Stacy Schiff on Writing Biography

SchiffIf you are unfamiliar with the work of Stacy Schiff I would encourage you to read her books on Ben Franklin and the Salem Witch Trials.  Over at The Paris Review, Schiff talks about her work and the writing of biography.

Here is a taste of the interview:

INTERVIEWER

So you don’t set out at the beginning knowing the story you want to tell?

SCHIFF

Absolutely not. I think it my obligation to set out with neither thesis nor agenda. Time and again I think of E. B. White’s counsel—“It is best to have strong curiosity, weak affiliations.” The preconceptions, the convictions are what blind you. Similarly, I feel the material should dictate the form of the life. With the Nabokovs, for example, there is throughout the book a sort of fox-trot between past and future. That was not something I could have anticipated. I’m not sure I ever actually think without a pencil in my hand. Certainly I never wind up where I thought I would. I’m unapologetic about this. It means the reader and I arrive together at our destination, which strikes me as the point of the exercise. 

INTERVIEWER

How does the book evolve? 

SCHIFF

I begin to write only after I’ve completed the bulk of the research. This is not the most efficient way to proceed, but it’s the only way I seem able to. The themes have emerged by then. Sometimes the shape of the narrative has begun to glint in the distance. Which won’t matter, as it will evolve anyway.

The years in the archives can feel endless, as if you’re on an eternal grocery-­shopping expedition and will never actually cook anything. If ever you were actually a writer, you are no more. You’re more like a sponge, with all the personality of one. Finally one day you wake to discover sentences forming in your head, the signal that it’s safe to leave the archive. And of course your deadline is by now also uncomfortably imminent, if not somewhere behind you. The panic is propulsive.

Read the entire interview here.