Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for May, 2014

The Persistent Researcher

“The best biographies are those that peek into the heart and soul of their subject,” says Candace Fleming, who has written about people such as Benjamin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Amelia Earhart. “They delve deep beneath the surface of ‘fact’ to find the real human story.

9780805083194[1]Of course, the key to finding that “story” is research, and sometimes the biographer needs to be persistent in tracking down details. My favorite example of a persistent researcher is Charles J. Shields, the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was notoriously private and had not given any interviews since 1964. So Shields started his research knowing he would not have her help.

He followed Lee’s paper trail as far as it led, finding archived materials that included newspaper and magazine articles. Knowing that Lee had helped Truman Capote with his research for the book In Cold Blood, Shields went through Capote’s papers at the New York Public Library as well as the papers of Lee’s agent, Annie Laurie Williams.

He also set out to contact people who had known Lee. She had attended Huntingdon College for one year and then went on to the University of Alabama. Shields got their alumna directories and emailed about 200 people who had attended those schools in the mid-1940s when Lee was a student. He used the website to find people who had attended elementary and high school with Lee in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, and contacted them as well. Many of those people were not willing to talk to Shields, and in fact, Harper had asked friends and family members not to cooperate.

It was an interesting problem, but Shields did not get discouraged. “Actually, the obstacles I kept running into made me more determined to deliver a fair, accurate, and comprehensive account of her life,” he noted. The result of his hard work: 50-75 interviews by phone and in person with people who had known Harper Lee.

9781250012180[1]Shields was equally persistent when he wrote his biography And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life. He was able to interview Vonnegut, but finding his personal correspondence was tricky. “He told me he had lost all of his correspondence in a fire in his study,” Shields noted. So Shields tried a different angle. “Over the next three years, every time I spoke to one of his friends – and he had many – I asked whether they had copies of his letters.” His strategy worked and the letters began to arrive. “Sometimes, I received as many as 200 at a time,” Shields recalled.

Researching a biography is an interesting challenge that requires problem-solving abilities and creativity. It also requires persistence, never giving up until the author has found the “story” beneath the facts.


Give Readers Something New

This week, I sent my editor at National Geographic a manuscript for another leveled reader. I always think I’ll give myself a few days off after meeting a big deadline, but that never happens. The pull of starting something new is too strong, especially knowing that the first step will be the research. For me, that’s one of the best parts of writing nonfiction and I can’t wait to get started.

JimIn 1991, before I had written my first book, I attended a week-long writers’ workshop in Bloomington, Illinois. I chose that workshop because one of the instructors was James Cross Giblin. He was a long time editor at Clarion and had also begun writing nonfiction books including biographies. With his experience as both an editor and as an award-winning writer, I knew I could learn a lot from him. I wasn’t disappointed.

One thing he said at that workshop really stuck with me. He said that he always tried to give readers something new. His research was not done until he had found information that had not been included in other books about a subject. It’s advice I try to follow.

Sometimes, that’s easy. When I wrote my biography about George Washington Carver I had access to so much primary source material that finding new details was not hard at all. But my job became much more difficult when I wrote about Oprah Winfrey.

That book was part of a series for third and fourth graders about people who had overcome great odds in achieving success and then gave back. I didn’t include Oprah in my original proposal, but my publisher wanted her in the series. I agreed that she certainly belonged in such a series, but there had been so many books about her already. I worried about how I would ever find anything new. The answer came when I focused on the theme of the series and began looking for stories to show how she had helped others. That was when I found an anecdote showing that she had already begun helping others when she was in elementary school. As a third grader, she heard about starving children in Costa Rica. She responded by collecting money on the playground for them.

Sometimes finding new information means getting creative with the research. I was discouraged with progress on my biography about Mahalia Jackson because I wasn’t finding anything new. I told myself that my book was different because while others focused on her gospel singing, I was including information about her fight for civil rights. Even so, I still didn’t feel like I was bringing something new to the table.

Then I came up with the idea of looking at her through the eyes of others. I knew she had been friends with author Studs Terkel, so I decided to research him. I learned that he had interviewed her a couple of times, and I located those interviews. They gave me some great quotes that had not been included in other biographies about Mahalia, and it made me feel that I had done my job.

It’s been more than 20 years since I attended the conference in Bloomington where James Cross Giblin talked about giving readers something new. But it’s advice I still think about every time I research a biography. Trying to bring something new to the table is a challenge, and I’m not sure I’m always successful. But it definitely makes the research interesting, and I hope the extra effort shows in the final result.

What about you? What advice have you been given that is still guiding your work or your personal life even many years later?

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