Category Archives: biographical method

‘The bits that have floated to the surface’: a quote about historical evidence

Toward the end of her biography of Randolph Stow, Suzanne Falkiner offers a beautifully expressed quote from Louis Menand:

How much one can accurately convey of a life lived so much on the interior is debateable. As the American academic Louis Menand has observed, in the matter of historical research (and by extension biography), what has been written about takes on an importance that may be spurious:

A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary: all become luminous with significance – even though they are merely the bits that have floated to the surface. the historian clings to them while somewhere below the huge submerged wreck of the past sinks silently out of sight.

Suzanne Falkiner Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow (UWA Publishing, 2016) 726.

It’s more of a problem for a subject about whom little has survived – Shakespeare as an extreme example, the early Katharine Susannah Prichard as a less extreme example. Yet it subtly affects all biographies. Falkiner’s book would look very different if she her main source wasn’t Stow’s letters to his mother.


Notes on biographical method in The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell by David Marr

prince-marr

I’ve finished listening to the audio version of David Marr’s The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell during night-feeds of my nine-week old son, a slightly surreal and disturbing companion at 2:30am each morning. It’s the original Quarterly Essay edition of 2013; the print version of this edition is 124 pages, while the expanded 2014 edition is 210 pages. Continue reading


True North by Brenda Niall – some notes on biographical method

true-north

The metal bust of Mary Durack used to greet me each day at the entry to the Battye Collection during my year working at the State Library of WA in 2007. I saw it again yesterday, a couple of days after finishing Brenda Niall’s True North: The Story of Elizabeth and Mary Durack (Text, 2012). Busts make the people of the past seem so distant, but one of the achievements of this biography to make the Duracks feel quite alive again for a time. Continue reading


Some notes on Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Pepys

Claire Tomalin is a master literary biographer who makes the genre more compelling and interesting than any other writer I know. I’m two-thirds through her 2002 book on the 17th century diarist and naval administrator, Samuel Pepys. I offer some notes on her biographical method. Continue reading


“Dear Kattie, I hope you will allow me to be so familiar”: first-name terms in biography

The Guardian asks, “Should biographers be on first name terms with their subjects?” (hat-tip Tracy Ryan), which is very good timing, because it’s an ongoing question for me. Continue reading


“So let us put him in the thick of it”: reconstructing the unknown

Cook-tableau

I’ve just been to a Perth Writers’ Festival talk by two biographers, Hamish McDonald and Madonna King. The conversation around the process of biography was interesting. McDonald’s latest book, War of Words is the biography of a Japanese-raised European, Charles Bavier, born in 1888, while King’s is a biography of Australian politician, Joe Hockey. They are both journalists, but King’s book seemed particularly a work of journalism from the way she spoke about it. She interviewed three hundred people and wrote it intensively, seven days a week, over the course of a year. McDonald started his in 1982, when there were still were people alive who knew Bavier well, but it is inevitably a historical enterprise. Despite this, he said at one point that he wasn’t pretending his was a footnoted history. In the literal sense this is completely true – indeed it is not referenced at all (there is a bibliography), which seems a terrible lack to me. I may be an unusual reader, but footnotes reveal much about method, and can be fascinating to me. But he also meant it in another sense – his insertion of several scenes of reconstructions, where he imagines what Bavier was doing during historical events McDonald knew he experienced. Continue reading


Louis and Hilda: Some thoughts on biographical method in Peter Fitzpatrick’s Pioneer Players

pioneer-players

Peter Fitzpatrick, Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson (Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Other times, she is a ghost in all the things I read: I know the people I’m reading about knew her. I know that if the “camera” panned just a little to the left or a little to the right, or if it moved back to take in the whole scene, Alice would be there.

Before I started writing a biography, I wrote a novel about biographers. (It’s how I do things – I imagine them, and then I become them.) I’m revising it at the moment, and I added those sentences to it the other day. I’m reminded of them reading Peter Fitzpatrick’s Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson. Hilda was Katharine Susannah Prichard’s best friend; they lived next door to each other as children. The few surviving letters between them show an intimate friendship. Katharine is not exactly a ghost in this dual biography of Hilda and her first husband, Louis; rather, she is one of the major characters. But, naturally, she is out of focus. She is there to help us understand Louis and Hilda better. And I’m so glad for the existence of this and other works evoking the same world Katharine was moving through. Continue reading


Advice to new biographers: interview with a biographer part 4

 

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

Biographer-in-Perth: Any advice for a biographer starting out on the journey you’ve just taken?

John Burbidge: A few miscellaneous thoughts-

  • Try to secure a publisher and agent up front. I succeeded in neither, but not without trying. I had twelve rejections from publishers, including two from the same company but under different managements, before I struck gold. Finally, it was someone whom I had contacted in the course of my research who was interested in Glaskin and who had read my manuscript who introduced me to his publisher, who then became mine also. Lesson: Never underestimate the value of friends, associates and others who can open doors for you. Sometimes, you just need to ask them. Such people have been pivotal in my having two books published.
  • Try to secure funding up front or have some way of supporting yourself. Biographies can take years of work (this one took 13 off and on) and sometimes much travel (poor Nicholas Shakespeare went everywhere in the world that the peripatetic Chatwin did!). Again, I tried but didn’t succeed in getting any grants but I did have a partner who was a flight attendant so managed to get discounted air fares to cut costs, which helped a lot, especially with international travel.
  • Spread out your research as widely as possible, mixing interviews with a broad cross-section of people who knew your subject in various capacities, with library research, online research, etc. Don’t discount anything you come across but also don’t feel obliged to use it all either. There are always other places (other books, articles, interviews, etc.) where some fascinating tidbit might come in handy.
  • Once you’ve embarked on your literary biography, if you discover someone else is doing exactly the same, don’t be disenchanted. This happened to me and I nearly gave up on the whole enterprise. But others convinced me to stay with it. No two writers, even if they used the exact same material, will come up with the same biography.
  • Get feedback on your work as it progresses to help you fine tune it as much as you can. I did this several times with different people before I had manuscript ready to send to a publisher, and even after I did. Some people I paid and some did it gratis.
  • Try to have someone with some influence write a foreword, especially if you don’t have a very high profile. I was lucky in getting Robert Dessaix to play this role for me. My relationship with him was built over a number of years but once he read the manuscript and was excited about it, he was quite willing to do this, and more.
  • Get interviewees to sign releases at the time of the interviews or soon after. It is often difficult to go back later and secure these, especially if the interviewee has died!

Biographer-in-Perth: It’s been interesting and valuable for me to learn about John’s journey as a biographer. Thank you so much to John for sharing his thoughts. I know they will be of value to other biographers, as well as offering fascinating insights into a biographer’s work for readers of literary biography.


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.


Dealing with ‘Glaskinitis’: interview with a biographer part 2

 

dare-me-cover

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

Biographer-in-Perth: I felt I could perceive your struggle to know what to do with the anger and bitterness in Gerald Glaskin’s personality. Did you find it difficult trying to keep on the right side of all the people you’d interviewed, and their varying opinions of him?

John Burbidge: I sometimes wonder if I gave undue emphasis to Glaskin’s more negative traits, but having talked with dozens of people and read hundreds of letters (his and others), I found it was something that came through very strongly and repeatedly, so I couldn’t ignore it.

One early reader of the manuscript and a close friend of Glaskin’s thought I had overplayed this aspect of his personality, at the expense of his more endearing and positive qualities. I took this advice to heart and tried to ensure that I presented a fair and balanced appraisal of the man. (I later deleted an entire chapter because it was essentially just another example of his belligerent nature, so it seemed redundant.) At the same time, I did not wish to downplay something that seemed to be a critical factor in answering a primary question of this biography, namely, what contributed to Glaskin’s poor reception as a writer in his home country?

During interviews, naturally I tried to remain impartial and let people say what they wanted, regardless of whether it was pro or con Glaskin. I had no axe to grind or theory to prove, but was simply trying to paint the most honest and comprehensive portrait of the man and his work that I could. One way I attempted to do this was to reach out to a broad cross-section of people who knew him in various capacities and at different times in his life, then put together the pieces of the puzzle as they revealed themselves. Most people came across as honest and upfront, but I sensed a few held back from revealing aspects of Glaskin’s life they didn’t wish me to know about. I accepted that as one of the limitations of interviewing and trusted that further research would help fill in the blanks, which it usually did.

When I came across the paradigm of ‘Glaskinitis’, I felt it was a breakthrough because it not only confirmed what I had perceived from many other sources but it put Glaskin’s more antagonistic traits in the wider context of a family behavioural pattern.

 Part 3 tomorrow: The Works and the Life.