Pulitzer-prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff (pictured, via) has written about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (French aviator), Vera Nabokov (wife/muse to Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov), Benjamin Franklin (American diplomat/inventor), and most recently, Cleopatra VII (the last queen/pharoah of Egypt).
We caught up with Schiff to learn more about what it takes to write biographies.
Q: How does a biographer arrive at a subject to write about?
A: There are all kinds of explanations for a phenomenon that I find fundamentally inexplicable — like marriage. Biographies have been written on dares, as escapes, for money, out of transference. Your subject’s issues are your issues — or you hope to make them so. The explanation that rings truest with me is that you pick the subject that takes you where you want to go (and where you hope your reader might also want to go).
In the end somebody gets under your skin. You find yourself looking at his or her world with new curiosity. A kind of obsession takes hold, and the next thing you know you’re reading his favorite novels, mixing his favorite drinks, wearing her perfume.
Q: You’ve said in talks that you want to like your biography subjects; do you like Cleopatra?
A: It’s impossible to ‘like’ Cleopatra because you can’t get close enough. I’m not convinced you can with many sovereigns or politicians in history. I lived in fear of Cleopatra at times, in awe of her occasionally, in admiration always. (Which is rare; there’s usually a period of disillusionment with one’s subject, brought on either by his misdeeds or the biographer’s fatigue.) Cleopatra’s ingenuity, her single-mindedness, her political acuity are stunning.
Q: If you had to pinpoint one new thing you learned about her that was the most interesting, what would that be?
A: Most interesting are, I think, the extent of our misconceptions, and the extent of Cleopatra’s wealth. The fortune was astronomical, which goes a long way as well toward explaining her charms to a profligate Roman.
Q: Right now, there are several excavation efforts in Taposiris Magna where the ultimate goal is to discover the mummies of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony; would any information they uncover invoke a desire to go back to your book in any way and update it?
A: Taposiris may prove to be the final resting place of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. It’s unclear however if the Ptolemies subscribed to Greek or Egyptian burial rites, and if they were embalmed or cremated. If the former, and if we actually find a tomb, we may come away with a few clues as to Cleopatra’s looks if not necessarily to the circumstances of her death. Yes, you always want to incorporate new material; this would have to change her story in some crucial way, however. We’re unlikely to find a curled-up asp at her side. I did a new afterword for Saint-Exupery after his aircraft was found in 2000 — he had not disappeared into thin air after all! — but while the relics help, they don’t necessarily illuminate the life. In a way the discoveries undermine the mystique. We love enduring mysteries, so the legend takes a hit.
Q: Can you give an estimation as to how much time a biography requires? Can you break down how long you spend on the research process and then the actual writing?
A: I seem to need 4 to 5 years for each book. And I work inefficiently, which is to say that I do the bulk of my research — interviews, reading, archival work — before I contemplate putting words on the page. Only then do the themes and repetitions and contradictions emerge; only then do I begin to see the shape of the book. As research is much easier than writing, I naturally put off that moment as long as is humanly possible. Generally I probably give 3 or so years to the research, l8 months to 2 years to the writing, with some overlap. I’m by no means entirely out of the library once I’ve started writing; often when you realize where you’re going, you realize you left stones unturned. In the case of Cleopatra I turned back, for example, to read far and wide on the Roman historians and on Herod. Sometimes a first line comes to me early on, as well as a chapter title or two, but that’s about it.
Q: So much of your time is spent researching primary sources and historical documents; how much of a grain of salt do you carry with you as pour over these materials, especially when you encounter letters or diary entries which are subject to the biases of human memory?
A: A biographer should be skeptical by nature — perhaps nowhere more so than in interviews. But documents mislead and mangle too; the US intelligence reports on Saint-Exupery’s wartime activities in NYC are hilarious in their misapprehensions. Nearly all of the documents of the French foreign ministry written about the American Revolution were composed to mislead one party or another. The holy grail is the diary written not for posterity, but that its author never expected anyone to read. Vera Nabokov left a few pages that belong in that category; she began a notebook on Lolita’s triumph. Slowly more and more of Mrs. Nabokov crept into her pages. Joan Didion points out that her notebook entries consist of ‘what some would call lies’; ‘I always had trouble,’ she writes in On Keeping a Notebook, ‘distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened.’ What you’re in search of, as the biographer, is ‘that bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast,’ as Yeats had it. It’s what we’d all prefer to forget about ourselves, the anti-Kodak moment.
Q: You’ve said in talks that biography is a like ‘gossip with footnotes’; can you elaborate more about what readers of the genre should expect?
A: I like to think that a great biography illuminates a slice of history through an individual temperament and at the same time does something of the reverse. You really want the life and times; even with a Twain or a Wilde the voice alone wouldn’t justify the volume. That Vladimir Nabokov should wind up as a master stylist of the English language is wildly improbable. Historical events play as great a role in that story as does artistic genius.
Q: What advice can you offer for biography writers?
A: Leave a great deal on the cutting room floor. (Lytton Strachey talks about lowering the little biographer’s bucket into the great ocean of material. Allow a lot to slop over the edge.) Talk to everyone who knew your subject in any context. Keep your subject front and center — and in trouble whenever possible. We want always to know what he’s thinking. It will take a year longer than you think. And people really will forgive you if you misdate your checks — with the wrong century.
Q: What’s next for you in terms of writing projects? Is there anybody in particular on your biography wishlist?
A: With Cleopatra I wanted to do something very different formally speaking; I had no model this time around, as I have always had in the past. (Alan Judd‘s Ford Madox Ford; Justin Kaplan‘s Mr Clemens & Mark Twain; James Mellow‘s Charmed Circle; Richard Ellman‘s Oscar Wilde have variously served that purpose). I fear I might want to do so again, rather than to write another traditional biography. Please stop me now.