A Ghostwriter Steps Out of the Shadows
Lonnie Wheeler has written his share of books but they have other people’s names on them. Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Coleman Young—Wheeler wrote all their autobigraphies.
A book tour can’t be all work and no play. So when my current tour landed me in Cincinnati on my way from Atlanta to Detroit, I made time for a side trip a few miles up the Ohio River to the hamlet of New Richmond. There, in his cluttered office at the end of a gravel lane, I came face to face with one of my unsung literary heroes.
Lonnie Wheeler is a ghost, in book world parlance. That is, he’s a ghostwriter, an invisible spirit who takes the thoughts and words of a chosen subject—usually a famous person—and turns that raw material into a book that is a sublime paradox. If it’s a success, the book will capture the subject’s voice, yet it will be a book the subject could not possibly have written by himself.
I heard of Lonnie Wheeler while doing research into Coleman Young, the first black mayor of my hometown, Detroit. I knew Young only as a figment of the news media: a foul-mouthed, race-baiting, bare-knuckled pol who ruled the Motor City like his personal fief from 1974 until 1994, two decades of relentless, seemingly fatal decline for what was once the fifth-largest city in America. Then I picked up a book that shredded my facile preconceptions—Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Mayor Coleman Young. In small print below the title were two names: Coleman Young and Lonnie Wheeler.
The mayor and his ghost.
The book brought Young to vivid, three-dimensional life—his birth in Jim Crow Alabama, his boyhood on the jumping streets of the Black Bottom section of Detroit’s east side, his time as a Tuskegee Airman, his radical leftist politics and union organizing and, finally, his five colorful controversial terms as mayor of Detroit. In his introduction, Wheeler wrote, “The big picture of Coleman Young reveals a battle-scarred radical whose personal history uniquely represents not only the black social history of modern Detroit, but the last seven decades of black political history in the United States.” Then, by way of leavening this heavy claim, Wheeler slyly adds that Young kept a placard on his desk that read “M.F.I.C.” Which stood for Motherfucker In Charge. (Young and Wheeler wanted to call their book Mayor Motherfucker, but their New York publisher demurred.)
After I finished reading the book I tracked Wheeler down and called him and told him I was trying to write a novel that features Young. Some writers would have been put off by such a query from a stranger, but Wheeler graciously offered to share his two years’ worth of research into Young’s life with me next time I was near Cincinnati. So a few days ago there I was, sitting in Wheeler’s office, poring over his boxes of research and talking about the mysterious art of ghostwriting.
“It’s a different animal from other kinds of writing,” Wheeler said, as his dogs Bama and Kal sprawled nearby. “Obviously you’re dependent on the person you’re working with. They’re the driver. You’re trying to draw a compromise between retaining their voice and converting it into written prose. You don’t have the autonomy of a writer of, say, historical fiction. The ghostwriter is entirely dependent on the subject.”
“Is that frustrating?” I asked.
“It’s not liberating,” he said, “but there’s an efficiency to it that’s attractive. Developing a relationship with the subject—the nuances of their personality—it’s very rewarding. There’s a lot to like about it.”
When I complimented him for his fleshed-out portrait of Young, he said, “Coleman was over the top. But when you start seeing things from his perspective, you start to see that he was trying to set things right. He was trying to end the marginalization of black people in Detroit. He was heavy-handed, no doubt about it. But that was the environment he came out of—Black Bottom, even the unions. That’s hardball. He had to be a forceful character.”
Indeed, when Young was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his leftist politics in the labor movement, he snarled at his interlocutors, “I consider the activities of this committee as un-American.”
It turns out Wheeler, 62, is a veteran ghost. After a long career as a newspaper sportswriter, he ghost-wrote autobiographies of the baseball stars Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Bob Gibson, and Mike Piazza. Then came Coleman Young, quite a departure for a writer who says he is not particularly political and didn’t know much about Young or his city before he began the book.
Now Wheeler is at work on his third book with Bob Gibson, the former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who stands out as Wheeler’s favorite collaborator. “What I like about Gibson is that he so contravenes his public image—that of a hard, off-putting guy,” Wheeler said. “But in fact he’s earnest, he’s considerate, a genuine good guy. And a good conversationalist.”
Then came one of those weird bits of serendipity that make the writing life—and the book tour—worth all the trouble. Wheeler told me he and Gibson are working on a new book with the working title of Pitch by Pitch—a breakdown of every pitch Gibson threw in his complete-game victory in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series. In that game, Gibson struck out 17 Detroit Tiger batters, a record that still stands.
I handed Wheeler a signed copy of my new novel, Motor City Burning, which ends on the day the Tigers came back to stun Gibson in Game 7 and win the ’68 World Series. I told him I traveled to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to do research for the novel. Then I read Wheeler the passage from my book when the beloved Detroit radio announcer, Ernie Harwell, described Gibson striking out the Tiger slugger Willie Horton: “Willie just stood there like a house by the side of the road and watched that one go by.”
Wheeler nodded and laughed. “Yeah,” he said, “they called that pitch the freezing slider, because it just froze Horton solid.” Then he told me something else I didn’t know, despite my prodigious research: “That strikeout of Horton was Gibson’s 17th, the one that ended the game.”
This, clearly, is a ghost who knows his business. It was time to hit the road for Detroit. I thanked Wheeler for his time and his help, and I told him I’m eagerly awaiting Pitch by Pitch.