Perhaps the greatest literary biographer of our time returns with Farther and Wilder, on the life of forgotten The Lost Weekend writer Charles Jackson. He talks about his favorite biographies, what drew him to Jackson, Richard Yates, and John Cheever, and why he’s very lucky to be working on Philip Roth’s biography.
Where did you grow up?
Oklahoma City. I write about this (plug alert) in my memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned, which will be published next year by Norton. I hope it proves that even middle-class life in Oklahoma can get pretty bouncy, given the right (or wrong) mix of people.
Where do you live and why?
Olde Towne Portsmouth, Virginia, because my wife was hired out of graduate school (University of Florida) as a pain management psychologist at the Naval Hospital here. Norfolk is right across the harbor. I think it's one of the 10 or so areas worldwide that are most likely to be hit by a tsunami, though that's not its foremost appeal.
Describe your morning routine.
Depends. Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach; Fridays I drive my 8-year-old daughter's carpool. Otherwise I wake in time to kiss her goodbye, make breakfast (poached egg, fruit, cereal), read the paper, clean the kitchen if it's my turn to do so, walk our dog (a beagle) among the pebbled streets of Olde Towne, and get to my desk. First I answer email and generally dick around on the computer, and finally get to work. If I'm still in the midst of my research on a given book—and remember that biographers go for years without any sustained writing; rusty chops are a real problem—I usually start the day with something mindless like transcribing an interview or typing notes. Whatever gets the wheels turning. If, however, I've begun the actual writing phase, well, then I begin work by taking a highlight pen to exactly three pages of single-spaced notes, which roughly translates into just over two pages of finished, double-spaced prose. Writing those two pages is a full, indeed excruciating, day of work.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I crack my knuckles. I cock my eyebrows when I speak. I fatten my cheeks slightly when I look in the mirror.
Please recommend three biographies to your readers that you think are masterpieces of the genre, and tell us what you like about them.
Ellmann's James Joyce goes without saying, so I won't say it. Strachey's Eminent Victorians, ditto. In no particular order then: 1) Vladimir Nabokov by Brian Boyd (both volumes), for my money perhaps the greatest all-around literary biography, maybe even better than Ellmann (though there are things Ellmann does that nobody can touch). Boyd is so judicious, both about the life and work, so utterly conscientious, that he sees every episode in the round. Also, I adore the devastating footnotes, wherein he eviscerates (decorously) his wayward predecessor, Andrew Field. 2) Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke. Clarke spent as many years as it took to get the goods on Capote, then just let it rip. From Clarke, we learn that Capote hired goons to terrorize recalcitrant lovers, and was, let's face it, just a ghastly mess in those final years. He was also, at his best, funny, charming, generous, courageous (underline that), amazingly gifted and disciplined, and I closed Clarke's book forgiving him everything. 3) The Quest for Corvo by A.J.A. Symons. Writing a biography is a matter of passionate curiosity, and the process is nowhere dramatized better. Symons was a marvelous man who died too young.
About half of the biographers I’ve spoken to like to “live and breathe” their subjects—the biographer’s equivalent to Method Acting. The other half prefer to keep a “professional distance.” What is your approach during the research?
If you're at all diligent—and you'd better be—then I don't see how you can avoid living and breathing your subjects, to some extent. I became especially obsessive about my first subject, Richard Yates, because I had no choice: I had a very short deadline and a preternaturally low advance, so I had to work on the book every waking hour. Then I'd go to bed and dream about Yates. (I remember once we were at a party together, and he passed out naked. That would never happen in real life, by the way: Yates always kept his necktie on in public). My current subject, Philip Roth, is still very much alive and an amiable presence in my life. Make of that what you will.
If you were to teach a master class on researching and writing biography, what are three points that you’d make to your students that might surprise them?
1) Most of the work is grindingly tedious, so if you aren't intensely curious about your subject, forget it. 2) The detective work is fascinating, but you have to be a good detective, and you won't be unless you're intensely curious about your subject (see 1). 3) Fitzgerald was right: A good writer is many different people, so keep an open mind at all times.
How do you choose the subjects for your biographies?
I write literary biographies, so above all I have to love the subject's books. But choosing a subject is tough. Most so-called “canonical” writers have already been done and done, and I like to be a pioneer, unless there's a very good reason to do a second or third biography of the same subject—Cheever, for instance: my predecessor had been forbidden to quote from letters, or even so much as look at Cheever's 4,300-page journal, whereas I was offered everything. That, of course, was irresistible. Yates and Charles Jackson were forgotten writers who led fascinating lives, and I wanted to remind the world of their work. Philip Roth wants at least one biographer to get it right, more or less, and I'm the lucky guy. And by lucky, I mean very lucky. After I'm done with his private papers—they're piled along one wall of my office—they'll go to the Library of Congress, and remain sealed to the public until 2050.
Once you’ve chosen a subject, what’s the next step?
First, you need to get the permission of your subject, if living, or your subject's estate, if not. You need to win the trust of key friends and family members, because they're the ones who will provide the most interesting material. (In my salad days I almost blew it, big-time, with Yates's second wife, Martha. During our first interview, I asked her if she'd ever read Yates's story, "A Natural Girl," which was basically his revenge against her for dumping him. It's a terrific story, but not a flattering portrait of Martha. Anyway she hadn't read it—she tried not to think about Yates after their break-up, much less read him—so I explained it to her. "Oh, that is such a crock!" she exploded, and almost hung up on me. Whereupon I would have lost the single best witness to five or six of the most crucial years in Yates's career. Thanks, Martha, for hanging in there.) Also, you find out where the key library archives are—and so on. The rest is boring and predicable to explain in a general way, though often fascinating in practice.
Do you outline your biographies?
I don't compose a line of prose until I have every single note absolutely in place. I spend at least a year or two shaping my material, finding my themes, winnowing, winnowing, winnowing, and then putting it all in order: structure is all. I can't imagine a serious biographer doing otherwise, but I suppose stranger things have happened.
Do you have a favorite first or last line of a book, one that really resounded for you?
The first and last lines of Lolita make my dorsal hairs quiver, as Nabokov intended.
Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?
My latest book is dedicated to my dear friend, Michael Ruhlman, one of the best food writers on the planet and a wonderful writer period. My life would have been very different without him. I'll leave it at that.
Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk?
I keep three framed photographs on my desk: the latest school picture of my daughter; a photo of my wife getting her diploma from the University of Chicago; and Lytton Strachey, looking serenely self-possessed. On the file cabinet next to my desk, I've taped a funny photograph of Philip Roth; he's a very funny guy (as well as a deeply serious one), and I like to be reminded of that. What else? There's a little porcelain jug from the distillery in Tobermory, Scotland, where I was married, and over my inbox is a lovely photograph of ghostly trees taken by Donna Ruhlman, Mike's wife and also a dear friend.
Describe your evening routine.
If it's not too cold, I go for a short jog along the water, then I have a glass of bourbon and some smoked almonds and read for about an hour. Then, if it's my turn, I cook dinner. After dinner, I try to read some more, but generally fall asleep.
What is something you always carry with you?
I keep an auspicious fortune cookie message in my wallet: "All your sorrows will vanish."
What phrase do you overuse?
"For what it's worth."
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
I don't know if the phrase "made it" really applies to a literary biographer, but I can tell you my most exciting moment. My publicist at Picador, James Meader, had alerted me that my Yates book was going to be reviewed by Janet Maslin in the daily Times, either on June 26 or 27, 2003. At the time, my wife and I were living in a cinderblock bungalow in the crummy hamlet of Waldo, Florida, and I had a very slow dial-up internet connection. So the evening of June 25, I kept refreshing the book page on the Times website over and over, to see if the next day's review had come up yet, and over and over the same headline and photograph dissolved very slowly onto the screen. Then—on the 97th try—Richard Yates's face crumbled into view! This was it! I called my wife in, and together we read the following: "The arrival of Blake Bailey's great, perceptive, heartbreaking Yates biography is a landmark event." Shouts, tears, etc. Just doesn't get any better than that.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
When I'm in my actual writing phase, I must process exactly three pages of single-spaced notes, and usually that means writing two double-spaced pages of finished prose. Very rarely I'll hit a groove and finish early—go for a long walk in the afternoon, or even blow myself to a movie. But if I haven't finished those two pages, I'm not allowed to leave my desk; if I do, I'll be miserable, so I don't.
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
I was a pretty decent Conrad Birdie in my high school production of Bye Bye Birdie.
This interview has been edited and condensed.