Monday, September 18, 2006

Biographies and Presidents

Some of the most prolific readers among young people are in the 8 to 12 year old category. Many years ago at this age, I spent hours reading biographies. I’d go to the library and check out a large stack of biographies, cart them home and read each one of them. I believe that experience was a key reason for my fascination with the stories of people. This experience has sparked my own work of writing profiles for various magazines. Also I’ve written a number of these types of books as biographies and also as co-authored books which are like autobiographies.

This weekend, I read a lengthy profile of former President Bill Clinton in the New Yorker magazine. Editor David Remnick wrote this excellent piece. You can follow this link for an interesting story about Remnick and his writing work. Earlier this year, Remnick’s book, Reporting released and here’s an excerpt from Reporting on NPR’s website. I was interested in this brief bio of Remnick and also this interview from the Boston Globe.

David Remnick’s New Yorker article, The Wanderer, Bill Clinton’s quest to save the world, reclaim his legacy—and elect his wife isn’t available online except in an audio format. I’ve pulled together a small portion of this lengthy article for you to see some of the pieces about biographies and autobiographies. Reading the entire article, it’s evident that Remnick spent considerable time with former President Clinton because he writes about some of the different settings in the article. It includes some insight about Clinton’s bestselling autobiography My Life. One bit of background which isn’t clear from the few paragraphs is about Clinton’s editor, Robert Gottlieb. He is the chairman of Trident Media Group, one of the top literary agencies in New York City. When he worked with President Clinton on My Life, Gottlieb was the chairman of Trident. Several times, I’ve been to Trident’s offices for meetings.


“Few modern Presidents have consumed biographies of their predecessors as voraciously as Bill Clinton. One afternoon when we met for lunch, he reeled off a list of some of his favorite Presidential books: three lives of Grant, David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, and a novelty choice, “Jack: A Life Like No Other,” by Geoffrey Perret, “which sur­prisingly received no coverage, and it had a lot of, kind of, dirt in it, like, dishy gossip I’d never heard about—Kennedy and Jayne Mansfield, and Mansfield was pregnant, stuff I’d never heard!”

As he was leaving office, Clinton told friends that he hoped to write a great book of his own, something approach­ing Grant’s memoirs. He had admired Katharine Graham’s autobiography, and so he sought out her editor at Knopf, Robert Gottlieb, who once ran the house. (Gottlieb was also, from 1987 to 1992, the editor of The New Yorker.) At an early meeting to talk about the book, Clinton informed the editor that he was actually very easy to work for. Gottlieb interrupted, saying, ‘You’re working for me now.”

Clinton had help with research, and he dictated a lot of stories to the histo­rian Ted Widmer and to his aide Justin Cooper for later use, but he also wrote much of the book in longhand, in more than twenty spiral-bound notebooks. When he handed in the first hundred and fifty pages of the manuscript, Gott­lieb said, “This is a really good story, but let me ask you something: Are you run­ning for anything?”

“No, I’m done,” Clinton said.

“Good,” Gottlieb said. “You cannot put the name of every person you’ve ever met in this book. I do not care what happened to their children and grandchil­dren, and it bothers me that my Presi­dent had enough room left in his head to remember what happened to the children and grandchildren of every person he ever met.”

So, Clinton said, recounting the story, “I said, ‘Look, Gottlieb, I’m from Arkan­sas. That’s what we do, that’s what we care about—I can’t help it. That’s who we are.’”

It’s one of the dangers of autobiographies and biographies—filling the book with so many names the reader is either 1) bored or 2) definitely can’t keep track of the different people. A massive number of names pushes the book away from the story and shifts the focus for the audience. I can see Gottlieb tried to help the former President understand this basic principle but like with any author, the editor’s success depends on whether the author will listen and be directable. In general, I’ve found as you work with higher profile authors, then your challenge as an editor to get the changes necessary for an excellent book increase. We get a hint at this difficulty in these paragraphs.

Another challenge with biographies and autobiographies is to tell interesting and different stories—but not too different. It’s a tricky balance and shows in this incident in David Remnick’s excellent article, “Clinton sent another hundred pages or so, this time on the American South of his childhood. Gottlieb called and said, “I really like this.”

“Well, you got any questions?” Clin­ton replied.

“Just one.”

“What is it?” Clinton asked.

“Did you know any sane people as a child?”

“No, but neither did anybody else,” Clinton said. “I was just paying attention more than most people.”

The first half of Clinton’s thousand-page memoir is a cross between ‘Tobacco Road” and “Ragged Dick,” the Snopes saga and “All the King’s Men.” The early pages make clear just how far Clinton had to travel before he landed in the safe berths of the Ivy League and Oxford….Clinton played it safe in his memoir, and his reasons were almost surely political. Even the publication date was politically determined. Clinton and Knopf decided that “My Life” had to come out before the 2004 campaign entered its final stage. As a result, the book was rushed and is at times almost defiantly dull. The chapters that cover 1992 to 2000 often seem as cursory and reticent as the en­tries in a desk diary. Grant’s singularity as a memoirist is safe. But then the Gen­eral’s memoir ends before his Presidency begins.”

Our challenge is to tell excellent, fascinating stories for our reader—whether fiction or nonfiction.

2 Comment:

At 10:53 AM, Blogger michelleu Left a note...

I read President Clinton's mother's posthumous biography early in his presidency. Her book was fascinating because he really did grow up in a non-law abiding society during a wild time in the south. She was a larger than life character herself, but her book told me a lot about her son.

I haven't read Mr. Clinton's bio, but I found Hillary Rodham Clinton's book very dull. She is still running for office, of course, and for that reason may not have felt free to write an emotionally gripping tale.

I suspect they both could have used equally willful editors.

At 7:45 AM, Blogger Kaye Dacus Left a note...

I ran out and purchased My Life as soon as it hit the shelves several years ago, ready to sit down and learn more about the president I loved so much.

And I found I couldn't keep my attention on it. I was so disappointed--but then, I've never been a great reader of nonfiction/biograpy.

But then I downloaded it from audible.com. To hear this story told as only Bill could--it was like sitting in a room with him listening to him tell stories. The audio version is definitely the way to go!


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