2017 BIO Conference – Parallel Lives

While not a new technique, focusing on the lives of several subjects in one book has become increasingly popular. Moderator Kate Buford led a discussion on how to write about parallel lives with three authors who have recently used that approach: James McGrath Morris, author of The Ambulance Drivers, which explores the friendship of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos; Alex Beam, who addressed a similar literary relationship between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson in The Feud; and Kate Bolick, who wrote about the lives of five women who influenced her own life, in Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

Bolick’s book is something of an outlier, as she became a character in it—she tried to look at the younger version of herself as a biographer would examine any subject. She wanted to uncover the forces shaping her during those times, relying in part on her own diaries. Bolick sought to see how her thoughts about the decision to marry or stay single were shaped at different times by the lives and writings of her five subjects: Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edith Wharton. The five women did not have parallel lives, as far as interacting with each other. The connecting tissue is in how they influenced Bolick. She relied on detailed biographies of her subjects, but also read their writings and turned to “a different kind of primary source”—spending time where Wharton once lived. In one case, speaking with a biographer working on a book about one of her subjects also gave her useful insights.

Beam also relied on existing biographies to flesh out some details of his two characters’ lives, while focusing on their exchange of letters to show the nature of their relationship. Using the secondary sources, he said, can lead to something he called “dueling biographers syndrome,” when an author tries to sort out competing descriptions of a subject’s life. Morris also turned to other biographers, though his research with primary sources showed him where the earlier biographers made mistakes. For him, finding the papers of several of Hemingway’s previous biographers was a boon. Their notes sometimes revealed details that the biographers chose not to put in their books.

Both Beam and Morris were working with relationships in which one of the two authors clearly outshone the other in today’s literary marketplace: Nabokov for Beam and Hemingway for Morris. Interestingly, both came away feeling that these literary titans were the less-appealing characters, in relationship to their lesser-known friends. Morris said he fought to contain his bias against Hemingway, emphasizing that empathy is more important than liking a subject. “Hemingway is not a nice guy . . . but by the end of their journey, I could explain to you why the way he was, and it’s not his fault.” His lashing out at Dos Passos and others, Morris said, was rooted in deeper psychological sources than mere cruelty.

Beam, though, took some issue with this, suggesting the “moments of unfairness” in his book were one of its virtues and empathy “doesn’t have to be everyone’s tool.” By the end of his book, Beam said, he ended up “despising” Nabokov, who brutally turned against Wilson, who had helped him get established in the United States. Critics, though, disagreed on which subject Beam liked more. For Bolick, she liked all her subjects, which is why she chose to write about them, but Maeve Brennan and her writings on singlehood for women was the genesis of the project. In general, she said, she wanted her and her subjects to seem “as if we were all a little clique of friends.”

In looking at some of the useful strategies and techniques for successfully writing about parallel lives, Morris said biographers should avoid a “whiplash effect”—going back and forth between the two subjects in alternating chapters. That might be necessary to set the stage for the relationship the biographer is addressing, but it’s best to do it sparingly and then get into the subjects’ direct interaction. And doing just a slice of the related lives, as he and Beam did, is much easier to handle than a dual cradle-to-grave approach. Parallel lives biographies also give a new perspective to a relationship, since the author can explore it through the lens of both people involved. Beam said a biographer interested in writing about a fascinating but obscure subject might be better able to sell a book linking that character with someone who is better known.

Bolick, in response to a question from the audience, said she thought writing about the parallel lives of women was empowering, and authors today could rely on feminist scholars who did the “hard work” of writing the first biographies of important female subjects. That allows Bolick and others to draw on those resources while doing parallel lives biographies or “slice-of-life” books on those subjects. She said that during this current “public feminist movement,” a second wave of feminism, “there’s more of an appetite in the media for these kinds of books.”

Selling a book about a group of previously unknown subjects is easier, the panelists mostly agreed, when it places the group in the context of an important historical movement or current events. The example offered was Hidden Figures, which highlights the key role a group of black, female, mathematicians played during the early years of NASA. Kate Buford summed it up by explaining that a parallel lives biography should be able to answer the following question: “Why this book now . . . how did this subject transform his or her time?”