Blake Bailey is an award-winning biographer, penning books on Richard Yates, John Cheever and, in the future, Philip Roth. His newest book is Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and LIterary Dreams of Charles Jackson and it's just as compelling as his others. Pay attention, because when an award winner has advice, we should all listen.
Starting out, I'd wanted to write fiction, and my friend Michael Ruhlman insists that he said to me--when we were young apartment mates in New York, writing fiction with the same singular lack of success--that I would end up a literary biographer. And lo, it came to pass. For his part, Michael became a food writer. Granted, we consider ourselves a good biographer and food writer respectively, but still: Mike said it was like the actor who wants to be the next Olivier and ends up as Wayne Rogers playing Trapper John on MASH.
Be that as it may. Book-length nonfiction is what I do, and my advice is necessarily tailored to writers who want to do pretty much the same thing.
1. Write about things that really interest you. Notwithstanding what my pal Mike claims was his spooky prescience, I never dreamed I'd be a literary biographer. I'm not an academic; I'm just a bookish Joe who gets passionate about certain writers and suddenly wants to read everything they've ever written and find out why they wrote it. Which brings me to how this miracle came to pass. "Blake, fiction isn't working out for you," my would-be literary agent told me several years ago. "All your success"--such as it was--"has been with nonfiction. Look: write me a nonfiction book proposal about something that really interests you right now, and I'll try to sell it." As it happened, I was really interested right then in Richard Yates: he'd written two of the best novels of the postwar era, Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade, one of the best story collections, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, and he was all but totally forgotten. Then, too, his life had been a fascinating train-wreck: ghastly childhood! alcoholic! bipolar! sole speechwriter for RFK at the height of the Civil Rights Movement! the subject of a hilarious Seinfeld episode! So I put it all into my book proposal and, miraculously, my agent sold it to a good publisher--with this catch: I had all of 14 months to finish my (vast) research and write a 500-page biography. The published result, A Tragic Honesty, was 613 pages not including notes and index. I'd worked on it almost every waking hour; my wife only saw me at meals, and sometimes not even then. But it was thrilling labor. Emerson said, "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm." He was right. Pick a subject that bores you and you'll write a boring book (if you manage to finish at all); but if you're fascinated with your material you'll have a ball and just maybe write a book that conveys that excitement to the reader.
2. Be quiet and listen. Maybe the nicest compliment I ever got was from the splendid Chip McGrath, who wrote: "Bailey is in some ways an unlikely biographer. He’s capable of spending hours in the library, days on end, but he’s also lively and sociable. He laughs easily, likes to tell jokes and do impressions." All very true--I am sociable; I am a recluse. I think you need to be an almost ideal combination of the two to be a writer of book-length nonfiction--at least nonfiction about more or less contemporary subjects that entails interviewing live people. It's not for the morbidly shy. You have to cold-call a lot of perfect strangers, and in some cases get them to tell you their gnarliest secrets. When I talk, say, to the widow of my biographical subject, I don't want to know how he liked his vegetables prepared--well, I do, but I also want to know what it was like (in the case of John Cheever's widow) to live with a man who started sneaking gin at 9:30 in the morning and had a pretty sharp tongue even when sober. Why should she tell me these things? I'm going to broadcast it to the world! Here's why: because it's all part of the essentially noble project of seeing a great artist in the round, a fully fleshed human being--and besides my heart goes out to her. I understand, more or less, what she went through. I sympathize. And I'll listen for however long she's willing to talk. The fact is, most of us don't have that many people who are willing to listen to all our sad stories, and when someone comes along who wants nothing better, people often seize the opportunity and talk. So, when interviewing: don't just tick off a laundry list of questions; let the person talk, be quiet and listen, and respond to what she's saying. You'll be amazed what you learn.
3. Action is character. This is what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his notes while working on his final novel, The Last Tycoon, and he wrote it in caps: ACTION IS CHARACTER. If one of our greatest narrative writers had to remind himself of that right up to the end, it must be pretty important. It is. Human beings are far too complex to explain away in so many words: imperious; timid; pompous; vain; bombastic--and so on. "Imperious"? "Bombastic"? What do those words mean exactly? In Lillian Ross's note-perfect profile of Hemingway, she shows us the great man in a narrow elevator at Abercrombie & Fitch. Aware that a woman is giving him the stink eye, he suddenly erupts: "FOR CHRIST'S SAKE!" Just that: no elaboration on Ross's part; only what happened. (The woman looked at the elevator floor after that.) So was Hemingway a "bombastic" man? Well, yes, sometimes, but consider all the other implicit nuances of his behavior: sick of his own fame; moderately aware, too, maybe, that the woman isn't staring at him because he's Hemingway but rather because he's a big sweaty guy with a three-day beard who stinks of booze and just stinks period (fun fact: he rarely bathed); and finally a man who was getting rather tired of living in general. Let us see and hear how your characters behave, and let us (for the most part) draw our own conclusions. It's more fun that way, and it does more justice to the paradox of human nature.
4. Be prepared. If you're Faulkner, it's okay to fill a glass with bourbon and branch water and get slowly potted while you (or your genius or daemon or what you will) channels the deathless prose of Absalom, Absalom! But most of us aren't Faulkner. Still, fiction writers can get away with a certain amount of spontaneity in their writing; indeed, half the fun (and agony) of fiction writing is finding out what exactly your story or novel is as you write it. ("Now let's see," thought Cheever, as he sat down to write his greatest story. "The guy likes to swim in other people's pools, so one day he decides he's going to swim all the way across the county from pool to pool . . . ") Nonfiction writers don't really have that luxury, and biographers certainly don't: you have to do your research, and then find your structure (important), and then put all those quotes and factoids in their proper order. When a biographer's research is done, his computer is ready to explode with undifferentiated data. This, frankly, is the part I like best: putting it in order. What's my structure? Is it chronological, thematic, a little of both? (The last.) I find a nice place to lie down with a legal pad, and, looking at nothing but the pad, I write down all the main episodes of my subject's life; if I can't think of something offhand, it can't be all that important. Then I type this up, and cut and paste it into a viable structure. Then, using only that bare bones outline, I begin to plug in my research and the outline waxes and waxes in complexity, and I see themes and sub-themes and sub-sub-themes develop, all the while revising (and revising and revising) the structure, until finally--maybe a year or two later--my notes have been trimmed down to six or seven hundred single-spaced pages in meticulous order. At last I'm ready to write, and I rarely get stuck: It's all laid out in front of me.
5. If possible, be funny. Take Lytton Strachey, author of the great Eminent Victorians. He saw the world as if from a great height: with detachment, a little sadness, and a lot of humor. Read the page where one of his four Victorians, Thomas Arnold, dies. I've read it a thousand times; it's one of my favorite pages of prose. Nothing fancy: Dr. Arnold, in agony from an attack of angina, asks his distraught wife to read the Prayer Book to him. "Yes!" he barks here and there. At some point he asks his puzzled son to thank God for giving him the pain. (See: Action is character.) And then quite suddenly (for Strachey was nothing if not laconic), Dr. Arnold "passe[s] from his perplexities for ever." I always chuckle, I'm not sure why. Not because I rejoice in Arnold's death; but rather because I see his absurdity, and my own, and forgive us both. Somehow the whole human condition is there: very sad, but seen in perspective, pretty ridiculous too.