‘They say there are only three rules for writing a book.’
In 1992, Kif Kehlmann was young, broke, married with one child and twins on the way. He was living with his wife Suzy and three-year-old daughter in Hobart, trying to finish the novel he’d been writing for years. The need to make some money was becoming urgent. And then, Kif is approached to ghost-write a memoir. Siegfried Heidl is a notorious conman and corporate criminal: about to go on trial for defrauding the banks of $700 million. Kif will receive $10,000 if he can ghost-write Heidl’s memoir in six weeks.
Kif moves to Melbourne, leaving his heavily pregnant wife and daughter behind. Sure, he’ll travel home on weekends, and the babies aren’t due just yet. In Melbourne, Kif hooks up with his old mate Ray. It’s thanks to Ray that he’s been offered this job, and $10,000 will be very handy. But trying to get any information out of Heidl is difficult. And the publisher, Gene Paley, is pushing Kif for progress. After all, in this part of the publishing world, timing is everything.
‘This too you learnt from Heidl: how easy it is to remember; how hard to know if there is truth in even one memory.’
As the story unfolds, as Heidl’s trial date approaches and is then brought forward, Kif is under increased pressure to deliver. It’s difficult to sort fact from fiction in what Heidl tells him, especially when Heidl turns Kif’s questions and suggestions into his own experiences. Is Kif writing Heidl’s memoir, or is Heidl reshaping Kif’s life? If Kif has done a deal with the devil, how will he survive it?
’My first novel, I was aware, had suffered from being autobiographical, but now I feared my first autobiography was becoming a novel.’
I found this novel intriguing. The story opens with Kif reflecting on 1992 with the events around ghost-writing Heidl’s memoir. It then shifts to Kif’s present, to the changes in his life and circumstances. Kif may have survived the experience, but he’s not unscathed by it.
I wondered how much of the material for this novel was drawn from Richard Flanagan’s own experience of ghost-writing John Friederich’s autobiography ‘Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich’ in 1991.