Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

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

Interview: DEIRDRE BAIR ON STEINBERG, CAPONE, AND CHOOSING A SUBJECT (TBC INTERVIEW)

November 19, 2012

Tags: Choosing a subject, Deirdre Bair, TBC reports

This week, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday will publish Deirdre Bair's Saul Steinberg: A Biography, the first biography of the New York artist whose beloved, ferociously funny New Yorker cartoons are now icons of American satire. (Think "View of the World from 9th Avenue," his famous 1976 map of the United States as seen by parochial New Yorkers.) I interviewed Bair for the monthly newsletter of Biographers International. An adapted version of that conversation appears here.

Munker: All your previous subjects have been known primarily through their writings: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Carl Jung. What was it about a New York cartoonist that made you want to undertake a biography?

Bair: I’ve always loved Steinberg’s drawings. When “View of the World from 9th Avenue” appeared, I was one of the first to buy a poster. Over the years, his work continued to hold my attention because it always made me think; at the same time, it fascinated me without my understanding why.
Then, in 2007, I went to a couple of exhibitions of his work in New York that made me wonder what had inspired him to create the drawings I was seeing. When I saw a caption that quoted him as saying, “I am a writer who draws,” I knew I had a key that could unlock many doors. I started becoming aware of the variety of his oeuvre, which was huge—not only New Yorker covers and cartoons, but advertisements, calendars, even Christmas cards. Yet I knew nothing about him. Who was he, where had he come from, and why did he have such an impact on our culture and society? I kept on thinking about him. Finally, even though at the time I didn’t think I would ever write another biography, I knew I wanted to write about him.

Munker: I understand that you’re working on a biography of Al Capone and have the cooperation of his descendants. How did you come to write about America’s most famous gangster?

Bair: Last winter a publishing friend told me that her brother, a lawyer, had been approached by some of Al Capone’s descendants. They wanted to know how to find a writer who would tell the truth about him as they knew him. I said I would see if I had any advice for them, and we arranged a conference call. I listened carefully to why they wanted a book at this time and learned that all the elderly people who knew Al Capone personally were dying, and their stories were dying with them. Naturally, that intrigued me.

They asked me to come to Chicago and hear some of the stories for myself. I was entranced as I sat at their table listening to the old people’s personal memories, looking at photographs and other memorabilia, and hearing their versions of Al Capone’s public life. I knew there was a book there, not only about the public life but also about the private life—his life and the life of an extended Italian-American family. That is why the working subtitle of my book about Al Capone is His Life and His Legacy. In many ways, it will be a cultural history of the Italian-American experience as well as the story of a particular family.

Munker: Based on your own experience, what advice would you give fellow biographers about choosing a subject, or their next subject?

Bair: I suppose I would advise selecting a subject or a topic that fascinates you, one that you want to know more about and with whom you wouldn’t mind spending years before you would ever think of offering a book to the reading public. With all my subjects, there has from the beginning been something about their life and work that made me want to know more. In Beckett’s case, I wondered how a well-educated, well-brought-up Anglo-Irish WASP could have created a world of unappetizing down-and-outers who had such universal resonance for us all. With Simone de Beauvoir, a dutiful daughter of the deeply conservative French minor nobility became a revered feminist icon. With Nin, I wanted to understand a woman whose only subject was herself. And Carl Jung piqued my interest after a psychologist friend, a Freudian, said that the one book his profession desperately needed was an objective biography of Jung. When I remembered how I and so many of my fellow students rejected Freud because we thought he gave short shrift to the female half of the human race, and that if we did employ psychological perspectives in our work, they were usually Jungian, it just seemed that this was the next book I should write.

Another bit of advice would be to realize from the outset that no one life can stand as a model for any other. Each one has to unfold as it was lived, and to try to impose artificial categories upon it will not keep your reader reading.

My way is to write the life as the evidence shows it was lived. If there is too much about, say, childhood, or a particular love affair, or the work that represented the epitome of the subject’s creativity, it is nevertheless the biographer’s obligation to honor what mattered in the life and became the major influence on the work. Life is messy, full of detours and hidden byways, and the biographer often has to get lost while the road map (remember them?) unfolds, but eventually the final destination reveals itself.

  —From the November, 2012 issue of The Biographer's Craft. Reproduced by permission of the editor.


    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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