Friday, 31 January 2014

On The Art of Biography

Andrew Lownie talks to JJ Marsh about all things biographical

Andrew Lownie

As a biographer yourself, (The Presbyterian Cavalier - of John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, MP and Governor-General of Canada) what do you see as the key elements to writing a successful biography?

Clearly it needs to be well researched and have both new material and interpretation but it also needs to be well written. The qualities of the fiction writer are needed in terms of sketching in character, description and narrative pace. It’s important to engage the sympathy of the reader and make them want to know what happens next. My next biographical subject is Guy Burgess - a gay, dissolute , English Communist who is very different from the Scottish, Presbyterian , Conservative John Buchan – but the trick in both cases is to humanise them . Everyone has their good and bad sides and everyone is seen differently. The role of the biographer is to show all sides and let the reader make up their own minds about the person though clearly the way the material is selected and story is presented means it’s never entirely objective. It’s also important to set the person in the context of their times – what I call pulling the camera out – and to spend time on sketching in secondary characters to balance the central focus on the biographical subject. A good biography needs to be about the times almost as much as the life. The more you can quote first person testimony such as interviews, diaries and letters the more the book will come alive.

Apart from reading history at Cambridge, what attracted you to the art of the biographer?

I find people fascinating and want to know what make them tick. As an historian, I’m more drawn to people shaping events than inexorable historical forces because that’s what happens in life. History hinges on particular events which often are affected by the smallest things. If Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car had taken a different route in July 1914 perhaps twentieth century history might have been different. A biography is an easy way of humanising history – local, family and house histories are another way - and allows one to take the reader into a particular world whilst still having a strong narrative arc.

The research process must be immense for someone like Buchan. How long did it take to gather all the information, create the structure and actually write the book? 

As I had a full-time job, it took several years not least because I had to read over a hundred of Buchan’s own books, several hundred other books touching on his life and widespread interests , read hundreds of letters (he wrote to his mother everyday) and visit archives across the world. The writing took only a few months as the material then simply slotted in. I’m finding the Burgess biography more difficult because Burgess left no papers and much of what he did was secret.

How far should an author be familiar with the politics, social mores and general circumstances of the time? I recently read S.T. Joshi’s biography on H.P. Lovecraft, and his analysis of the period helped me comprehend Lovecraft’s apparent racist perspective. 

Crucial. One can’t understand Buchan without understanding Scottish Presbyterianism and Burgess without having a real sense of how some of his generation were deeply affected by the political events of the 1930s. Part of Burgess’s rebellion was personal but it was determined by his very genuine belief in Communism. Buchan is sometimes accused of being a racist and anti-Semite. I show that he wasn’t but there is no denying he was a product of his time. Thinking yourself back into the period is so important - the more one can immerse oneself in contemporary accounts whether newspapers or films the better - and one mustn’t fall into the trap of historical relativism.

Do you believe the writer needs to like the person who is the subject of the book? How much subjectivity is involved in terms of interpretation? 

No, one doesn’t need to like one’s subject but unless one is interested in them then one isn’t going to want to spend years researching and writing their lives. And unless the biographer makes the subject interesting no reader is going to read 100,000 words on them. I actually like Buchan and identify with him in many ways but was accused by some reviewers of being hostile to him. Burgess had many qualities such as intelligence, wit, loyalty and strong beliefs but he is not an attractive character - the trick is to show the good and bad sides and to explain why people behaved in the way they did. The greater the understanding of motivation and character, the more likely the reader is going to want to go on reading.

And what about the subject’s field of expertise? Paul Kildea’s book on Benjamin Britten seemed to marry the human and musical angles so well I had to listen to his work all over again.

Absolutely. The point of a literary biography, for example, is to send the reader back to the author’s books and to give new insight to one’s reading of those books.

Andrew at WriteCon in Zürich
You founded The Biographers’ Club, which offers awards and support to first-time biographers and host of member benefits. What motivated you to set up such a charitable organisation?

It all began in September 1997. As a literary agent specialising in biography, I had arranged several lunches at Elena’s Etoile in Charlotte Street for my authors to meet film producers, publishers and journalists. It was an expensive business entertaining twenty to lunch but everyone thought it was a worthwhile networking exercise and said they would be prepared to pay their way. And so was born the Biographers’ Club.

I invited friends and contacts who were biographers to come to the lunches and others brought their friends so it simply evolved. I ran it for the next twelve years simply as a monthly dining club with speakers as an opportunity for biographers to meet and exchange ideas and contacts. Knowing as an agent that many writers needed financial help to research their biographies, I persuaded the Daily Mail to support an annual prize for proposals for un-commissioned biographies. That has proved to be a great success launching the careers of some twenty first-time biographers – some runners-up were in fact more successful subsequently than the winners - and I set up further prizes for the best biography of the year, for the best first biography and a lifetime achievement award. A few years ago I decided my benevolent dictatorship needed to be replaced so it has operated with a committee and been a charity for the last few years. I’m still involved but now as President.

What do you see as the key differences in writing a biography of a person, as opposed to a country, such as Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, or Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine?

I don’t believe you can write biographies of anything except people. Books on animate objects etc are really narrative non-fiction. The key difference is that the biography is about another human being who was born, lived and died. Personally I think even ‘slice of life’ biographies which look at a particular moment whether it’s a dinner party or a period of years isn’t really a biography. The childhood and roots of a person are key and we don’t have a sense of the whole person unless we follow them from cradle to grave. It’s much more satisfying emotionally and intellectually. John Buchan’s story is of semi-rags to semi-riches, of the provincial who rises to the heart of the Establishment but who always felt an outsider. Burgess is the rich kid born with every opportunity who frittered away the advantages he was born to. One can’t really understand a life unless one is presented with it in its entirety.

Looking at the bestseller lists, full of football managers, footballers, TV stars, and ghost-written celeb memoirs, do you feel optimistic for the future of biography?

I do feel optimistic about the future of biography not least after Lucy Hughe-Hallett won last year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for her life of a largely unknown figure – the Italian writer and politician Gabriele d’Annunzio. Look through the Literary Review each month and you’ll see pages and pages of reviews of serious biographies and many of the most successful recent films come from biographies such as Philomena and The Invisible Woman. Of course some football and celebrity memoirs do well but their success is often short-lived and one of the most exciting recent developments in publishing , in my view, is that the voices of ‘ordinary’ people are increasingly being heard – memoirs by foster carers, midwives, policemen, people who been inspirational through the way they have dealt with tragedy or conquered the elements. The growth of self-publishing has meant we are hearing many more different voices and memoir is even displacing biography.

As Words With JAM’s favourite agent, can we talk the commercial side? How easy is it to persuade a publisher to take a punt on a biography of someone who hasn’t been on Big Brother/The X Factor/tabloid front pages?

Looking back at my sales for last year they include biographies of: Peter Watson a gay art collector who set up the literary magazine Horizon; a group biography of Britain’s living non-royal duchesses; a 19th century French courtesan called the Valtesse de la Bigne; John Bingham a writer and spy who inspired John Le Carre’s Smiley; Moura Budberg an adventurer who was the mistress of HG Wells and Maxim Gorky and John Randall one of the last surviving SAS officers of World War Two. Almost all of them are by first-time writers. It wasn’t easy selling the books and no one will become rich from them, unless the film rights are sold, but it’s clear editors are still buying serious non-fiction. What supports these books are the celebrity memoirs and football biographies so long may both streams continue.

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By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism.

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