The Art of Writing Biography

One of the best things about blogging are the lovely people you get to meet, geographical proximity no problem. Towards the end of last year I reviewed a new biography of the Rossetti family by Dinah Roe and we ended up chatting online. What a delightful woman she is! Dinah was kind enough to agree to an interview, in which I could ask her all the questions that fascinate me about the complex and tortuous process of writing a biography. Read on to hear all about it, as well as the importance of family life, the benefits of being an American in London and Dinah’s love of librarians and black-and-white cookies…..

 

1. When and how did you first become interested in the Pre-Raphaelites?

When I was an undergraduate, I studied Art History along with English Literature, and the two interests became intertwined. Pre-Raphaelitism intrigued me because it didn’t view the visual and the literary arts as belonging to two separate categories. Poetry and painting are my two first loves, and studying Pre-Raphaelitism means I can have my cake and eat it too, so to speak.

When I came to London from America to study for my PhD, my original project was about Christina Rossetti’s relationship to Pre-Raphaelitism. But as I began my research in earnest, my work took me in a different direction entirely, as I became increasingly fascinated by her devotional writing, in particular her books of religious prose. By my second year of study, I had changed my topic to Rossetti’s devotional work. Yet I never lost interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, which was why it was such a pleasure to compile the Penguin Classics anthology of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. It felt like I’d finally been loyal to my original project, if that doesn’t sound too sentimental.

 

2. What made you decide to write a book about the family rather than any individual member?

Sometimes, I find it difficult to write about individuals, because in some ways, I don’t think we really exist as individuals. We are all a part of a community, of the people around us, and we cannot help but be influenced by this. Whether that experience is positive or negative is of course an open question and different for everyone, but I don’t believe we exist in isolation. I felt that the most distinctive thing about the Rossettis is the absolute centrality of their family life to their creative lives. They consulted each other and collaborated on every single project. Many families nowadays end up living continents away from each other (as in fact I do) but the four Rossetti siblings never lived farther than walking distance.

Also, I wanted to take the focus off the Rossetti siblings’ love lives, which (while undeniably intriguing) is not the beginning and end of what there is to say about them. People have all kinds of important relationships which are not sexual or romantic, yet are no less important and influential for that. I think, as a culture, we over-emphasise romantic relationships at the expense of other, perhaps more important ones. This is particularly the case with women artists and writers. If love lives do not exist for them, they are invented, as if being unmarried is something that has to be explained away or justified. Friendship is another important area of human relations that is sometimes underplayed, and is one I’d like to explore further in future work.

 

3. I can’t begin to imagine the research that must have gone into this biography! How did you set about gathering your information?

One of the most frustrating things about writing biography is the amount of research you have to leave out. It was so hard to cut certain stories because of length, or because they detracted from the narrative, or concerned characters and incidents too minor to be entirely relevant.

In terms of research, I first spent time reading everything I could get my hands in terms of secondary source material. I worked as a librarian for three years, and that helped familiarise me with how to search efficiently for information from all sources. The British Library was of course very helpful it terms of tracking down obscure books and journals. I also found the London Library very helpful here; the oldest existing lending library in London, it is also one of the best for researchers of the nineteenth century. Also, you can take the books home with you – even the beautiful first editions. During my research, I took home a first edition of original Pre-Raphaelite Brother Thomas Woolner’s poems only to find that they were signed by the author himself!

After gathering all I could from secondary sources, I also visited various research libraries, kindly supported by research grants from Arts Council England and the Royal Society of Literature. Archival research is very emotional, because you are dealing with a subject’s handwritten letters, diaries, notes, etc. It helps make the subject more real, more personal to you as a writer. Research visits are also  really fun because you get to meet other writers during the day. You hear about their projects and bond with them, sharing your triumphs and woes. I was also privileged to work with several excellent special collections librarians, whose efficiency, helpfulness and intelligence are second to none. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think librarians are among the heroes of our time. It breaks my heart to see so many libraries closing, and I pity a generation who may grow up without access to these keepers of the flame.

 

4. And how on earth did you manage to keep your notes organised while you were writing it?

It was an uphill battle! But lessons I’d learned from my time as a librarian really came in handy here. From the start, I was very careful to file articles and notes in appropriate boxes and files from the very beginning. My academic work taught me the value of keeping track of references as I went along, so that I wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time chasing down sources when I came to the end of the process.

Where I could, I got digital files and typed up my notes. Then I created folders which contained sub-folders. For example, I had one labelled ‘Pre-Raphaelites’, which then contained sub-folders called things like: ‘Critics’; ‘Patrons’; ‘Painters’; ‘Poets’; ‘Models’. Then it was simply a matter of filing new notes in the appropriate sub-folder. Of course I also had folders in the ‘real world’, which were a bit harder to manage, but much more of a pleasure to look through. I really preferred reading hard copies of notes. Hard copies also lead to ‘happy accidents’, where I would be looking for one article, and would come across another in the same file that I’d forgotten about entirely, but which turned out to be really useful. At the same time, when I was looking for a particular passage or quotation, it was much simpler to search a digital file than to sift through a pile of papers.

 

5. What part of the book did you enjoy writing the most?

I really enjoyed writing all of the chapters, and one of the greatest difficulties was moving from one chapter to the next. That transition was always difficult, although it was helped by a little preparation in the beginning. I had planned all the chapters before I started writing, so I always knew what was coming next.

But to answer your question properly: I enjoyed writing the chapter on Maria Rossetti the most, and was terribly pleased with myself when I came up with the title: ‘Half-Sick of Shadows’.  In many ways, I find Maria one of the most fascinating of the Rossettis, probably because she is the least noticed. Yet her career was as original and interesting as that of her other siblings. She was a respected teacher of the Italian language, a dedicated charity worker, a Dante Alighieri scholar and an Anglican nun. None of these paths was particularly common in her era. Like her brother William, who I feel is another unsung hero of the Rossetti family, she didn’t possess the genius of Christina and Gabriel, but she didn’t let that stop her from leading her own life. When she made the break from her family, committing herself to the All Saints Sisterhood, she showed a courage and independence that her better-known brother and sister never possessed. Christina and Gabriel struggled with romantic relationships, and never successfully created their own families. Joining a Sisterhood was a way for Maria (who clearly was never going to marry) to make her own family. Instead of resigning herself to being a spinster and sibling of a more famous sister, she went out and surrounded herself with more sisters than she could count. I admire her enterprising spirit, her intelligence and her drive. Whether or not one agrees with her religious beliefs, her commitment is impressive.

Reading William’s diary recording the days leading up to her death was very moving. The stories of her aunt Eliza bringing her lemons and oranges to suck made me think of Christina’s ‘Goblin Market’, and the way in which the goblins’ poisonous fruit was transformed into an antidote by family love. Right up to the end, Maria  was still trying to get her brothers to convert, yet the agnostic William didn’t seem at all irritated by this, but rather stuck firmly to his own beliefs. You get the sense that the siblings really respected one another, even when they disagreed. Open-mindedness was a leading characteristic of the family, and existed in delightful contrast with its stubbornness. But how else could you have a family containing both hardline Christians and bohemian social butterflies?

 

6. What do you think makes a really good biography? Did you have any particular role models in mind while you were writing?

I think a strong sense of narrative and place makes a good biography. When teaching, I always notice that an anecdote from an author’s life really gets my students’ attention, and is often the part of the lesson they remember best. Humans love stories, and we love stories about each other. When we gossip about one another, for example, it is not simply malicious; we want to hear how the story continues from where we left off, and we are curious to see how it ends!

Good biographies are as much about place and time as they are about individuals. I love biographies which evoke a sense of place, which was why I did so much research on Victorian London. I wanted to tell the story of a city as much as a story of a family, or rather, I see the two as inseparable. Hilary Spurling’s Burying the Bones: Pearl S. Buck in China does this brilliantly. She really makes the case for how important China was to Buck’s writing and to her identity. I had thought of Buck simply as an American writer until I read this book, and then suddenly I realised how wrong-headed this had been. Spurling evoked the place so beautifully that I felt I was right there with the missionary community in China. She also does a nice job of balancing the discussion of the dark and problematic nature of this proselytizing mission with a sensible consideration of time and place, and an allowance for the behaviour and psychology of the individuals involved. Sweeping generalisations are not for her; she always keeps the story in mind. I also love her economy of words. Spurling has relatively brief chapters, and she only tells her readers what is most important. From reading Spurling, I tried to learn the art of selection – the important detail rather than the kitchen-sink approach. She also writes very well about art, and if you haven’t read it already, her biography of Matisse, Matisse: The Life is unmissable.

Another great biography which has a great sense of place is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, where the American Midwest is as important to the story as the horrifying events at its heart. The stark Kansas landscape, and the character of its people, are so skilfully drawn that it takes my breath away every time I read it. Capote himself claimed to have invented a new style of journalistic prose with this book, but I think it’s really just another kind of biography.

In terms of gracefully incorporating research into the narrative, I looked to Jan Marsh, biographer of Gabriel and Christina. Marsh has a way with a turn of phrase, and is able to communicate a vast amount of information with clarity and elegance. She gave me some valuable advice when I began writing about remembering to keep shifting the focus from one family member to another.

Strange as it may sound, Edith Wharton was another inspiration for this biography. I love the way she writes about highly sophisticated New Yorkers as if she were an anthropologist. She studies the behaviour of her own social circle in terms of tribal psychology, and often uses the language of anthropology to describe their behaviour.

When thinking about the Rossettis (and Victorians in general), I tried to see what was going on underneath their rituals. What else is happening beyond crinolines and calling cards? What are these behaviours communicating beneath the surface?

 

7. I notice you are an American in London – what motivated you to come over here?

I wanted to come to London to study Christina Rossetti. My PhD was supervised by Professor Daniel Karlin, an authority on Victorian literature, and one of the sharpest and most sensitive of poetry readers I’ve ever met. I was studying at University College London, and my department was steps away from Christina and Frances Rossetti’s house in Torrington Square. I would pass it on an almost daily basis. While I know it sounds corny, studying Rossetti in the city where she lived and worked made me feel closer to the project, more emotionally engaged and involved. I think emotional connections are easy to underestimate, but for me, that sense of environment is important. Of course you can study anyone from anywhere, as long as you bring your imagination to the table. But, as I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to research Rossetti in her native city, I couldn’t turn it down.

 

8. What do you miss from home and what do you like best about London?

For someone who writes about family, it is ironic that I live so far from my own. Perhaps writing about families is my way of dealing with this. When studying family dynamics, you can’t help but think about your own, and I have secretly cast different members of my family as members of the Rossetti family. It’s a good game. There’s a Christina, Gabriel, William and Maria in every family.

Aside from family, I probably miss food the most. I was back in New York recently, and I kept eating black and white cookies, which are special round cookies, one half of which is iced in chocolate, and the other in vanilla. Heaven! But not good for the waistline. I suspect that the second semester of teaching will help me work it off.

What do I like best about London? Great question! I think it’s the sense of the city as a living being. It changes all the time, and yet is so utterly, recognisably itself. I love the juxtaposition of old and new. For instance, one minute you can be shopping on Oxford Street, and then you turn off onto Margaret Street, and there you are standing in front of All Saints, where Maria Rossetti was a Sister. The street is usually completely quiet, and I always like to look up at the windows of the adjoining buildings, where I know the Sisters lived, and imagine Maria looking back out at me. I know that’s a little bit silly and fantastical, but that’s the kind of thing that London encourages. I think that’s why so many writers and artists are drawn to the city. It is stoical and no-nonsense, yet almost despite itself, it stimulates the imagination.

 

9. Who do you read for pleasure – who’s on your list of favourite authors?

To my great delight, this is a list that changes all the time. And one that is now being delightfully refreshed by the Litlove blog itself! For instance, I have started reading Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which I’m really enjoying.

I also love it when I rediscover a writer whose appeal I missed the first time(s) around. In this category are currently: Jane Austen; William Wordsworth; George Eliot; Dante Alighieri

Old favourites are: Richard Russo; Francine Prose; Isabel Allende; PG Wodehouse Emily Dickinson; Milan Kundera; Charles Dickens.

The best new discovery for me this year was Skippy Dies, by Irish writer Paul Murray. Hilarious and profoundly moving, it was the kind of novel I found myself reading very slowly, just to eek out the pleasure.

 

10. Do you have plans for the next book? What might it be about?

I do have plans for another book, but I believe it is bad luck to discuss a project before it has taken shape. I’m cringing as I write this because I know how precious and silly this sounds. But you develop a superstitious nature when you spend your childhood being told by your Irish-American mother never to break a mirror or leave a hat on the bed. You can see how I ended up writing a biography about family dynamics!

Thank you, Dinah!

Thank you so much for interviewing me, and for asking me such insightful questions. This is one of my favourite literary blogs, and I feel truly honoured to appear here.

22 thoughts on “The Art of Writing Biography

  1. Oh, I am so happy that you interviewed Dinah Roe. I hope Ms. (Dr.?) Roe is reading the responses to this post. I read The Rossettis in Wonderland, and I loved it! It was so interesting, and I learned so much. My favorite parts were the ones about Maria and Christina Rossetti. But I did enjoy learning about the deterioration and eventual demise of Gabriel Rossetti. And like Ms. Roe, I have enjoyed returning to Dante as an adult–and Eliot is one of my favorite authors!

  2. What a great interview!

    >>I love the juxtaposition of old and new.

    This. I love this about London. Since moving to New York I’ve spent a lot of time expecting it to be more like London, and being disappointed in it when it wasn’t (which is idiotic!), and I realized recently that the huge thing I love about London that is absent from New York is this juxtaposition.

    >>One of the most frustrating things about writing biography is the amount of research you have to leave out. It was so hard to cut certain stories because of length, or because they detracted from the narrative, or concerned characters and incidents too minor to be entirely relevant.

    I’ve always thought this must be such a hard aspect about writing biography! Sometimes I’ll read a biography (biographies of Oscar Wilde are very prone to this) where the author keeps telling anecdotes that don’t seem to connect well with anything around them. Even though it feels awkward, I’m greatly in sympathy — I know I’d have an impossible time leaving out a good anecdote.

    • Jenny – such interesting comments, thank you! I know how you can get used to the benefits of one place and then believe that surely they must be transposed somewhere else. And I completely agree about the difficulty of leaving out anecdotes in biography. I’ve tried to write a bit and it was the inability to cut that certainly dogged me.

  3. I just came back and wanted to comment that I LOVE black and white cookies! They are the best! Here is in Ohio where I live, I ate them all the time when I was in high school over 20 years ago. Then they disappeared for a while, and I recently found them at a local grocery store. I was so excited! And the baker told me that they are only sold in limited places like New York. And I own Spurling’s Matisse the Master. I think I am going to have to put it on my TBR pile!

  4. “I don’t think we really exist as individuals. We are all a part of a community…” this is just one of the many insights I noted as I read this rich interview. The fact that you’re sharing with us this amazing dialogue with Dinah is evidence of the community we share in the book blogging sphere. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this in-depth and informative interview, Litlove. It gives me a glimpse into the mind of the biographer, as well as the research/writing process. I’ve also appreciated that Dinah cited place and time as well as the anthropological elements being key in a biography. I like the personal angle too… sure love to try some black and white cookies.🙂

    • Arti – thank you for your lovely comment. I really liked that part of the interview, too, as I felt Dinah’s words were very wise. And I hadn’t thought about place in biography, either, but I can see it makes a big difference to the feel and quality of the book. I certainly had much to think about after reading Dinah’s responses!

      • I have now located online several recipes for black and white cookies as well as the means to convert American measurements to British ones (and to suggest alternatives for some American ingredients). I’m going to have a go at baking them this weekend! I’ll let you know how we get on.

  5. Fabulous interview! Great questions and such thoughtful answers. Thank you too for asking Dinah Roe who her favourite authors are. I also took special note of what makes a good biography. The Pearl S. Buck one sounds particularly intriguing.

    • Ruthielle – thank you that’s so kind! I confess I haven’t read any Pearl Buck, but that I would very much like to get to her books one day. I think I saw that biography in the bookstore before Christmas.

  6. A first-rate interview – I had known a little about the Pre Raphaelites and have a book of poetry by Christina Rossetti, but this interview was so interesting and so informative that it inspires me to find out more. Well done to both of you.

    Thank you
    Sue

  7. Great interview, very interesting. I haven’t read her book but it echoes with Autumn by Philippe Delerm.
    I’m linking this interview with the review of Autumn.

  8. Excellent interview. Dinah Roe’s book is simply amazing. A pleasure to read and a significant contribution to Victorian social history.

  9. I thought Dinah’s book sounded interesting when you first mentioned it, and have been hoping for a US edition (no listing yet on Amazon), but now after reading the story behind the story I am totally fascinated and may have to give in and order it directly. I love hearing about how an author works and the inspiration behind the book. And how cool that she is able to live and work so closely to where the Rosettis lived. Enviable indeed!🙂

  10. Black and white cookies … yum! But dangerous🙂 This biography sounds fabulous — thanks for the interview! Biographies are such huge undertakings, I’m always curious to learn a little about what the process was like.

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