Writing Celebrity Bios: “It Don’t Come Easy”
We recently came across two news stories about the business of writing books for others that reminded us of the song, “It Don’t Come Easy.” One had to do with the co-authors of Becoming Manny: Inside the Life of Baseball’s Most Enigmatic Slugger (Scribners, 2009), a biography of the colorful baseball player Manny Ramirez. The lead author, Jean E. Rhodes, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, got the idea to tell Manny’s story as an outgrowth of her research into developmental psychology and the role mentors play in young people’s lives. Her co-author, Shawn Boburg, a young newspaper reporter already with a Pulitzer Prize to his credit, had the unenviable task of trying to interview Manny. Upon their first meeting, Manny made a crack about Boburg’s clothing in Spanish to a teammate, little knowing Boburg was fluent in the language. Then he turned and walked off, beginning a pattern of evading and avoiding the authors that lasted several years. Even though Rhodes and Boburg gave Ramirez half their $250,000 advance (one must seriously ask why?), the slugger didn’t lift a finger to promote the book. The Boston Globe quotes Rhodes saying, “I managed to get him to authorize (the book), but then he would do nothing (to help promote it).” In Boston, we used to describe whatever stunts Manny was pulling at the moment as “Manny being Manny.” It would seem that, in the final analysis, Manny wasn’t much interested in this book. Indeed, Manny once made it clear the only thing he was interested in was playing baseball. We wonder what he’ll take up, now that he’s announced his retirement.
The second story concerns Robbie Robertson, the famed guitarist of The Band. Music aficionados will recall The Band’s most famous album, “Music From Big Pink,” legendary for bringing many well known musicians together to jam and made ultra-famous in Martin Scorsese’s film, “The Last Waltz.” Apparently someone (a publisher? a writer? Robertson himself?) has been interested in his life story for some time, but in an article in The New York Times, Robertson claims he’s been through three or four writers and has been unsatisfied with the collaborations. He is quoted saying, “I need to, when I’m ready, do this myself,” and “I plan on just going into a room, locking the door, rolling up my sleeves and telling some stories.” Whether what he produces will take the form and shape of what we expect in a biography or autobiography only time will tell.
The Takeaway: The relationship between author and writer is a very intimate one in which you both share a lot of yourselves. For authors, there’s a kind of mind-merge which makes it possible for your writer to express you in writing so the book sounds like you, not the writer. This is rarely an easy task. Moreover, a great collaboration involves not just the writer’s skills but working with someone you’ve grown to know, like, and respect. Take the time to do that. Let your intuition complement with your rational mind. Vet all the issues before you begin writing together. Make your needs clear and assure you’re in agreement. The same goes for the writer. Establishing and sustaining openness and good communication, the two of you can make it come more easily.