Category Archives: structure of biographies

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

 

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(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 Of course, reading all his published and unpublished works was a prerequisite for this and took some time (Glaskin had more than 100 short stories published, as well as 20 books and a number of unpublished manuscripts as well.)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.


Capturing life: interview with a biographer part 1

 

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At the Perth Writers’ Festival in February, I discovered John Burbidge’s Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin,  the biography of a significant Perth writer often overlooked in his home country. I had the chance to introduce myself to John at the book-signing and he has generously agreed to answer my questions about literary biography to share on this blog. John’s answers – a series of four over the next four days – are splendid reflections on the theory and praxis of writing a biography. You can find more about Dare Me! on John’s website about Glaskin; find out about John’s other work as an editor and writer at http://www.wordswallah.com, including a page on his memoir, The Boatman, to be published in Australia later this year.

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Biographer-in-Perth: I was struck by the way you opened with a thematic treatment of the beach in Glaskin’s life as a way of introducing him – a good choice, I believe. (Did you mention you borrowed the technique from Nicholas Shakespeare?) I think it an approach with much to commend it, but obviously has its challenges, too, in separating events in the subject’s life which were actually close together. In my reading of your book, there is a loose chronology, but each chapter covers a theme across the whole of his life. What persuaded you to make the choice of this over a more conventional chronology?

John Burbidge: A life is such a sprawling, complicated, messy thing to try to capture in the few pages of a book that I felt it would be helpful if I could find something that could be a metaphor or sustaining symbol around which I could weave the narrative, to give the reader something to hold onto and return to. My model for this was Nicholas Shakespeare in his magnificent biography of Bruce Chatwin, in which he chose a cabinet in Chatwin’s grandmother’s house to play this kind of role in his book, as it did in Chatwin’s life. I found this a useful technique and when I tried to emulate it for Glaskin, I came up with his love of the beach, and one particular beach, Cottesloe, that played such a pivotal part in his life. I decided to start my biography there and return to it at the end, to give the story a sense of completion.

Regarding my approach, it is a blend of the chronological and thematic. I’m not sure how conscious a decision this when I started writing, but it emerged as I went along. With a biography, readers like to know how a person grows, absorbs from those influences around him, and responds to life’s challenges as they present themselves, which calls for a certain degree of chronology. In addition, with a writer, there will no doubt be a progression from his early works to his later ones, so this feeds that approach. But as I did my research (over a number of years), I found certain themes began to emerge and demand attention, so I decided to focus my chapters around those, while maintaining a basic chronological progression. It was a balancing and weaving act, with a few changes and false starts along the way.

Perhaps what cemented my choice to use this two-pronged approach was the fact that as I researched Glaskin’s life, I began to see threads that ran through it and I wanted to see if I could connect the dots over time. For example, his encounters with Aboriginal Australians and Asians from an very early age laid the groundwork for his later experiences with them as an adult and the inclusion of them as characters (usually heroes) in his novels. Or his knee-jerk reaction to threats, which exhibited themselves in his early run-ins with authority at Catholic schools and reappeared throughout his life in his aggressive behaviour whenever he felt poorly done by.

Finally, a biography is a story and needs to hold the reader’s interest like any good tale. Highly chronological biographies run the risk of becoming tedious. I decided to focus primarily on those aspects of Glaskin’s life that really grabbed me, and to mine those, on the assumption that readers, too, would be similarly affected by them.

Part 2 tomorrow – ‘Dealing with Glaskinitis’


Writing beautifully, wearing research lightly: Rebecca Skloot’s achievements in her book on Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta_Lacks_(1920-1951)

Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Macmillan, 2010) is an exemplar of creative non-fiction, an intriguing combination of biographical quest and popular science. It was ten years in the writing, as Skloot lived off student loans and credit cards on her quest to follow the story of Henrietta Lacks, the black woman whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 and seem to be immortal, multiplying and living on for decades, and used in thousands of medical breakthroughs.

In her long acknowledgements, Skloot writes that one of her friends ‘taught me to care deeply about story structure’ (Loc 5157), and Immortal Life is indeed a brilliantly structured story. Through much of the book, Skloot alternates chapters retelling the life and afterlife of Henrietta and her cells with chapters recounting Skloot’s own quest through the late 1990s and 2000s to uncover the story. A simple but invaluable orienting device is a timeline indicator at the start of each chapter. Other biographies and histories should consider using it. While Skloot is in the action and gives a couple of biographical clues about herself in the prologue (‘I grew up white and agnostic’; she mentions a marriage and divorce during the writing of the book), for the rest of the book she remains restrainedly silent about her own life, except to the extent it directly affects the quest.

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From Chapter 29, it is Skloot herself who is at the centre of the afterlife of Henrietta and for the final eight chapters, the quest is recounted chronologically, with the focus on Skloot’s relationship with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, who has been deeply affected by the legacy of what happened to her mother, and the way her contribution to science has been long unacknowledged. She mentions in passing that an editor who “insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident” (loc 217). While the troubles of the disadvantaged Lacks family and their attempts to deal with Henrietta’s legacy are so important to Skloot’s purpose and the achievements of the book, the editor may have been onto something, however misguided and extreme her remedy. Those final eight chapters almost feel they could be from a different book. The beautiful, understated writing of the rest of the book is overwhelmed by long sections of dialogue from Deborah and the others. It’s captured well, and it’s a story worth telling; I wonder, though, if it needed condensing and balancing.

One of the accomplishments of this book is the way Skloot wears a decade of research so lightly. There are no footnotes through the book, but notes on the sources for each chapter at the end. The book reads more like a novel than most biographies; Skloot has managed to find enough detail to show as much as she tells. Here is the opening paragraph of chapter one:

On January 29, 1951, David Lacks sat behind the wheel of his old Buick, watching the rain fall. He was parked under a towering oak tree outside Johns Hopkins Hospital with three of his children— two still in diapers—waiting for their mother, Henrietta. A few minutes earlier she’d jumped out of the car, pulled her jacket over her head, and scurried into the hospital, past the “colored” bathroom, the only one she was allowed to use. In the next building, under an elegant domed copper roof, a ten-and-a-half-foot marble statue of Jesus stood, arms spread wide, holding court over what was once the main entrance of Hopkins. No one in Henrietta’s family ever saw a Hopkins doctor without visiting the Jesus statue, laying flowers at his feet, saying a prayer , and rubbing his big toe for good luck. But that day Henrietta didn’t stop. (loc 239-245)

She interviewed David Lacks while he still alive, so some of the detail must come from him; she also references the research she did on segregation, and she visited the hospital, observing the Jesus statue and presumably the oak tree. But did she know he parked under it on that day? If she couldn’t be sure, was it an acceptable guess? I’m not sure, but I am in awe of the way her book manages to read as one that is simultaneously meticulously researched and beautifully written.