10 Steps Toward Getting a Life, or How I Learned to Write Biography

Beverly Gray

I never planned to become a biographer. As a journalist who’d covered everything from the entertainment industry to children with disabilities, I liked the idea of publishing a book. A UCLA Extension course on non-fiction book proposals convinced me it’s essential to choose a topic on which you have a unique perspective. Luckily for me, I had spent nearly a decade as story editor to a Hollywood legend, B-movie maven Roger Corman. I went home and began to write: “The first time I ever saw Roger Corman …” That became the opening sentence of my first biography. Since then, in exploring the lives of both Corman and actor-turned-director Ron Howard, I’ve learned a lot about researching, interviewing, and how to respond to the question, “How dare you?”

Some tips:

  1. Starting out: scour your past for a subject you are specially qualified to tackle. Consider making your own relationship with the central figure a part of the story.
  2. When planning an unauthorized biography, don’t be intimidated by the question, “What right do you have to invade this person’s privacy?” If your subject is a public figure, you have every right to probe his (or her) past—so long as you are accurate in what you report.
  3. Don’t let the subject take control of your project, even if this means you’ll get extra help. Artistic independence is a key to good writing.
  4. When researching, be creative. Leafing through Roger Corman’s high school yearbook, I discovered that a prominent local sports writer had been his classmate. That revelation led to a terrific interview about what Roger was like in his teen years.
  5. Start your research at the beginning. Ron Howard was born in Duncan, Oklahoma. The head of the local historical society happily shared with me a scrapbook kept by one of Howard’s proud relatives. It contained a copy of his birth announcement, as well as a clipping describing his parents’ wedding.
  6. Go to the source: wherever possible, see the locations you write about, so that you can evoke them for your readers.
  7. As you send out requests for interviews, connect a recorder to your telephone and be prepared to start recording at a moment’s notice. You never know when someone important to your project will call you up. (Legally speaking, it’s prudent to let the caller know you’ll be recording the conversation.)
  8. Respect those you interview. Check back with them to clarify any details or assumptions you’re not quite sure about. It’s no fun seeing your mistakes in print.
  9. In the writing process, consider trying to locate your subject’s essence by way of a central image or metaphor. I discovered, in chronicling Roger Corman’s life, that he resembles Dr. Frankenstein, trying desperately to cope with a monster of his own making.
  10. When asked “How dare you?” remember that there’s nothing more mysterious and fascinating than the human psyche. Famous people can challenge and inspire us: we deserve the opportunity to know them better.

Photo from Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash