The Mongoliad, a trilogy set when the heirs of Genghis Khan are marching down the steppes to Europe, was written by a group of authors. One of them was Neal Stephenson. I heard him mention the project at a book signing in Iowa City: he wanted to write better fight scenes than had been featured in the Baroque Cycle (amazing novels, by the way), so he got a bunch of friends together to learn how to fight with swords, and they ended up collaborating.
I was reading on a train from Lyon to Paris, leaving a life I recognized behind. Venturing into my own type of terra incognita, I could sympathize, I felt, with the desperate band of heroes on a probably doomed quest to assassinate the Khan.
The Mongoliad, of which I’ve only read the first, are part of the Foreworld saga, a series of alternate histories put out by the Subutai corporation which include graphic novels and books set in other eras. The books Stephenson contributed to were originally serialized via a dedicated app, and a “kindle worlds” site was set up to solicit and publish licensed fan-fiction. Subutai, of which Stephenson is chairman, weren’t so much publishing a book in 2010 as selling an immersive shared world, access to a social media experience playing out in real time.
What I noticed was that when the narrative switched points of view between characters, the style of writing also shifted. This was only natural, considering that the chapters were written by different authors, working serially or in tandem.
The idea of collaborative novels seems obvious, but is rarely attempted. You could sense, reading the Mongoliad, that the authors were friends. When humans collaborate rather than compete, they can operate on a super-organic level–what improvisational actors call a “group mind.”
As a ghostwriter, I love to dwell in those unsettling spaces where the lines of ownership and authorship are blurred. Most authors try to put themselves in someone else’s skin, to inhabit another voice. Ghost writing (more ghostly collaboration, really) is the logical extension of fiction, speaking under another name, formulating more free language by untethering it from ego.