Stalking the Elusive Subject
by Charles J. Shields
I might have had a chance of getting Harper Lee's cooperation when I was writing Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Henry Holt, 2006). But I got snookered. Here's what happened.
My agent Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Management sent my book proposal to about a dozen publishers. We were excited when several editors said they'd like to meet me and discuss the idea. I remember we were walking down Seventh Avenue in Manhattan when Jeff's cell phone rang.
I could tell right away by his expression that something was wrong.
Someone--a mole in publishing (though I prefer to think of the person as a wart)--had copied my entire proposal and sent it by Fedex to Lee. As Jeff and I were blithely meeting with editors, she was already feeling grateful that some thoughtful soul had tipped her off, and by God she wasn't going to cooperate with me. Or, as she so often responds to requests from journalists, "Hell, no!" In fact, she had started calling friends and asking them not to speak to me. I was thunderstruck and Jeff, in his endearing way, began to worry (he wouldn't feel right if he wasn't worried about something) that the whole project was blowing up.
What I had planned to do before we were double-crossed was this: first, I would get a reputable publisher for the book, and then I would contact Lee. I would tell her that accuracy and fairness were my biggest concerns. I would explain that I wanted to work with her, and would even send her the completed manuscript for corrections. Keep in mind that this is chancy. Whenever you write a biography of a living person and permit him or her to read the manuscript, you run the risk of having it filleted. Result: a hagiography, to use an old-fashioned word, a biography that treats its subject with undue reverence because all the juicy parts have been removed. Still, I thought a biography of the mysterious Harper Lee, author of one of the most popular books of the twentieth century was worth the chance.
I never got the opportunity to work with her. She cut me dead. Never heard from her, only from her sister, Alice Lee, a lady in her nineties, who said imperiously that she was not pleased that I was writing about her sister.
So, what to do?
The first thing I realized was that I would need many more interviews than I'd planned to get the story of Lee's life. Establishing the simplest fact would require talking with several persons since Lee would tell me nothing. Guesswork--an acceptable method in some cases with persons long dead who left little behind--would be dangerous when the subject was living.
Second, I would have to work as though Lee were looking over my shoulder, as indeed she was. Sometimes I was just a phone call away from her. In other words, now and then someone I was speaking to would say, "Wait, let me call you back." Half an hour would pass, then the phone would ring. "I just spoke to Nelle. . ." So I knew that friends of hers were telling her about me.
This led to a practice that became habitual. I was always polite and discreet, even when people questioned my integrity. "Why don't you just leave Nelle alone?" they asked. I made it clear that I'm a gentleman interested in the life of an important American author. Although a few times I heard mean-spirited gossip that would have thrown shade on Lee's character, I didn't pursue it when, in my judgment, it was just that: nasty gossip. My standard of low-mindedness is Jerry Oppenheimer's Just Desserts: The Unauthorized Biography of Martha Stewart. Oppenheimer describes, with dirty-minded glee, the night he believes Stewart lost her virginity. Frankly, who cares?
Finally, Lee's silence compelled me, and my publisher, to be careful about quoting from unpublished materials. Lee gave Truman Capote 150 pages of single-spaced, typewritten notes she'd written while in Kansas helping him research In Cold Blood. I wish I could have quoted from those notes at length, but her lack of cooperation forced me to use fair-use snippets and paraphrase the rest. Too bad. She's a fine writer and those notes are fascinating to read.
I sent her a copy of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee when it was finished. Through the grapevine I heard back that she tells her friends not to read it.
You know, it could have been a better book--if only she'd cooperated.
Charles J. Shields is the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Henry Holt & Co, 2006), which was a New York Times bestseller for 12 weeks. Mockingbird was also an alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild; a main selection of the Quality Paperback Book Club; a nominee for the Quill Awards in nonfiction, and winner of the 2007 Southern Independent Booksellers Association award for nonfiction. He is currently at work on the authorized biography of Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five and other novels..
New Biography Explores Legendary Relationship Between Stein and Toklas
When Eisenhower was president and "Liz Taylor had taken Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds," Janet Malcolm recalled reading The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book and loving its "waspishly magisterial tone, its hauteur and malice." A half century later, Malcolm leafed through her food-stained copy of the book and instead of finding something to cook, she stumbled across a puzzle that sent her on a biographical odyssey. One chapter of the cook book, unstained and unread, concerned the years Toklas spent with her companion Gertrude Stein in provincial eastern France during the Nazi occupation. "How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?" asked Malcolm.
Her answer is contained in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice published this month by Yale University Press. But, in many ways, the question turns out to be an excuse for an expansive bit of literary investigative biography. In comparison to most works on the biographical shelf, Malcolm's book is unusual in that it is biographical without being a biography, broadly enlightening and interpretative yet personal. For biographers, Malcolm's work displays a number of thought-provoking techniques.
"My book," said Malcolm in an interview with The Biographer's Craft, "is a narrative that combines journalism, literary criticism, and biography." These, of course, are the skills for which Malcolm is well known. A frequent contributor to the New Yorker and New York Review of Books, Malcolm is the author of The Journalist and the Murderer, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, among other books.
Instead of an all-encompassing approach, Malcolm chose to focus on certain specific themes in the two women's lives using, as a starting point, her question about their survival in World War II. "Naturally, it leaves out most of what would constitute a proper biography," Malcolm said. "But--as every biographer must be aware--even the fullest biography necessarily leaves out most of what went on in its subject's life, especially in his or her inner life."
To tell the tale of the two women, Malcolm made judicious use of Stein's writings, particularly the 925-page long The Making of Americans. One of the truths about Stein is that, as admired as she was and is, hardly anyone reads her work. Except for her famous, and often quoted, quips, Stein's writing is impenetrable, redundant, and aimless (except to readers with MFAs.) Malcolm's book performs a feat of magic by making Stein accessible to her readers. Malcolm's technique is a model for biographers working with a subject whose prose is off-putting. But to accomplish this, Malcolm had to resort to an unusual research method. "I finally solved the problem of the book's weight and bulk by taking a kitchen knife and cutting it into six sections. The book thus became portable and (so to speak) readable."
In addition to illuminating the lives of Stein and Toklas through their own words, Malcolm interjects herself directly into the book by a frequent and unusual use of the first person. For example, in one section of the book, Malcolm examined the pair's potential association with a collaborator. "The answer to the question was given to me by a professor of English named Edward M. Burns. I had been much taken with an essay he and another English professor, Ulla E. Dydo, had written. . ."
All of Malcolm's books are written in the first person. "The 'I' figure isn't the actual person doing the writing," Malcolm said, "but a kind of 'reliable narrator' contrived for the occasions." As to why Malcolm adopts this style, she said "I can only say that it suits me--perhaps because it allows me to invent a character. In real life I am nowhere near as clever and fluent as the 'I' of my books."
Welsh Writer Wins Scottish Biography Prize Byron Rogers, a Welsh writer, was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography for his book on British poet R.S. Thomas.
The Memorial Prize is the United Kingdom's oldest literary prize and is awared in fiction and biography. Past winners of the biography prize have included Lytton Strachey, Antonia Fraser, and Martin Amis.
London Theater Party Planned for Collis's New Biography
British biographer Rose Collis's new work will take center stage, so to speak, at a public event on October 4 a the National Theatre in London.
Collis's new biography is Carole Browne: 'This Effing Lady' (Seen to the left)
Collis is the author of several books including Colonel Barker's Monstrous Regiment: A Tale of Female Husbandry and A Trouser-Wearing Character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain.
Biographers Samuels, Stern, and Bingham Pass Away
Art historian and biographer Peggy Samuels died at age 84 in her home in East Falmouth, MA on August 23.
Samuels, and her husband Howard, wrote Frederick Remington: A Biography in 1982 as well as other works, including The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West. In all they wrote and edited ten books on art and U.S. history. Howard Samuels died in 2002.
Though both Samuels were born in Brooklyn, they became enamored with Western art. "They always said they liked cowboys and Indians and needed to fill the niche," said their daughter, Amy Samuels.
Book dealer, literary sleuth, and biographer Madeleine Stern died at age 95 in her home in New York City on August 18.
Stern's Louisa May Alcott, first published in 1950 was issued in a new edition in 1995. With detective skills, Stern uncovered that Alcott also wrote racy potboilers and published them under pen names or anonymously.
For years, with her partner Leona Rostenberg, Stern ran the Rostenberg & Stern Rare Books, an institution in the world of antiquarian bookselling.
June Bingham, a biographer and playwright, died at age 88 in her home in Riverdale, NY, on August 21.
Bingham was the author of biographies of U Thant, secretary general of the United Nations, and Reinhold Niebuhr, the Protestant theologian.
|Tips CornerResearch ideas contributed by readers
Modern Index Cards
As adolescents many of us were drilled in the index card form of note taking for research. One comment, thought, or concept per card, source at the bottom, topic at the top. Just reading the instructions alone may bring back nightmares of high school research papers. "Alright class, do you all have your completed ten note cards to turn in this Monday?"
Well, if truth be told, the method has its merits, that is aside from being a means of permissible adolescent torture. For those who want to use this method, the age of laptop computers makes it even easier.
The first step is to format a template for a 3" x 5" or 4" x 6" card. Save it as a file. I use Word for this purpose, even though I use Word Perfect for most of my writing. Then one can save one's cards from each day's work (i.e. ColUni 5-20-07). When you return home, the cards can be printed out easily using an ink jet printer. Using a laser printer is not a good idea because the heat curls the cards. Any inexpensive ink jet printer will permit you to stack about fifty cards in the tray at one time.
Two distinctive advantage of producing one's index cards this way are:
If this approach appeals to you but you want to a more sophisticated means, a company called NDXCards offers software.
Have a great tip?
Send it to editor@the biographerscraft.com
From the Editor's Desk
Because of the Labor Day Weekend in the United States, I held off sending out the newsletter until September 4.
This month we are featuring a fascinating account of what it is like to write a biography of a living subject who won't cooperate and, in fact, tries to thwart the biographer. No wonder so many of us prefer subjects who are no longer around to make our work more difficult than it already is.
James McGrath Morris
P.S. If you like what you find here, please forward this newsletter to your friends so they can sign up!
Any book mentioned in this newsletter may be ordered from our official partner, Powell's Books, the legendary independent bookstore.
Sold to Publishers
The following are among the biographies sold to publishers in July as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources
Heidi Schnakenberg, Kid Carolina: RJ Reynolds, Jr., A Tobacco Fortune, and the Mysterious Death of a Southern Icon¸ Center Street,
Thomas Farley and Tanner Colby, an oral biography of the late comic Chris Farley, Viking.
Marv Gold, Silverstein and Me, Red Hen Press.
Coming to Stores
The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History by Linda Colley (Pantheon)
The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star by Nikki Sixx (Pocket Books)
Coltrane: The Story of a Soundby Ben Ratliff (Farrar, Giroux, Strauss)
The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy by Glenn Kessler (St. Martin's Press)
Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy by Richard Kahlenberg (Columbia University Press)
Hugo!: The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution by Bart Jones (Steerforth)
Kiefer Sutherland: The Biography by Laura Jackson (Piatkus Books)
The Volunteer: The Incredible True Story of an Israeli Spy on the Trail of International Terrorists by Michael Ross & Jonathan Kay (Skyhorse Publishing)
Cochrane: The Real Master and Commanderby David Cordingly (Bloomsbury)
Breaking Through: John B. McLendon, Basketball Legend and Civil Rights Pioneer by Milton S. Katz (University of Arkansas Press)
Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorerby Tim Jeal (Yale University Press)
Zigzag: The Incredible Wartime Exploits of Double Agent Eddie Chapman by Nicholas Booth (Arcade Publishing)
Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War by Michael J. Neufeld (Knopf)
The Fox and the Flies: The Secret Life of a Grotesque Master Criminal by Charles van Onselen (Walker & Company)
Becoming a Woman: A Biography of Christine Jorgensen by Richard F. Docter (Harrington Park Press)
There When We Needed Him: Wiley Austin Branton, Civil Rights Warrior by Judith Kilpatrick (University of Arkansas Press)
Descents of Memory: A Life of John Cowper Powys by Morine Krissdottir (Overlook)
The Marxist and the Movies: A Biography of Paul Jarrico by Larry Ceplair (University Press of Kentucky)
Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972 by Edward K. Kaplan (Yale University Press)
CreditsPhoto of Janet Malcom by Kevin Sturman.