What should biographers do with all the wonderful stories – or snippets – they discover along the way but can’t include in their books?
Many biographers do, of course, include them. But readers often don’t like it – for example wonderful reviewer Whispering Gums recently discussed a biography she enjoyed, but felt contained too much extraneous detail. And, I’ll confess, as a reader I feel the same way. I just want to read about the biographical subject, please.
But as a writer? Of course I want to include all the details! Because I’m assuming the reader is every bit as obsessed by the subject as I am – which is, tragically but patently, untrue. All those extra details, every little meandering away from the main subject, are crucial to the writer’s understanding but frankly unnecessary to the reader’s.
However, Nathan Hobby, A Biographer in Perth, raises an interesting point. He is cutting out some of his meandering details in his work-in-progress biography of writer Katharine Susannah Prichard but he laments their loss. The anecdotes and historical facts may not be relevant to his subject’s story, but they remain anecdotally and historically interesting. Surely someone, somewhere, might find them useful?
This point is particularly front of mind for me right now, as I work through my editor’s suggestions. Her key theme is cutting out all those meanderings and ‘crucial’ extra bits, and keeping the story focused on Elizabeth Macarthur. And I agree with her (well, most of the time). So I’ve left out the story of when the Governor’s wife’s carriage ran over a small boy. I’ve left out nearly all of Esther Abraham‘s story. I’ve left out stories of convict mistresses and illegitimate children and a small girl who drowned in a flood while fording the river on her pony.
What, if anything, should I do with these stories?
Obviously, some of them have already found a home here, on this blog. But I’ll confess – those posts are not all that popular, and usually don’t generate many page views.
I have vague (and possibly grandiose) ideas about turning some of them into long-form essays. But I’m still waiting for the essay fairy to come and write them for me.
So, in the shorter term, I’ll think I’ll give the stories away. How? Well, lovely people have already started booking me in to give talks next year, including at libraries. I’ve been to similar author talks myself and although I enjoyed them, I left feeling a little short changed. Too often the author didn’t say anything that she hadn’t already said in the book. Therefore, having read the book beforehand, I left without hearing anything new.
If I’m lucky enough to have people turn up to hear me speak, I plan to discuss the book (of course) but I also plan to discuss some of those extra stories that were left out of the book. That way those who have already read it get some extra details, some extra nuances, a little reward if you like, for taking the time to come and hear me speak.
I’m also aware that there are mixed views about whether, and how much, authors should talk about how they wrote the book. So I might suggest, as part of my opening preamble, that if people want information about how I wrote the book I’d be happy for them to ask a question relating to my writing process during question time at the end.
Obviously each talk I give will be tailored to the relevant audience – some might want to focus on the history, others on the process, others on particular issues. And that’s fine, of course. But for a general talk, at a library for instance, I’m hoping the above structure might work.
What do you think? What do you want to hear when you go to see an author speak?
Hi Michelle, I think including these invaluable snippets in an author talk is a great idea. Keeps away from comments on politics and repeats of all that is in the book. Re how the writing is done, I never mind if this is a one-sentence answer. Cheers.
That’s helpful – thanks.
By all means put them in your talks, but only as long as we keep getting snippets here. Though I must say the posts you have written over the past year or two of your progress towards publication have been fascinating, and I’m sure your listeners will agree.
Yes, I agree with Bill that I’m loving all your stories about the process so keep them coming!
I think your idea for using some of those stories is a good one, but it will depend on the audience as you say. I think most audiences do like to know about “how” a writer writes. If we want to read the book, we don’t want to know all about the content of the book BUT we need to have enough – a tantalising reading can do the job – to make us want to read it.
So, what do I want to hear? I love to know what inspired the author to write the book. I love to know about any challenges along the way in writing the book (such as Kate Grenville changing The secret river from non-fiction to fiction, and Charlotte Wood changing The natural way of things from historical fiction to contemporary/near future dystopian.) For non-fiction that probably includes the challenges of research – what was easy/hard to find. I want to know how easy or hard it was to get published, perhaps. I want to be tempted to read it – so a short well chosen piece of reading is good. A couple of funny stories – if there are any – from the book or the process never hurts either!
Wow – that’s super helpful. And a little daunting. Must try and think of some funny stories…
Haha Michelle! You don’t have to do all at every talk! Different strokes and all that.
Reblogged this on Nathan Hobby, a biographer in Perth and commented:
Michelle Scott Tucker at Adventures in Biography and I both happen to be in the midst of cutting anecdotes and details from our biographies which distract from the main narrative. She has found a potential use for them: in author’s talks! It’s a good idea to try to give the audience something different.
I tweeted about my editing process on the weekend: “Criteria for keeping scenes in my biography: Does it connect to anything later on or is it an orphaned anecdote? Does it matter to my readers? Eg: sorry Madame Marchesi, you’re not connected & you’re not so famous as when KSP wrote her autobiography.”
Many thanks for the reblog and for the excellent cutting criteria. Although the whole issue makes me determined to find a way to write where the digressions add to the whole, rather than detract from it. Not for this book, but maybe for whatever I write next.
As I naively wrote my first draft, I was convinced my readers would be as engrossed by the digressions as I was. Maybe one would have to take it to another level, where the whole work is so digressive that the reader accepts it as the nature of the book. It would make it like Georges Perec’ Life: A User’s Manual in biography, and it might mean sacrificing the completeness or scope of the main narrative.
Perhaps you could write it like Coetzee’s Diary of a bad year, with the main story in the upper level and digressions in the lower level(s). You could have multiple stories running at once.
Or just write with lots of footnotes. That’s why I prefer footnotes to endnotes, so you (one) can take in the digressions without losing track of the story.
I like digressive footnotes too. Which might be slightly easier than aspiring to write like Coetzee!
It’s an interesting approach to think about though, isn’t it. Maybe there wouldn’t be a main narrative…?
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