Category Archives: writing

“Too Many Notes”: An Interview, Part I

Back in December, I sat down for an extended interview with a Polish journalist to discuss George Lucas: A Life — but we also talked quite a bit about biography, fandom, choosing subjects for books, and the writing process. The original interview is somewhere on the Interwebz, translated into Polish, so I’m posting it here in three parts, and in English (and if my original interviewer wants me to take it down, please shoot me an e-mail).

Here’s part 1.  I’ll post the next part shortly.

When I went to see your official website I’ve notice these words: Many Bothans Died To Bring You This Website. I immediately thought: he must be a Star Wars fan so George Lucas’s biography is really in good hands. Am I right? Are you a Star Wars fan?

You’re right indeed. I’m Star Wars Generation 1.0. I was nine years old when Star Wars premiered in theaters in May 1977. I was George Lucas’s target audience. It was a film aimed right at me, and I even remember seeing the preview and what an impact it made on me. My brother and I had all the Kenner Star Wars toys, we had posters, bedsheets, trading cards . . . you name it, we probably had it. Since then, I’ve seen every film in the theater. Star Wars is part of my pop culture nerd DNA.

Lucas created a unique phenomenon in pop culture. I know that for many people Star Wars is not a movie, but a way of life. What does this creation mean for you?

As I said, it’s sort of in my own pop culture DNA, too. However, I’m not one of those fans who can name every planet or spaceship, and I’m terrible when it comes to what’s known as the “Expanded Universe.” But I can geek out pretty hard on the original three. For me, Star Wars is fun and familiar. It’s a mythology that we all feel we own a piece of, and we can discuss it and debate it endlessly. That’s all part of the fun.

George Lucas is one of the most iconic names in pop culture. Was there a moment in your process when you thought it might be too difficult of a challenge? Millions of fans around the whole world will probably analyze every detail in your book, and they sometimes can be scary . . . 

Well, fortunately, with Jim Henson, I’d already written about another hugely iconic figure with an equally as devoted fan base, so I knew the dangers of jumping into that particular pool. Still, as I did when writing about Jim Henson, when writing the Lucas book, I’d look at my reflection in the mirror each morning and tell myself “Do NOT mess this up.” Lucas and his work are too important to too many people.

Can you describe your writing process?

I hope people aren’t disappointed when they find out I don’t have some high-tech system for all this – because when it comes to writing and research, I’m horribly analog. I do a lot of archival research, and I still like to make hard copies of everything — whether it’s an interview Lucas did with Starlog in 1980, an article about the SIGGRAPH conference in 1985, or even a Kenner Star Wars toy ad. Then I three-hole-punch the papers and file everything in black binders in my office, usually organized chronologically, though sometimes I do it by topic.

While I’m researching, I type my notes on the laptop, but I still write my chapter outlines in longhand. And then, when I finally write that particular chapter, I write the outline up on a gigantic white dry-erase board so I can see the entire thing, move pieces around, or note other areas I want to make sure I cover.

My process hasn’t really changed all that much over the last decade. It’s horribly messy, I know, and many of my fellow biographers swear by electronic organizers or programs, but it all feels like a forced extra step to me. But as I always tell anyone who’ll listen, the right way to organize your research is the way that works best for you.

Did you meet George Lucas in person when you were writing this book? If yes, can you say something about that situation?

No, I’ve never met him. I’d like to.

I know that readers in Poland would like to know this: Is your Lucas biography only for fans of Star Wars and his other movies? Or maybe normal person who know who he is will also have a blast with that book? Or maybe it is a little bit for both?

It’s for more than just fans of Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Readers might know a little about Lucas, but perhaps not much beyond what he’s done beyond those movies. But Lucas is actually a really big story – he’s the story of modern filmmaking. This book for those who want to know more about the trials and tribulations that go with filmmaking, and how Lucas really kicked down the door for creator-driven films.

It’s also for artists who value the creative process and want to learn how Lucas fought, sometimes painfully, to maintain as much control over his own art as he could. Lucas is all about giving artists what they need to realize their own projects, without interference from meddlers – in Lucas’s case, the Hollywood studios — who, he feels, don’t appreciate the artist.

Finally, it’s also a business manual, about running a company absolutely aligned with your own artistic priorities, investing in yourself and your vision, and resisting the constant appeals to compromise that vision in the name of the bottom line.

I know that sometimes biography books can be boring as hell and you can have an impression that you are reading Wikipedia — that a book can be empty facts without a heart, you know? But your book is different because you read it with fascination. What is for you the most important aspect of biography book? What do want to achieve during your process?

Biography, even more than history and other non-fiction, really needs a great narrative. That often demands great organization of your materials. I often tell aspiring biographers that it’s not just what materials you use, but how you use them. Can you present them in an interesting or dramatic fashion? You don’t want your book to be a textbook or a recitation of facts – that’s a user’s manual, not a biography. What’s the drama in your subject’s life? The humor? The compassion? What did you learn, and how much of yourself will you inject into the narrative? These are all the questions we deal with as we wrestle with telling someone else’s story.

Still, it does amuse me when reviewers and readers complain that a biography or history has “too many facts in it.” That’s almost like the moment in Amadeus when the Emperor complains that an opera has “too many notes.” Just as musical notes are the foundation of opera, facts are the building blocks of biography and non-fiction. I think my job as a biographer is to take those facts and put them in context with each other, see how they relate to the overall story and life we’re telling.

We tend to think of Lucas in silos – “he did Star Wars and then he did Empire Strikes Back and then he did Raiders of the Lost Ark” — but real life is never actually that neat. Lucas was juggling lots of projects all at once all of the time. He was building a company and producing one movie and developing another one, all at the same time. The man is constantly in motion, and I wanted readers to see Lucas in that light.

Up next: The Empire Strikes Back! (yay!) The Star Wars Holiday Special! (yay?)

In Media Res

It’s probably due to the upcoming premiere of the brand spanking new movie The Muppets (coming to a theater near you on November 23), but over the past few days I’ve been asked more and more, “How’s  the book coming?”

The short answer: really well.  I recently finished writing extensively about The Muppet Show, which puts me about two-thirds of the way through.  But there’s still a lot more to go — that Jim Henson was a busy and productive guy — and as I make the turn into the final third of the book, my desk is officially a mess. And to respond to some of the other questions I’ve received, here’s what my workspace  presently looks like:

Whatta mess.

It’s a bit blurry — I took it with my phone — so let me guide you around.  On the wall behind my chair is the gigantic white board I use to draw up the timeline for the chapter I’m working on, along with any random notes (at the moment, there’s a scribbled address for the long-gone Muppet Stuff store in New York City).

On top of the desk (which is actually just two old tables pushed together, with a filing cabinet shoved into the open corner) is an assortment of black binders (filled with transcripts of interviews, notes, and newspaper articles) along with several journals and scattered Post-It notes. You might also see the corner of Christopher Finch’s fantastic Jim Henson: The Works peeking out, as well as Caroll Spinney’s The Wisdom of Big Bird. And that piece of red striped paper is actually part of my Bible for this project: a well-thumbed and marked-up photocopy of Jim’s Red Book, generously provided by the Henson family.

What else? On top of the filing cabinet in the lower left hand corner are all four volumes of an 1862 edition of The Life and Letters of Washington Irving—still a fellow close to my heart—and because I believe you should always have your subject looking over your shoulder as you write, the mantlepiece behind me (yeah, it’s a real working fireplace) sports a framed photo of Jim Henson lounging across a set of theater seats with his arm draped around Kermit.*

What’s next? During the last week of November, I’ll be interviewing not one, not two, not even four, but five more Really Neat People, and I’m producing chapters regularly, which keeps my editor happy.  And while I try to spend most of my days sitting right there in that leather chair you see above, I have to admit I’ll be spending several hours out of it next Wednesday.  I’ll be at The Muppets, you know.

Thanks, everyone, for their questions and enthusiasm!

* Just for fun, see if you can also spot a 1960s-era Batmobile and the Mach 5 among the mess, as well as a Jim Henson action figure, strumming a banjo.

Literary Detectives? Or Just Plain Nosy?

Over at the Washington Independent Review of Books, my colleague Charles J. Shields discusses the art and craft of research in biography—from rooting through personal belongings and private letters and papers, to rummaging through newspapers and digital archives.  Has the rise of the internet and online sources made it easier to research a life? Or has it merely made for more “I Wake Up Screaming” moments?

Charles discusses it all with his usual good humor (and a really great headline), and picks the brains of other biographers—including, I must humbly admit, yours truly.  But don’t let that stop you from reading it.  Go get it — and there’s more to come, so stay  tuned.

Almost Like Being There

As you can imagine, the last week has been fairly crazy — crazy in a good way, natch — and I apologize for not checking in here a bit more quickly.  I appreciate all the kind e-mails and notes — you’re all Good People.  Thanks for all the nice words.  I mean it.

BIO guru Jamie Morris sent out a heads up the other day to note that many of the remarks and sessions from the Compleat Biographers Conference in May have been made available by the University of Massachusetts — our hosts that day — for your viewing pleasure.  And just so you don’t have to go and find them, here they are:

First, here’s the opening session, with welcoming remarks by Ray Sheppard, and the opening address by Pulitzer Prize winner Debby Applegate (The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher), who discusses the need for an organization like BIO, where writers can get together to learn from and support each other (Her stunning “I don’t know what to tell you” story comes at about seven minutes in):

Next, here’s a panel on Trends in Biography, where journalist D. Quincy Whitney, Henry Holt senior editor Helen Atsma, and biographers Gayle Feldman and Megan Marshall (The Peabody Sisters) discuss the future of biography — and, at times, publishing in general:

Next , here’s Harriet Reisen (Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women), editor Carole Deboer-Langworthy, Beatrice Mousli (Virginia Woolf), and Steve Weinberg (Armand Hammer: The Untold Story) discussing one of the most surprisingly difficult parts of writing a biography, Selecting A Subject:

Now it’s the keynote speech by Jean Strouse, winner of the first BIO Award (there’s a bit of organizational housekeeping to take care of before Ms. Strouse speaks — her keynote begins at about 17 minutes in):

Next up, biographers Debby Applegate, James Bradley (Flags of Our Fathers), Anne C. Heller (Ayn Rand and the World She Made), and editors Yen Cheong and Lissa Warren head up a lively discussion on Marketing Your Biography. It’s one thing to write it; now how do you ensure it finds readers?

Finally, here’s a fun session — courtesy of Melissa Nathanson (who’s working on a bio of Justice Blackmun), Charles J. Shields (Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee), Will Swift (The Roosevelts and the Royals), Nancy Kriplen (The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur–Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary), and Kitty Kelley (Oprah)on Dealing With The Family of your chosen subject:

Like what you see? C’mon, how could you not? If you’re not a member already, think about joining BIO. Go here.

Batteries Not Included

I was in a sporting goods store the other evening, looking at the rows and rows and shelves and shelves of equipment and clothing available for almost any kind of sport or activity, and it got me thinking: I’m not sure if it’s an American thing exactly, but we seem to love our gear and accessories.

When we pick up a new hobby — whether it’s baseball or lacrosse or running  — we love to go out, before we’ve even set foot on a ball field or track, and buy all the gear.  Wanna play golf?  Apart from the clubs, balls and tees that are the required equipment, you can buy golf shoes designed by aerospace engineers, and golf shirts with almost any kind of logo. There are golf bags with jillions of little pockets that can fold up to fit in a briefcase, and golf umbrellas that span large enough to protect Montana from the rain. There are ball markers and ball cleaners and spike tighteners and club scrapers — all of which seem to have bottle openers on them — and countless other little toys and accessories to make life on the links that much easier.  We take all of that stuff, put it on, throw everything in the car, head for the golf course and discover…

…well, we discover that golf can be hard work.  We find out that no matter how fancy the gear is, how great as all the accessories might be, what looks like a fun game still takes a certain amount of skill and work to do well. Even if you never want to join the PGA tour — or even want to become a scratch golfer — it still takes some skill and practice to keep from spraying your ball into the trees and spending all your afternoon in the rough.  Which sucks.  Take it from me.

It can be the same way with writing.  Writing looks fun and relatively easy — after all, the only real equipment you need is a computer with some sort of word processing program or, if you’re old school, a pen and notepad.  And there are plenty of accessories, too — we like desks and laptops and colored pens and stationery and printers and Post-It notes. We picture everything in our work space being just right, precisely conducive to the creative process, so we can get to work.

There’s a great moment in the movie Funny Farm where Chevy Chase — who’s moved from the city to a picturesque farm house so he can write that novel he’s been thinking about — finally sits down at the typewriter in his perfectly ideal and secluded office, types the three-word title at the top of the first page (“THE BIG HIT”) and then . . . sits and stares.

We’ve all been there — that moment when you realize that it doesn’t matter whether you’re on a Mac or a PC, whether you’re using a chewed up pencil or a Mont Blanc pen, or whether you’re at a mahogany desk or the Formica-topped kitchen table.  Regardless of your accessories, you’ve got to get something on that piece of paper.  Writing — like golf or baseball — is suddenly about more than the accessories.  It’s time to create words, to create worlds — and while writers love doing it, it’s still work. As the brilliant William Zinsser says: “I hate writing, but I love having written.”

What tends to happens, then, whether it’s writing or golfing, is we start paring down on our accessories, settling into what’s comfortable — and comforting — to use. Sometimes its a matter of experimentation — maybe the most expensive golf ball doesn’t fly as far for you as a cheaper brand, simply because of the quirks of your particular swing.  Writers do the same thing, discarding gel pens in favor of ball points, using old fashioned, beat up filing cabinets to store story ideas, research notes, and interesting photos, or coming to realize that that great slab of polished oak you’re using for a desk is too intimidating and moving back to the cozier climes of the smaller, coffee-stained IKEA modular.

Or maybe you do find you need a leather golf glove on each hand to keep your swing under control, or you write better with a gold-nibbed fountain pen at a spartan mahogany desk.  Maybe you don’t even need it, maybe you just like it and want it. And that’s okay, too.  Accessories can be a fun part of your work — but it is work, so it’s up to you to determine what you need and what you don’t to get it done. No one else gets to decide that for you.  As I’ve said here before, you just have to go with what works for you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the new Levenger catalog just arrived.  Surely, there’s something in it I have to have. No, really.

It Just Works.

That’s biographer Robert Caro, one of my all-time favorite writers, in the pic above, standing in the New York office where he does all of his writing.  Does a writer’s space need to be ritzy? Does it need to be crammed with bookshelves or filing cabinets or piles of notes?  Nope.  It just needs to work for him.  Considering Caro’s won the Pulitzer twice, I’d say this space has done its job.

Caro does his writing on an old Smith-Corona 210 typewriter, which you can see on his desk just right of center.  I don’t envy him that–I haven’t had to use a typewriter since 1984, and while I love the way they look, I don’t really miss using one–but I do love that he’s a notebook and binder type of guy. 

I’m often asked how I organize my notes and resources, and which computer program I use to keep things straight.  I keep hearing the merits of a program called Scrivener, where you can use a virtual bulletin board and Post It notes and outlines to keep everything straight. Thanks, but no thanks — I like to use actual paper, notebooks, Post It notes, and journals.  It’s a mess, but so far, it works for me.

And that’s why I love this picture of Caro.  His office is a place that works — a reflection of Caro’s own work ethic (he wears coat and tie to his office every day, to remind himself that writing is his job and that he’s there to work). Perhaps a visitor to the office might not be able to find anything, but that doesn’t matter.  He doesn’t have to.

Caro has his own order to things. There’s a method for shelving his books (as he told Newsweek, general non-fiction on the post-Cold War is farthest away from his desk, while those on his subject are closest).  The binders crammed with his interview transcripts and notes are stacked in an orderly manner by oldest to newest.  And I love those pages tacked to the wall behind him:  a gigantic outline, mapping out Caro’s progress from book one of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, through his still unfinished fourth volume.

A mess?  Maybe.  But it’s Caro’s mess — and he knows every inch of it.  “I trained myself to be organized,” Caro explained.  “If you’re fumbling around trying to remember what notebook has what quote, you can’t be in the room with the people you’re writing about.”

The Next Voice You Hear Will…Oh, Forget It.

My plans for voice recognition software were thwarted.

As Jane Smith —  from How Publishing Really Works — pointed out in the comments section, voice recognition software is fairly voice specific.  You have to “train” it to recognize your own voice, at which point you can play your own recorded voice back to it (or speak through a microphone) and the program will recognize your own words well enough to come up with a reasonable transcription.

My problem, however, is that that’s not really what I needed.  I wanted to be able to play back an interview between two people, and have the VRS system be able to transcribe it.  That, alas, is beyond the capability of most VRS systems.

The literature for MacSpeech didn’t really make that clear — I thought it was going to be a technological wunderkind, capable of transcribing whatever I might play through it (“Revolution 9” from The Beatles might have been fun), no questions asked.  That wasn’t the case — and since I don’t work by dictating into the computer, Scribe is pretty much a useless program for me.

Unfortunately, when I called customer service at MacSpeech to see if I could get a refund on the program — since it really didn’t do what I needed it to do — they told me no dice, since the program “was working as it was supposed to.”  Rats.

So I’ve gone back to Plan B — having the conversation transcribed.  I did learn, however, that if your transcription doesn’t have to carry a standard of  “legal weight” — meaning it won’t be scrutinized in a courtroom — you can have things transcribed for a much more reasonable rate.  I’m supposed to have my transcript back soon.  I’ll let you know how they did — and if it looks good, I’ll let you know who I used.