Andrew O’Hagan was hired to collaborate with Assange over the book for Edinburgh-based publisher Canongate, which went ahead and produced an unauthorised version in 2011 after Assange pulled out, declaring: “All memoir is prostitution”.
Canongate said 38 other publishers across the world had committed to the book; O’Hagan said together they had paid £1.5 million.
The author has broken his silence over the saga in a acerbic essay for the London Review of Books. O’Hagan said he had come to realise Assange had never wanted the book written.
When the Canongate deal was announced, Assange said: “I hope this book will become one of the unifying documents of our generation.”
However, O’Hagan said: “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.
“He didn’t want to do the book. He hadn’t from the beginning.”
O’Hagan said Assange, working with him on the book, “forgot what a writer is, someone with a tendency to write things down and seek the truth”.
The ghostwriter also revealed the vanity of his collaborator, who took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London 18 months ago while fighting extradition to Sweden, where he faces rape and sexual assault charges. O’Hagan said Assange had initially “hoped to have something that read like Hemingway”, then had suggested a bizarre format for the book, in which the first chapter contained just one word, the second two, and so on.
The author said the “clarifying” moment in their relationship had come when Assange tried to persuade O’Hagan to accompany him in a Daily Telegraph helicopter to a book festival to promote the forthcoming book.
He said: “He wanted me to assist him in living out that version of himself he so craves.
“He was flying in from Neverland with his own personal JM Barrie… What could be nicer for the lost boy of Queensland with his silver hair and his sense that the world of adults is no real place for him?”
O’Hagan said: “He is thin-skinned, conspiratorial, untruthful, narcissistic, and he thinks he owns the material he conduits. It may turn out that Julian is not [Pentagon Papers leaker] Daniel Ellsberg or [18th-century radical] John Wilkes, but [fictional newspaper magnate] Charles Foster Kane, 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.”
O’Hagan further revealed that despite Assange’s public denouncement of Canongate’s unauthorised version of the book, he had secretly encouraged sales and tweeted links to its page on the online retailer Amazon.
Canongate director Jamie Byng yesterday hailed O’Hagan’s account of the “impossibility of trying to ghost Assange’s memoirs”.
He tweeted: “Andy O’Hagan’s compelling, ring side account of Being (& being around) Julian Assange is smart, accurate and fair.”
Canongate’s frustration with Assange was laid bare when it went ahead with publishing its unauthorised version of the book in 2011.
It stated: “In the end, the work was to prove too personal”, with Assange becoming “increasingly troubled by the thought of publishing an autobiography” – despite more than 50 hours of interviews with O’Hagan.
The firm said: “After reading the first draft of the book, Julian declared: ‘All memoir is prostitution’.”
WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson declined to comment yesterday.