Tag 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.


  1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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?)

Latest Desk Update

IMG_1373Yup, it’s still a mess.

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.

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.”

Father Christmas and Secret Origins

When I give talks about Washington Irving, inevitably, one of the first questions I get is, “Why did you choose Irving as your subject?” And my answer is, “Because I’m a Christmas junkie.”

About ten years ago, while browsing the paperbacks table at Trover Books on Capitol Hill, I came across Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, a book that — according to its back cover — “charts the invention of our current yuletide traditions, from St. Nicholas to the Christmas tree and, perhaps most radically, the practice of giving gifts to children.” That was enough for me. I paid at the register and it was mine.

Niseenbaum’s book is terrific for a number of reasons — if you’re even remotely interested in folklore, early American culture, or Christmas, I strongly encourage you to read it — and it goes a long way toward debunking some of the common mis-perceptions about my favorite holiday. For example, you’ll read how Christmas was actually outlawed in the United States until the early 19th century, mainly because Americans used the day as an opportunity to eat and drink to excess, then would go out and sing loudly, demanding food and drink of neighbors — and any neighbor who failed to deliver the goods risked being dragged out of the house and beaten up. Hence the lines in “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” in which carolers demand figgy pudding (“Bring some out here!”) and then declare that they “won’t go until we get some!”

But where the book really shines, however, is in its discussion of the dewy-eyed images of Christmas we Americans have conjured up and embraced as our own. All those Currier & Ives images, Nissenbaum tells us — sleigh rides over icy ponds, Yule logs burning in the fireplace, Santa Claus soaring over the treetops, children waking early and eagerly Christmas morning, and rambunctious Christmas dinner parties — never existed. They weren’t part of old English tradition, they were simply made up by an American writer named . . . Washington Irving.

Well. That was news to me, so I went out and looked for Irving’s Christmas stories. As it turns out, most of them are hiding in plain sight, right smack in the middle of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving’s collection of short stories and essays that’s remembered for “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and, alas, not much else. But never mind.

In that section — five short stories in which Irving’s narrator, Geoffrey Crayon, experiences Christmas Eve and day in the home of Squire Bracebridge — Irving all but creates our modern day Christmas. Yule logs crackle in the fireplace, children sing carols on Christmas morning, good looking couples dance in old houses crammed with antique furniture, and on Christmas Day, the extended family surrounds an enormous table groaning under roast beef and turkey, puddings, and foaming tankards of beer. Squire Bracebridge, we’re told, celebrates Christmas in the old style — except it’s also made clear, through winks and a sly gesture that involves laying one’s finger on the side of one’s nose — that the Squire hasn’t quite got his facts right. But all is still right with the world.

I read Irving’s Christmas stories — which I’ll tell you more about — and loved them. Then I read some more Irving, and loved that, too. What surprised me most was his voice: this was no stilted, Puritan, 19th century prose; it was chatty, charming, and completely relaxed. And the more I read, the more I wanted to know about this guy. So I looked, and looked, and looked . . . and there wasn’t a thing available.

Finally, I found what was considered to be the last word on Irving, a 1935, two-volume biography by Yale English professor Stanley Williams. While the Williams biography is thorough, it’s clear that the more Williams wrote, the more he decided he didn’t like Irving very much. He regarded him as lazy, dopey, a hack, and mostly lucky — a writer who only succeeded when the competition was sparse. It wasn’t really the book I wanted to read.

So, borrowing a lesson from David McCullough — who, I think, borrowed it from Thorton Wilder — I decided to write the book I wanted to read — one that looked at Irving with a more modern eye, was more understanding and forgiving of his flaws, and which appreciated just how hard the guy had to work to succeed in a time when, yes, there was no competition, but there were also very few role models.

And it all started because of my love of Christmas. Really.

Catching Up with the Pope of Prose and the Wizard of Northampton

First, there’s this news straight outta San Diego: Neil Gaiman is writing a two-issue Batman arc — running through Batman and Detective Comics — for 2009. Pardon me while I say Zoinks! You can read about it here and here and here.

And then there’s this interview with Alan Moore, over on L’Essaim Victorieux des Mouches D’Eau. Moore discusses writing, working, and politics — and when the Wizard of Northampton talks, it’s always worth a listen. I mean, where else are you gonna get advice like this:

“If I ever write a book on writing it will probably be called Real Men Don’t Use Thesauri, because no, don’t touch ‘em, I think they’re cheating. What’s wrong with having an enormous vocabulary? What’s wrong with thinking, ‘Oh, there should be a word that means this or that, could it be this, could it be…,’ then making up a word and checking in the dictionary and seeing if there is such a word, and if it meant what you thought it did. That’s better, and all right, you can waste an hour trying to get the exact right word that’s got the right kind of sound, the right flavour, the right colour…that fits just perfectly….

“The thing I’d grab if there was a fire is my Random House Dictionary, which is an etymological dictionary which tells you where the words come from so you actually know what you’re talking about. If you use a word like ‘fascism’ you can actually have a look and see: ‘now where does that word come from, what does it actually mean?’ That’ll save you a lot of embarrassment. It’s also got a great Encyclopaedia function . . . it’s a biographical dictionary, it’s got all famous names and obscure names and dates . . . it’s fantastic. And that is my best Grimoire if you like, my best magic book, because it’s got all the words in the English language and where they come from and what they mean.

“If you’re gonna be a writer, you’ll cover all this territory, from the broadest categories down to, like I say, the sub-atomic detail of words and syllables.”

Read it. Learn it. Live it.

More (Somewhat) Clean, (Somewhat) Well-Lighted Places

Courtesy of a heads-up from Pat McNees at the Washington Biography Group, I point you to a terrific piece in the Guardian on writers’ rooms. Click here to go get it. I’ll wait.

I talked about this a while back, how a writer’s space is, more often than not, his or her sancto sanctorum. And while I continue to admire — and slightly envy — those who have the Dickensian ability to work almost anywhere, I tend to agree with John Banville, whose own workplace is featured in the piece:

“How I envy writers who can work on aeroplanes or in hotel rooms. On the run I can produce an article or a book review, or even a film script, but for fiction I must have my own desk, my own wall with my own postcards pinned to it, and my own window not to look out of.”

Ditto.

What’s really interesting about this assortment of rooms is how normal they look. None of them look like stage sets; there are very few mahogany desks or oak bookshelves sagging under the weight of uniform leather volumes. Most of them are filled with unmatching furniture and pressboard bookshelves, while some desks are simply pieces of wood laid across filing cabinets. The only common denominator seems to be books — as Simon Armitage notes, “Writers need to be more interested in wall-space than square footage,” so they can fill the walls with bookshelves.

Other than that, rooms are crammed with assorted piles of stuff — amazon.com boxes, scrap-metal robots, Fellini movie posters — and lots of other items that make the spaces intensely personal. I think Simon Gray sums it up best: “This is my room and I can do what I bloody like in it.”

Amen, brother.

Me and WI in the NYT

I’m in the New York Times this weekend . . . kind of.

In this weekend’s installment of his “On Language” column, William Safire discusses the etymology of the term “the almighty dollar,” which Irving coined in his 1836 short story “The Creole Village.” (Yup — apart from giving New Yorker’s the words “Gotham” and “Knicks,” he also gave economists and op-ed writers “the almighty dollar.”)

I point you to this article not only because it’s Irving, but because I was Safire’s source when it came to ensuring he got everything involving Irving correct, pointing him toward the original magazine article in “The Magnolia,” and providing him with a copy of the original story. I’m not mentioned in the article, but that’s still pretty neat, huh?

Anyway, you can read Safire’s column here. But if you’re a fan of writing and language, I’ll bet you’re reading Safire’s column already.

"Careful, or You’ll Wind Up in My Novel." (But Probably Not).

From the mailbag:

“So, when are you going to try your hand at fiction?”

Thanks for asking. I hate absolute answers to almost anything, so I’ll qualify my response to this particular question by saying, “Probably never.”

Actually, that’s not entirely true (see what I said about absolutes?). The truth is, I tried my hand at fiction years ago, and found out I stunk at it. My problem is similar to Clifford Anderson’s in Ira Levin’s play Deathtrap: dialogue is a snap for me, but I have a hard time with plot. And since there’s no Sidney Bruhl around to serve as my master plotter, I’m better off sticking with non-fiction, which, for the most part, already has the basics plotted out for me in advance.

In fact, it’s the ability to plot that I admire most in fiction writers — that ability to find a story in a casual remark or a twinkling bit of junk embedded in a hillside. I have a good friend, a fiction writer and filmmaker, who practically bleeds plots, scribbling them in notebooks near his bed, hoping he can get them down on paper fast enough. He’s one of those people who’s great at asking “What if? . . .” or “Wouldn’t it be cool if? . . .” and taking it from there. I wish I was that way.

I’ve heard some non-fictionalists say that, all things being equal — meaning, I guess, that if they could write both fiction and non-fiction equally as well — they would always choose to write non-fiction because (wait for it!) . . . “real life is so much more interesting.”

Bleagh.

Apart from being an annoying sound bite, I don’t buy the explanation. First of all, I think it’s a backhanded way of setting up non-fiction as somehow superior to or “purer” than fiction, a conceit I find patently elitist and flat out dumb. Second, I always think that anyone who falls back on that kind of a pseudo-intellectual defense is doing so because they’re worried that admitting they can’t plot, or write fiction, is like admitting they can’t operate a knife and fork — as if they’re lacking some basic life skill.

That’s nonsense — fiction and non-fiction are very different creatures. The ability to write one well and not the other is hardly a sign of some intellectual or creative failing. But rather than say “I can’t,” they say, “I can, but I choose not to.”

I can’t — but if I could, I would. Good fiction is fun. It’s fun to read, and while writing is always work, I’m sure a craftily plotted piece of fiction is also fun to write. If I could do it, I wouldn’t deprive myself of such a pleasure in the name of a snooty retort.

But I can’t do it. I’m not a Plotter; I’m more of a Good Explainer. For now, then, I’m sticking with that.

JD Talks About WI

…and I’m back from the long weekend to find that uber-blogger and friend of this blog Josephine Damian has a thoughtful — and very nice — review of Washington Irving over on her blog, Josephine Damian. The direct link to her review is here.

I love knowing what readers think, and I especially like knowing what they’re still thinking about once they’ve snapped the book closed for the last time and put it away. And Josephine says something very astute — and interesting — in her review:

By painting such an intimate portrait of the vicissitudes and triumphs, the chronic doubts and sudden successes of Washington Irving’s process and progress as a writer, Mr. Jones allows the modern day writer to draw their own personal analogy to his or her self, and they are all the more engaged as readers because they see their own course, experience and struggles reflected in Irving’s.

Thank you, and well played. When I sat down for the first time with Kate Johnson, Curator of Historic Hudson Valley, she said almost the exact same thing: “Everyone seems to see themselves in Mr. Irving.” And I would agree; I saw a lot of myself, both good and bad, in Washington Irving, and I think (and hope) other readers will, too.

Thanks for your thoughtful review and kind words, Josephine. I appreciate it.