Living with Your Subject

By Domenica Di Piazza, Editorial Director, TFCB

I’ve always assumed that biographers inevitably fall in love with their subjects. After all, they cohabit the same psychic space for months, if not years, and a certain amount of transference is likely to occur. Kind of like falling in love with your surgeon after he or she has saved your life. It’s something they write about in psychology textbooks.

I often think of Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen-Cooke, for example, who adored ER and was famously able to mimic her distinctive voice and accent. I see the tendency to idolize a subject among the biographers we work with here at Lerner Publishing Group. A big chunk of the editing and revising is all about convincing the biographer to show the reader the dark side and the weaknesses of the biographical subject.

p highsmith But then I read a fascinating article in the New York Times last week about Joan Schenkar, whose biography of novelist Patricia Highsmith–The Talented Miss Highsmith (St. Martin’s Press)—was released just last week. Turns out that during the eight years Ms. Schenkar spent researching and writing the biography, she was “rigid with hatred” for her subject for two entire years.

This made me wonder if there are other biographers who dislike their subjects as much as Ms. Schenkar initially disliked hers—and there are. In a great online article by Susie Boyt from the (London) Financial Times about the unique experience of writing biographies, English biographer A. N. Wilson is quoted saying that he dreaded waking up every day to spend time on his book about C. S. Lewis, he detested the man so much. Pulitizer Prize-winning biographer Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost’s official biographer, came to detest the poet even before he’d finished his three-volume biography of the man.

Overall, the challenge of any biographer seems to be to find the right balance between infatuation with and loathing for a subject. In general, I advise authors whom I approach for any project to be sure they are at least intrigued by the topic. And yet, dislike can be as motivating a force as its opposite, so just be sure you know what fuels your passion. Oh, and Patricia Highsmith wrote her novels on a portable Olympia typewriter. (See my entry from last week about authors and their manual typewriters.)