Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

      ~ Writing a Biography ~
      About Writing Biography and Imagining a Life

    Managing the Writing Life, 3: 10 TIPS FROM A FILM BIOGRAPHER

    October 12, 2011

    Tags: Beverly Gray, Good ideas, Interviewing

      "WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA?" invites experienced biographers and narrative nonfiction writers to hold forth, whether in an article or just in a couple of sentences, on a useful solution they've found for coping with any major challenge of the writing life. What resonates with you? Tell the rest of us by posting a comment.

        Beverly Gray, a film biographer, shares her list of ten things to remember when writing a biography.

        Ten Tips for Writing Biography:

        •     In starting out, scour your life for a subject you are in a unique position to explore. When writing a biography, consider making your own relationship with the central figure a part of the story. My first book delved into the life of a movie producer who had been my longtime boss. A few anecdotes drawn from our interaction over the years effectively shed light on key aspects of his psyche.

        •     When planning an unauthorized biography, don’t be intimidated by the question, “What right do you have to invade this person’s privacy?” If your subject is a public figure, you have every right to probe his (or her) past—so long as you are accurate in what you report.

        •     Don’t let the subject try to take control of your project, even if this means you’ll get extra help. Artistic independence is a key to good writing.

        •     When researching, be imaginative. Leafing through indie filmmaker Roger Corman’s high school yearbook, I discovered that a prominent local sports writer had been his classmate. That revelation led to a terrific interview about what Roger was like in his teen years.

        •     Start at the beginning. Film director Ron Howard was born in Duncan, Oklahoma. The head of the local historical society was happy to share with me pages of a scrapbook kept by one of Howard’s proud relatives. It contained a copy of his clever birth announcement, as well as a clipping describing his parents’ highly eccentric wedding. Because Howard began his acting career at age 5, and because the stability of his home life has always helped to keep him grounded, insights into his parents are an important part of his story.

        •     Go to the source: wherever possible, see the locations you write about, so that you can evoke them for your readers.

        •     As you send out requests for interviews, have a tape recorder connected to your telephone and be prepared to start recording at a moment’s notice. You never know when someone important to your project will call you up. (CAUTION: In many states, you’re legally required to tell the caller you’ll be taping the conversation.)

        •     Find out in advance if your publisher expects you to get signed releases from all of your interview subjects. On my last big project, this requirement took me completely by surprise, at a time when the writing of my book was almost completed. The result: I had to track down people I hadn’t spoken to in well over a year.

        •     Respect those you interview. Check back with them to clarify any details or assumptions you’re not quite sure about. It’s no fun seeing your mistakes in print.

        •     In the writing process, try to capture your subject’s essence by way of a central metaphor. In the course of chronicling Roger Corman’s life, I was able to point out how much he resembles Dr. Frankenstein, trying desperately to cope with a monster of his own making.

            Beverly Gray, an independent filmmaker as well as a biographer, is the author of Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon...and Beyond, as well as the definitive and (as she observes) tastefully-titled Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. She is currently updating her Corman biography and concentrating on her blog, Beverly in Movieland, which covers movies, moviemaking, and growing up around Hollywood. The blog also lets her chat about many other subjects close to her heart, including the wonders of movie technology, good conversation, and the correct use of the apostrophe.

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        1. October 12, 2011 11:50 AM EDT
            "Don’t let the subject try to take control of your project, even if this means you’ll get extra help."
              Amen, and that includes the children of the subject. I was once intrigued by the prospect of writing about a famous architect and his strong-minded wife, both deceased. Their personal and business papers were in an archive and open to researchers. When I approached their son, whom I already knew, and sounded him out to see if he would co-operate, he assured me that he would--provided I gave him a share in the advance and the royalties! I explained politely that it didn't work that way and went on look for another subject.
              - Dona
            • October 12, 2011 2:06 PM EDT
                It is not just a legal obligation to tell someone that you are taping a call but an ethical one as well. I will check but I think in California you have to get prior permission to tape a call, not just inform someone.
                - Nevin
              • October 12, 2011 2:35 PM EDT
                  Important issue. Anything else? What's the situation in New York, Chicago, London, etc.?
                  - Dona Munker
                • October 12, 2011 2:59 PM EDT
                  You should always inform an interview subject that you are recording them, but on the ethical question, I have a different opinion. You are recording the call in order to quote or check a comment they made, save both your own and their time, and avoid the distraction of taking notes. It will also avoid the issue of people claiming you misquoted or misinterpreted what they said. Having the evidence protects both you and them.
                  - Les
                • October 12, 2011 3:01 PM EDT
                  You asked for links on how to know how to record a phone interview. This is handy:
                  Can We Tape? A Practical Gide to Taping Phone Calls and In-Person Conversations in the 50 States and D.C. (Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press

                  You may find helpful tips here:

                  Pat McNees
                  Writers and Editors
                  - Pat McNees
                • October 12, 2011 4:22 PM EDT
                  Very helpful. Thanks to both of you.
                  - Dona Munker
                • October 19, 2011 4:50 AM EDT
                  Most consummate... Very insightful.

                  Haven't read the Ron Howard book (but it's on my list!), however, I found the Corman one to be one of most enthralling of film maker biographies.
                  - St. Keith
                • April 9, 2012 2:32 PM EDT
                    I don't tape; I type. During many years as a staff newspaper writer, I cradled the phone on my neck and typed as the source spoke. Now, mindful of the stress this puts on the neck, I use a lightweight Panasonic headphone (be sure your landline phone has the requisite outlet). Whenever I think a "query" call may result in an instant interview, I wear the headphone. Otherwise, I just take rapid handwritten notes -- another skill I picked up as a journalist. People tend to speak freely when you don't have to raise the specter of taping.
                    - Cathy Curtis

                      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.

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