The Biographer's Craft

The Biographer's Craft

Writers discuss the art of capturing lives with words

By Frank Bures | Photos by Dave Curd


 
imageDigging around, Goudsouzian uncovered back stories for Poitier's characters that read like ridiculous racial caricatures and symbols. In the film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Poitier's character had a grandfather who was a slave but loved his owner so much that he took his name, for example.

"It's just very old-fashioned racial politics that played into it, in a way that you sort of read into it on screen, because it is a very old-fashioned portrayal of what white liberals wanted a black person to be. But just to get the concrete evidence of that is really fascinating."

The problem is that we seldom see ourselves as others do, or as the world does, or, even more rarely, as history will. "I wouldn't say I paint a negative portrayal of him," Goudsouzian said, "but it's not the image that he portrays of himself—the barrier breaker, the man of great morals and all that. Which he is. I don't dispute anything he says about himself. I just think it's more complicated than he lets on."

"I interviewed him over the telephone a number of times," Goudsouzian said. "Relatively short interviews. I didn't need that much from him, since he'd written two autobiographies, and it wasn't that much about his personal life. It was more about his life in Hollywood and the reactions to his films. But whenever I could get him on the phone he was very generous with his time and very generous with trying to answer my questions."

That changed when Poitier saw what Goudsouzian's dissertation had concluded about the actor's life. "After I wrote the dissertation, he'd asked me to send it to him. And in between dissertation and book, I was making a trip out to L.A. and I tried to arrange an interview with him, hoping the dissertation would help me get bigger access. But no dice. I could never get him on the phone again," Goudsouzian said.

Committing to paper someone's life can take a good chunk of your own. Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, winner of the 2006 Lincoln Prize for History, took a decade. No Ordinary Time, which won the Pulitzer Prize, took six years. Leonard's books take her around six years to research and write, with many 12-hour days spent along the way.

For Pollock, Smith's and Naifeh's research consisted for the most part of interviews, documented on 25,000 index cards spread out on their living room floor. But with the massive amount of material available on Van Gogh, they worked with a software developer to design a program that helps them track, organize, and outline the more than 100,000 virtual index cards they've created so far. "We work very long days," Smith said.

Alan Taylor '77, L.H.D. '97 is the author of one biographical book, William Cooper's Town, and several works of history, including a new book, The Divided Ground, which weaves in various biographical strains. For him, much time is spent trying to fill in the holes in his subjects' lives. "My research is eclectic and tries to be thorough," he said, "which usually means getting beyond published materials into handwritten documents found in archives."

Letters, diaries, travel journals, store accounts, court pro­ceedings and depositions, probate inventories—Taylor said he looks for "anything that will provide insight into the lives I hope to reconstruct."
 
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