Originally published: 04.12.17
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 howthey 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?
Adventures in Biography : I have a young family and a demanding day job but in my spare time (!) I’m working on a biography of one of Australia’s first white colonists: Elizabeth MacArthur. So far in the course of working on the manuscript I’ve met some wonderful people and travelled to some amazing places. I thought it was about time to share the wonder and my amazement.