Author of more than 40 nonfiction books for young people, Catherine Reef is known for her illuminating biographies, which some critics have noted as being as engrossing as novels. Recently, though, Reef, whose newest book is Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse (Clarion), spoke with PW from her home in College Park, Md., about why she doesn’t try to write biographies like novels, about setting new challenges for herself with each book, and about what she hopes readers learn from her books.
How did you come to start writing biographies?
I started by writing nonfiction for young people, mostly in the field of social studies and history – these books were focused on events, but I was always most interested in the people, in telling their stories. So my nonfiction books always focused on the people involved. I wrote my first biography on Albert Einstein, for very young readers. That was back in 1991.
How do you choose your subjects?
First, I look for a good story to tell. And I think that the subjects I choose have some characteristics in common. Many of them are creative people, working in the arts. Many of them achieve their goals only after hard struggles. For example, Florence Nightingale had to go against her family and social norms to pursue the life she felt called to live. Noah Webster (Noah Webster: Many of Many Words) worked doggedly at his dictionaries and other writings while enduring nearly constant financial worries. Freud (Sigmund Freud: Pioneer of the Mind) pursued his theories in the face of ridicule and disbelief. And the Bronté sisters (The Bronté Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) also battled social expectations – as well as illness, which claimed them all too soon.
When I’m ready to do a new book, I might think about writers I liked when I was a young person, like e.e. cummings or John Steinbeck. I chose Florence Nightingale, the subject of my latest book, because I had written about the Bronté sisters and wanted to return to that era. When I started reading about Florence Nightingale, I found there were many fine biographies available for younger readers. Most focused, probably rightly, on her major accomplishments during the Crimean War – she brought order, cleanliness and better outcomes to the British military hospitals. She also established nursing as a respectable profession for women.
But there was so much more to her life! When I looked deeper into her story, I saw that there was so much that would appeal to teens – especially the enormous effort she made to live life on her own terms. I think young people so often feel misunderstood by, and at odds with, their families and society just as Nightingale did. I think they frequently believe – again, like Nightingale – that they are destined to live an extraordinary life. So I thought they would understand, and relate to, her. She also had trouble getting along with her sister, which is typical of siblings. And, of course, she went on after the Crimean War to work to improve health for the men of her nation’s armed forces, and all Britons.
You noted that you often write about people working in the arts – writers, musicians, even visual artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life). What draws you to creative people?
I’m very interested in the creative process and I have a strong interest in the arts in general. But then, I would include even subjects such as Noah Webster and Sigmund Freud in the writer category. You know, John Irving called Freud “a novelist with a scientific background.”
When I write about writers like the Brontés or Jane Austen (Jane Austen: A Life Revealed), I try to give my readers a strong background from which they can further explore on their own, not just take my opinion to heart. For example, in the book about Austen, I included Mark Twain’s comment – and I wish I could remember it exactly because he said it in such a Twain way – but basically he said that he didn’t like her work. I thought it was important to include that point of view.
When I was a child I wanted to be a teacher. There were a lot of teachers in my family. I never became a classroom teacher, but I think that, in a way, I actually have become a teacher through my writing. I try to present awareness and appreciation of a person’s life in my books.
Your biographies reflect a tremendous amount of research. How do you approach your research?
I start by reading secondary sources to get the overall shape of the story. Then I delve into the primary materials to get the details. The research is ongoing throughout the entire process, all the way through the editing stage, all the way, really, until we can’t make any changes at all.
Do you do all your primary research and then begin writing, or do you do the primary research section by section? Research, write, research, write, etc.?
You make me sound much more organized than I am! Each book is a little different, but generally I do a lot of primary research before I even outline so I can understand the whole story.
So you do it even before you propose the book idea?
My editor, Jennifer Greene, and I have worked together for a long time. We’ve enjoyed a long productive working relationship, which I value highly. When it’s time to plan for a new project, we toss ideas back and forth, talking about who or what might be a viable subject. When we find one we both like, I prepare a proposal that consists of an outline, sample chapter and letter describing the book as I envision it. Of course, before I do this, I have to do the necessary background research to be able to put together the proposal – and to decide if I want to spend a lot of time with this person.
You’ve written more than 40 books. Has your research/writing process changed over those 40+ books?
I don’t even know the exact number! The only thing I can tell you is that it’s gotten harder. My standards for myself get higher with each book. I think about Japanese craftspeople who spend a lifetime mastering and improving their craft. I like to think of myself in that way—that I am always trying to improve my craft. Earlier in my career, for example, if I encountered controversial or ambiguous issues, I might have tried to avoid them. These days I’m ready to tackle anything. I hope I grow with each book.
There’s also a tremendous amount of history in all of your books. Your Noah Webster book is also a history of the formation of our country. How do you decide how much history to incorporate into a biography?
I have to think about who my audience is – what do my readers need to know to understand the person’s story? Webster was so influential in the formation of our country that I had to write a lot of that history. I’m very lucky to live near Washington, D.C. and the Library of Congress, so I go there about once a week to do primary research. It’s an incredible resource. I remember when I was working on one of my early books – the Walt Whitman book that came out in 1995 (Walt Whitman), I went to the Library of Congress and asked for a number of photographs. I just couldn’t believe it when they handed me this box with photos that he had inscribed – it was thrilling!
You seem to be producing a book every year. How long does each book take?
I work very hard! I spend roughly two years on a book, though Frida & Diego took longer. I often have two things going on at once – putting the finishing touches on one book and starting to work on another one. At the very least, I’m always thinking about the next idea. I think anybody who enjoys their work is always thinking about new ideas.
What are the challenges of focusing on more than one life in a biography, such as the three Bronté sisters or Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera? How do you determine the balance between how much you tell of each person’s individual life beyond their own relationship?
I’m not sure I can quantify it. It’s a complicated process, a balancing act. I would say that a novelist employs a similar process – considering the story I’m telling, the people who play roles in it, when it makes sense in the narrative to introduce them and what and how much to say about them. Each story requires its own narrative structure. And as I said before, with each book I write I want a challenge, something that forces me to grow as a writer. When I have to write about more than one person, that’s a challenge.
In those books, do you write a lot more about each person than you actually end up using? Do you write a lot and then cut material if the book seems unbalanced?
No, I do a lot in my head before I write.
You’ve referred a couple of times now to comparisons between novelists and biographers. Do you try to tell your subject’s story as though it were a novel?
I think novelists and writers of narrative nonfiction share a number of concerns, such as creating a setting, constructing a logical story line, developing well-rounded, believable characters – which is especially important, of course, in biography! – and producing an aesthetically pleasing work of literature. Today we tend to value fiction as more “creative’” or literary than nonfiction, but this hasn’t always been so. For a long time, poetry was considered the highest form of literary art, and novel reading was frowned upon. And let’s not forget that some of the finest prose in the English language comes from the nonfiction tradition. Think of Thoreau’s Walden, Hershey’s Hiroshima, or Carson’s The Sea Around Us. We can even go back to 1621 and the publication of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy to find an outstanding nonfiction work. So, no, I don’t try to write nonfiction books that are like novels. I aim to produce well-crafted books of English prose.
Your early book on Walt Whitman includes many fascinating quotations from Whitman and many others, but no attributions in the back matter. Your later books, however, do include the attributions for direct quotes. When and why did you begin to include the attributions?
That’s the difference between 1995 and today! Nonfiction for young people has become much more scholarly. Little by little, we began to document everything. Biographies for young people have changed a lot since my childhood. Back then they included fictionalized scenes and dialogue – today we wouldn’t dream of doing that. I’ve never included anything fictionalized in any of my books.
Can you talk about your process of selecting the images? Some are obvious to include, of course, but what about the many images that are not of the subject per se? How and when do you make the selections of those?
I keep the images in mind as I’m writing the book. If I see something I think might be good, I photocopy it and file it. I keep a lot of file folders with images. I like to enhance the book with images that enlarge the history being presented. I think biographers, like novelists, have to create a setting, present the time the person lives in, and photos make the story more vivid. I submit all the photos and then while the book is in production, my editor might have ideas for some more.
Do you have a favorite among your biographies?
Usually whatever I’m working on at the moment! But I will say that working on the e.e. cummings book (e.e. cummings: A Poet’s Life) especially enriched my life and stayed with me because it was such a joy to spend so much time with his poetry. He, and Steinbeck (John Steinbeck), as well, are two writers who never grew up entirely; they remained rebellious and I think young people especially relate to and understand their work because of that. And then I got very fond of Noah Webster – you can’t help but like him! Even though he had a lot of quirks and difficult relationships with people, he meant well and accomplished a tremendous amount throughout his life.
What have you learned through writing about other people’s lives?
I’ve learned about human character. For example, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King – I was so impressed by their courage. These civil rights leaders put their lives at risk for a cause, which certainly offers a lesson in the potential greatness within human beings. Observing human nature, I’m always interested and surprised.
But I think a more important question might be what young readers can learn from my subjects. When I talk to schoolchildren who’ve done units on biography, I often begin by asking who they have read about. Hands go up: they respond ”J. Robert Oppenheimer,” “Harriet Tubman,” and so on. Then I ask, “Did Oppenheimer (or Tubman or whoever) live an easy life?” And the answer is always “no.” So the point is made that everyone faces challenges and one thing we can learn from a biography is how a noteworthy person responded to the ones presented to him or her. Florence Nightingale persevered regardless of the obstacles placed in her path; that’s one example. When a devastating accident thwarted Frida Kahlo’s plan to become a physician, she pursued another path – painting. That’s another. These stories linger in the reader’s mind and maybe they’re recalled at a time when he or she feels challenged.
What are you working on now?
I’m just finishing up a book on Queen Victoria, which will be out in fall 2017. Talk about human character! It’s been really fun to work on this book. It involved so many decisions as to what to focus on. You can’t tell everything about her 63-year reign. So I’m focusing on the important events of those years and how she reacted to them. Then her personal life is so interesting – she had nine children. And then, her relationships with her prime ministers are fascinating. I 0couldn’t write about all 10 of them, so I chose the ones with whom she had major relationships, the ones who were most important.
Choosing a focus is an interesting point. When you’re writing a biography, do you look for an identifying quality in a person’s life to help shape the book – to help you decide what to include and what to leave out?
Absolutely! For Hemingway (Ernest Hemingway: A Writer’s Life), for example, every chapter includes something about death because he was so drawn to death. I opened the book with him going to Spain to see a bullfight so he could witness violent death. And then, of course, he committed suicide. When I wrote about the Brontés, I opened with a scene of the family coming to the village of Haworth, which was remote and dirty. Its soil lacked nutrients for growing things, and contaminants seeped from privies into the water supply, spreading disease. Charlotte, Emily and Anne lost their mother and two siblings when they were young children. Charlotte and Emily were sent to an abusive school. So they faced life’s harshness early – and more awaited them. I wanted to convey the difficult nature of their lives right from the start, so that’s why I opened with that scene – what a life-and-death effort it was for the horses that had to pull their belongings up a steep cobbled road. In a sense, the horses and their travail symbolized the brutality of life.
And since you’re almost done with Queen Victoria, have you started something new?
Yes, my next book will be on Mary Shelley.
Did she keep a diary that you can access?
Yes, she kept journals for much of her life, some of them written together with her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Also, letters she wrote and received – as well as letters her family members and friends write and received – still survive. It wasn’t unusual in the past for people to leave written records of at least portions of their lives. Queen Victoria also kept a journal, and she wrote and received many letters, both officially and privately. Much of that material survives in archives.
But, you know, similar records exist for all my biographical subjects. When I was writing the Hemingway book, I went to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, which houses the Hemingway Collection. That’s a treasure trove of juvenilia, letters, manuscripts, photographs, even medical records. Harvard University’s Cummings Collection is similar in scope. These were invaluable resources for me. And I have to wonder – now that people write on computers and send emails instead of letters – I don’t know what biographers of the future are going to do!
Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse by Catherine Reef. Clarion, $18.99 Nov. 8 ISBN 978-0-544-53580-0