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Lisa Dickey pictured standing in front of an audience lecturing.

Lisa Dickey talks about her book Bears in the Streets at an event in Washington, D.C., in 2017. It is based on her experiences in Russia. (photo courtesy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation)

The ghostwriter

Lisa Dickey has collaborated with U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, First Lady Jill Biden and other well-known figures to produce best-sellers.

Nanny. Russian translator. Lounge singer. Lisa Dickey took a roundabout journey to a career as a bestselling celebrity ghostwriter. To date, Dickey has co-authored or ghostwritten more than 20 nonfiction books, including 10 New York Times bestsellers.

Her most recent collaborations include Every Day is a Gift by U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Where the Light Enters by First Lady Jill Biden. She has also collaborated with Herbie Hancock, Patrick Swayze, Whitney Houston, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie and Whitewater partner Susan McDougal, mostly on first-person memoirs.

“I love getting to know these incredible people, just sort of dropping into their lives and helping them put something out into the world,” said Dickey (Russian language and literature ’88). “You develop a relationship with each person. It’s a very interesting mix of professional, and invariably, it becomes personal, because they’re revealing things.”

Dickey, a Pensacola, Florida, native, ended up at Carolina thanks to her uncle Pitt Dickey (B.A. ’72, J.D. ’74), who wanted her to be a Tar Heel so badly he bought her a subscription to The Daily Tar Heel her senior year in high school. “He just kept saying how great it was and how wonderful Chapel Hill was, and I was like, ‘All right, I’ll go have a look.’ And I just fell in love with the place.”

Dickey’s interest in Russia dates back to her childhood: “When I was a kid, my mother made a trip to the Soviet Union ‘for fun,’ and my dad was in the Navy and his job was to fight the Russians. And this was extremely confusing for me.”

Prior to launching her writing career, Dickey said she did “a lot of weird things.” She worked as a nanny for a U.S. diplomatic family in Moscow, as a Russian translator and later as a lounge singer in Japan. She began working as a journalist in 1995 in St. Petersburg, Russia, writing for The Moscow Times and USA Today.

While some ghostwriters have niches such as business or sports, Dickey does not. Her topics have ranged from politics to entertainment to business to international relations. Not being an expert is often better, Dickey said, because “I’m not polluting the ideas of the person with my own take on everything.”

Dickey doesn’t pitch ideas; people contact her. She typically sits down with the subject, sometimes also interviewing people who know them well. The more time they give her, the better. She refuses to take on what she considers vanity projects and said she needs to feel confident the finished product will serve a larger purpose by telling a piece of history “that only this person would know” or by conveying a message that will be helpful to readers.

She is typically credited as a co-author on the cover or in the acknowledgments. There’s only one book that, due to contractual obligations, she can’t reveal her involvement: “Everybody would be very impressed. They’d be like, ‘Whoa, you spent time with her?’”

In addition to the ghostwriting projects, she has written Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia. Called “brilliant, real and readable” by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the travelogue describes 20 years of in-depth interviews Dickey conducted with the same Russians between 1995 and 2015.

Dickey, who lives in West Hollywood with her wife, television and film writer Randi Barnes, said ghostwriting is “a cool way to make a living” but deserves more respect. She encourages people to read book acknowledgments to see if a ghostwriter was involved.

“I’m so proud of this collection of books that I’ve helped bring to life, but I think in some ways ghostwriting is something that people still feel shouldn’t be talked about or should be a secret.”

By Pamela Babcock