The works and the life: interview with a biographer part 3

 

dare-me-cover

(This is the third of four in an interview series with John Burbidge, author of Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin.)

Biographer-in-Perth: What was your experience dealing with that perpetual dilemma of the literary biographer: deciding how to relate your subject’s writing to their life?

John Burbidge: Actually, it was not so difficult to relate his writing to his life because so much of it is quite autobiographical. He tended to write his fiction based on real-life experiences and locate his stories in places in which lived (Henrietta Drake-Brockman admonished him as a young boy for not doing this in his early short stories, and he never forgot it.). No End to the Way is perhaps the classic example of this, but it is also true of books like A Lion in the Sun, The Beach of Passionate Love, The Man Who Didn’t Count, A Bird in my Hands and others.

I decided to let theme guide me and tried to relate particular books to certain themes. When I did this, some works fell more easily into certain chapters than others, e.g. his trilogy on lucid dreaming clearly belonged in the chapter on dreams and Glaskin’s fascination with the paranormal. Of course, reading all his published and unpublished works was a prerequisite for this and took some time (Glaskin had more than 100 short stories published, as well as 20 books and a number of unpublished manuscripts as well.)

To help me manage this complex task, I created a chart that was a cross between a timeline and a matrix. Across the top of the page I listed all the chapters (as they emerged) that roughly corresponded to a chronology of his life. The side categories were Opening Quotation, Basic Premise, Key Elements and Related Books. Naturally, I moved things around a bit, merged columns, deleted others, and so on. Although it might appear to be a highly structured way of coming at a biography, I found it to be a useful framework that allowed for a lot of fluidity and kept me from drowning in the sea of data, opinions and ideas that swamp you when tackling another’s life and work.

I also created a life timeline for Glaskin to which I kept adding information as I came across it. Across the top, by year, was his age and place of residence and down the side were Events, People, Books Written, Books Published, and Other. It allowed me to keep the big picture in front of me as the details kept adding.

 Part 4 tomorrow: Advice for New Biographers.

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About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

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