Getting (Too Close) to Your Subject

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.

Moderator Beverly Gray got this panel off to a light start, dedicating it to Paula Broadwell, biographer of General David Petraeus, whose experience epitomized getting too close to one’s subject.

But the rest of the session raised some serious issues about keeping the proper distance with a subject who was a part of your life, as J. Michael Lennon dealt with before starting a biography of Norman Mailer. Lennon knew the writer for decades and became friendly with his children. He was even included in some of the letters Mailer wrote, and which Lennon edited and used as sources for his book. In his case, Lennon became a character in the story at times, and he wrestled with how much of himself to include, finally coming to the conclusion, “You can’t leave yourself out of certain junctures” when the biographer’s life overlaps with the subjects.

Joyce Johnson expressed something about her writing of The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac. The book examines the writer’s life before he became the famous voice of the Beat Generation, Johnson had a relationship with Kerouac during those years. She felt she could not leave herself out of the story, but, she said, “I used my relationship with Jack only when it was absolutely relevant to shed some light on Jack’s character.”

Third panelist Marion Meade has not had intimate relationships with her subjects, and insisted, “I don’t want any ‘I’s’ in my books.” But she still seeks to achieve some intimacy with, and ultimately understanding of, her subjects—even Dorothy Parker, a subject Meade “didn’t like…much” when she started her research. For most subjects, she said, a more common trajectory is moving from admiring the subject, then questioning him or her, and then finally reaching a level of understanding. All three panelists also touched on dealing with family members, whether as sources, trustees of estates, or potential critics. Meade’s advice: Don’t worry about the family, just write your book.