Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for July, 2019

The Challenges of Writing About Living People

When I was signing on to write my latest book, Who Is Oprah Winfrey?, the editor asked if I preferred writing about people in the news or historical figures. I wasn’t being flip when I told her I didn’t have a preference. I really can’t say I enjoy one more than the other. I like doing both primarily because it gives me variety. The research for writing about a living person is much different than researching someone who lived maybe 100 years ago. So, I like to switch things up. However, if I’m being completely honest, there are a couple challenges in writing about living people.

One is that it’s hard to find a way to end those biographies because the subjects are still active in their careers and continuing to make headlines. That was certainly the case with writing about Oprah Winfrey, who I’m fairly certain will never retire and never stop trying new things.

The first time the ending problem came up for me was in 1995 when I was working on a young adult biography called Amy Tan Author of The Joy Luck Club. I was just finishing up, happy to be making my deadline, when I discovered that Tan was about to release a new novel. I had visions of my book being out of date before it was even released. Happily, my publisher extended the deadline giving me a couple of weeks to read Tan’s new novel, The Hundred Secret Senses, and write about it.

It all worked out, but I vowed then that I would never write about living people again. That didn’t exactly work out for me mainly because I was writing for a series called “People to Know.” Most of the books in that series were about living people.

Then I came up with what I thought was a clever solution to the ending problem. Neil Armstrong was still living when my biography about him was published, but he had retired as an astronaut. The book focused on his life up until his retirement. So, the ending was not a problem.

However, I soon learned that I couldn’t depend on people to stay retired. My biography about John Glenn focused primarily on his career as an astronaut. I was also able to include information about his work as a U.S. Senator from Ohio, and I was happy he had announced he was retiring from that position too. I thought my biography had a logical ending, but I was wrong.

That book was published in 1998, the same year Glenn decided to make another space flight. At 77, he became the oldest person to fly into space. I wasn’t celebrating because my book was outdated a few months after it was published.

The second risk in writing about living people, is that they sometimes make bad choices. I think I can say everything you need to know about that in two words – Lance Armstrong. For obvious reasons, my biography about him did not stay in print for long.

I don’t think that will be a problem with Oprah Winfrey. I feel confident she will continue to be a good role model for the children who read the book. But what about the ending? Did I find a satisfying way to close even though Oprah is still very active in her career? Well, you tell me. After you’ve read the book, of course!

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