Cathy Curtis

Bringing the Ghosts to Life: An Interview with Candice Millard

BIO Board member Cathy Curtis asked Candice Millard, winner of the 2017 BIO Award, to respond to a list of questions about her experiences as a biographer. Her thoughtful emailed replies appear below. You won’t want to miss Millard’s keynote speech at this year’s BIO Conference, on May 20 in Boston.

Cathy Curtis: What prompted you to start writing biographies?
Candice Millard:
I have always been interested in biography. In fact, one of the best parts of my job at National Geographic was looking for story ideas that focused on human history rather than natural history. So, when I thought of writing my first book, I immediately knew that I wanted it to be about someone, not something. But I also wanted a story, not a subject. I didn’t want to begin at the beginning and end at the end. I was looking for a story within a life.
CC: Are there biographers who have helped shape your own style or approach?
CM: The list of biographers I admire is extremely long, so I’ll start with those who have perhaps had the greatest impact on my own work: Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Martin Gilbert, Robert Caro, William Manchester, Laura Hillenbrand, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Antony Beevor, Andrew Roberts. I could keep going. . . .
CC: Do you tend to sift through numerous potential subjects before you find “the one”?
CM: I spend a great deal of time looking for the right subject. In fact, I think it’s the most important part of writing a book. I’m looking for not only a great story, but one that comes with enormous amounts of primary resources, so much that I despair of ever getting through it all.
Without mountains of letters, journals, newspaper articles, it’s difficult to have dialogue; all the little details that, I hope, make readers feel as if they’re there; and a deep understanding of the story and the people within it. I’ve fallen in love with book ideas in the past and spent months, even years researching them, only to realize that there just wasn’t enough primary source material. As difficult as it was, I had to walk away.
CC: You have written, “What interests me more than moments of public triumph or infamy are instances of private trial and struggle, when no one can hide their weaknesses—or indeed their strengths.” Is this the thinking that led you to “slice of life” biographies, as opposed to the traditional cradle-to-grave format?
CM: Like any thinking person, I highly value biographies that take in the full expanse of a person’s life, and I read a lot of them. But when I’m looking for a subject for myself, I’m interested in stories that are intimate, focused, and, I hope, illuminating. To me, the most illuminating moments in a life are when a person is at his or her most vulnerable, when they’re searching for a foothold, unsure of the path forward, frightened, grieving, even desperate. These are emotions we’ve all experienced, and they help us understand each other, help us find that thread of common humanity.
CC: Are there key research or writing tips you gleaned from working on The River of Doubt that you were able to use in writing your next two books?
CM: The greatest lesson The River of Doubt taught me is the importance of outlining. I don’t know if this is true for other writers, but I am lost without an outline, and not just a basic sketch of how the book will unfold but a long, incredibly detailed outline that helps me think through every step of the story.
CC: How have events in your own life contributed to your understanding of your subjects?
CM: As I get older, I feel like I understand my subjects a little better because I’ve had more of those shared experiences. I’ve seen more of the world, experienced more joy, more sorrow, even tragedy, and because of that when I peer into someone else’s life I can see a little of myself. Maybe because of that I have more compassion, I hope, and am not as quick to judge. I don’t know anyone who’s perfect. I’m certainly not. And that’s what interests me—not the perfect person, but the person who struggles, as we all do.
CC: I’ve read that you align work on your books with your children’s school schedules—an inspiration to all of us who have other demands on our time. Was it difficult at first to use your limited time wisely?
CM: While I love my work, and feel incredibly lucky to be able to do it, it comes in a very distant second place to my children. Surprisingly, however, what I’ve realized over the past 15 years is that being forced to work around my kids’ schedules is actually not a bad thing. I don’t know that I would have the discipline to get right to work every morning if I knew that I had all day to get it done. Knowing that I only have between drop off and pick up is incredibly helpful. I get up, get dressed, take the kids to school, and then go to work.
My office is in my husband’s company, so I’m not home, thinking about the laundry waiting to be done or the Legos that are scattered all over the floor. As soon as I step into my office and close the door, I’m in another place and time. To be honest, it’s a little disorienting when I have to go pick up the kids, but I leave myself notes so that I can pretty easily jump back in the next morning.
CC: What has been your biggest challenge as a biographer?
CM: Wrapping up the research. There’s always another lead to follow, another archive to visit, another storyline to investigate and that, to me, is the best part of the job. I love doing research, and I would be very happy to keep doing it for years on end, but eventually I have to start writing or I will never finish the book.
CC: Tell us about a memorable moment on one of your book tours.
CM: I have been very fortunate to be able to meet many of the descendants of the people I’ve written about, not just the central characters but the people surrounding them, from Candido Rondon’s grandchildren to Winston Churchill’s granddaughter. I’ve really enjoyed meeting them all, but no one has made a stronger impression on me than Bob Garfield, James Garfield’s great-grandson.
I spent some time with Bob, who is now the patriarch of the Garfield family, while I was doing research, and I remember thinking that he was one of the finest people I had ever met—kind, smart, a skilled pianist, and the consummate gentleman. When Destiny of the Republic was released, Bob attended a talk that I gave at Garfield’s farmhouse in Ohio, where Bob had spent much of his childhood. After I spoke, he stood up and said that the book had meant a great deal to him and his family and that it had “brought a ghost to life.” I will never forget that moment. It made me very proud.
CC: What are you working on now?
CM: I just started work on a book about the discovery of the source of the Nile. It’s a story that I fell in love with many years ago, when I was still working at National Geographic, so I’m thrilled to finally have the chance to really dig in and understand it.

Biographers Explore Points of View

By Deirdre David

Whether strolling down St. Marks Place, wrestling with the many lives of Orson Welles, or wondering where Virginia Woolf got her clothes, the biographer must inevitably confront the vexing question of perspective: Where do you stand in relation to your subject, whether it’s a street, a cinematic genius, a brilliant novelist, or indeed yourself? At the Leon Levy Biography Conference, held on March 8 and organized around the theme of “Point of View,” an impressive roster of speakers engaged this question as they discussed their perspective on particular places and particular people.

In the day’s first panel dealing with “Place and Displacement: Looking Homeward,” Ada Calhoun, the author of St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street, focused on the street where she grew up and its transformation from a hippie mecca to a weekend gathering place for Asian teenagers. Daniel Menaker, who edited fiction at The New Yorker for many years before becoming editor-in-chief of Random House, discussed his early life in the West Village, a “childhood Eden” shattered by the death of his brother from a staph infection. As he explicated the title of his recently published memoir, My Mistake, Menaker spoke about the connection, as he sees it, between comedy and sadness, about how humor gives us a point of view from which to deal with tragedy. For Margo Jefferson, the place of ambiguous belonging was her Chicago home, where she parsed the line between affiliation with “our people” and her family’s belief they were the “best”. Her point of view shifted as she participated in the “delicate dancing of race,” navigating an imperative never to reveal vulnerability and a pressing responsibility to write about her experience—as she did most recently in Negroland: A Memoir, which just won the National Book Critics Circle prize for memoir.

Patrick McGilligan discussed his latest biography on a panel about Orson Welles.

In the panel “The Lives of Orson Welles,” Patrick McGilligan recalled the time spent researching his book Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane. Reading some eighteen years of the Kenosha News on microfilm rendered a feel for the place where Welles was born and, at six years old, recited Shakespeare. Observing that Welles loved literature throughout his career, writing for radio, stage, and film, McGilligan adopted a literary point of view for assessing his life. In contrast to McGilligan’s exploration of Welles’s early years, Josh Karp (author of Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind) asked from what perspective should one (can one?) write about such a protean figure. Was he a closeted homosexual? How important are the boozy friendships with figures such as John Houston? What does it signify that Welles insisted all his leading ladies cut their hair short? David Nasaw, whose books include The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, asked the audience to consider Citizen Kane in terms of Welles’s complicated view of Hearst, and argued that Welles distorted Hearst’s essentially happy life in order to make a sensational biopic. All three panelists agreed that Welles is the prototypical challenging subject for the biographer. Nasaw, in particular, argued that such a massively talented actor, director, and writer can “steal your book” (as he put it): take over your life, appropriate your biographical voice, dislodge your point of view.

Painter Grace Hartigan was one of the five women discussed in “Forgotten Women’s Lives.”

The “Forgotten Women’s Lives” panel focused on five fascinating figures; moderator Annalyn Swan invited the speakers to bring them out of the shadows. Lisa Cohen discussed the three women she depicts in her book All We Know: Three Lives: Esther Murphy, a New York socialite and writer; Mercedes de Acosta, a writer and art collector; and Madge Garland, an Australian fashion editor at British Vogue. Her interest in Madge Garland began when she read Virginia Woolf’s diaries and came across the name as someone whose clothes Woolf wore; learning more about Garland led her to Murphy and Acosta, to lesbian life in Paris in the 1920s, and to the formal challenge of managing a group biography. In discussing her research for Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, Hayden Herrera evoked her experiences in Mexico, where her outsider point of view aimed to detach Kahlo from her primary identity as the wife of Diego Rivera and to place her in a larger international perspective. Cathy Curtis’s interest in the rich life of the painter Grace Hartigan, which she has traced in Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, began when she was wandering through the abstract expressionist rooms at the Museum of Modern Art and suddenly came across Hartigan’s painting of Shinnecock Canal on Long Island. Her perspective on Hartigan’s life and work began with a desire to retrieve her reputation from the male-dominated art world of the 1940s and ’50s. In contrast to speakers on the earlier panel who had explored the challenge of writing about someone almost preternaturally famous, Cohen, Herrera, and Curtis persuasively argued for writing about unknown or relatively unknown figures; the gratification in such biographical work is giving voice to the formerly unheard.

The afternoon concluded with a conversation between William P. Kelly, the New York Library’s Director of Research Libraries, chairman of the Guggenheim Foundation, and former interim chancellor of CUNY and president of the Graduate Center, and Peter Guralnick, whose most recent book, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll, is a finalist for the Plutarch Award. Guralnick’s point of view in exploring Phillips’s life was one of passionate involvement and steady patience. For example, after driving many miles to conduct an interview, he found himself taking notes for almost six hours. In talking about Phillips, Guralnick assumed a voice of admiring commitment, and in one way or another, all the speakers at this year’s Leon Levy Biography Conference gave voice to their subjects: famous figures, unknown women, and, of course, their own biographical selves.

Deirdre David is the author of Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life (U. Penn Press, 2007) and Olivia Manning: A Woman at War (Oxford University Press, 2012). She is currently completing Pamela Hansford Johnson: A Writing Life (under contract to Oxford). Before becoming a biographer, she published several books dealing with Victorian literature and society.