I was underwhelmed by Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer; it wasn’t as profound as I hoped or as engaging. It was fine, just not great. But I was taken with her discussion of the problem for the journalist / nonfiction novelist – or, I would add, perhaps biographer – of needing to select a subject who is ‘a ready made literary figure’. She argues that journalist McGinniss chose a subject in murderer Jeffrey MacDonald who just wasn’t interesting enough:Continue reading
Saturday 10am #4
I’ve decided to write a conventional biography for my first one, ‘cradle to grave’ as it’s called. Because of that, I feel the need to start with an introduction that grips readers and gives them a taste of Katharine’s life, why it matters, and some of what lies ahead in the narrative. Perhaps this is misguided; I just picked up Jill Roe’s Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography off my shelf and she starts in 1879 with Franklin’s birth. Yet as acclaimed as Roe’s biography has been, it didn’t grip me. And Miles Franklin has a name recognition today which Katharine doesn’t have. Continue reading
Michelle Scott Tucker at Adventures in Biography and I both happen to be in the midst of cutting anecdotes and details from our biographies which distract from the main narrative. She has found a potential use for them: in author’s talks! It’s a good idea to try to give the audience something different.
I tweeted about my editing process on the weekend: “Criteria for keeping scenes in my biography: Does it connect to anything later on or is it an orphaned anecdote? Does it matter to my readers? Eg: sorry Madame Marchesi, you’re not connected & you’re not so famous as when KSP wrote her autobiography.”
What should biographers do with all the wonderful stories – or snippets – they discover along the way but can’t include in their books?
Many biographers do, of course, include them. But readers often don’t like it – for example wonderful reviewer Whispering Gums recently discussed a biography she enjoyed, but felt contained too much extraneous detail. And, I’ll confess, as a reader I feel the same way. I just want to read about the biographical subject, please.
But as a writer? Of course I want to include all the details! Because I’m assuming the reader is every bit as obsessed by the subject as I am – which is, tragically but patently, untrue. All those extra details, every little meandering away from the main subject, are crucial to the writer’s understanding but frankly unnecessary to the reader’s.
However, Nathan Hobby, A Biographer in Perth, raises…
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I had some good news today – Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre let me know my biography workshop will be a part of their 2018 program. It’ll be on Saturday 17 March, 1:30pm – 4:30pm. If you know anyone in Perth working on a biography, please let them know. I’ve got the feeling that developing and running this workshop will be a valuable experience for my own practice.
Detective, Historian, Storyteller: The Arts of the Biographer
A biographer needs many hats – detective, unearthing sources that reveal a life more fully; historian, analysing and putting these sources into context; and storyteller, weaving it all into a compelling narrative. This workshop introduces these roles of the biographer and gives practical tips and exercises to help you develop your skills.
What a character Kylie Tennant was. Her strength and distinctiveness leap out from the pages of Jane Grant’s biography, right from the opening where she walks 500 miles at age twenty during the Depression to visit her university friend Lewis Rodd. Impulsively, they marry. Continue reading
Toward the end of her biography of Randolph Stow, Suzanne Falkiner offers a beautifully expressed quote from Louis Menand:
How much one can accurately convey of a life lived so much on the interior is debateable. As the American academic Louis Menand has observed, in the matter of historical research (and by extension biography), what has been written about takes on an importance that may be spurious:
A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary: all become luminous with significance – even though they are merely the bits that have floated to the surface. the historian clings to them while somewhere below the huge submerged wreck of the past sinks silently out of sight.
Suzanne Falkiner Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow (UWA Publishing, 2016) 726.
It’s more of a problem for a subject about whom little has survived – Shakespeare as an extreme example, the early Katharine Susannah Prichard as a less extreme example. Yet it subtly affects all biographies. Falkiner’s book would look very different if she her main source wasn’t Stow’s letters to his mother.
I’ve finished listening to the audio version of David Marr’s The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell during night-feeds of my nine-week old son, a slightly surreal and disturbing companion at 2:30am each morning. It’s the original Quarterly Essay edition of 2013; the print version of this edition is 124 pages, while the expanded 2014 edition is 210 pages. Continue reading
The metal bust of Mary Durack used to greet me each day at the entry to the Battye Collection during my year working at the State Library of WA in 2007. I saw it again yesterday, a couple of days after finishing Brenda Niall’s True North: The Story of Elizabeth and Mary Durack (Text, 2012). Busts make the people of the past seem so distant, but one of the achievements of this biography to make the Duracks feel quite alive again for a time. Continue reading
Claire Tomalin is a master literary biographer who makes the genre more compelling and interesting than any other writer I know. I’m two-thirds through her 2002 book on the 17th century diarist and naval administrator, Samuel Pepys. I offer some notes on her biographical method. Continue reading