Stacy Schiff Shares Advice for Aspiring Biographers ...
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Stacy Schiff Shares Advice for Aspiring Biographers
By Maryann Yin on December 17, 2010 12:30 PM
Pulitzer-prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff (pictured, via) has written about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (French aviator), Vera Nabokov (wife/muse to Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov), Benjamin Franklin (American diplomat/inventor), and most recently, Cleopatra VII (the last queen/pharoah of Egypt).
We caught up with Schiff to learn more about what it takes to write biographies.
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Q: So much of your time is spent researching primary sources and historical documents; how much of a grain of salt do you carry with you as pour over these materials, especially when you encounter letters or diary entries which are subject to the biases of human memory?
A: A biographer should be skeptical by nature — perhaps nowhere more so than in interviews. But documents mislead and mangle too; the US intelligence reports on Saint-Exupery’s wartime activities in NYC are hilarious in their misapprehensions. Nearly all of the documents of the French foreign ministry written about the American Revolution were composed to mislead one party or another. The holy grail is the diary written not for posterity, but that its author never expected anyone to read. Vera Nabokov left a few pages that belong in that category; she began a notebook on Lolita’s triumph. Slowly more and more of Mrs. Nabokov crept into her pages. Joan Didion points out that her notebook entries consist of ‘what some would call lies’; ‘I always had trouble,’ she writes in On Keeping a Notebook, ‘distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened.’ What you’re in search of, as the biographer, is ‘that bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast,’ as Yeats had it. It’s what we’d all prefer to forget about ourselves, the anti-Kodak moment.
Q: You’ve said in talks that biography is a like ‘gossip with footnotes’; can you elaborate more about what readers of the genre should expect?
A: I like to think that a great biography illuminates a slice of history through an individual temperament and at the same time does something of the reverse. You really want the life and times; even with a Twain or a Wilde the voice alone wouldn’t justify the volume. That Vladimir Nabokov should wind up as a master stylist of the English language is wildly improbable. Historical events play as great a role in that story as does artistic genius.
Q: What advice can you offer for biography writers?
A: Leave a great deal on the cutting room floor. (Lytton Strachey talks about lowering the little biographer’s bucket into the great ocean of material. Allow a lot to slop over the edge.) Talk to everyone who knew your subject in any context. Keep your subject front and center — and in trouble whenever possible. We want always to know what he’s thinking. It will take a year longer than you think. And people really will forgive you if you misdate your checks — with the wrong century.
Q: What’s next for you in terms of writing projects? Is there anybody in particular on your biography wishlist?
A: With Cleopatra I wanted to do something very different formally speaking; I had no model this time around, as I have always had in the past. (Alan Judd‘s Ford Madox Ford; Justin Kaplan‘s Mr Clemens & Mark Twain; James Mellow‘s Charmed Circle; Richard Ellman‘s Oscar Wilde have variously served that purpose). I fear I might want to do so again, rather than to write another traditional biography. Please stop me now.
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