Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

~ Writing a Biography ~
About Dona Munker

    • Dona Munker is a published author and lecturer. She is the writer of DAUGHTER OF PERSIA (co-authored with Sattareh Farman Farmaian), a memoir-cum-history of modern Iran that has received international praise for its readability, authenticity, and the high quality of its writing. A former trade book editor, she has a PhD in English literature and has taught at Hunter College in New York and at the University of Giessen in Germany.

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        Her current book is SARA AND ERSKINE, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE. Sara Bard Field was an unhappily-married Baptist minister's wife until a passionate affair with the married attorney Charles Erskine Scott Wood, a controversial philosophical anarchist, gave her the courage to leave her husband. In the years that followed, she transformed herself into a nationally famous suffrage orator, a respected poet, and an "anarchist and free-lover" who risked everything, including social opprobrium and the loss of her children, for the sake of a union with the man she considered her soul-mate.

        Drawing, among other sources, on Sara's own accounts and on thousands of letters between the couple, their family members, and people in their circles (including Lincoln Steffens and Clarence Darrow, who introduced them), Dona is using the detective work of the biographer to construct an intimate, step-by-step account of Sara's emotional and political awakening and the evolution of her affair with Erskine, a story that will offer readers a window not only into the lives of the two lovers but into the world they inhabited.

        Dona maintains this website for anyone who is interested in the writing life, historical research, and the creative processes of biography. She holds forth on writing SARA AND ERSKINE, the craft of biography, and the writing life on her blog, "STALKING THE ELEPHANT". She posts longer articles on the art and craft of biography at SPEAKING OF BIOGRAPHY: Articles on the Biographer's Craft and keeps a list of RESOURCES for biographers.

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    The Not-Hollywood. L.A. as Angelenos know it.


  •     • I come from Los Angeles and spent my formative years on Beachwood Drive, in the shadow of the Hollywood Sign. However, it didn't take, and I grew up in Pasadena, which was a lot more sedate, even though we were just as smitten as the rest of the country with the magic kingdom west of the 110 Freeway.

        I originally planned on teaching English literature, but became a book editor after deciding that I preferred working with writers. I still love teaching. And I love living in New York, where I've been forever. At the same time, I continue to think of myself as a Californian, and I go back whenever I can.

        I have a BA in theater arts from the University of Southern California, an MA in English with a concentration in fiction writing from Indiana University, and a PhD in English from New York University. I taught English at the University of Giessen in Germany and at Hunter College in New York, then went into trade (general interest) book publishing. I worked as a trade editor at Little, Brown & Co. and Arbor House Publishing (Hearst Books), and for Time-Life Books as a trade consultant and freelance editor.

        In addition to DAUGHTER OF PERSIA with Sattareh Farman-Farmaian, I am the author of a very short book called HOW TO WEAR HATS WITH STYLE, which is about how to wear hats with style.

        I live in a weirdly-shaped apartment house on New York's Upper East Side with Hartmut, my husband of four decades who is also my ex-pen pal. This probably explains why I'm so interested in snooping around in other people's letters.

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        • PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES: I have written for the New York Times Book Review and Publisher's Weekly, and for scholarly and literary publications. I have conducted workshops on writing and publishing at New York University and the New School University, and guest lecture in publishing at the City College of New York. I also contribute regularly to The Biographer's Craft, an online newsletter for biographers and lovers of biography.

        I was a co-founder of Women in Publishing, an organization for trade editors and literary agents. I am on the board and am the 2012-2013 chair of Women Writing Women's Lives, an independent discussion group of women biographers. (WWWL was founded in 1990 by biographer Deirdre Bair and the late Carolyn Heilbrun. It now convenes monthly at the City University of New York Graduate Center for the Humanities under the aegis of the university's Center for the Humanities and the Center for the Study of Women and Society.) I am also active in Biographers International (BIO) and am a member of The Authors Guild, The Woman's National Book Association, and The Biographer's Club of London.

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    REGULAR READING: The New York Times, The New Yorker,, The Biographers Craft.

    FAVORITE BIOGRAPHY: Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self.

    WRITER WHO HAS INFLUENCED ME THE MOST: Historical novelist Mary Renault.

    BOOKS I WOULD MOST LIKE TO HAVE WRITTEN: David Lodge's Small World; Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist.

    ENTHUSIASMS Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai." • Anna Karenina. • Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns. • Brian Lehrer, New York City public radio host; Gail Collins, New York Times columnist (anything they care to say, on any subject). • Jonas Kaufmann, awesome Wagnerian hunk.

    SERIAL BAD HABITS: Watching reruns of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and rereading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. Again.

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            AND DON'T FORGET:
              is my blog about writing biography, the writing life, the nonfiction creative process, and of course SARA AND ERSKINE, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE, my work in progress on the World War One-era minister's wife and suffragist, Sara Bard Field, and her extraordinary affair with the outspoken atheist and philosophical anarchist, Charles Erskine Scott Wood.

                   To subscribe: On the blog page, click on the RSS button of your browser. (In Firefox: Go to the Bookmarks menu and select "Subscribe to This Page.") The RSS feed, which will show in your browser toolbar, gives you an easy and anonymous way of checking to see if I've updated the blog lately.

                Author photo: Hiroko Yoshimoto.

                Notice of Copyright:

                    • All material on this website Copyright © 2005-2014 by Dona Munker except where expressly stated or contributed by others. Copying, altering, or reproducing this material in any form without written permission is prohibited by law and may be prosecuted regardless of the venue or purpose of the copying.
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                On March 27, 2014, I will be in Los Gatos, California talking about "Sara Bard Field and 'The Cats,'" the extraordinary California woodland retreat that she and Charles Erskine Scott Wood built in the 1920s. For more details about this event, including a link to a video of The Cats on YouTube, go to EVENTS.

                IN PROGRESS
                  is about a search for love and self-realization that turned a Baptist minister's wife into a nationally known suffragist, a women's rights advocate, and a respected California poet—but also into "an anarchist and a free-lover" who had to risk everything to be united with her remarkable soul-mate. I am tracing this forgotten, dramatic Ragtime-era romance and reconstructing the history Sara witnessed through thousands of letters, as well as numerous other sources.
                    is a riveting account of the life and work of an extraordinary Iranian aristocrat and social reformer, Sattareh Farman Farmaian, DAUGHTER OF PERSIA is at once a memoir and a work of historical journalism that is still relevant today, opening a personal window on Iran and America's involvement in the six tumultuous decades that laid the foundations of the present-day crisis now facing the United States and the West.
                          The biographer's craft, what a story is, whether biography can ever be an art, and more.
                          A list of resources for anyone interested in biography and writing lives.