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).

“I’m not in any sense trying to attenuate what happened. The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia was absolutely ghastly. I can’t think of anywhere—not even North Korea—which was worse…. But it was not a genocide—and to speak of genocide, as many American academics and jurists do… is to trade on the appalling suffering of those who died without being honest about its specificity.
“The first duty of a biographer or historian is to call things by their right names. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge created the first (and only) slave state of modern times. It was done—naturally enough—with the best of motives: to establish an egalitarian heaven-on-earth. And it was hell-on-earth. It was uniquely awful.  And it’s crucial, if you are writing about events of extraordinary horror, to establish why they were unique and why they happened as they did. I confess I am exercised by sloppy writing and sloppy thinking about atrocities. One has a debt to the victims to tell it as it is….”
Working with foreign sources can be a challenge for a biographers not fluent in their subject’s native language. For Pol Pot, Short said, he advertised for a Khmer translator in the Phnom Penh Post. For Vietnamese texts, he found a student from Hanoi at a university in France. With Mao, Short encountered a flood of information that appeared for the first time during the two decades after the leader’s death. He used a number of Chinese translators, then began the process of choosing what to include and what to leave out.
Turning to college students as translators has been useful and satisfying, Short said. “My experience is that, for a student, to help research a book is often an exciting window onto a new world, and if you really cooperate and work together, it can be very rewarding for both sides.”
Having worked extensively as both a journalist and a scholar, and having won praise for balancing the concerns of each field in his work, what distinction does Short see between the two? There is the obvious one of producing information for immediate consumption versus taking years to write a book. But there is also a question of distance: journalists must be close to their topics, while biographers should strive for some distance.
Some biographers, though, are too distant. Short is not fond of biographies of world leaders written by academics. He said, “Academics generally prefer dealing with themes—which can be connected to concepts and theories—rather than the messy way in which human beings—whether political leaders or anyone else—conduct their lives. There are honorable exceptions… but on the whole, academic biographies tend to be weak on the texture of life, the cussed (and inconveniently eccentric) humanity of their protagonists.”
Creating the texture of life, for Short, is crucial for the biographer. “My own view of biography is that it should read like a novel, with the pace and drama and unexpected twists and turns that a good novel contains, butand the but needs to be underlined three times—every line must be demonstrably true, grounded in archival, documentary or interview sources.
“I abhor so-called ‘faction,’ in which the writer pretends to know what is going through his subject’s mind. If he’s making that up, why should the reader believe anything else he says? To me, biography is exactly what it says: graphos (a picture or story) of bios (a life). It relies on journalism—contemporary newspapers tell us what people knew at the time, the concerns of the day, the color and context; on scholarship—the ability to stand back and reflect; and on academic analysis to provide a wider view. All three play their part. But in the final analysis, biography is a writer’s craft.”
Reflecting on his own work and his writerly aspirations, Short said, “Of all the reviews I have had, the one which pleased me most was in the highbrow French daily, Le Monde, which, commenting on my book on Mao, wrote, with an air of incredulity: ‘Mais c’est de la littérature!’ (‘But this is literature!’) Yes, that is what it is supposed to be. It doesn’t often work out that way, but just occasionally, we get lucky.”
Time will tell if luck—and, of course, skill—lead to more high praise for Short’s upcoming biography of Vladimir Putin. Short said, “I find him by far the most interesting world leader operating today—very different from most of his peers and, above all, profoundly Russian.
“As recent events have shown, Russia is a country, straddling Europe and Asia, of which the West in general and America in particular have tragically little understanding…. It’s not a bad moment to look at the story of the Russian leader and at the problems (many of them of our own making) of which he has become the symbol—problems that the US administration has no idea how to deal with and that promise to remain with us for a very long time to come. But don’t hold your breath. Like my previous books, it will take five or six years to see the light of day.”