“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.
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 Classmates.com 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.
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.