Heartbroken by my failure to hear biographer Stacy Schiff speak when she was in Chicago last week, I lassoed her by email to discuss one of my favorite subjects: biography.
Q: What is essential to the perfect biography subject?
A: In an ideal world, the perfect biographical subject would have been the star of his penmanship class at grade school — and would thereafter write an English that positively sings. His or her papers should be accessible though not too accessible, and within a 3-hour drive from your front door. His friends should all have photographic memories, should still be alive, and should not have spoken already to 15 previous biographers — you don't want the recycled stories. They should not be legion; you are not looking to interview every member of the 1969 NASA team. Your subject should have lived between the advent of the typewriter and that of e-mail. Ideally he would have died young: Mozart, Keats, Pocahontas. It helps tremendously if he is likeable, or at least admirable. I could go on, but you see that I have rarely wound up with a perfect subject. Saint-Exupery may have come closest. With him the timing was certainly ideal: Some of the early aviation pioneers were still alive, as were the young Americans with whom Saint-Exupery flew at the end of his life, as were the girlfriends. All were eager to talk, and many had never really done so. After him I swore the next subject would have lived his or life in a Romance language; have had a sense of humor that rivaled Saint-Exupery's; and written as fine a letter. I wound up with Vera Nabokov, who did none of those things.
For the rest, the old dramatic adage is true: Keep your hero in trouble. And I do see the perfect subject as publishers see the perfect author: dead.
Q: What drew you to Cleopatra?
A: She is smart, cunning, plucky — and wholly misunderstood. I'd been puzzling a lot over questions of women and power, women and authority (this was during the run-up to the last election); the East/West collision struck me as topical. I was ready to write a book in which lacunae were welcome, or at least admissible. I kept going back to the passage in Plutarch's "Life of Antony" in which Cleopatra and Antony are out fishing; if we had 2000-year-old dialogue, a hint of Cleopatra's saucy voice, and a detailed scene, surely something could be written about her, if not a traditional narrative? For a long time I told myself I could do the thing episodically. Virginia Woolf once reviewed a mediocre novel with the line, "The string didn't quite unite the pearls, but the pearls were there." I took that as a sort of operating premise.
Q: Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Vera Nabokov, Ben Franklin in Paris, Cleopatra. What do they have in common, and will you ever write about an American in America?
A: My next book is on the Salem witch trials. As a small-town Massachusetts girl, this makes me very happy. So does the reunion with documents! Crabbed and eccentric though the l7th century handwritings (and penmanship) are, I remain enchanted by them.
Q: What was it like to have virtually no original documents, especially when Ben Franklin documents were so abundant.
A: Well I've said that to some extent Cleopatra may have been a reaction against the mountain of Franklin materials. They were endless — you haven't lived until you've read l8th century French on microfilm, by the way — and yet they did not always yield answers. Volumes of them existed purely to misinform. The spies that encircled Franklin in Paris were surely paid by the word; nothing was too insignificant for them to report on. That said, it was no cakewalk to write a book about a Greek woman whose history comes to us from Roman men. It meant including some portraits of the sources themselves in the biography, and stepping out on the page myself more than I have done in the past.
Q: Even if you haven't seen the "Cleopatra" movie, how could you avoid the (other) Elizabeth Taylor image from popping into your mind?
A: It wasn't easy coming up against Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh. The real problem though was Shakespeare, who appropriated a great deal of Plutarch. Essentially I tried to keep my distance from them all. And knew that even when I finished, long after the book was published, the John Ford truth would prevail: In the duel between history and legend, the latter always wins.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun