David I. Kertzer on Biography and Writing

By Joseph A. Esposito

The recent selection of his dual biography of Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Biography caught David I. Kertzer of Brown University by surprise. According to a statement released by the university, Kertzer said, “I had no idea the Pulitzer Prizes were about to be announced nor any hint they were considering The Pope and Mussolini, so this is quite a shock.”

David Kertzer, 2015 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

David Kertzer, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

But the award is an appropriate testament to the meticulous research that Kertzer had undertaken for nearly a decade. Crisply written, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe reports on a symbiotic relationship which unfolded in the 1920s and 1930s.

The book chronicles how the dictator played on the fears of modernism of the aging pope and the mindset of the Vatican, and crafted a partnership which helped him to maintain his power. The Catholic Church benefited from the support of the fascist regime by strengthening its position in Italy. Anti-Semitism figures prominently in the story.

Kertzer, who is an anthropologist and former provost at Brown, has written extensively on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian history and politics, including the relationship between Jews and the Catholic Church. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, about a Jewish boy seized by papal officials and who later joined the priesthood, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1997. Continue Reading…

BIO Conference Preview: A Conversation between Kitty Kelley and Barbara Burkhardt

Bestselling biographer Kitty Kelley—a founding BIO member who serves on the board— will appear with biographers James McGrath Morris and Linda Lear at the conference in Washington, DC. Their panel, moderated by Abigail Santamaria, will address the question, Does gender matter in biography? Kitty talks to BIO Secretary and site co-chair Barbara Burkhardt about biography and gender—and her dedication to BIO.

Kitty Kelley

Kitty Kelley

Barbara Burkhardt

Barbara Burkhardt

Barbara Burkhardt: What generated the idea for the panel “Does Gender Matter”?
Kitty Kelley
: Linda Lear was talking to me about how she decided not to do a biography of Harold Ickes, Sr. She said that, as a woman, she just didn’t feel she could empathize with this male subject. And, on the other hand, Jamie Morris said that he leaped to do his biography of Ethel Payne. It really is interesting that empathy is the deciding factor.

BB: What is your own take on how gender affects writing biography?
: A Harvard study showed that gender does make a difference. In relation to writing a life story, the study showed that women are better at getting to the hows and the whys of a life. Women are more concerned with relationships. They pay more attention to relationships.

I can’t say that women are better biographers than men. I don’t mean that at all. It’s just that male brains work differently than female brains. Men go from A to B, women go from A to R—and then back to F. As a result, women might be better at getting certain kinds of information. Men love data. Only 10 percent of the men who read, read fiction. They read history, politics, current affairs, business, and sports. Women read fiction.

And in biography, you have to give more than info and data and facts—you have to provide a human dimension: Why did they do it? How did they do it? You have to get people talking about their feelings and fears. The study showed that it is easier for women to handle ambiguity than it is for men. In essence, men want to solve the problem. Women want to understand the problem. They have been trained to take care. Men seem to take charge. Continue Reading…

BIO Conference Preview: A Conversation between Sonja Williams and Valerie Boyd

Too many of the compelling, varied and inspiring life stories of people of color have been invisible to a broader audience. Therefore, this BIO conference will feature the panel, “The Rewards and Challenges of Writing Lives of Color.” Moderated by Sonja Williams, author of a forthcoming biography Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom, this panel features authors Valerie Boyd, Alfred J. López and Donald Spivey. Williams spoke to Valerie Boyd about the complexities of researching, and in her case, rescuing black women from the shadows.


Sonja Williams

Sonja Williams: All of your book projects have focused on the lives of black women, including your award-winning biography of writer Zora Neale Hurston, your curating of writer Alice Walker’s personal journals, and your plans to examine the lives of black women in Hollywood. Why have your pursued this particular focus and what have you gotten out of this writing path? 


Valerie Boyd

Valerie Boyd: It’s a natural draw for me as a black woman. It might have started out as a model for the kind of life I’d like to live by exploring some of my own “sheroes,” as scholar and former Spelman College President Johnnetta Cole would say, black women whose lives have influenced not just me but America itself. Black women are often undervalued as intellectuals, artists and thinkers, and I think it’s important to articulate their lives, making sure that those women—and I—have a voice in national and international conversations. We need to give black women the same kind of respectful, fully realized biographical treatment as we give the dead white men.

I’m especially interested in black women who’ve changed the world. As a black woman myself, I bring a kind of empathy and shared experience to my research and writing. Ideally, this allows me to write about these women in ways that I hope will help readers to occupy their lives for a bit, to experience what it was like to live inside these women’s skin, to get to know them from the inside out.

SW: What unexpected gems did you come across while conducting the research for Hurston’s biography, Wrapped in Rainbows, and how did those gems pay off during the writing process?

VB: Unexpected gems are what you hope for as a biographer. I remember little details I found while working on the Hurston biography. Howard University has some good Hurston [archival] papers and a small, black leather, three-ring-bound notebook where Hurston made small notes to herself, including her grocery lists—evidence of what she ate and what she spent her money on. This was during the early 1930s, the Depression era, and she had limited funds. So she was always buying fish and vegetables, and she’d always, always allow herself 25 cents to buy a book. Now that told me something about who Hurston was and what her priorities were. These kinds of glimpses into her internal life were invaluable. Continue Reading…

A Conversation with Conference Panelist Heath Lee

The Civil War remains a topic of unquenchable interest to readers. In this, the final year of the conflict’s sesquicentennial, the BIO conference will feature a panel “Civil War Women.” Many biographers are discovering that the female figures of this time are a source of vital yet sorely under-explored stories. Justin Martin’s latest book is Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, the story of a group of notable Civil War-era artists including Adah Isaacs Menken and Ada Clare. Martin spoke to author Heath Lee, who will co-moderate the panel.

Justin Martin: Please explain the need for and value of a panel devoted specifically to Civil War women.
Heath Lee:
The majority of the scholarship and press attention on the war has focused on traditional themes of the conflict’s military, political, and economic dimensions and the male figures who were Union and Confederate leaders. However, information regarding the lives and fates of women during this period is still scarce and their portraits are often incomplete. The women we will talk about in this panel were shaped tremendously by their experiences and memories of the war, whether they were Northern or Southern, black or white. Women were more than just incidental bystanders during this tragic period in American history.

JM: Who are some of the notable women who will be discussed? And what are some of the unique issues confronting a biographer whose subject is a Civil War woman?
It would be hard to find a more fascinating list of characters. Among the figures we’re sure to discuss are Harriet Tubman, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Kate Chase Sprague, Elizabeth Van Lew, Varina Davis, Winnie Davis, Julia Dent Grant, Angelina Grimke Weld, Emma Edmonds, and Belle Boyd.

One of the unique challenges for a biographer researching a woman from this period is the lack of primary source materials. In the nineteenth century, it was common for women’s letters and papers to be destroyed—often even by her own family. It was considered unseemly for information about women to appear in published form. For instance, it is likely that Varina Davis burned Winnie Davis’s private diaries and love letters to her ex-fiancé. Continue Reading…

Biographer Turns Detective in Quest for Complete Picture

In 2007, Robert Marshall, seeking to promote his debut novel A Separate Reality, wrote a lengthy piece about the New Age guru Carlos Castaneda for Salon. Among Castaneda’s books that claimed to impart the teachings of a Yaqui Indian shaman called don Juan was one also titled A Separate Reality. Marshall’s book tells the story of a ’70s teen who falls under don Juan and Castaneda’s sway—just as many real teens, and considerably older people, did during the height of Castaneda’s popularity, when he sold millions of copies of his books.

Researching and writing that Salon article, Marshall didn’t know that his quest to understand Castaneda’s life would lead to his writing the first biography of a person Marshall called “the twentieth century’s most successful literary trickster.” And Marshall certainly couldn’t have known that he would move beyond being a literary detective and become something of a real one, as he tried to find clues about the disappearance of five women who had been part of Castaneda’s inner circle.

Uncovering a Manufactured Past
Marshall began expanding on his original research and preparing to turn it into a book after everything he had collected didn’t make it into his 2007 article. He said, “I thought it would take two or three years.” Now, eight years later, Marshall thinks it may take several more years to complete the biography of a man who won praise from a wide range of admirers, from John Lennon to Federico Fellini. But even when Castaneda’s books were riding high on the best-seller lists, people began to publicly doubt Castaneda’s claim that his work reflected factual anthropological research. Continue Reading…

Picture of a Life: Philip Short Explores the Biographer’s Craft

Philip Short

As a newspaper journalist and BBC correspondent, Short reported from Moscow, China, and Washington D.C.

More than four decades ago, while working as a freelance journalist in Malawi, Philip Short received a letter from Penguin: Would he be interested in writing a biography of Malawian president Hastings Banda, for the publisher’s series Political Giants of the 20th Century? Short readily agreed, adding now, “I suspect they had no idea that I was then 23 years old!”

Since that auspicious start, Short has a made his mark writing biographies of world leaders. His most recent book, Mitterand: A Study in Ambiguity, was published in the UK last fall and in April in the United States. With all his biographies, and with his next project on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Short has chosen to focus on figures outside the Anglo-American sphere. TBC interviewed Short to get his perspective on what challenges that poses, and his general views of the craft of biography.
For Short, researching and writing the life story of foreign figures came out of his experience working as a reporter for the BBC. He said of his time as a journalist, “What fired me was getting to grips with another culture, with other ways of thinking, and of conveying to people at home what I thought of as ‘a particle of truth’ about a different society, which was not the same as the truth that most of my compatriots understood. That experience… has certainly influenced my approach to biography.”
Short added that he admires biographers who can write about their own country’s leaders, such as Charles Moore on Margaret Thatcher and Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson. “I wouldn’t do it myself,” he said. “When writer, subject, and readers are all from the same country, it’s a totally different exercise. The dimension of foreignness—of otherness—is missing.”
With two of his books—Mao: A Life and Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare—Short not only dealt with foreign leaders, but also ones vilified for their atrocious acts. Does dealing with such horrific subjects require any special distancing or raise other concerns? First, for Short, “writing about terrible things…is never fun.” But he also feels biographers and others need to closely examine the terms used to describe such men as Mao and Pol Pot and their actions. For instance, he backs away from the expression mass murderer, because “the term ‘murder’ is reserved for deliberate voluntary killing. In both China and Cambodia, most of those who died perished from starvation (the Great Leap Forward in China: upwards of 30 million dead) or starvation, overwork, and illness (Cambodia).

Continue Reading…

Gottlieb Explores Editing and Writing Biography

This May, BIO will give its first Editorial Excellence Award to Robert Gottlieb. The award honors an editor who has made outstanding contributions to the field of biography. A former editor in chief at both Simon & Schuster and Knopf, Gottlieb has edited countless best-selling novels as well as modern classics of the biographer’s craft. He is also a biographer himself. A paperback edition of his most recent book, Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, was released last November. To mark his winning the inaugural Editorial Excellence Award, Gottlieb spoke with BIO member Kate Buford. Here are excerpts of the interview; you can find the complete version at the BIO website

Continue Reading…

Compleat Biographer Conference Preview III: Conversations with Two Panelists

Jim Elledge

Jim Elledge is the author of Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of An Outsider Artist, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for gay memoir/biography and for the Publishing Triangle nonfiction award. A published poet, Elledge is a professor of English at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. At the BIO conference, he will join Cassandra Langer, Barry Werth, and Brian Halley on the panel “Twice Marginalized: The Challenges of Writing About Little-Known Gay and Lesbian Subjects.”

TBC: The bizarre works of self-taught artist and unpublished novelist Henry Darger (1892-1973) have inspired both fascination and horror. What made you decide to write his biography?

Jim Elledge: Another poet had told me about Darger’s work. Doing the initial research on the Internet, I was appalled by what I was reading. It was all very negative about Darger himself. So I was very interested to see what my reaction would be to the paintings. The first time I saw them, at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful color and what he was able to do without having any real background in art, but I also did not feel the images I was seeing indicated anything close to his being a pedophile or serial killer, as some had thought.

When I saw the little figures in Darger’s paintings—the little girls with penises, chased by adult men and captured and crucified and strangled—it struck me that it was perhaps some kind of representation of gay boys. I had done some research into gay life in the 1800s for two other books that I published, and I realized from that research that gay men had historically used hermaphroditic figures to represent themselves. They saw the figures as a physical representation of the idea they had come up with to explain their orientation—a female soul in a man’s body, attracted to men as heterosexual women are.

Initially, I thought I’d write an essay and then some kind of critical book, and then I realized I knew nothing about art. So what was left was a biography.

TBC: How did you cope with what must have been a dearth of documentation of the life of a man who was institutionalized as a youth and spent his adult life working at menial jobs and living in a single room?

JE: There really isn’t a huge amount of material, simply because he was from a very poverty-stricken background. He was just a kid who had been, like many kids of that time, tossed out and ignored or abused. So what I had to do was look at what there was.

He wrote an autobiography that has never been published. There are many details in it that helped a lot, though he was very coy and hinted a lot about stuff. I read it so many times that I started seeing where he was hedging and seeing patterns in his writing that for me opened up a lot of possibilities.

I also had to look at what other boys of his approximate age in Chicago at the same time were up to. There’s a lot of sociological material that talks about what boys typically did in those days and the kind of trouble they got into. What he was hinting about was what other boys were going through at the same time, in that particular neighborhood, in similar types of institutions. I found so much that really connected with Darger, and given what he said in the autobiography, it seemed correct to put the two together.

When you have someone like Darger and you have this huge mystery—what do those figures mean?—there’s no way to discover it through the paintings themselves. The paintings certainly don’t tell us he was also a novelist. There are lots of clues in the novels about his sexuality.

I found the key to the torture of the children in the first novel. That was an important way of validating what I was doing. I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing initially, and then I found this and I said, yes, this is the way it’s got to be.

Evan Thomas

Biographers know that dealing with a subject’s family requires the negotiation skills of a trained diplomat, but that it can also be extraordinarily rewarding. The “Getting the Family on Board” panel at this year’s BIO conference will benefit from the experience of veteran biographer and historian Evan Thomas, whose most recent book is Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World. Evan was kind enough to answer some questions from Beverly Gray, moderator of the panel.

Beverly Gray: As a biographer and historian, you’ve covered a wide range of subjects: naval heroes, presidents, spies, politicians. How do you choose your topics? Can you identify a common thread that ties together your eight major book projects?

Evan Thomas: I am very interested in the rise (and fall) of American power after World War II and the role of political and social establishments. I am also interested in war—as the ultimate test of men (and sometimes women) and as the source of so much heroism and folly.

BG: In researching Robert F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower, you’ve have to deal with two important presidential families. Were there special challenges in seeking information from the famously self-protective Kennedys?

ET: The Kennedys do present a challenge, but not an insuperable one. The key is patience and appealing to their self-interest.

BG: In the Acknowledgments of your Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World, you especially praise Ike’s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, calling her an “able historian.” In your opinion, what makes an able historian? And how did Susan’s insights contribute to your book?

ET: Susan Eisenhower has the unusual ability to step back from her family and see her grandfather with some detachment. That is not to say that she doesn’t care about his place in history—she has led the opposition to the Frank Gehry-designed Eisenhower Memorial. But she is not kneejerk and she has written enough history to appreciate the difficulties and duties of historians. She was immensely helpful in getting her late father, John, to talk to me.

BG: When researching a biography, how (and when) do you approach your subject’s family? Have you devised any personal rules for working successfully with family members?

ET: The best rule is to not hide the ball, to tell them early on what you are up to and—in most cases—to show them the manuscript so there are no surprises at the end. This does not mean ceding control over the product, but rather trying to build trust by full disclosure.

BG: Have you ever been in situations where you’ve had to coax a family member into speaking honestly and for the record? Have you ever had to offer specific concessions to someone who’s fearful about dishonoring a relative’s reputation?

ET: I have always tried to be mindful of their feelings and to not gratuitously inflict pain. With patience and understanding, you can usually find ways to print virtually everything.

BG: You will be sharing this panel with presidential historian Will Swift, whose new book explores the marriage of Pat and Dick Nixon, as well as Brian Jay Jones, author of Jim Henson: The Biography. What do you look forward to learning from these two biographers?

ET: I hope to learn a lot from them about how to deal with the families!