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Biographical details

CLAIRE TOMALIN, probably Britain's best-known biographer, told London Freelance Branch's February meeting that "the most important thing if you want to write a biography is to know the story you want to tell, to have seen the story, that's what makes a biography work."

Claire Tomalin; photo © Tony Rizzo
Claire Tomalin

Biographer of, among others, Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Charles Dickens, Claire contrasted journalists who also write books (Dickens was a court reporter) with biographies written by academics - "the well-meaning PhD life writers as they call themselves now." What the "bumbling academic" who "has theories" and is "writing for other academics" hasn't learnt is what Sunday Times editor Harry Evans explained, deleting the first paragraph of one of her reviews: "That's just throat-clearing - you have to get right in there and catch your reader."

And "if you feel elated at any point in your time as a writer, " warns Claire, "you will be thrown down, and if you're thrown down you just may pick yourself up and find something happens."

Describing the genesis of her book The Invisible Woman - on actress Nelly Ternan, with whom Dickens had a long, clandestine relationship - Claire said "the history of that book, from 1953-4 to now... is such a long, long one." Claire came across references to Nelly Ternan 60 years ago while an undergraduate at Cambridge. Two essays on Dickens "mentioned this relationship with a young actress, [but] neither showed any curiosity - they contented themselves with being rather rude about her." Claire, then aged 19, thought, "that's a story that ought to be told, I put it aside in back of my head." There is, she added, "a new biography of Dickens every year," but this was one story "that needs to be told, a story about hundreds of women... the hidden women in the lives of famous men."

The fact of Dickens's relationship was obscured for "a very, very long time, "great PR people defended Dickens's reputation, indeed defended the reputation of that young woman in her subsequent life." The Invisible Woman "outraged many Dickensians... who thought his name should not be sullied." They were "scandalised by the idea he might have gone to bed with someone who wasn't his wife," despite testimony from a son and daughter of Dickens that there was an affair, there was a child and it died.

After The Invisible Woman, when she mentioned Dickens again to her publishers at Penguin, "they started counting on their fingers and said, well, 2012 is the such-and-such anniversary, and we'll have book in 2011 - I still think it isn't quite the way one ought to approach autobiography."

Biographers "mustn't get too excited about film or theatre rights... similarly with film rights." The BBC "wasted a great deal of time" after asking her to write a four-part series, "they paid absolutely nothing, they didn't do it." Much later, "the happy ending is this - about two years ago, Ralph Fiennes got interested "and the film is made, and you'll be able to see it in the autumn."

Of her transition from journalism to biographer, Claire says, "I was never a proper journalist, I was just a literary journalist - I can't tell you how condescending the men on the Sunday Times and New Statesman were - 'You just do books and art'".

One of Claire's literary pieces for NS was a two-pager on Wollstonecraft, who "She seemed just like myself... publishing, interested in politics, an ardent feminist... a rather more effective one than me, having a difficult time trying to bring up a baby as she was writing a book,". It resulted in letters from publishers. These "said, you must write a book about her." Claire's then-husband, Nick Tomlin "sat down (and asked,) should I write the book or go back to NS - we made list of pros and cons, he said I should probably write the book." After the book was published, "NS said, you must come back as literary editor... that book has been in print ever since."

LFB's own Hilary Macaskill went from freelance journalism to writing Dickens At Home - it's biographical, but travel articles are where it all started. It's also a story about how important it is to pick up the phone rather than relying on email traffic - it resulted from a single call to a publisher's PR following up the publication of a previous biography. "It's really quite important to keep in touch - in my case - with PRs and tourism departments - not a way, I have to say, of making immense sums of money, but the journalism props up the book, and vice versa."

Hilary Macaskill; photo © Tony Rizzo
Hilary Macaskill with a photo of Agatha Christie doing the decorating

Hilary some years ago with a friend (and co-author) went along the Stephenson Trail in France - the tourist route taken, and written up, by Robert Louis Stevenson - with a donkey. "We did it in several years in stages, with a donkey - there were lots of donkey themes... flora and fauna, even some recipes in there. I finished the book and I undertook to find a publisher - in 2006, Francis Lincoln agreed to publish." Then it was "downhill all the way, the book came out, had a few reviews, that was that".

Hilary's follow-up phone call to Francis Lincoln, "I said I was thinking about doing an article about Greenway, Agatha Christie's Devon home, which the National Trust was opening the following year. I'd already had written a few pieces - I'd interviewed Matthew Pritchard, Christie's grandson, on the Orient Express."

For an anniversary piece 70 years after the publication of Christie's The A.B.C. Murders, Hilary wrote about towns where the murders were set - some "didn't usually feature in travel pages, like Doncaster." Hilary was "interested in Christie's work anyway, so publishers Francis Lincoln suggested she present a book outline, and a deal was agreed. "I did get an advance but obviously not enough to give up" what she was doing already: "the English Riviera Tourist Board helped me out with the odd night in hotel", the book expanded from Agatha Christie in Devon to cover other places and other houses Christie lived in - and became Agatha Christie At Home (2009). Christie loved decorating: Hilary was pleased she came across a picture of Christie doing the decorating, which is on the book's back cover.

Then Francis Lincoln asked, "What about Daphne Du Maurier - just down the coast (from Devon)?" (Hilary's De Maurier biography's coming out in May.)

But her publisher asked, "Do you think you could write about Dickens first? It's his bicentenary soon - we've got some pictures." That became Charles Dickens At Home - "a challenge, I had six months to write it.". Hilary discovered Dickens sent letters about the latest embellishments he wanted to include in his house" in Tavistock Square, which he gutted and refurbished. "When the book came out... weirdly, I found myself contributing to "home" supplements - I briefly became an expert on interiors because I was writing about Dickens the decorator."

Tom Penn, editorial director at Penguin Books, commissions biographies. "How to get the thing out in the world? If I could sum it all up, I'd be able to retire." There's "no magic bullet, I'm afraid."

Tom Penn; photo © Tony Rizzo
Tom Penn

At the heart of the biographer's craft is "the story, or narrative," says Tom. The "story" can be a phenomenon - "we published a biography recently of the oceans, humanity's impact and degradation over the millennia - or an idea, like a book about the Higgs boson - or a book about a person".

When someone picks up a book, Tom reminds us, they ask first, "why should I care? Why should I read it? Why should I stick with it, when there are so many other things to do and so many other things to read?" A biographer has to get into mind of subject, "has to find the subject so compelling you can't push the subject away... you're the person who has to bring this person, this subject to the reader - you're the person who has to live with this subject for years, decades, as long as it takes to write."

Don't forget - especially for political or historic biography - "the individual's engagement with their world - what impression did this person leave on the world?" As well as the individual, you "also need to present their age."

Among the key elements of a biography are "research and originality", says Tom. "It's about the interpretation, whether the originality comes from interpretation or unearthing of new material - always looking for that thing that sets a book apart... this writer has made me consider this subject in a completely new light."

Do authors need to have literary agents? Tom says that "at their best, what agents do is bring to publishers books they believe publishers should be looking at." But you need an agent you can trust - "you are putting yourself in their hands, it is important you feel that relationship is rock solid."

Claire advised, "I'd get a literary agent, if possible. The one area of my life I've been promiscuous in is with literary agents - I've flitted from literary agent to another, which isn't a good idea - they're very choosy now, you sort of have to woo - but they can do wonderful things for you sometimes - like getting you a colossal advance." Tom believes "the idea that somehow one can survive by means of an advance alone or a book deal alone is largely not true - I think you do have to be doing other things as well".

With the rise of e-book self-publishing, do authors need publishers any more? Tom notes that "self-publishing is something that's been done for centuries... it's noticeable that if people have had self-publishing successes [they] will almost always go to conventional publishers afterwards." It's very rare that "people having some kind of self publishing success will choose to remain self-published."

Last modified: 02 May 2013 - © 2013 contributors
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