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.

Kate Buford: You have edited a provocatively diverse array of nonfiction and fiction books, including biographers from George Plimpton to Robert Massie to Antonia Fraser. Looking back, do you see any common thread? Particularly when you got to the stage when you could pick and choose which projects to take on, what determined your choices?

Robert Gottlieb: With biographers, it’s always a matter of admiring the writer and being interested in the subject… although in the hands of a good biographer, all subjects turn out to be interesting. With Antonia Fraser, I had read and very much liked her Mary, Queen of Scots, despite a lifelong dislike of Mary herself. I would have published Antonia on anybody or anything. She, of course, chose most of her subjects, but one day in my office, she mournfully mentioned that she needed a subject for her next book. I heard myself saying, “The wives of Henry the Eighth.” She jumped on it. Antonia and I had a perfect professional and personal relationship—we just trusted each other from the first moment we met, and still do, though it’s years since we’ve worked together.

The same is true of her brilliantly gifted daughter, Flora Fraser, all of whose biographies I’ve edited; the latest, on the marriage of George and Martha Washington, will be out fairly soon. It was Flora, whose previous books were all about English figures, who came up with that very stimulating idea. On the other hand, after her first book on Emma Hamilton (Beloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton) was off and running, I said to her one day, “What about a book on the trial of Queen Caroline?” (The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline) “Absolutely,” she said. “Great idea.” Later, she confessed she wasn’t really clear about the Queen or the trial. (Neither was I—that’s why I wanted to read about them.) Like her mother (and her grandmother Elizabeth Longford, with whom I also worked), Flora is an indefatigable worker, and chapters flash back and forth between us. Then comes the fun of illustrations!

Bob Caro had already completed the first draft of The Power Broker when we met. I had no interest whatsoever in Robert Moses—until I started reading. By the time I’d read the first chapter, I had a consuming interest—in him and in Caro. After The Power Broker had triumphed, Bob was thinking of writing about Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, a revered name in my parents’ home while I was growing up in New York. I told him that much as I liked Laguardia, I felt that he was an isolated phenomenon that went nowhere, and that since I believed Bob’s deepest interests lay in the accumulation and use of power, he might want to consider Lyndon Johnson. “But I’ve always wanted to write about Johnson,” he said; “It would take three volumes and twenty years, though, and who’s going to make it financially possible?” “That’s up to Lynn [Nesbit, his agent] and me. We’ll figure it out.” Three volumes and twenty years? Yes, Bob. But this incident points to a large problem for most biographers: A serious book requires two, three, four, five years of research and writing, and yet most biographies sell quite modestly. The writer needs financial support; the publisher can’t afford what it takes. Only the most popular biographer, or someone like myself who doesn’t write for a living, can blithely set out on a major project.

The notion that as a successful editor I could pick and choose among writers and subjects just makes me laugh. It’s always a struggle to attract good writers, and to keep them. It’s not often that an Antonia Fraser or a Barbara Tuchman chooses to switch to you. I’m happier when there’s continuity with a writer. After Carolyn Burke had published her excellent book on Mina Loy (Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy) she came to me with the idea of writing about Lee Miller (Lee Miller: A Life). We hit it off perfectly, and she went on to tackle Edith Piaf (No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf), a very different kind of subject, which she handled superbly, and now to a group of early 20th-century artists and photographers. I’ve learned to follow wherever she points, because I know she’ll do a thorough and persuasive job. In other words, I’m generally more interested in a writer than a subject.

KB: You are a biographer yourself and have said that, for you, the “research is the payoff” and the writing is, well, drudgery. Has that been true of all your biographies, or can you elaborate on one that was particularly difficult to write and why?

RG: Writing about George Balanchine (George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker) was both easier and harder. Easier because I knew him and worked with him, and knew just everyone else who was still around, so that access to sources was uncomplicated. (Only one person refused to be interviewed, since he wanted to hold on to every memory in case he wrote his own book.) Also, the arc of Balanchine’s life and career were already very clear to me, and of course I knew his work very well. It was harder because of the pressure I felt to get him right, given my reverence for his genius. I felt a stronger sense of personal responsibility, and was correspondingly more nervous about what the Balanchine people would make of my efforts than I was in regard to the Charles Dickens (Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens) and Sarah Bernhard experts (Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt), who were devoted to their subjects professionally but not personally.

With Bernhardt and Dickens (and his children), I was just as absorbed, but of course I had no direct impressions of them, and there was no direct testimony to be taken, so my admiration for them was far less personal. It’s a different matter when all the sources are secondary. But, as I assume most biographers feel, the longer I spent with each subject, the more personal he or she became to me. By the time I was finished with each book, I felt closer to my subjects than I had to begin with, and thought I understood them on a deeper level—that the pursuit of the data had yielded new insights, and more sympathy. Certainly, I ended up identifying with both Dickens the father and his sons and daughters, who both loved and feared him. The Dickens book also gave me the satisfaction of knowing that I was looking at this complicated genius in a particular way that hadn’t been attempted before.

KB: You have said that biography poses a particular kind of problem: like a novel, it is telling a story, but unlike a novel, the story must be completely connected to hard data, to research, to facts. Can you give us an example of a biography that pulled off that combination particularly well, in your opinion, either one of your own or someone else’s?

RG: All good biographies pull it off, otherwise they’re not good. More academic biographies tend to be longer, more detailed, more absorbed in digesting the latest research on their subjects—that’s why we read them, to get the fullest possible life of someone we’re already interested in. Biographies intended for the general reader have to pull the reader into an interesting life, and not assume that every detail is of interest—although, of course, it’s the choice of detail that brings a subject to life. A first-rate popular biography leaves readers feeling they know everything they need to know. A first-rate academic biography leaves readers feeling they know everything there is to know.

KB: You have said that “the editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one.” Especially for the new biographers in BIO, for whom this is a key concern, could you explain how that actually works out in practice?

RG: It means helping the author fulfill his or her intentions, not imposing your own ideas. Of course editors may have their own notions about a subject, but they’re there to supplement, not contradict. What can help a biographer, I think, is the editor’s curiosity about the subject, leading to questions that may prompt useful paths for the author to explore. It’s all too easy when writing on a subject about which you’re obsessive to forget that the reader may need more grounding —that you have to gently set the stage. On the other hand, it’s easy for an obsessive writer to be swept away by every detail, particularly when he comes upon a fact that is new; the temptation to deploy it, even if it really doesn’t really add anything to the overall picture, is almost irresistible. A triumph of research doesn’t always lead to a triumph of narration, and a tactful editor often has to rein in research just as occasionally he has to spur it on.

KB: If you had to choose your two (or more) favorite biographies ever—perhaps not by one of your authors, so that no one is offended—which would they be and why?

RG: I’ve read too many biographies of too many kinds to have a favorite or favorites. Certain subjects, though, are always compelling—the Brontës, Dr. Johnson, Byron, the first Queen Elizabeth—because their stories are astonishing and their lives were of such consequence. The biography I’m most in need of is a great one about FDR.

KB: In your Paris Review piece on editing, you said, “The first thing writers want—and this sounds so basic, but you’d be surprised how unbasic it is in the publishing world—is a quick response…. It’s cruelty to animals to keep them waiting.” May we say, for all of BIO, that we are nominating (if that’s the right word) you to Pope Francis for sainthood for that statement alone?

RG: Thank you. I accept the halo in the spirit in which it’s offered.