Ghostwriter brings people to life
Al Petrillo/Special to The Explorer, Allen Kates of Picture Rocks has ghostwritten dozens of books for individuals around the country.

For ghostwriter Allen Kates, the process of writing a book for someone revolves around getting out of the way of the story and allowing the subject's true voice to come through.

"It's more than getting into someone's head," Kates said, "because you have to suppress your natural instincts to let your own personality emerge. You have to accept their ideas and ideals, and present the person in the best way possible."

Kates thinks a ghostwriter serves a number of functions for a book-desiring client.

"Very often you end up being a confessor and therapist, as well as a torturer, sometimes, in order to bring things out for the book," he said.

The most recent ghostwriting job Kates completed was Just Plain Dorothy. The Life of Dorothy Hunt Finley — Cowgirl, Teacher, Tycoon, Philanthropist, a memoir for local businesswoman Dorothy H. Finley, owner of Finley Distributing in Tucson.

Kates, a resident of Picture Rocks, also ghosted the book, Gifts My Father Gave Me: Finding Joy After Tragedy, a memoir for Sharon Knutson-Felix, the executive director of the 100 Club of Arizona, a group that honors fallen police and firefighters.

And he's no slouch when writing under only his own name — he wrote and published CopShock. Surviving Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, now in its second edition.

Working with Finley required a major effort on Kates's part because of the wealth of material she had available that had to be researched.

"Dorothy has gathered a tremendous number of experiences in her 89 years," Kates said. "She's a ghostwriter's delight because she's a pack rat. She kept not only all her papers, but those of her parents too, so I was able to go into all of these documents and assess the facts."

But having so much material at one's disposal can be a double-edged sword, he noted.

"It's a blessing because you know you'll get all the facts, but a curse because there is so much material that you have to go through," Kates said.

Very often a client will have different memories of a person or event, Kates pointed out, and it's the duty of the ghostwriter to set the record straight when it can be backed up by research.

"You have to show the client that the facts, from your research, tell a different story, and perhaps the client is mis-remembering," he said. "The onus is on the ghostwriter to be right 100 percent of the time, no matter what the person says happened."

Kates, who has a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing and degrees in journalism, has written for most types of publication media — books, screenplays, short stories, and magazine and newspaper articles. He's ghostwritten dozens of books for individuals where his name doesn't appear on the cover, as it does with the Finley and Knudson-Felix books.

Kates also is board certified in emergency crisis response by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and is a sought-after trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder expert.

His own book, CopShock, deals with how to prevent or manage dangerous PTSD symptoms that can destroy a police officer's career and family life.

Kates put his prior therapy training to good use during the ghostwriting for Knudson-Felix.

"In Sharon's case, she had some horrific things happen to her," he said. "Her six-year-old son was killed on the sidewalk by a car and ten years later her police officer-husband was killed in a car crash."

Kates said he had to deal with those situations during many interviews with Knudson-Felix to bring out the emotional story that is the underpinning of the book.

"Sharon was a real trooper because we would talk for hours at a time and she didn't get tired — she had a story to tell, full of passion and emotion in reliving those incidents," he said.

Knudson-Felix said she sees the experience of working with Kates as a positive one, event though it meant exposing the raw ends of emotional nerves.

"His talent in getting to the story is in digging out the details so that people could understand the message of the story I wanted to share," she said. "A lot of what I told Allen was so emotionally draining that I couldn't do it for long periods of time."

"As a ghostwriter, you have to know how to work with people telling you very emotional things and even crying during the interviews," he said. "You have to use empathy techniques and know what to do when someone is coming apart."

Kates has a new ghostwriting project that he can't say much about right now.

"On my new project, a true crime story, my client expects to be arrested," Kates said. "I've told him that the things he's telling me are very damaging, and he says he knows. Even the publisher has asked him if he really wanted to say these things because they are so damaging to him."

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