James Dale tells other people’s stories. It’s not that he’s a biographer; his books tend more toward memoir — only he’s not writing his own story. During the past two decades, Dale has collaborated with a number of well-known figures, including baseball greats Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken Jr. What he does is often called ghostwriting — although since Dale’s name appears on the book jacket as a second author, he’s technically not a ghostwriter.
Dale’s most recent book is congressman and civil rights advocate Elijah Cummings’ memoir “We’re Better Than This: My Fight for the Future of Our Democracy,” which was published in September 2020, almost a year after Cummings died at the age of 68. A NPR reviewer called the book more than a memoir: “It is an urgent call to action, imploring us to defend our democracy as it is assailed by threats internal and external. And, perhaps above all, it is a poignant reminder of just how much the nation lost with his death.”
Dale, who is a seasonal Vineyard Haven resident and lives in Maryland when not on the Island, initially connected with Cummings’s wife, Maya, through a mutual friend. She had been encouraging her husband to write his book for a number of years, and after a couple of false starts, they had yet to find the right collaborator.
During their first meeting in February 2019, Cummings had scheduled half an hour for them to talk, but they ended up speaking for three hours. “He was telling me stories of his upbringing, and then I would ask sometimes about current events, and I started to formulate this idea. I want to interweave these formative stories with what he’s doing today,” recalled Dale. He wrote up a book proposal, and they quickly got a publisher.
At the start of their collaboration, Dale would meet Cummings at his Baltimore office or D.C. congressional office in the Rayburn Building. Later on, as they got more comfortable together, they’d talk more by phone. “Each session would run approximately one hour, sometimes shorter if interrupted by an important call or meeting,” said Dale, pointing out that these interruptions tended to be from Speaker Pelosi, Adam Schiff, or members of Cummings’ staff or media. “We often texted as well, frequently late at night — he answered texts until all hours, always working. Sometimes he would send a note to remind us to talk about a particular subject that had occurred to him. He began each session with ‘OK, go …’
“I’d say, today, Elijah, I want to talk about such and such. It might be a contemporary issue like the Michael Cohen hearings. Or it might be I want to talk about what it was like to be raised by preachers.” During one of these sessions, Dale said, “Elijah, I want to talk to you, if you will, I’d like to talk about your health.”
In April 2017, Cummings had surgery for an aortic stenosis. There were complications with his recovery, and the congressman, who was known as being one of the hardest workers in Congress, was forced to slow down. As told in the book, “This was happening for me to tell me not to waste time on less important things, or what couldn’t be done, and concentrate on what must and can be done now. The Lord wasn’t finished with me yet, but he was telling me to hurry.”
The congressman also revealed to Dale his long battle with thymic cancer, a rare and often deadly cancer. At the time of his diagnosis, his doctors told him that he should approach life like he had only a few months to live. “So I have done just that for more than 25 years,” he wrote. Cummings, sadly, didn’t live long enough to finish the book. He died in October 2019, a few months before they were due to complete it. “I ended up talking to a lot of people he worked with, and spent a lot of time with his wife to finish it,” Dale explained.
Dale says he stumbled into these collaborative book projects some two decades ago after meeting and swapping stories with retired baseball legend Jim Palmer. At the time, Dale was working at an advertising and marketing firm, and had published a few humorous gift books. Knowing little about publishing, he said that after he and Palmer decided to give it a go working on a book together, “I asked a few friends, found out about book proposals, found out I needed an agent, asked around some more, got about five names of agents in New York, and sent them letters with a description of the project and five or six pages I had written. And all of them wrote back and said, ‘Yes, we’ll take it,’” said Dale. “It kind of ended up being the story of his life, but it was really the story of his baseball life.”
About capturing someone else’s voice, he explains, “I’m not just listening for content, but to listen for emotion, and also for quirks in delivery. When people talk fast, it sometimes means something. They’re trying to get to an end. They’re trying to get something across. When people are repetitious, sometimes it’s for a purpose of emphasis, not just because they’re repeating themselves.” He added, “Voices are very different. Cal Ripken expresses himself very carefully. Every word was measured. Every thought was measured. Elijah was an emotional guy. He knew exactly what he was saying, but almost everything he said was with passion.”
James Dale will be talking about collaborative book projects and ghostwriting at Islanders Write in September. Visit islanderswrite.com for information.