Thursday, May 10, 2012

Q&A wih biographers Jack El-Hai & Steve Weinberg

Biographers (and colleagues from The American Society of Journalists and Authors) Jack El-Hai and Steve Weinberg were on the show yesterday talking about writing biography. We never have enough time on the show, I swear, to talk about everything we want to talk about, and yesterday was no exception (that podcast will go up soon). Jack and Steve agreed to carry on here, so what you see were the questions I wanted to ask, but couldn't because I ran out of time.

First, Jack El-Hai, the author of The Lobotomist, has worked for more than twenty years as a freelance writer of books, essays, and articles. He has contributed to The Atlantic Monthly, American Heritage, The Washington Post Magazine, The History Channel Magazine, and many other publications. He specializes in writing history-based journalism.

And Steve Weinberg''s books include a guide to journalism in Washington, D.C. (“Trade Secrets of Washington Journalists,” Acropolis, 1981); a biography of Armand Hammer (Little, Brown, 1989); a guide to reading and writing biography (“Telling the Untold Story,” University of Missouri Press, 1992); “The Reporter’s Handbook: An Investigator’s Guide to Documents and Techniques,” published by St. Martin’s Press and commissioned by Investigative Reporters and Editors, 1996; A Journalism of Humanity, the centennial history of the Missouri School of Journalism (University of Missouri Press, 2008); and a dual biography of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller (W.W. Norton, 2008).

Are living or dead subjects the best?

Steve: Impossible to answer. Passion is necessary to research/write a great biography.  The living/dead division is an irrelevant division...each carries its positives and negatives.

Jack: I much prefer writing about dead people.  Their records are often better organized and more easily available, and family members, friends and enemies are more willing to talk about them.  A final consideration: Dead people have no legal right to privacy and cannot block the efforts of a biographer.

Should you begin with a healthy knowledge of your subject before you even
begin to research?

Steve: Not necessarily. Passion and curiosity and well-honed research skills are necessary, whether prior knowledge about the subject is vast or negligible.

Jack: I usually begin biographical projects by writing magazine articles about my subjects.  That way I learn more about them, find out whether readers are interested, and discover the level of obsession I've developed.  Obsession trumps all.

And how much research is enough? Esp. Because writers can lose themselves in the research and forget about writing.

Steve: Enough is never enough. But, sometimes, commercial practicalities require an end to the research.

Jack: You can never do all the research that's possible, so it's helpful to set a research deadline and stick to it.

Do you sell a biography as you would a nonfiction book: with a book proposal? Or do you finish the book first (as you might with memoir)?

Steve: No biographer who depends upon book income to feed loved ones can afford to finish the book first.

Jack: I would never attempt to write a biography without first having first drafted a book proposal.  There's the important consideration of time -- why invest massive energy in a project that might not sell?  More important, though, is that writing the proposal and discussing it with an agent or editor helps produce a better book.

Can you talk about the market in terms of advances (typical)?

Steve: I received one sizeable advance in my long career. But because the book took me six years, because I did not receive the second half of the advance until delivery of the manuscript, because the literary agent takes 15 percent off the top and the IRS takes its chunk, I actually averaged about $8000 per year in actual cash from the advance while researching/writing. Expecting a total advance of more than $25,000 is usually unrealistic.

Jack: Most published biographies receive advances between $3000 and $100,000, I would guess, with the majority falling into the lower half of that range.  Given the time required to write a biography, our genre isn't the ticket to riches.  A few famous biographers and those writing about sensational and celebrity subjects command more.

Can you say anything about film, in terms of, is it better to write the
biography and hope your agent/publisher gets it to a producer, or write the
film/documentary, and get a film agent?

Steve: I am not anxious to work with Hollywood folks ever again, even if lots of money is offered. Life is too short to deal with such craziness. No offense to the estimable Jack El-Hai, of course.

Jack: I am not a screenwriter or filmmaker, and the resources and collective energy required to put together a film are immense, so I wouldn't consider creating a screen version first unless the opportunity dropped into my lap with lots of financing.  The best way to spark a screen adaptation of a published biography is to write a book with vivid characters, unforgettable scenes, and lots at stake for the people involved.  Get your book out there before a lot of eyeballs in any way you can imagine.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), there is no single right way to do it.

Jack will moderate a panel at The Compleat Biographer's Conference at USC in Los Angeles next weekend, May 18-20. More here.

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