A bevy of biographers gathered in May in Washington, D.C., at the second annual Compleat Biographer Conference to discuss how to chase down subjects and make their lives into great stories. Last week we covered Robert Caro’s speech on the importance of setting. Today, we have highlights from the panel on “Turning Research into Narrative.” Speakers included Anne Heller, John Aloysius Farrell, Jane Leavy and moderator Amy Schapiro. The following are excerpts from their presentations that we thought might be useful for Storyboard readers.
Anne Heller, formerly a fiction editor at Esquire and Redbook, talked about her first book, “Ayn Rand and the World She Made.” Heller described becoming intrigued by Rand after reading one of her books on vacation as an adult, even though she never became a fan. Here she describes how her own curiosity propelled and winnowed her research:
“I began my biography of Ayn Rand with a number of questions that drove me and drove the narrative. The research in my case was driven by the questions that I had about her as a writer and a human being and a political figure. One of those questions was that I learned that she was born in Tsarist Russia in 1905 in the last decade of the Tsars, that she’d lived through the Russian Revolution at age 12, and that she was 21 when she came to the United States, having idealized the United States first from afar, from a vast afar.
“She had no way of knowing anything about these places except what she read and what she saw in the few movies she had seen in St. Petersburg, where she lived. She was Jewish in the most anti-Semitic place on the European continent at that time, and never mentioned being Jewish. Most of her readers don’t know that she was Russian. Those who had heard her or seen her in her lifetime did know that. She spoke with a very heavy Russian accent. But her name, which she changed from Alissa Rosenbaum to Ayn Rand, had not only no nationality that could be identified but no gender. So then people didn’t know that she was a woman.
“I wanted to know what being a Russian, being Jewish in Tsarist Russia, being a woman who left that place that was so difficult to leave to come to the United States all by herself with the intention of becoming a writer in a language she didn’t yet know – what drove her and what influence these life experiences had on the Ayn Rand that we know: the pro-Capitalist, anti-altruistic, free market, self-styled philosophical Ayn Rand. So I set out to find out, and the research that I did was, for the most part, in the service of these questions that I had.
“I wanted to know something about her inner life, with which I could not identify at all to start with. My biggest fear was that I would come to dislike her thoroughly in the course of living with her. Wil Haygood spoke in the last session about unlocking the front door at the end of the day, opening your door, and finding your subject on the couch waiting for you. My fear was that I would have to move.
“But that didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen largely because the things I was able to find out about Ayn Rand continued to intrigue me. As I folded them into what I knew about her version of the narrative of her life, she became more interesting rather than less interesting.
“All I can say is that I tried to include nothing that didn’t answer the questions that were drawing me to write the book in the first place. Since this is the only book that I’ve had the experience of writing, I do know that each project presents its own peculiar challenges. But this one for me was to uncover the inner and outer influences that created I think a very unusual, a very powerful woman who continues to influence our leaders’ thinking today.”
John Aloysius Farrell is with the Center for Public Integrity and has previously written for The Boston Globe and The Denver Post. In addition to stressing the value of assembling a complete chronology for the central character in a story (his run as long as 1,000 pages), he discussed his latest book, a biography of celebrated trial attorney Clarence Darrow, to be published this month.
“The theme of my talk is what you should leave out. I wanted to give you an exclusive look at the last anecdote that got chopped from my manuscript. It takes place in about 1926 or ’27, after the Monkey Trial, after Darrow was at the peak of his fame. And it takes place in New York, where a young cub reporter was called up to the city desk by his editor, who said, ‘Clarence Darrow’s in town, kid. I want you go to go out there, and I want you interview him before he goes to this black tie dinner, and I want you to write it up for tomorrow’s edition.’
[He tells a tale of a cub reporter trapped into helping a partially naked Clarence Darrow get dressed for a formal event.]
“Now you see my regret that I didn’t include that. Why didn’t I? Well, any of you who are newspaper people know the phrase “never let the facts get in the way of a great story.” Or as a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer once told me “Jack, that’s what footnotes are for.” If an anecdote is too good to be true, put it in the book and then go back to the footnotes. Aside from the fact that it was sort of demeaning to [Darrow’s wife] Ruby and coarse, I left it out because I just wasn’t sure of the provenance. New York newspaper people of that time were not known for their, um… [audience laughs]
“It could have happened, and it might have happened, but in the end I chose to leave it out, because what you leave out is as important as what you put in. You have to be very careful. More importantly, when you leave it out is important. This was the last thing I cut.
“I have a couple former colleagues in this room. Those who know me know I tend to write very long. The original manuscript for “Tip” was 1,000 pages, and it was published at like 760 pages. You think that I would have learned when it was time for the second book, but I didn’t. I wrote another thousand pages, and this one – in this day of e-books and brevity and it being very important to appeal to the reader – came in at about 550. But in each of these cases, as I came along to something in the writing, and I had all this research, I said to myself, ‘Do I need a quote here? Do I want to put this in? I’ll just put it in now, because I really like this quote, and I’ll cut it out later.’
“No, no. You have to do your triage right from the start. Otherwise you end up, as I did in both cases, with months of rewriting and condensing and putting in new numbers for your footnotes. And you also end up with choppy prose. If there’s anything drives me nuts as I read both manuscripts is that I can tell where the cuts are. I just hope you can’t.”
Jane Leavy, who spent many years as a sports reporter and feature writer for The Washington Post, has written two sports biographies – “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” and “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy.” For the BIO audience, she discussed her personal connection to Mickey Mantle and shared a story from her time at the Post:
“I think the most instructive thing I can say about turning reporting into narrative starts with my first trip as a reporter for The Washington Post, when I was sent to Houston, Texas, to interview a guy who was a great running back for the Houston Oilers, Earl Campbell. Earl Campbell was told I was coming, and the PR mechanism went into effect. Well, Earl Campbell did not want to talk to this Washington Post reporter, or any reporter.
So he bolted from the practice facility with me running after him, which is hilarious in and of itself. Remember this guy was the best in the world at the time, and here’s this little white girl running after this large black man, and chasing him down. And he runs into a men’s room, a cinder block thing at this practice field. And he goes into the men’s room, and I stand outside the men’s room. Every once in a while, he would stick his head out, and I’d still be there. And I’d wave, and he’d go back into the men’s room. This went on – I kid you not – for five hours. I wasn’t leaving, and he wasn’t coming out.
“Lesson No. 1 about being a biographer: You chase their asses down, and you don’t leave once you’ve found them.
“No. 2, when he did finally make a run for it, I stuck my whole body in front of him. He didn’t run over me, which he clearly could have done. He just looked at me, scared to death, and said, ‘No comma.’ I did two things at that point. I wrote it down, because we all take notes, and nobody was going to believe it anyway. And I went into the men’s room. It had been a long five hours.
“The story there, the material, is nothing. My editor said, ‘What did he say?’ I said, ‘He said, No comma.’ ‘He said No comment?’ ‘No. No comma.’ Well, they weren’t going to let me write that. So I wrote some story, some nonsense, and it didn’t have any quotes from Earl Campbell.
“And years later when I sat down to write ‘Squeeze Play’ – which is really my life as a female sportswriter, except that I never did sleep with a catcher, honest – I realized that little moment taught me more about how to organize and how to impose structure on material than anything before or since. Because the words themselves, the notes, were nothing, but the narrative was that he was scared of me. I had a kind of power that he was terrified of. We all do, when we write about people.
“That power, for me, can be paralyzing. I don’t know about you guys, maybe if you’re only writing about dead people it doesn’t matter. But the dynamic there, which was that he was not necessarily – unlike a writer or a pol or a great lawyer – he was not able to tell his own story, and he might not have been inclined to do so had he had that ability. But he didn’t. So it was my job to impose on the story that I was able to glean from other sources, from history and teammates and other interviews, what the narrative was.”