Mentoring: A Report from Both Sides

To fill a need for knowledgeable assistance with the process of researching, writing, and publicizing a biography, Will Swift, Cathy Curtis, and Linda Leavell created the BIO Mentoring Program. Other mentors are Justin Martin, William Souder, Kate Buford, Carol Sklenicka, Carl Rollyson, Carla Kaplan and Irv Gellman. Additional consultants are called in when appropriate.

In September, Linda Leavell mentored Will Swift on his current project, with the working title Battling for the Soul of America: The Political Dreams and Inner Struggles of LBJ, MLK & RFK, 1967-1968. Swift asked Leavell to spend two hours reading his notes and discussing his idea on the phone.

At the same time, Swift mentored BIO member Heath Lee about her book project, Vietnam War Wives: The Reluctant Sorority. Swift spent nine hours editing Lee’s proposal and helping her with contacts, and an additional hour talking to her on the phone about her project.

Mentors and mentees discuss their experiences below.

Mentoring Will Swift

Linda Leavell: Will, you have said before that you are at a stage of life where you like to mentor others. Why did you decide to participate in the program as a mentee?

Will Swift: I believe that if we are going to run this program, we need to know what it feels like to expose our rough material to a valued colleague. I was at a point in my project where I needed to get some overall feedback. Tackling three of the great titans of the past century and choosing a theme that will resonate with publishers and readers in today’s marketplace can feel overwhelming. I wanted to work with you because I admire your intelligence, thoughtfulness, and literary acumen. Also, I wanted to show my material to someone who is not an aficionado of political biographies.

Leavell: What was the most challenging aspect of the experience?

Swift: I relished the opportunity to present my unresolved thoughts to you—to find out whether you thought this was indeed a viable project. It is daunting to write about figures that have been brilliantly portrayed by Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, and other distinguished authors. I have been trying out different themes for the framework and structure of my book, working to get a handle on three of the most complex and mysterious leaders of the twentieth century.

Once I scheduled my session, it was like going to a personal trainer—I was forced to begin consolidating my thoughts. I sent you three items: a rough document with a mishmash of ideas about possible themes; notes on the personalities, visions, and fraught relations among my three protagonists; and very sketchy notes on the three leaders’ activities and speeches during those two dark, pivotal years. I wanted you to see where I was confused and get a sense of why this project feels beyond me at times. What was it like for you to read that material and talk to me about it?

Leavell: My first response upon reading your loosely organized notes was relief. I loved your idea and felt excited about it, so it was relatively easy to pick out the strengths of your project. I always find it helpful when readers of my work-in-progress tell me what they like as well as what doesn’t yet work. So I picked out themes in your notes that especially intrigued and excited me.

Then I asked myself if anything was missing and what I’d most like to know next. I formulated three broad questions to ask during our phone conversation. Since I don’t know the existing literature on your three figures, I wanted to know what was original about your approach and, since most of your notes so far were from secondary sources, what primary sources you plan to consult. My second question was about the narrative arc of your story. It seemed to me that you had plenty of themes, but that I didn’t yet have a feel for where the story would begin and end. Closely related to this is my third question: How did you plan to organize your materials?; would you treat each figure separately or tell the story in chronological order? Because I am also in the process of trying to organize a group biography, this was a question that I had carefully considered but had not fully resolved for my own project.

You had given thought to each of the three questions I asked, and so we didn’t need a full hour to discuss them. You asked for my response to several additional matters, and then after our phone conversation we followed up with a few short emails about your title. I enjoyed the experience quite a lot. It is helpful to me as a biographer to learn how an accomplished biographer such as yourself goes about starting a project.

What was helpful to you about our conversation?

Swift: Even though I have a busy practice as a psychologist, it has been almost twenty years since I sought a psychotherapy session for myself. My talk with you felt like the best kind of therapy session. As I expressed my concerns about the project, you listened carefully and then made suggestions about how to develop original themes and compelling depictions of my characters. Best of all, I was able to talk about my book for an hour without feeling any guilt. I don’t know about you, Linda, but I usually feel guilty after about ten minutes of telling a friend or fellow biographer about my project, because I don’t want to burden them. You were very encouraging about my vision for the book and specific about the themes you found compelling—the different forms of courage, the focus on “insecure outsiders” becoming leaders and on characters working toward their ideals in the face of probable defeat or death.

For me, having a working title helps focus the book. But I have a terrible time with titles and subtitles, so our discussion about the possible titles helped me see the possibilities. I began to toss them out to other members of my Gotham Biographers group and then to Cathy Curtis, who gave me excellent feedback that helped me finalize my working title. I left the session with renewed energy and commitment.

Mentoring Heath Lee

Swift: I loved working with Heath Lee because she was so open to feedback and because she was willing to show me a first draft of a proposal that needed a lot of work. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the world of the POW and MIA wives and their daunting challenges in bonding with each other and determining how to take on the US government and the North Vietnamese representatives. I was able to offer her a line edit and suggestions for reorganizing and streamlining her proposal. I reminded her of how important it was to have a compelling opening scene for a proposal and recommended that she turn her epilogue about the Nixons’ White House dinner honoring the former POWs and their wives into a prologue in her pitch to editors. In addition, I was able to give her advice about whom to approach as key contacts for getting interviews and blurbs.

Heath, why did you ask me to take a look at your project and did you have any reservations about doing so?

Heath Lee: I have spent the past fourteen months researching and interviewing subjects for this book. The majority of my research to date has been archival and oral history interviews. This topic has never been extensively researched, so it took me that long to gather the basic information and create a chronology and a skeletal second draft proposal.

I was a little worried that my draft was too sketchy for another biographer to look at, but I was at the point where I needed someone with a critical and professional eye to give me some feedback. I know from my experience writing for magazines and newspapers that the first part of the proposal, “the hook,” is crucial, and I was concerned that what I had was not dramatic enough.

I wanted to work with an author whose work I enjoy reading, as well as someone who had worked in the same era (mid ’60s to mid ’70s) in which I am currently immersed. As the author of the dual biography, Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage, you were a perfect match.

Swift: Tell about your experience of talking to me. What was it about my style that helped or hindered you in our conversation?

Lee: I found this process very positive. I really felt built up after I talked to you. I was reassured that my book concept was good, and that I was headed in the right direction. You very kindly offered to Skype with me about the book, but considering that I was wearing my gym clothes and had two teenagers running around the house, I declined! We had an hour-long phone conversation instead, which was very relaxed and casual. I did not feel at all “on the spot;” I just felt like I was talking to a friend who also happens to be an expert biographer. I felt like I could ask anything—even things that were probably really basic questions—without judgment.

Swift: What did you get from the mentoring session? Would you recommend that other people try it?

Lee: I got a boost of confidence and reassurance that I was on the right track. The experience was like having a biographical GPS installed! I now have more defined parameters, a broad map with guidelines to help me along. You also generously shared your contacts at the Nixon Foundation, and connections to other authors who have written books about the Vietnam era.

I hope other BIO members take advantage of this unique service early in the process, before they are set on a certain path. Do not be afraid to show mentors something rough. They can help you perfect the work so that what an editor eventually sees is the best possible version of your proposal.