Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

      ~ Writing a Biography ~
      STALKING THE ELEPHANT
      About Writing Biography and Imagining a Life

AN EDITOR WHO INSPIRES CONFIDENCE IN WRITERS (TBC REPORT)

December 10, 2018

Tags: Biography and publishing, Tim Duggan, TBC reports, Writing process

Biographers Cathy Curtis and Will Swift present Tim Duggan with BIO's 2018 Editorial Excellence Award (Photo: Biographer’s International)
   Celebrating the contribution editors make to the work biographers do has become a joyful highlight of the year for Biographers International. On November 7, in a ceremony at New York’s landmark Fabbri mansion, BIO presented its fifth annual Editorial Excellence Award to the noted trade editor Tim Duggan, publisher of Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Crown at Penguin Random House.

      Board member Will Swift explained in his introduction that Duggan devotes about 25 percent of his small, carefully nurtured list to biography, an unusually high percentage for a trade publisher. The lively observations of three ardent Duggan fans that followed suggested some of the reasons why he is regarded as a biographer's editor par excellence.

(Back to top)

      David Michaelis, author of Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, which received rave reviews when it was published it in 2007 by Harper, told the audience that after the book lost its first editor, he was dispirited. Fortunately, he said, Tim Duggan turned out to be not a wicked editorial stepmother but “a mentor” who possessed “a level of sympathy you don’t usually find in an editor. That sympathy, Michaelis said, "reunited me with my book.”

      James McGrath Morris, BIO's co-founder, who commented that his second biography, Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power (2010), was Duggan’s idea, described the honoree as the rare editor who “can see a need for a biography where no one else sees it." Adam Begley, author of the widely-acclaimed Updike (2014), said that when Duggan approached him to suggest that he undertake the first trade biography of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, he thought of himself as “an editor only,” not as someone who wrote books. Duggan persuaded him to write a book anyway, and Begley now considers him “the perfect editor....I just place myself in Tim’s hands.”

      Duggan’s exceptional empathy and sense of connection with the biographer's craft extends to his editing. Morris said that when he began writing Pulitzer, he submitted the draft he thought Duggan would want, instead of one that was true to what he himself was aiming for. Rejecting the draft, Duggan made a few efficient, low-key editorial comments on the first chapter—comments, Morris said, that showed him how to write the entire book. (Morris also jokingly recalled that he learned to gauge the relative importance of any of his editor's comments by the depth of the mark his pencil had made on the page—evidence of an inner intensity that would seem to give the lie to Duggan's laid-back editorial manner.)

(Back to top)

      Michaelis described Duggan as an insightful line editor who sees the important details but never loses sight of the larger picture and the pace of the narrative, and who has the ability to improve it by “putting his oar in and then pulling it out and letting the writer do what he wants.” This low-pressure encouragement inspires trust in his authors. “Knowing that Tim would be reading the final draft [of Updike],” said Begley, “was a huge weight off my shoulders.” Michaelis, who flew over from London to attend the ceremony, said simply, “I have complete faith in my editor.” Morris quoted another legendary editor's observation that the editor’s most important task is “to understand the author’s intention as fully as he can." Tim Duggan clearly agrees.

***

      After receiving his award, presented by BIO president Cathy Curtis, Duggan himself recalled that it was reading Robert Caro’s The Power Broker in college that gave him a lifelong taste for the way a fine biographer can combine historical research, in-depth news-gathering, and the narrative skill that can create “a work of art and still make a page turner.” (It is probably no coincidence that Duggan has a reputation for marketing savvy as well as for editing deeply-researched books; his books win awards, but they also turn up on the New York Times bestseller list.)

      Duggan explained that he was influenced early in his career by A. Scott Berg’s 1978 biography of the great editor Maxwell Perkins. Now, forty years after the publication of that book, he and its author are working on Berg's forthcoming biography of Thurgood Marshall. Duggan regards the opportunity this gives him for getting regular updates on the research and progress of a writer whose first biography shaped his own view of editing as nothing less than “a minor miracle.”

(Back to top)

      Duggan says that he reveres the “incredible, unique set of talents” he finds in each of his authors, and has a special admiration for the dedication of the biographer, who “is going to spend years working on a book, taking aim at a hugely important figure and trying to capture that person...in a living, breathing picture.” Serious biographical portraiture, said Duggan, is an antidote to “the current fixation with celebrities, and with ourselves....A biography is an obsession with understanding someone else.” Ultimately it is “a form of radical empathy, which hopefully never goes out of style.”

      You can read Tim Duggan's unusually informative and occasionally hilarious account of his career in publishing here, along with more of his comments on biography and biographers.

     Adapted from the December, 2018 issue of The Biographer's Craft and reproduced by permission.

(Back to top)


    The disciple of a famous sculptor came upon his master carving an elephant from a huge, shapeless chunk of stone. "Master," cried the disciple, "What splendor! What realism! What insight! How do you do it?" "Simple," replied the sculptor. "You just cut away everything that isn't elephant."

    Stalking the Elephant is a blog about creating an elephant from a chunk of stone, a.k.a. writing a biography.

    It's also about the biographer's writing life (well, mine, anyway) and a work in progress, SARA AND ERSKINE, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE. This is an intimate reconstruction of the life of SARA BARD FIELD, a World War One-era minister's wife, suffragist, and poet, and her extraordinary affair with an outspoken attorney, philosophical anarchist, and Renaissance man CHARLES ERSKINE SCOTT WOOD.

Subscribing is easy.

    This couple takes up a lot of time (not to mention a lot of oxygen), and since I don't have a regular posting schedule, the best way to receive updates is to sign up to be notified when I post something new.

     Here's how: 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.") You can then check to see if there's been an update in the RSS feed of your browser's toolbar.




Visit the RESOURCES page and take advantage of a growing list of links, blogs, and books for anyone interested in biography and writing lives.


    Sidebar Photo Credit: Elephant Country Web


    Notice of Copyright:

         All material on this website Copyright © 2005-2015 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.

    (Back to top)