The Biographer's Craft

The Biographer's Craft

Writers discuss the art of capturing lives with words

By Frank Bures | Photos by Dave Curd

A few years ago Gregory White Smith '71 was looking around for a new book project. Smith had seen tremendous success with the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, which he wrote with Steven Naifeh.

In the early planning stages of a book about Vincent Van Gogh, Smith and Naifeh checked out possible sources listed in the Encyclopedia Britannica. "At the end of the article there's a little section called bibliography," Smith said, "and the first sentence of the bibliography was, 'There is no definitive biography of Vincent Van Gogh.' Even with six thousand books written on him."

For biographers, that statement was, in Smith's words, "red meat."

The authors are now five years into their Van Gogh project, which is to be published by Random House in 2009. It's a monumental task, especially given the standard that the best biographers set for themselves: to go far beyond a recitation of facts or a rehashing of what is already known. Smith says one can make a strong case that biography is "the highest form of nonfiction."
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