2018 BIO Conference Panel – Telling Life Stories

Editors are looking for story-driven, character-driven works to appeal to a biography-buying public, said Laurie Gwen Shapiro, author of The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. “Taking a large story and [then] taking it down to a story within a story [is] very sellable,” she said, adding, “old archives aren’t enough.”

Sharing their thoughts on useful storytelling techniques were Alan Pell Crawford, author of How Not to Get Rich: The Financial Misadventures of Mark Twain, and John Matteson, whose most recent work is The Lives of Margaret Fuller. Moderator for the session was Anne Boyd Rioux.

“Almost all literature is biography about an individual or a group,” said Crawford. When looking at biography that way, it “is narrative nonfiction.” Visual images can play an important role in advancing the narrative. Crawford said, “You have to dig for it, use every sense to dig up this lost world” of the subject. He cited Leo Tolstoy’s technique of grabbing readers “with an actual sense [of] being there” at the start of each chapter in his novels.

Travel can be essential to capturing that sense of being there. “I believe in going to the place,” Matteson said. “I walked everywhere,” using a watch to time how long it took to get from place to place. While this gives a three-dimensional approach to the research, he warned, “flora and fauna can change over time.” What the researcher is experiencing is not necessarily the same thing the subject experienced. “Places change,” he added. In Shapiro’s case, she took an Antarctic voyage to get that sense of place, “but not as an Antarctic explorer.” She was following in her subject Billy Gawronski’s footsteps.

While Shapiro said she approaches a book as writing something she wants to read, Matteson said the character, subject, or book “maybe in a way chooses you.” In his case, he said, “sit me down with some letter, some diaries, [and] I can tell you a story,” and that can lead to a book.

When approaching a new book, Matteson said, “sometimes, you want to boil [it] down to one word.” Then, when writing, the biographer “bring[s] it back to that core” until reaching the end.

The panel warned against “embroidering” a scene or speech for effect, as a novelist can. “You need to get rid of that,” Crawford said. Matteson quoted Stacy Schiff’s reminder to biographers that they are novelists under oath. That means “choosing the right material,” Shapiro said. The final product is the “tip of the iceberg” from the research, the panelists said.

The panelists highlighted other concerns beyond embroidering. For instance, Crawford said, “Anachronistic terms offend me as a reader. . . . They get in the way of their own story.” Matteson reads his story back to himself to gauge its pace. He also said biographers should remember that while themes in a book can be complex, chronological order makes it easier for both the writer and reader to follow the narrative. Shapiro said she asks herself, “Is what I’m writing worthy of a book?” and listens to people who are critiquing the work as it progresses.

The word “humility” was also used regularly during the give-and-take discussion. “You’re probably not going to be a legend yourself,” said Matteson. Remember, he said, that readers will likely be buying the book because of the subject. But he also encouraged biographers to “let your genius out.” In answering an earlier question, he reminded the audience: “you are turning other people’s pain” into art when using the techniques of narrative nonfiction.

—John Grady