The ghostwriter who collaborated with Julian Assange on his abortive 2011 autobiography has broken his silence to describe his months working with the WikiLeaks founder, which culminated in the collapse of the high-profile book deal.
Two years after he was first introduced to the Australian, Andrew O'Hagan has now spoken out about how he worked with Assange on the book, which he said publisher Canongate had sold in more than 40 countries for a total of US$2.5 million before the deal imploded.
In an essay for the London Review of Books, a version of which he delivered in a lecture in London last week, O'Hagan describes working with a character who was, by turns, passionate, funny, lazy, courageous, vain, paranoid, moral and manipulative.
The book deal ultimately collapsed, O'Hagan writes, because "the man who put himself in charge of disclosing the world's secrets simply couldn't bear his own. The story of his life mortified him and sent him scurrying for excuses".
Assange, he writes, was persuaded to agree to the autobiography by his lawyers who said the sums on offer would cover his mounting legal costs.
He had initially been enthusiastic about the project, telling his ghostwriter that he "hoped to have something that read like Hemingway", and suggesting ever more avant garde styles for the book to take, such as writing the first chapter with one word, the second with two, and so on.
O'Hagan reveals that as the deadline to deliver a manuscript approached, Assange was "totally shocked" at the prospect of his own story being told, describing people who write about their family as "prostitutes". Exasperated at their author's unco-operative attitude and hoping to reclaim a proportion of their significant stake, Canongate published a version of O'Hagan's manuscript as Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Biography in September 2011 without the Australian's consent.
Though Assange denounced its publication, he told O'Hagan that he was covertly encouraging sales and tweeting links to its Amazon page. That strategy failed: despite its huge advance and publicity, the book sold fewer than 700 copies in its first week, a publishing failure.
Pondering on the enigma that is Assange, O'Hagan concludes it is difficult to determine whether the WikiLeaks founder is another Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker, or John Wilkes, the 18th-century radical politician, or the fictional Charles Foster Kane, who was "abusive and monstrous in his pursuit of the truth that interests him, and a man who, it turns out, was motivated all the while not by high principles but by a deep sentimental wound. Perhaps we won't know until the final frames of the movie".