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


Sara Bard Field on tour
    I haven't talked much on this blog about my own work. But a couple of months ago someone sent me some good questions about choosing a subject, researching and writing a biography, and the kinds of challenges biography can involve.

1. What initially drew you to the subjects you've chosen to write about?

   I tend to become obsessed with stories that can give me and my reader insights into human psychology and social change, especially if I can tell the story from the subject's perspective. I'm happiest writing from the inside out, so to speak.

    I like the intimacy of stories told from the standpoint, or even in the voice, of the central figure because I can use that perspective as a lens through which to view history. It's like writing a historical novel, but entirely from evidence. A historical novelist can make things up if necessary. I'm much too lazy to do that.

        Naturally, I prefer lives that are dramatic, but I seem to gravitate to people who aren't famous. That's because it's easier to use a life as a lens if the person doesn't have what's called a "received story"—one where everyone already knows, or they assume they know, what's important.

        On the other hand, telling a story like that in full while simultaneously making it suspenseful and authentic takes a great deal of time and research—at least for me. Furthermore, it's unusual to find a little-known yet dramatic story with enough detail for a biographer to be able to link the personal story to historical trends and events all the way through. You want the figure you're writing about to have had a life that was significant, and that, while interesting and valuable in itself, also makes a statement about the times.

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        I came across the story of Daughter of Persia, the first book I wrote, almost by accident. In that book, I narrated the life of Sattareh Farman Farmaian, my subject and co-author, in her voice. Satti was a highborn Iranian woman who was raised in a harem compound and introduced social work and the international birth control movement to Iran before she was brought down by the Islamic Revolution.

        I felt that her remarkable story deserved to be told with as much authenticity and in as much detail as possible. I spent four years interviewing her and recasting what ultimately becane a thousand-page single-spaced interview transcript into a first-person narrative, always showing her chapters as we went along to make sure she felt I was reflecting her actual experience. The narrative was constructed from her words and from information she gave me, along with some necessary background research of my own, which she (as well as three experts) verified as accurate.

        By telling the story from her point of view, I could involve the reader not only in her dramatic life but in the story of modern Iran, as she saw it. In a historical novel, if the reader can feel close to the main character, he'll care about what happens and have a stake in the story. The same is true in biography.

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2. What are you currently working on?

        My current book, Sara and Erskine, an American Romance, is about a woman named Sara Bard Field. Sara was a Baptist minister's wife whose affair with a much older, and married, philosophical anarchist, Charles Erskine Scott Wood, turned her a militant suffrage orator, a California poet, and an “anarchist and a free-lover." In 1915, she became the first American to cross the country by automobile in a political cause. She died in 1974, so in her case my main sources of information have been a 600-page oral history she gave the University of California Berkeley and thousands of letters she and her lover wrote to each other between 1911 and 1919.

        I first read the oral history years ago at the Huntington Library and was captivated by the speaker's seductive personality. Even though Sara was around eighty at the time she was interviewed, you could tell from the way she talked that she was someone who instinctively knew how to command an audience.

        Then I started on the love letters, and I was just blown away. Reading them was like sitting in a Ragtime-era restaurant and eavesdropping on a conversation between the two people at the next table. It connected me not only to them but to the age they lived in. It was just irresistible. As with Daughter of Persia, I knew instantly that I wanted to give others the same experience of "being there" that I was having.

        I wasn't quite sure how I was going to do that. It wasn't as though I could interview her, as I had Satti. However, I was convinced that if I could just learn enough about her experiences and reconstruct the historical and social context for each phase of her life, I'd be able to understand her in depth and depict her life and relationships for the reader at close range. At the same time, I would be learning what it was like to live in a country making the culturally difficult transition from a traditional society to a modern one—in Sara's case, from Victorian "true womanhood" to twentieth-century New Womanhood.

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3. What are the greatest challenges you've faced in working on your books?

        With Daughter of Persia, the biggest challenge was finding the background information that would let me make sense of the historical and social context at every point in Satti's life. Before Satti and I published our book in 1992, there was almost nothing about Iran for Western readers, certainly not about Iranian or Middle Eastern women's lives. There was no internet, either. If I didn't understand something and she couldn't fill in the blanks, I couldn't just go look it up on Wikipedia—I would have to scrounge around in the public library for a day or two, hoping to find something that would enlighten me.

        For Sara and Erskine, the challenge has been different. Because there is no "received story" for Sara Bard Field—that is, an established narrative—it's up to me to decide what that story will be.

        That's not as easy as it sounds. While the facts of her life were available, external facts in themselves don't make a "story" in the sense a writer understands it. They're "situations," or what in a novel would be a series of plot points. For the biographer as for the novelist, the most interesting, exciting, and difficult thing about trying to understand someone's emotional life and the changes that person went through isn't figuring out the plot points—the "what happened." It's showing how something happened and the significance that posseses for the character.

        That frequently requires detective work. I usually have to do a lot of comparing and cross-referencing before an emotional or psychological truth can emerge—and in biography as in life, establishing the truth can be difficult, especially when you're trying to deduce what someone's state of mind was at a particular moment. Nevertheless, truth has to be the goal, even when you know you can never be sure what the exact truth was. Otherwise, why bother? Why not just make stuff up?

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4. Can you give an example of the kind of detective work that can lead the biographer to psychological truth?

        Sara said in her oral history that she and her future lover, an attorney, were brought together by the great lawyer Clarence Darrow in "the late spring of 1910," but she wasn't specific about the date. She also described the moment in which she confessed to Erskine that she was in love with him, but she didn't say how much time had passed since their first meeting.

        Not knowing that was frustrating because establishing how long it took them to become lovers could tell me a lot about Sara's state of mind at the time, as well as the state of her marriage. It might also be an important indicator of her attitude about breaking her marriage vows. In 1910, very few women would have felt entitled to just hop into bed with a man, even if they were in love, and she was, after all, a minister's wife.

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        I realized that establishing those dates was the first thing I had to do. There were several clues in Sara's oral history, especially details she gives about the weather and a mention of a book of short stories Darrow had with him. Eventually, by combining those clues with others that turned up in the archives at the Huntington Library, where most of her papers were, I was able to establish a date for their meeting with some certainty. (Several years later, I was thrilled to find my guess confirmed by Darrow himself in Randall Tietjen's splendid collection of his selected letters, In the Clutches of the Law.)

        The clincher, though, was finding a dated inscription in a copy of Dante's Paradiso that Erskine gave Sara to mark the fourteenth anniversary of her telling him that she loved him, which happened exactly one day less than a year from the date of their first meeting. The fact that their relationship took such a long time to ripen into an affair told me something important about them both—above all that theirs was a truly Victorian love affair.

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5. Which biographies or other books have helped you?

        Sara and Erskine has made me look for models beyond traditional biography. Having to do that has been liberating.

        Historical journalism has been especially helpful. So far, the journalists I’ve learned the most from have been Eric Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, which is about 40% biography and 60% historical journalism; Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit: An American Legend; and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In various ways, all three use the story they're telling as a way of looking a particular moment in social history through the individuals they write about.

        But I've also learned from traditional biography, and, as a storyteller, from historical fiction. Over the years, I've probably read Mary Renault's novels about ancient Greece nine or ten times. My favorite traditional biography is probably Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. Pepys is an incomparable subject anyway, but Tomalin writes about him with such verve and skill that he just leaps off the page. Reading her book is like historical time-travel—it puts you right back there with the subject and shows you society as it looked to someone living then. That's my goal, too.

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