2017 BIO Conference – The Challenges of Writing About the Unknown

Publishers don’t often jump at books about relatively obscure figures, and finding enough material on them can be challenging for a biographer. This panel, moderated by Sonja D. Williams, looked at why it still can be rewarding to write about the “unknown” subject.

For Pamela Newkirk, the impetus for writing Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga came from her being intrigued “by the notion that a white African explorer forged a friendship with an African . . . who ended up in a zoo” exhibited with chimpanzees. Despite her interest, she faced a major obstacle—the lack of primary source material related to her subject, beside one, single, direct quote in a newspaper account: “Me no like America.” The Bronx Zoo, where Ota Benga was kept, denied that he had ever been exhibited, yet Newkirk found written accounts of this from other sources, including the New York Times. A key find was anthropological field notes describing him in the Congo with other pygmies. There were also letters to Ota Benga in his native language that she drew upon.

Marlene Trestman, author of Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin, said that before tackling an unknown subject, “You have to convince yourself you have a story that others would want to read.” Trestman had not intended to write Margolin’s biography herself, but had tried and failed to entice others to tackle the subject. “Sometimes,” she said, “you’re the only one left.” Trestman, who shared some traits with her subject—both were Jewish orphans living in New Orleans who later became lawyers—said, “My goal was to write her back into history.” She added that it takes perseverance to research, write, and find a publisher for a project like hers; she spent 11 years on the book.

Quincy Whitney said her book, American Luthier: Carleen Hutchins—the Art and Science of the Violin, came about after she pinned down Hutchins for a newspaper interview. In the end, Hutchins asked Whitney to be her biographer. As time went on, Whitney found her subject “a very private person” who drew a line between her public life as a violin maker and expert on acoustics and her inner life. But Hutchins’s husband was helpful in providing useful background information.

As to publicizing books about unknown subjects, Newkirk said, “Some of it is serendipity.” She already had an agent and this was her fourth book. Her 5,000-word piece on Ota Benga in the Guardian went viral, spurring interest and sales. Whitney, on the other hand, said she had a ripple effect from things she did and wrote, which spread word about her book. While Trestman said it was networking that paid off for her. “You do have to do it yourself,” Newkirk agreed. She talked her way into being the speaker at important events, calling on better-known friends to join her in discussing the work, in order to attract larger audiences. [JG]