Marshall Reflects on Success of her Pulitzer Prize-Winning Biography

On the afternoon of April 14, Megan Marshall was at her desk, working on the first chapter of a short biography of Elizabeth Bishop for the Amazon Icons series, when the phone rang. It was a call from Deanne Urmy, her editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Marshall’s Margaret Fuller: A New American Life had been selected for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for biography.

“I thought at first she must be kidding, but why would you joke about something like that?” Marshall told TBC. “My sister happened to text me a few minutes later, unaware of the award, to say that 4/14/14 was a lucky day, numerologically. She was right!”

When it reviewed the book, Publishers Weekly traced the book’s success “from the way that Marshall allows the reader to understand and empathize with Fuller in her plight.” That understanding and empathy may have grown out a deeply personal aspect of Marshall’s work. “I was going through a difficult time myself while writing the book, restarting my life after a painful divorce,” she said.

“Fuller’s bravery in times of need, her resourcefulness in using her creativity and ingenuity to establish herself in her profession while also caring for her family—first her six younger siblings, then a husband and young child—provided a stirring example. Perhaps the emotion of that period in my life carried over to the spirit of the book itself.”

Marshall also infused her manuscript with what she called a “writerly” approach. “I set the goal of writing a biography that read as much as possible like a novel without departing from fact. Fortunately, Fuller’s letters and journals allowed me to recreate scenes and conversations without making anything up.”

Reviewers noted Marshall’s judicious quoting of Fuller’s letters. Selecting what to use and what not use when pawing through stacks of letters is one of the quintessential problems that confront biographers. TBC asked Marshall how she approached the task.

“I settled on a rule while writing The Peabody Sisters: never quote even as much as a full sentence,” she said. “Don’t let the subject’s voice take over. No block quotes! My eyes glaze over when I get to block quotations when I’m reading. I didn’t want to do that to my readers.

But in Margaret Fuller Marshall found she occasionally had to quote whole stanzas of poems that Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, indirectly, to each other—but, she added, never the entire poem.

“I think this rule may have come out of my early work as a journalist. You want to keep the flow of the piece going, the quotations provide spice and serve as anchors in truth, but the writer has to tell the story herself. Certainly my experience in magazine journalism gave me a sense of the telling quotation to pull from an interview. Writing a biography isn’t so different, at least in this.”

But working on Fuller presented some major challenges. “There were several potential trouble spots, or opportunities, that I both looked forward to and dreaded while writing,” Marshall said. They ranged from Fuller’s relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson to her love affair with Giovanni Ossoli in Rome during the Italian uprising of 1848-49. Marshall also faced dealing with the shipwreck at the end. “I won’t give anything away, but as I looked ahead to writing that final chapter, I began to form a plan, and I think that worked well too.”