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~ Writing a Biography ~ STALKING THE ELEPHANTAbout Writing Biography and Imagining a Life

DO YOU HAVE TO "LIKE" THE SUBJECT YOU PICK?

Deirdre Bair. What does "like" mean?
Biographers are often asked whether they "like" the person they've chosen as a subject, or some version of that question. The implication is that if one is going to be stranded on the desert island of research with another human being for years on end, one had damn well better be able to enjoy his or her company, and be able to make the reader enjoy it for five hundred pages, too.

I hear Robert Caro gets this question a lot. People always want to know whether Caro, who so far has spent several decades with Lyndon Johnson and who looks good for a couple of decades more, really "likes" Johnson or, more to the point, secretly "dislikes" him. In the interviews I've read, Caro always seems to evade the question, probably because he thinks it's irrelevant. The most the Gutzon Borglum of American biography will admit to is that he's "interested in power." (More about that at the end of this post.)

Probably most biographers would prefer to "like" their subjects, and when that's the case, so much the better. But what do we mean by "like"? "Sympathize with?" "Approve of?" "Identify with?" "Could watch the last five seasons of 'Madmen' with?" For the writer pondering what he wants to write about, the term "like" doesn't mean much more than it does on Facebook. For example, another president, George W. Bush, was said to be quite a likable gent when he was in office, the kind of guy another guy might enjoy having a beer with. Still, a biographer interested in thinking about more than just Dubya's convivial personality will want to focus on other qualities as well. And given the years he can expect to spend with his subject, he needs to feel something more for it than mere appreciation, affinity, or even admiration. He'll need to feel passion.

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I've always thought that committing oneself to the serious study of a life requires passion. Or more specifically, the writer's passion for finding answers by telling a story, in this case the story of a life.

There are, of course, more sedate terms one could use than "passion"—"engagement," "absorption," "fascination"—but the complex of feelings that powers and rewards the biographer's labors is in fact a passion so deep as to amount to a spell. The spell keeps us working away at the task despite the obstacles, in the belief that if we spend enough time and effort researching and writing and thinking about this person's story, we'll get the answers we want. Without that passion, the biographer's already lonely job would be exhausting, tedious, and in the end unremittingly dreary. Far better (and possibly more remunerative) to take up a good hobby, like playing championship poker or mastering Tuvan throat-singing.

The passion isn't always there at first, but it doesn't have to be; nor need its roots be obvious. In the beginning, all you may be aware of is that something about the life intrigues you enough to want to look into it at some point. If the individual is famous, the thing that intrigues you might be a body of work or a great accomplishment, but it could also be a personality trait, a statement he or she once made, a relationship, or a single period or episode in the person's life. What's important is that it remains in your mind, a presence that seems slightly alive, as though it's working inside you like yeast.

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Deirdre Bair is a well-known literary journalist and scholar. Bair has written about subjects from Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett—for which she won a National Book Award—to Carl Jung, Anais Nin, and the New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg. (Saul Steinberg: A Biography will appear this month.) Her latest object of scrutiny is the family life—the real family—of Al Capone.

That's bit of a head-turner, but Bair says that once she decided to explore the idea, she became "fascinated" by Capone and his traditional Italian milieu. What's more, she bristles at the suggestion that a particular subject may be inherently unworthy of a serious biographer's labors. "When I wrote my biography of Anais Nin," she told me, "a British reviewer for one of the respected English dailies began her review with 'What's a nice girl like Deirdre Bair doing with a silly old cow like Anais Nin?' I was outraged when I read that, for why did this reviewer believe that any one life deserved more respect than another? Everyone I've written about led a life or produced a body of work that fascinated me. We'll see how this translates into writing about Al Capone. But I don't think I could ever write about someone whom I basically did not like."

Actually, Capone is said to have been a pretty likable mobster; in any case, by "like," I don't think Bair means to suggest that she would endorse the professional body of work of one of America's most famous criminals, or that he's someone she would want to friend on Facebook. (To be honest, I didn't ask her if she thought she would enjoy drinking a beer with him.) Clearly, however, she's succumbed to the spell the biographer must come under in order to persevere—the spell that produces questions that only telling someone's story can answer.

That's the most important ingredient in the decision to write the life of another person, and that's why asking yourself whether you "like" someone you're thinking of writing about might be the wrong question, or even an irrelevant one. Robert Caro doesn't have to "like" Lyndon Johnson. He just has to feel driven to look for answers—and have the passion that will make the reader want to find the answers, too. The passion is what makes it all worthwhile.

An interview with Deirdre Bair about Saul Steinberg, Al Capone, and choosing a subject appears in the November, 2012 edition of The Biographer's Craft, the newsletter of Biographers International Organization. It will be posted here next week.

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