Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A. Scott Berg's advice for biographers and all writers

The author, A. Scott Berg, of the Charles Lindberg biography, published in 1999, believes the biography is perhaps the most difficult form of writing. It took him 12 and a half years to write this one book.

He had mountains of notes. But after taking a year to sort through what he had amassed, he realized that most everything fit neatly into several slots and wasn’t as unmanageable as first thought.

Then, Berg said he began writing. And when he wrote his first rough draft he included everything. EVERYTHING. This, he referred to as the ‘clay’ with which he would mold the final book. But, note that he didn’t say this was anywhere near the finished product.

His first rough draft was the material from which he would eventually sculpt the biography that would appear on the New York Times bestseller list.

Berg takes his research seriously and doesn’t just look at his subject, but the world and times in which his subject lives. I think this is an important distinction between a best seller and a good book. This, in my mind, refers back to yesterday’s blog about ‘depth.’

When researching, he gets acquainted with the events and news of the day. “I think there’s so much to be learned for a biographer by reading the newspapers of the day. On each of my books I spend days, weeks at a time, reading old New York Times's, from the days things were going on. I mean obviously the day Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris and he filled the entire front section of The New York Times, there was a lot to be gained. But what about the days before that, and the days after that? What were the advertisements like? I read the real estate sections: what did an apartment, a penthouse in Manhattan cost then? What did it cost to buy a chicken for dinner? What were the other news stories going on? What was the world like in which my hero, my character walked? And I think that’s the most crucial thing we as biographers can do.”

Even if your novel is set in current times, a writer must know the landscape far beyond the little house in which her characters live. The author must understand the climate (not just the weather) and the events that shape attitudes and politics and economics and beliefs. “Just as important as getting the history right, is getting the drama right,” Berg said.

I particularly like this last bit of advice from Mr. Berg: “And I think it behooves the biographer to tell his tale as compellingly as the novelist does. Basically we are all storytellers, whether we are fiction writers or non-fiction writers or poets, we are there to tell a story. And I think that involves having prose that is highly readable and I think pulling the story along a lot of the time.”

And in case you aren't familiar with Mr. Berg, he wrote the biography of Kate Hepburn, simply titled "Kate Remembered." As for that Lindberg biography, titled what else "Lindberg." -- Berg won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for a distinguished biography or autobiography by an American author. The award came with immeasurable acclaim as well as $5,000. 

1 comment:

thevoice said...

I agree with this post and find biographies to be most intriguing. I love writing fiction and research and try to combine them in my writings.