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Tomlinson dives into thriller

Ghostwriter’s debut novel is a mystery set in the world of rock music, book publishing

By Samantha Dunn, The Orange County Register
Published: March 30, 2024, 5:56am

What’s it like to be a ghost? Read Sarah Tomlinson’s debut novel and find out.

We’re not talking about the kind said to haunt houses. Tomlinson’s ghost is the publishing industry’s workhorse – a ghostwriter, the unnamed, well-paid but often hidden scribes hired to do the real writing for those celebrity memoirs or the blockbusters credited to business moguls.

It’s a world Tomlinson knows intimately: This L.A.-based writer is a well-known “ghost” in publishing circles, having ghostwritten or co-written 21 books, including the New York Times bestseller “Fast Girl,” with Suzy Favor Hamilton, and four other New York Times bestsellers for which she was uncredited. Tomlinson began her career as a journalist and became a popular music critic and columnist for outlets like Spin, Billboard and the Los Angeles Times (hence her social media handle, @duchessofrock).

In her debut novel, “The Last Days of The Midnight Ramblers,” Tomlinson blends her years of experience as a ghost and a music journalist to create a tense drama about a desperate ghostwriter named Mari hired to pen the memoir of a rock ‘n roll courtesan who had a front-row seat to life with The Midnight Ramblers, a mythic, epic rock band in the style of the Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Who. The death of the band’s charismatic leader Mal has only added to their legend. In trying to balance keeping her ghostwriting gig while also digging into the mystery of Mal’s death, Mari falls into a twisted world of fame and power, where nothing is really what it seems.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Your novel gives the most insightful depictions of the job of ghostwriting I’ve ever seen. It made me curious; you’ve had such a successful career doing it. How did you fall into this specialty, and what kept you in the role through so many books?

It’s very accurate to say I “fell into” this job. In the early aughts, I had wrangled my way into a successful career as a music journalist, mostly for daily newspapers like The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times. But after moving to Los Angeles in 2006 and feeling the pains of freelance budget cuts, I knew I needed to expand my writing well.

A friend-of-a-friend was up for a ghosting project for reality TV star Tila Tequila, and it ended up getting passed to me. I found Tila to be professional and was honored to have the chance to publish a book, and we worked with an excellent editor, Brant Rumble, at Scribner (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). So, I had a very positive experience and learned a great deal about book publishing. My agent came to me through that job, and he began finding me other ghosting projects. Like my ghostwriter character, Mari, who was loosely based on me, I found I was particularly well-suited to the work, in terms of the intimacy it requires in the inner life and creative process of clients, and the fast metabolism of the deadlines, which can often involve writing several books in a year. In between ghosting projects, I was able to buy myself time to work on my own fiction, screenplays, and personal essays.

You credit your agent Kirby Kim in the acknowledgments for giving you the idea for Mightnight Ramblers. What’s the deal there? Had you not wanted to write fiction before?

I had wanted to write fiction since I was 16 and took my first creative writing class at the early college Simon’s Rock. I went to journalism school in my 20s as a trade that was an alternative to waitressing. Kirby had read my three earlier novels and didn’t feel he was a good fit to represent them, or that they were right to be my debut. Knowing fiction was my first love, he gave me his blessing to show them to other agents and editors. For a variety of reasons, none of them found a route to publication. In 2016, over drinks in New York, Kirby suggested I should write a thriller about a ghostwriter because he knew all of my crazy, secret stories from the job, which I would never be able to tell unless I fictionalized them.

Like many people, it takes me a while to heed good advice, but I finally saw the wisdom of his words and started writing in 2018. One of the first questions was, what kind of memoir would my ghostwriter pen? And as soon as I decided to set it in my old world – rock ‘n’ roll – the whole book came together.

The (weird) world of publishing has been showing up a lot lately – in the movie “American Fiction” and novels “Yellowface” and “The Other Black Girl.” What for you makes it an interesting backdrop for storytelling?

I loved all of those stories (and I chose my wonderful audiobook narrator, Helen Laser, in part because I adored her narration of “Yellowface” so much.) Not to make it seem like Kirby is my puppet master, but he and I spend a great deal of time thinking and talking about what makes fiction work, and he had the astute observation that readers (and viewers) love to learn about a whole new world.

While those of us who work in media may be drawn to these stories because they’re deliciously familiar, for readers (who, obviously, also love books), I think it’s an exciting opportunity to learn about all of the Sturm and Drang that can go on behind the scenes. I also happen to adore coming-of-age stories, and I feel like most author characters go through some version of losing their innocence and achieving greater wisdom (or at least perspective on life), while in pursuit of their deepest dream, which is the stuff of great drama.

This is your debut novel but you published an excellent memoir, “Good Girl,” in 2015, and of course, you’ve written many successful books for others. How did writing the novel challenge you?

Not to draw the ire of other writers, but I don’t usually get blocked when I’m writing, even for myself. The years when I literally wouldn’t eat if I didn’t hit my journalism deadlines has given me an ingrained discipline that was very helpful when I faced my own creative work, especially on days when I felt anxious about whether or not it was any good.

I’ve always been drawn to character-driven stories (that’s really what most celebrity memoirs are, isn’t it?). So, that aspect of my novel was the easiest and most satisfying for me to write. I struggled the most with the plotting of the book’s mystery, as this is a new genre for me. I was lucky enough to have an excellent thriller mentor in the form of my friend Steph Cha (“Your House Will Pay”) who lent me books and let me ask questions like: “But how does a person get to the point of murdering someone?” I probably devoted the most revisions (I had 13 drafts in all) to trying to land the pacing, red herrings, and resolution of the book’s mystery, which involves the drowning death of Midnight Ramblers founding member, Mal Walker. Mari’s client Anke was married to him at the time of his death, which becomes a central part of Anke’s memoir.

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What’s the pressure like publishing under your own name?

Because I had wanted to publish a novel for three decades, and I am extremely passionate about the novels I have loved in my own life (from “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt to “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin ) I cared deeply about writing something good enough to be in conversation with my favorite writers. While I wanted my book to be a juicy rock ‘n’ roll romp, I also hoped it would do what, for me, is the point of accomplished writing: to explore what it means to be human.

Without giving too much away, one of the things I loved about “The Last Days of the Midnight Ramblers” is that our protagonist, Mari, ultimately learns important lessons for her own life in the process of entering this glitzy world of fame and trying to unravel the mystery of what happened with this epic rock band. Certainly, your ghostwriting and music journalist experiences informed the novel – what have you personally taken away from your own rock ‘n roll writing experiences that have influenced your life?

! I purposely wanted Mari’s clients to be exceptional iconoclasts who could teach her (and through her, the reader) how to lead a remarkable life that allows you to discover who you are and how to live as authentically as possible. My belief that such a life is possible, and is worth seeking out and pursuing, definitely came to me through musicians, writers, and artists I have interviewed, befriended, and come to love through their work.

Culturally, we hold up rock stars for their tendency to rebel against a staid, conventional life. I do think musicians and artists I admire have modeled curiosity, passion, and original thinking, as well as creative discipline.

Last question: What’s next for you, writing-wise?

I was fortunate enough to sell two novels to Flatiron Books, so I am working with my editor Zack Wagman on my next novel, “Occupancy.” It’s a mystery set at an Airbnb in the Pacific Northwest. I’m also continuing to ghostwrite and work on my own original screenplays, and I hope to have the opportunity to adapt “The Last Days of the Midnight Ramblers” for the screen.