I was invited to speak to a group of teachers about how I choose subjects for biographies. Since I write for children, I said a main goal for me is to present good role models. In my mind, that means writing about people who have faced big obstacles and overcome them. I think it’s important for kids to see that the people they may idolize have not had perfect lives. As I talked about how I choose my subjects, I wondered what criteria other biographers use. So I asked.
Candace Fleming has written about Benjamin Franklin, P.T. Barnum, Mary and Abraham Lincoln, and Amelia Earhart. Her most recent biography is The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia. What draws her to her subjects?
“I don’t write about any subject unless they mystify and intrigue me,” she notes. “I have to be brimming with questions. I have to be eager for answers. I’m drawn to famous historical figures, people we think we already know. That’s because I love teasing something out of the historical record that no one has focused on before, or shining a light on a side of a subject’s personality that has gone overlooked. I’m thrilled when I can discover that Abe Lincoln shuffled around the White House in house slippers because he suffered from sore feet, or that Nicholas Romanov chain-smoked Benson & Hedges cigarettes manufactured just for him, each bearing a golden, imperial insignia – the double-headed eagle. It’s those little details that break down the marble pedestals we so often place our heroes on. It’s the small moments that make them human again. I can’t write about a subject unless I believe I can do just that.”
Lois Harris has written three children’s biographies about artists – Mary Cassatt: Impressionist Painter, Charlie Russell: Tale-Telling Cowboy Artist, and Maxfield Parrish: Painter of Magical Make-Believe. In each case it was the subject’s art that drew her to the story.
“For the Cassatt book, I attended the Seattle Art Museum’s 1999 Impressionism exhibit and saw my first original Cassatt oil painting. I was captivated by the way she showed the love between two young sisters. The image stayed in my mind. Three years later when I bought a book of stamps with Cassatt art images, my brain tingled as I looked at her paintings, and I set off for my library to research her life.
“About the time that book was published, I stumbled onto a Charlie Russell painting image,” Harris recalls. “I went to the Charles M. Russell Museum website and viewed more examples of his western art.” His art led her to research his inspiring life and the award-winning book was published three years later.
“During my research for the Russell book, I learned Charlie was impressed by the way Maxfield Parrish used color. I didn’t know much about Parrish but decided to check out his art work. In the Special Collections of the University of Washington’s library, I viewed the 1897 Mother Goose in Prose book by Frank Baum with Maxfield Parrish illustrations. The bold, bright colors looked like they were done yesterday. I was hooked!”
For best-selling author Kostya Kennedy, one subject led to another. “I first spent time with Pete Rose at a sports memorabilia store inside a Las Vegas mall. He was seated at a table signing autographs (that’s his job) and I sat beside him for about six hours, observing, absorbing and talking with him in the times between customers. It was that day that I got the inspiration for my new book, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma.
“I hadn’t expected this. I’d gone to see Rose for an entirely unrelated reason: I was researching my 2011 book, 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports. Rose had known and traveled with DiMaggio and he had also had a stirring 44-game hitting streak in the summer of 1978, the longest in the major leagues since DiMaggio’s life-altering 56 in 1941. Those were the things I had come to talk with Rose about, and we did, but during the day he kept steering his way, unsolicited, back to his own life’s plight, to the fact that he was still banished from baseball more than two decades after his expulsion for betting on the game.
“It struck me then, and I wrote it down, that there remains something unsettled about Rose, unreckoned, just as there is something unresolved about how we see him. Along with gathering material for 56, I made notes that day about things that were happening around Rose and things that I felt about him.
“I would fill many other notebooks and learn a great deal over the course of working on Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. But more than once I referred back to that very first notebook, from that day in Las Vegas when I was working on another book entirely and the idea of Pete Rose, the man himself as well as our notion of him, presented itself to me, just like that.”
Jeri Chase Ferris is attracted to a certain type of subject. “I write about people who made a difference, people who struggled against discrimination and terrible odds without giving up; people who, for a variety of reasons, have not received recognition for what they did. I want to provide that recognition.” She has written about Noah Webster, Harriet Tubman, Matthew Henson, Abigail Adams and someone who may not be familiar to many of us – Biddy Mason.
“While teaching 4th grade California history, I saw a few lines about a slave named Biddy Mason who arrived in California in 1851, became very wealthy in Los Angeles and used her money to help others. This was intriguing, but there were no sources provided for verification. I’d lived in Los Angeles for many years and had never heard of her. Was she a potential subject? History connection – slavery, Mormon Trail, California. Discrimination and terrible odds – slavery, three thousand mile walk, struggle for freedom, illiteracy. Making a difference – riches and giving to others. Lack of recognition – yes. Excitement and danger factor – yes. So, if I could find primary sources, the ‘true facts,’ as kids say, Biddy Mason would be my next subject.”
There were conflicting stories about how Biddy got to Los Angeles. Then Ferris found the daily journal of the Mormon guide who led Biddy and her slave owner’s family from Mississippi to Salt Lake City in 1848. “This was the breakthrough into primary source heaven,” she recalls. The result is her biography With Open Hands.
Sue Macy has written many historical books including biographies of Annie Oakley and Nellie Bly. So I wondered how she happened to write Sally Ride: Life on a Mission, which will be released in September.
“I have to admit that writing a biography about Sally Ride was not my idea. My friend Karen Nagel, an editor at Aladdin, suggested this book a few weeks after Sally died in 2012. I was intrigued. I had written several books about women in the late 19th century, and investigating the life of an iconic woman from my own lifetime really appealed to me. So did the fact that Sally was a tennis champion in her younger days. And the fact that her obituary declared the previously unpublicized information that she was gay. Though lots of biographies were published about Sally after her first space flight in 1983, it was clear that her story needed to be updated. The final factor in my decision to do the book was that I had an amazing friend named Mary Rose Dallal who was fighting pancreatic cancer, the same disease that killed Sally. Mary Rose was a force of nature and I ended up dedicating the book to her memory.”
Biographers find their subjects in a variety of ways. But one thing we have in common is that for each of us there is a spark, or one small detail, that attracts us to a person and makes us want to research and tell that story.