2017 BIO Conference – Slice of a Life

“Slice-of-life” biographies have become increasingly popular in recent years. In this session, moderator Will Swift drew out experiences and helpful suggestions from three biographers who have chosen to focus on a narrow part of their subjects’ lives. The participants were: the 2017 BIO Award-winner, Candice Millard, who has written three of these books, including her most recent, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the making of Winston Churchill; Joseph Lelyveld, whose most recent book is titled His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt; and Patricia O’Toole, whose biographies include When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House.

For Millard, her first interest when approaching a new subject is to write about a topic that fascinates her—such as the birth of modern warfare in the Churchill book—by telling the slice-of-life story of someone connected to the theme. She said, “The story is the engine, and then you’ve got these train cars you can load up with all the other stuff you want to talk about, and people will stick with you if you have a great story.”

Asked how to bring a fresh eye to a subject who has been written about many times before, Lelyveld said slice-of-life biographers should focus more on a specific question about their subjects that they want to answer, rather than worrying about covering old ground. With his FDR book, for instance, he was interested in discovering Roosevelt’s thinking “about his own mortality, and his health, at the end of his life.” When Lelyveld couldn’t find archival information on that, he turned to the political aspects of the president’s final days and “the way he did think about all issues.” Lelyveld also tried to look at other things going on around Roosevelt that were “preoccupations” of his, to understand how he related to them—an approach that helped Lelyveld organize the narrative.

O’Toole said one tactic she used, when writing about Theodore Roosevelt, a subject who had been written about many times before, was to look at the correspondence between people who knew TR and wrote about him in their letters. Those letters contained insights not revealed in letters written to Roosevelt. She said it might not be a useful technique for all subjects, but it can be helpful with famous ones. For Millard, one key to a good slice-of-life work is to examine the periods in the subjects’ lives before or after they became famous.

To bring a character to life, said O’Toole, the key is to choose interesting incidents that advance the story or reveal a new dimension of the subject’s character. Millard said that part of that process for her is to be drowning in primary source material before she begins to write. “You have to have that to have all the little details,” she explained, and for the dialogue that will result in the engrossing story she wants to tell. Her process involves doing several years of research, then extensive outlining, before returning to the research to fill in the gaps.

Swift asked the panelists how to integrate other parts of the subjects’ lives into the slice they are trying to illuminate. One thing Lelyveld did was to look at how some of FDR’s past experiences shaped his response to later events. One example: Lelyveld looked back to Roosevelt’s government service during World War I, and his perceptions of Woodrow Wilson as a wartime president, to see how they shaped Roosevelt’s approach to addressing his own challenges as a wartime president. For Millard, when writing about Theodore Roosevelt, she needed to provide some context of why he ended up where her story finds him: in the Amazon rain forest, struggling to stay alive. And for O’Toole, she said her goal was to use the slice “to illuminate the whole,” and one day in the life can be a doorway to that illumination. In her TR book, she also wanted to look at him through the lens of a theme. It took her three years to come up with one: the idea that his term in office led to several enlargements—of the presidency, his character, and the role of the United States in the world.