Biographers are not universally loved. James Joyce called us ‘biografiends’ and Edmund de Waal, although acclaimed for his family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, a book both tender and harrowing, has said that writing a biography gives you ‘the sense of living on the edges of other people’s lives without their permission’.
But without biographers many of the subjects of their books, including de Waal’s endearing and tragic relations, would be forgotten. In the case of those already renowned and the subject of multiple biographies, their stories may
still be only half told. A new, assiduous biographer may discover somewhere, somehow, a letter, a photograph, a deed to a house, which casts a different light on a familiar story.
So, the subject chosen, the quest begins. When you start examining someone’s life , you find that the more you uncover, the more there is to find out. Prepare for obstacles along the way: an archive that has gone missing or whose contents have mysteriously shrunk. Patient sleuthing will set you back a bit. In my own case, a dispute involving some documents which were inadvertently sold to a library, caused an extensive archive to be put into lockdown until ownership had been established.
If your subject is not long dead, you must interview people whom he/she has known. If they have kept letters and photographs and have a generous disposition, they will let you borrow them. These hoarded treasures are often more relevant and more interesting than official archive material but you must establish who holds the copyright and get permission to publish. The Society of Authors’ A Guide to Copyright and Permissions will steer you through this tricky subject. When returning material, make sure to get a receipt and remember to acknowledge everyone who has helped you in the published book, or risk someone feeling snubbed.
Potentially libellous statements may be contained in harmless looking letters and diaries and in the course of interviews. Legally, you can’t libel the dead but, where the living are concerned, you have to be on your watch when approaching such tinderbox issues as sex and money.
Easy enough to check sources when it comes to major events, harder when you’re relying on personal information. During the course of my research, I came across a letter by a writer, who has since died, in which he described choosing a relative’s burial site.The letter was moving and evocative; only the events it described were a complete fantasy. I only discovered this because I happened to mention the letter to the person who’d been in charge of the burial arrangements. If I hadn’t, I might have quoted the letter in the book I later wrote, possibly causing pain and outrage. Memories are unreliable; alternative facts sometimes more alluring than the truth and, as T S Eliot noticed, ‘Humankind can not bear very much reality’.
The easiest part of writing a biography is choosing a subject. You feel yourself drawn to someone because of the life they lived or the work they did and you want to find out more about them. I have written lives of two writers, the poet Sheila Wingfield and the biographer and war heroine Anita Leslie. I hadn’t heard of Sheila until I came across one of her poems and was hooked. I’m not sure whether she would have approved of my book but it sparked an interest in her long-ignored poetry, to the point where it became part of a university syllabus. I didn’t know much about Anita Leslie either but when I read her extraordinary memoir Train to Nowhere about her experiences on the battlefields of France, for which she was twice awarded the Croix de Guerre, I wanted to find out what her life was like before and after the war.
There is a biographical genre called pathography – ‘a technique of emphasising the sensational underside of the subject’s life’ (Joyce Carol Oates). Pathographies can be horribly fascinating to read but to write about a life gone bad you would need to detest your subject and I can’t imagine a more miserable experience than spending day after day, sometimes for years, in the company of someone who brings you no joy. It must be like sharing a prison cell with an unpleasant and dangerous cell-mate. On the other hand, hagiographies make for dull reading. Most of us are like the little girl with the curl in the nursery rhyme: sometimes good, sometimes horrid. Biographies that seem to be written in a state of breathless hero-worship make you feel as though you’re stuck in the audience attending an endless awards ceremony.
What biographers want is for readers to find their book’s subject as interesting as they do themselves . The best compliment I’ve ever been paid was when a reader said of one of my books, ‘It made me feel as though I knew her’.
(c) Penny Perrick
About Telling Tales: The Fabulous Lives of Anita Leslie:
Anita Leslie was a celebrated biographer who wrote extensively on subjects who were often her own relatives, such as her great-aunt Jennie Churchill, mother of Winston, and the sculptor Clare Sheridan, a cousin. She also wrote a life of Rodin in Rodin: Immortal Peasant (1939) and the best-selling Edwardians in Love (1972). In 1983 her best-selling wartime memoir A Story Half Told detailed her experiences as an ambulance driver in the French Army during the Second World War. This was based on a more revealing memoir entitled Train to Nowhere (1948). After the war, her life was, at first, haphazard. A complicated and tumultuous divorce from her first husband, a concealed birth and a second marriage are all revealed in candid, breathless letters. Her second husband was Commander Bill King who singlehandedly circumnavigated the world. Anita Leslie was a true heroine fighting the circumstances of her life, bravely navigating her own flawed and bewildered self. Penny Perrick brings together the intricacies of Leslie’s life in a stunning biography telling of adventure, memories, heartache and loss.
Order your copy online here.