Ghost Writer

I was ego surfing today when I came upon this

link to a book “Inside the Sun386i and Sun486i” by Peter Norton and, to my great astonishment, me.


Amazon lists the book as “not in stock”, but I wonder if it even exists, or ever existed. If it does exist I would certainly love to get my hands on a copy. Because I never wrote it.

I do know, more or less, how my name came to be listed as an author of the book.

I was in charge of documentation for the Sun386i, a somewhat radical, nay, (dare I say it?) arguably revolutionary computer built by the East Coast Division of Sun Microsystems in 1987-88.(I was also in charge of documentation for the Sun486i, although I had forgotton that such a thing existed. I was pretty exhausted by the time that came out. . .)


Somewhere along the way, as we were about to ship our first machines, I was approached (probably by somebody in Marketing, although I don’t really recall) and asked if I could find a ghostwriter for a book about the boxen for the Peter Noton “Inside the ___” series. This would be an extra-curricular deal, where Sun would allow the writer some (small) amount of paid time to work on the book (in addition to doing his or her regular job) and the writer would keep the $$ from the publisher.


I was a pointy-haired manager by then, and managing a group of 15 or 20 technical writers. I was routinely working 60 or 70 hours a week. But I, with a young and growing family, figured that I could use a few extra bucks and that writing this wouldn’t be any harder than writing any of the dozens of manuals I had written by then. So I nominated myself.


Some time later the paperwork from the publisher came in, and I (for some reason) read it very carefully (my normal style would have been to just sign it, “whatever”). And it turned out that I was going to have to write a 400 or so page book. For which I was going to be given, I think, a $3,000 advance against royalties. The book was going to say “By PETER NORTON” and there would be a tiny “with John Sundman” at the bottom. Norton was not required to do any writing or editing; he was required to read it, however. I was liable for any errors. If the book sold enough copies for me to earn back my advance, for every additional dollar of royalties, Peter Norton would get $.95 and I would get $.05. You get the picture.


So I came to my senses and decided not to do the book. I never signed the contract. By this time, however, I had written the outline and a few chapters. I have a vague recollection that the contract was picked up by somebody else in my group. It basically would have had to have been, because there wasn’t anybody else who had access to the engineering team. Any other writers, that is.


I suspect that the book was never written, but that its title got picked up from some out-of-date database of books that were scheduled to appear in 1990.


Peter Norton, by the way, bought a giant and lovely Victorian house in Oak Bluffs on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, right along that park there by where the ferry comes in. (What’s the name of that park? I always forget. The one with the bandstand/gazebo.) I live on Martha’s Vineyard & drive by that park all the time (it’s a pretty small island) & sometimes reflect on how Peter Norton made all his money with which to buy that house.


About five years ago his house burned to the ground in a spectacular winter fire. The Martha’s Vineyard Times (which I like, but which snooty people consider a much inferior paper to the Vineyard Gazette) published a breathtaking photo of fire trucks pouring water on the giant flames, for which they won some photojournalism award. (I want to say “Pulitzer” but it was probably something from the New England association of something-or-other. I should look it up.)


I can prove that I had nothing to do with that fire, by the way. Evidently it was an electrical thing, and the house was empty when it started.


To Norton’s credit, he rebuilt the house in virtually identical style. I know a few Oak Bluffs firemen who put out the fire, and I know some contractors who worked on the rebuilding, and I heard a few stories. However, I can’t recall a single one of them. So that’s my ghostwriter story . No ghosts, alas, only a ghost of a ghost. Although I would be happy to start a rumor of ghosts in the house to go along with my ghostwriting story. My friend Holly Nadler would like that.


Although, while we’re on the subject, my favorite ghost story of Martha’s Vineyard is the one I wrote for Salon a few years ago called How I Destroyed the New Economy”

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