At the Perth Writers’ Festival in February, I discovered John Burbidge’s Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin, the biography of a significant Perth writer often overlooked in his home country. I had the chance to introduce myself to John at the book-signing and he has generously agreed to answer my questions about literary biography to share on this blog. John’s answers – a series of four over the next four days – are splendid reflections on the theory and praxis of writing a biography. You can find more about Dare Me! on John’s website about Glaskin; find out about John’s other work as an editor and writer at http://www.wordswallah.com, including a page on his memoir, The Boatman, to be published in Australia later this year.
Biographer-in-Perth: I was struck by the way you opened with a thematic treatment of the beach in Glaskin’s life as a way of introducing him – a good choice, I believe. (Did you mention you borrowed the technique from Nicholas Shakespeare?) I think it an approach with much to commend it, but obviously has its challenges, too, in separating events in the subject’s life which were actually close together. In my reading of your book, there is a loose chronology, but each chapter covers a theme across the whole of his life. What persuaded you to make the choice of this over a more conventional chronology?
John Burbidge: A life is such a sprawling, complicated, messy thing to try to capture in the few pages of a book that I felt it would be helpful if I could find something that could be a metaphor or sustaining symbol around which I could weave the narrative, to give the reader something to hold onto and return to. My model for this was Nicholas Shakespeare in his magnificent biography of Bruce Chatwin, in which he chose a cabinet in Chatwin’s grandmother’s house to play this kind of role in his book, as it did in Chatwin’s life. I found this a useful technique and when I tried to emulate it for Glaskin, I came up with his love of the beach, and one particular beach, Cottesloe, that played such a pivotal part in his life. I decided to start my biography there and return to it at the end, to give the story a sense of completion.
Regarding my approach, it is a blend of the chronological and thematic. I’m not sure how conscious a decision this when I started writing, but it emerged as I went along. With a biography, readers like to know how a person grows, absorbs from those influences around him, and responds to life’s challenges as they present themselves, which calls for a certain degree of chronology. In addition, with a writer, there will no doubt be a progression from his early works to his later ones, so this feeds that approach. But as I did my research (over a number of years), I found certain themes began to emerge and demand attention, so I decided to focus my chapters around those, while maintaining a basic chronological progression. It was a balancing and weaving act, with a few changes and false starts along the way.
Perhaps what cemented my choice to use this two-pronged approach was the fact that as I researched Glaskin’s life, I began to see threads that ran through it and I wanted to see if I could connect the dots over time. For example, his encounters with Aboriginal Australians and Asians from an very early age laid the groundwork for his later experiences with them as an adult and the inclusion of them as characters (usually heroes) in his novels. Or his knee-jerk reaction to threats, which exhibited themselves in his early run-ins with authority at Catholic schools and reappeared throughout his life in his aggressive behaviour whenever he felt poorly done by.
Finally, a biography is a story and needs to hold the reader’s interest like any good tale. Highly chronological biographies run the risk of becoming tedious. I decided to focus primarily on those aspects of Glaskin’s life that really grabbed me, and to mine those, on the assumption that readers, too, would be similarly affected by them.
Part 2 tomorrow – ‘Dealing with Glaskinitis’