Brilliant Beginnings and Engrossing Endings

While TBC couldn’t attend every panel at the Compleat Biographer Conference, with assistance from New York correspondent Dona Munker, we offer capsule reviews of seven, including this one.

Very little is as important for launching a successful narrative as an arresting beginning, while a good finish can turn a book into more than just the sum of its parts. Moderator Will Swift launched his panel by asking biographers Debby Applegate and John A. Farrell and Knopf editor Jonathan Segal to describe what kinds of openings they like.

Applegate, observing that the purpose of biography is to “anthropomorphize history” by showing the intersection of historic forces with individual lives, said that she considers the opening, whether it’s a prologue, an introduction, or a first chapter, an opportunity to set up her subject “as a flesh-and-blood protagonist.” She recommended doing that not only with sensory details but choosing a moment or episode that will put the protagonist’s key ambitions, desires, or goals on display—and then introduce suspense by putting obstacles in his or her way. “Ideally,” she explained, “the narrative arc of the opening section will be a microcosm of the book itself.” Using Laura Hillenbrand’s preface to Seabiscuit: An American Legend as an example, she noted that Hillenbrand not only describes appearance of the unlikely-looking racehorse who became a national idol but used the opportunity the preface gave her to forecast the obstacles that the horse, and the three men who would make him a Depression-era icon, had to overcome before that could happen.

Farrell credited Edmund Morris’ mastery of detail in the prologue to The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt with inspiring the prologue for his own biography of Tip O’Neill. He also observed that an opening that engages the reader’s senses, thoughts, and emotions is as important for practical reasons as it is for aesthetic ones: review editors and critics, he said, like editors and agents, “read a prologue or introduction first.” Segal, the editor, concurred. Both as a reader and an editor, he said, he looks for an “aha!” opening, one that has the kind of fresh description, beautiful writing, or unexpected insight that makes reading further irresistible. As an example, he cited a startling anecdote about Lyndon Johnson that Robert Caro includes in his introduction to A Passage of Power: on the verge of ascending to the highest office in the land, the about-to-be President Johnson was heard to remark, “My future is behind me.”

And the secret of a successful ending? Just as the opening should incarnate the narrative point of the book, so an author should always be aware of the ending toward which everything is heading. (Segal said that T.J. Stiles “is already thinking of the last page of the book when he’s on page eighty.”) To Applegate, “the ending is where you get to reflect on the essence of the protagonist.” Farrell agreed; he sees endings as a chance to wrap things up, put a protagonist in perspective, and assess his or her place in history.

Of course, historical assessment is riskier if one’s subject is still alive. In such a case, the panelists recommended summing up in a way that will reflect the biographer’s views throughout the book but leave predicting to the reader—perhaps by postulating a question that invites the reader to speculate on what the future is likely to hold.

Finally, how ought a biographer deal with the later years of a protagonist whose achievements were followed by years of obscurity or by withdrawal from public life? “Briefly,” said Applegate.

—Dona Munker