Getting to Know You: Four Ways that Biographers Approach Their Subjects

Beverly Gray Yes, I’m a biographer. I’ve proudly claimed that title ever since my first book—an independent biography of B-movie legend Roger Corman—was published in 2000.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about biography, reading biographies, and comparing notes with my fellow biographers. What surprises me is how broad this field has turned out to be. There are political biographies, literary biographies, biographies of one’s nearest kin, biographies of those long dead. Each type poses its own special challenges.

Some biographers (like Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra: A Life) spend their days combing through ancient texts; others search archives and attics for old letters; still others (like me) are mostly found with their voice recorders at the ready, exhaustively interviewing their subjects’ close associates.

At this year’s ASJA conference, I’ll moderate a panel called “Today’s Top Biographers on Taking Private Lives Public.” I’m delighted by the high caliber of my panelists, and fascinated by the ways they are distinct from one another. All are dealing with contemporary subjects of historic importance, but their approaches couldn’t be more different.

Aspiring biographers who hope to follow in their footsteps might try some of these techniques:

Go to the source(s).  Barton Gellman, Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter, is the author of Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency. Angler, which grew out of Gellman’s Washington Post coverage of Dick Cheney, limits itself to the eight years of Cheney’s controversial tenure as President George W. Bush’s right-hand man. Although Gellman has formally interacted with Cheney, he relies heavily on scores of Washington insiders, some of them anonymous, who help him probe what makes Cheney tick.

Follow the paper trail.  D.T. Max never personally met novelist David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008. For his bestselling Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Max has delved into Wallace’s full body of published and unpublished writings (including vast numbers of personal letters) as a way to grasp Wallace’s world from bright beginning to sad end.

Move outward from an iconic object.  David Margolick’s Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock starts with a famous photograph from the Civil Rights era. After noting the photo’s worldwide impact, Margolick shifts his focus to the two young women—one black, one white—who form its central image. (They were polar opposites who briefly became friends; in exploring their dual perspectives, Margolick felt he had no right to negotiate a reconciliation that would have given his book an upbeat conclusion.)

Find an eyewitness to history: Dona Munker turned biographer when she met Sattareh Farman Farmaian, who had lived through remarkable social change in her native Iran. The challenge for Munker was to transform Farmaian’s matter-of-fact account of her life into a narrative to which American readers could respond. The result is Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem Through the Islamic Revolution.

Four biographers, four vastly different methods. Come hear all of us on Saturday, April 27 at 2 :00 p.m.