot. He found the Iran-Contra bad boy to be intelligent, perceptive and brimming with good humor.

"You have to keep an open mind, and for me it's been more interesting dealing with conservatives," says the author. "I know the liberal arguments, because we live in a liberal culture, so it's important to reach out."

The result has been a stream of books that, generally speaking, have been well-received by critics. Although some reviewers have criticized the subjects themselves, like North, Novak has earned high marks for his writing. And somehow, he's managed to maintain his irreverent outlook on life.

Iacocca got a glimpse of that 10 years ago, when he sat down for his first meeting with Novak in New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Up to that point, the 32-year-old writer had edited several Jewish magazines in Boston and had produced a 1980 title, "High Culture," about pot users in American life. In 1981, with partner Moshe Waldoks, he had published "The Big Book of Jewish Humor," a rich compendium of jokes and folk wisdom ranging from the Bible to Lenny Bruce.

"I had been proposed as a collaborator with Iacocca because several editors felt I had done a good job of capturing voices of other people in my previous books," says Novak. "But nothing prepared me for that first encounter with him. It was a real eye-opener."

After a brisk handshake, Iacocca got down to business and asked the writer how he would organize the book. Novak was caught off guard, and responded with an old Jewish folk tale: A traveler sees an archer at work in a grove of trees where all the arrows have hit their targets perfectly. Impressed, the traveler hides behind a rock, only to learn that the archer first shoots the arrows, then draws targets around them where they've landed.

"I told Iacocca, 'That's how we're going to write the book. We have to shoot some arrows and see where they land, to see what material we have. Then we'll organize the book around the material we come up with,' " Novak recalls.

"I thought I made the point, but he wasn't impressed, and in retrospect I can see how crazy it must have sounded. It's an example of how to ruin a business, even though it's the best way to write a book. Fortunately, he took it on faith that I knew what I was doing."

There were some tough lessons. Novak naively assumed he would become a constant companion of Iacocca--maybe even a surrogate son--to get the full flavor of his life story. In reality, he had about 40 hours with him, most of it in office suites, airplanes and cars.

"For me, it was hard to have a book like 'Iacocca' at No. 1 for week after week and not be making money from it," Novak says. "It was hard to have people think you're wealthy when you're not. We had asked for royalties, but they (Bantam Books) said, 'No, this is the offer. Take it or leave it.' "

Novak smiles. "I took it, and I haven't regretted it since."

Not bad for a guy who'd rather be writing books about the sociology of "Sesame Street" or profiles of non-Orthodox Jews in American life. Along with his wife, Linda, Novak is deeply involved in Newton's Jewish community, and the couple helped establish a local Jewish matchmaking service. They have three young sons and a Volvo full of plans for the future: Novak would like to finish up a screenplay. Or some other book ideas. Or maybe just kick back and listen to some records.

The Real Bill Novak says he just might do that and put the celebrities on hold. But then he smiles sheepishly and confesses that he's always wanted to work with Barbra Streisand. Or Robin Williams. Who knows? Maybe Paul McCartney's available.

"Ghostwriting's been very very good to me," he says. "And when I think of the wonderful people I've worked with, well, you do get spoiled. In a very good kind of way."

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