O n 5 January 2011, at 8.30 p.m., I was messing about at home when the phone buzzed on the sofa. It was a text from Jamie Byng, the publisher of Canongate. ‘Are you about?’ it said. ‘I have a somewhat left-field idea. It’s potentially very exciting. But I need to discuss urgently.’ Canongate had bought, for £600,000, a memoir by the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. The book had also been bought for a high sum by Sonny Mehta at Knopf in New York and Jamie had sold foreign rights to a slew of big houses. He said he expected it to be published in forty languages. Assange didn’t want to write the book himself but didn’t want the book’s ghostwriter to be anybody who already knew a lot about him. I told Jamie that I’d seen Assange at the Frontline Club the year before, when the first WikiLeaks stories emerged, and that he was really interesting but odd, maybe even a bit autistic. Jamie agreed, but said it was an amazing story. ‘He wants a kind of manifesto, a book that will reflect this great big generational shift.’ He’d been to see Assange in Norfolk and was going again the next day. He said he and the agent Caroline Michel had suggested me for the job and that Assange wanted to meet me. I knew they’d been talking to other writers, and I was at first sceptical. It’s not unusual for published writers to get requests to write things anonymously. How much did Alex Haley protect Malcolm X when he ghosted his autobiography? To what extent did Ted Sorensen create the verbal manner of John F. Kennedy when he wrote Profiles in Courage, a book for which the future president won the Pulitzer Prize? And are the science fiction stories H.P. Lovecraft ghosted for Harry Houdini not the best things he ever wrote? There would be a touch of all this in the strange case of Assange. But there is something else about the genre, a sense that the world might be more ghosted now than at any time in history. Isn’t Wikipedia entirely ghosted? Isn’t half of Facebook? Isn’t the World Wide Web a new ether, in which we are all haunted by ghostwriters?
I had written about missing persons and celebrity, about secrecy and conflict, and I knew from the start that this story might be an insider’s job. However it came, and however I unearthed it or inflected it, the Assange story would be consistent with my instinct to walk the unstable border between fiction and non-fiction, to see how porous the parameters between invention and personality are. I remembered Victor Maskell, the art historian and spy in John Banville’s The Untouchable, who liked to quote Diderot: ‘We erect a statue in our own image inside ourselves – idealised, you know, but still recognisable – and then spend our lives engaged in the effort to make ourselves into its likeness.’ The fact that the WikiLeaks story was playing out against a global argument over privacy, secrets and the abuse of military power, left me thinking that if anyone was weird enough for this story it was me.