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,
“No, I’m done,”
“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.”
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, “
“What is it?”
“Did you know any sane people as a child?”
“No, but neither did anybody else,”
The first half of
Our challenge is to tell excellent, fascinating stories for our reader—whether fiction or nonfiction.