Tag Archives: biographies

Hard Work vs. Magic

I’m obsessed with knowing how things work. More specifically, I love knowing how people work — how they do their jobs, what their creative process is, what their working environments are like, and what challenges they face. I’m especially fascinated when it comes to learning more about how writers and artists produce whatever it is their particular craft might be.

When you hold a book in your hand — or view a painting, watch a movie, or listen to music — you’re seeing only one part of a story — and usually it’s only the last chapter, ripped from the book and handed to you as the Complete Story. That bit of creative misdirection means that you’re seeing only what the artist wanted you to see. The artist who produced that painting you’re looking at, for example, doesn’t really want you to know or care where he bought the canvas, who he scrounged the paints off of, what room he painted in, or that his mother always wanted him to be chef instead of a painter. The art itself — which is the end result of the creative process — is meant to be the statement; the rest is insignificant.

I tend to disagree with that. The biographer in me can’t help but wonder how people were working and living their lives, even as they were creating their art.

I love knowing what goes on behind the scenes. I love visiting the homes of famous writers, artists, or politicians, for instance, and soaking up the atmosphere where they lived and worked. I enjoy poring through journals, letters, records and receipts, fascinated with what people write in the places where they believe no one will ever be looking. I’m one of those annoying people who watches every single “Behind The Scenes” or “Making of…” feature on a DVD, so I can see the interviews with the cast and crew, writer and director.

Creating art is hard work. And I think that hard work deserves to be explored and celebrated — especially when it makes for such a good story.

Let me give you an example.

I’ve always been intrigued by the Beach Boys. It’s not so much their music, which I’m not interested in much beyond what you might find on a typical greatest hits CD; rather, I’m fascinated by the relationship and creative dynamic between the Wilson brothers and their overbearing father, Murry. While I’ve not yet been able to find a biography of the group that truly rises to my expectations in this regard (the last one I read, Catch A Wave, was, I thought rather flat), I recently came across a primary source that’s even better: forty minutes of open audio from a 1965 Beach Boys recording session, when the early takes of “Help Me, Rhonda” are broken up by the entry of a drunken, sometimes angry, sometimes weepy, but almost always abusive Murry Wilson.

Murry proceeds to take over the session, berating the singing of Al Jardine — who’s singing his guts out — and lecturing Brian Wilson on sacrifice and hard work (“I’m a genius, too!” Murray testily proclaims). At one point, Murry and Brian can be heard scuffling over the controls, as Murry tries to turn off the recording equipment and Brian — thankfully — manages to leave the tape rolling.

It’s a fascinating look behind the scenes, and makes you appreciate even more just how difficult it must have been for Brian Wilson to produce . . . well, anything. More than anything, you can see that Brian Wilson didn’t create great music through magic; it was, for more than just a few reasons, hard work.

If I’ve peaked your curiosity, don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging. Courtesy of WFMU, then, here’s the full 40-minute version of the January 8, 1965 Beach Boys recording session. If you don’t have 40 minutes, here’s a highlight reel.

As an added bonus, here’s the first installment of Peter Bagge’s The Murry Wilson Show:

Part 2 is here, 3 is here, and part 4 is here.

My point is, sometimes what’s going on behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain is just as interesting as the final product itself — provided, of course, that you really want to look. But you tell me: Does that peek behind the scenes take something away from the final product? In other words, is the magic gone at that point? Or does knowing of all the hard work that went into it make you appreciate the final product that much more?

Group Hug

Last night I attended the first post-summer break meeting of the Washington Biography Group, “an informal gathering of people who write memoirs or biography,” as our semi-sort of official bylaws read, “attended by professional writers as well as people writing personal or family memoirs (and a few who are working up the courage to do so).” I was initiated into the group more than a year ago by Linda Lear (of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature fame) and it’s more of a support group than an instructional one (though that happens, too), as more than 50 writers, readers, and enthusiasts sit and share stories. It’s always a useful and pleasant way to pass two hours.

Since this was our first meeting since late Spring (we take summers off), we spent the evening updating the group on how we spent our summers, and it’s always interesting to hear the wide variety of projects people are working on. Works in progress include books on 19th century naval heroes, Marty Robbins, Mary Wickes, Russian czars, concentration camp survivors, and institutionalized family members. And that’s just for starters.

Other highlights included:

* Linda Lear sharing her frustration on the difficulty of changing publishers to reissue her Rachel Carson biography (and re-clearing alllll your rights);

* Diane Diekman (Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story) gushing with excitement about meeting Mel Tillis during her research — and learning he was a fan of her work;

* Marc Pachter enthusing on the tones of forgiveness in John Lahr’s Notes On A Cowardly Lion: and

* My colleague at Arcade, Dr. Stephen Weissman, discussing his forthcoming book on Charlie Chaplin, which I can’t wait to get my hands on.

All in all, a terrific meeting. And I think I should add: you don’t need to be a writer to attend the meetings. If you’re a reader who’s passionate about biography, history, or non-fiction, you’ll fit right in. Our next meeting is October 27, at the Washington International School in Washington, DC.

The Washington Biography Group home page is here. Linda Lear’s home page is here, Diane Diekman’s is here, and Stephen Weissman’s Chaplin book is right here.

Life Writing Done to Death (And All Because of Amanda Foreman!)

In this month’s installment of The Biographer’s Craft, editor Jamie McGrath points readers toward an ongoing debate in the British press on the health of and general outlook for biographies. And it’s well worth a look.

Leading the pack is Kathryn Hughes — biographer of George Eliot — who argues in The Guardian that biographies are teetering on the edge of irrelevance, thanks largely to . . . well, any number of factors, ranging from an obsession with celebrity bios (and, among British readers, royal mistress bios in particular) to shoddy research and unreasonable deadlines and advances. Oh, and she also unloads on Amanda Foreman (of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire fame) for being a lightweight who singlehandedly brought biography down into the gutter. I’m not certain I agree with everything Hughes has to say — she seems a little too downbeat and testy — but Hughes is always a good read. Click here to go get it.

Firing back in the pages of The Independent, columnist John Walsh defends Amanda Foreman and accuses Kathryn Hughes of sour grapes. But all in a very polite British manner, of course. You can read Walsh’s column here.

Finally, in London’s Times — under a headline only the British could get away with (“Bitchiness Breaks Out In World of Biography”) — Maurice Chittenden argues that more ladies need to borrow a page from Amanda Foreman and pose in the raw as part of their promotional tours. Or at least something like that. You can read it here.

Why aren’t we having debates like this on this side of the pond?

My Five Favorites

As I promised yesterday, here’s a rundown of my five favorite biographies. I should probably qualify this by adding the disclaimer “…at this particular moment”, as my list might very well be different, depending on when you ask me. Yeah, I’m a noodge that way.

Anyway, here they are, in no particular order:

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Peter Guralnick)

There’s a moment from the film Pulp Fiction that ended up on the cutting room floor in which Mia Wallace asks Vincent Vega whether he’s an Elvis man or a Beatles man. “You might like both,” she tells Vincent, “but you always like one better.” If you’ve been reading this blog even casually, you know I’m a hardcore Beatles fan. But I’m still fascinated by Elvis — especially the post-GI, bad-movie making, white jump-suited, bloated karate Elvis. And that’s why I bypassed completely Last Train to Memphis — the first book in Guralnick’s two-part Elvis bio, which tells the story of Elvis’ meteoric rise — and headed right for the good stuff.

Guralnick tells Elvis’ story in a clear-eyed manner, spinning a story that’s almost Shakespearian in its tragedy. And it quickly gets ugly, as Elvis corrodes into a lazy, strung-out fat kid, distracted by go-carts, badge collecting, and playing cowboys and Indians with his sycophantic Memphis Mafia, all the while derailing his own career, despite an incredibly forgiving fan base. From one oh-my-gosh, no way! moment to another, Guralnick delivers the goods, careening like a barely-controlled jalopy toward the decidedly non-glamorous ending we all know is coming. Look away? Heck no. Cringe-inducing? Heck yes. Awesome.

Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate (Robert Caro)

Think the legislative process sounds boring? Think again. Using the crafting and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to frame the story of Johnson’s Senate years — during which he practically invented modern Senate procedure — Caro makes lawmaking look downright dramatic. Which it is, especially when the stakes are so high.

Johnson doesn’t come across as a hero in the practical sense — he’s a boor, unfaithful to his wife, an opportunist, and, at times, doesn’t appear to have any real core beliefs. Whether it’s speaking to Southern senators with a deep drawl before turning around and talking to New England progressives without a hint of an accent, or kissing the appropriate backsides to secure plum committee assignments and roles in the Senate leadership, Johnson appears to bend his own personality — as well as the personalities of others — to fit his own purposes. But whether you like him or not, he understood politics, and process, like no one else before him (and perhaps better than any since). And once he became committed to a cause, he was a dangerous man to cross; no one could kick your teeth in quicker using parliamentary procedure than Lyndon Johnson. You’ll genuinely cheer when he finally steers the Civil Rights Act to final passage.

Caro ends the book with a cliffhanger, as Johnson angles toward the Vice Presidency — and Caro’s next book will take things from there. Don’t rush things, Caro, but really, hurry up, won’t you?

The Lives of John Lennon (Albert Goldman)

If I had to choose my all-time favorite book — biography or otherwise — this would probably be it. Certainly, the fact that it’s about a Beatle automatically moves it toward the front of the line. But why choose this particular book — which I’ve re-read more times than I can count — when there are so many other Beatle bios out there? Simple: this one’s terrible.

No, really. This is a train wreck. Goldman has a major axe to grind, and over the course of 700-plus pages, he grinds his axe to iron powder. Lennon comes across as a mainly lucky, mostly untalented, naive bisexual musician with serious mother issues. It’s Character Assassination to the Extreme — of Lennon, Yoko Ono, and almost everyone but Paul McCartney — and you’ll find yourself marveling at the body count Goldman leaves behind. Every page contains one cynical, sneering appraisal of Lennon and his work after another, with Goldman trashing Lennon’s motivations and so often rooting for him to fail that it begs the question of “Why in the world would you devote 700 pages and seven years of your life to a subject you obviously can’t stand??”

I don’t know the answer, but I’m glad Goldman did it anyway — because this one is so gawdawful that it’s terrific.

Oscar Wilde (Richard Ellmann)

Richard Ellman won the Pulitzer for his work on Oscar Wilde, and with good reason: it’s not only the definitive look at the Irish poet, playwright, critic, and martyr, but it’s also a ripping good read. Wilde was a movie star in a time before movies, a tabloid staple, and a constant bestseller, and Ellmann makes him — and his work — come alive.

Following Wilde’s rise to literary and theatrical fame, a series of colossally bad decisions lead to his imprisonment and disgrace — another ending we know is coming and want desperately for our subject to avoid. In Ellmann’s capable hands — especially as he traces the poet’s final frustrating years — Wilde emerges not so much a victim of Victorian morals but rather of his own ego and genius. And we’re more than ready to forgive him for it.

John Adams (David McCullough)

Sure, it’s an easy choice — the Citizen Kane of biographies, universally admired, and perpetually in print. But it deserves every word of praise that’s been written about it. And if you say you didn’t enjoy it, you’re just trying to buck the trend, mister.

McCullough originally set out to write a book about the relationship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but worried (he said later) that Adams might get lost in Jefferson’s shadow. But the more research he did, the more he began to wonder whether Jefferson could truly stand up to Adams — and changed the focus of the book to turn the spotlight solely on the second president.

It was a shrewd decision, and the right one. John Adams — heck, all of McCullough’s work — is not only a great piece of storytelling, it’s a user’s manual for How To Do Biography Right.

Five Favorites

In the past few issues of The Biographer’s Craft newsletter, editor (and pal o’mine) James McGrath Morris has been asking biographers to list their top five favorite biographies. This month it’s two authors of books on biographies, Carl Rollyson (of Biography: A User’s Guide) and Nigel Hamilton (author of How to Do Biography: A Primer), along with Mr. Morris himself. It’s always a fun piece, so check it out.

And while you’re there, sign up for the monthly newsletter, mailed promptly to your inbox the first of each month–as an added bonus, this month’s issue even contains an article on the upcoming Chaplin bio that I mentioned back here. The Biographer’s Craft home page, which includes links to all the back issues, is hardlinked over there in the right hand column on this page. Or you can just click here.

Reading through this month’s list of five favorites got me thinking about which five bios I would pick as my own five favorites. And because I know you can’t wait, I’ll write about them here tomorrow.

Oh, and finally, just because I’m always a shameless shill, here’s a piece I wrote for Biographer’s Craft several months ago on the advantages of keeping misspelled words and botched grammar from your original source materials intact in your final product.

First Books: Meet Abraham Lincoln (1965)

From the mailbag, Mark in Chicago writes:

“I’m really enjoying your First Books segment on your blog, and I’m wondering: Since you’re a biographer, what would your ‘first biography’ be?”

Thanks for the question, Mark. When I was in second grade, I was given a collection of hardcover books called “Step-Up Books.” This was a series of about twenty non-fiction books for kids, with titles like Birds Do The Strangest Things (with an owl on the cover, peering at you with an upside-down head) and The Story of Flight, which pretty much sums it up. There were also a number of books about prominent Americans, including John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But the book I liked the most, and still remember best, is Meet Abraham Lincoln.

Author Barbara Cary does a fine job with the subject matter, and hits all the highs of Lincoln’s life in a style aimed squarely at young readers, even addressing the Civil War in easy-as-pie terms. But I was equally as taken with the artwork, by the brilliant Jack Davis, working in his familiar “bigfoot” style that was perfectly suited for the gawky 16th president. Together, the text and art were in perfect syncopation, neither getting in the way of the other, and I read and re-read this book more times than I can remember, filing away the moments Cary had so carefully chosen to bring Lincoln to life, while matching Davis’ thickly-inked and cross-hatched art with its place in the narrative.

I haven’t read the book in decades — and my original copy of it is long gone — but three moments from the book still stay with me. Here’s young Abe trying to comfort his sister, following the death of their mother, with a raccoon that I was dying to pet:

Next is Lincoln with Union General Ulysses S. Grant, whose cigar you can practically smell:

And finally, the picture that’s stayed with me my entire life — President Lincoln at his desk in the White House, trying to hold the Union together during the darkest hours of the Civil War:

Really, it doesn’t get much better than that.

To me, Meet Abraham Lincoln is a biography doing everything a great biography should do: educating while entertaining. For that reason, Meet Abraham Lincoln holds the high honor not only of being my very First Biography, but also the First Book To Show Me That Non-fiction Could Be Dramatic. And indeed it is.