Thursday, 10 December 2009

Whose voice is it anyway?

Over the past few blogs, I’ve been thinking about the different elements I’ve had to consider as I write my biography of the woman who was briefly married to a ‘Screen Giant of Electric Intensity’ (New York Times); from questions of identity to how much a biographer should reveal of themselves. One aspect I haven’t written about – probably because I find it the most troublesome – is the ‘voice’. Recently, I read some interviews with ghostwriters who discussed how they managed to locate the ‘voice’ of their ‘ghostee’ (as they call them); Hunter Davies (Gazza - My Story; Wayne Rooney – My Story So Far; Prezza – Pulling No Punches) described himself as being a ‘ventriloquist, trying to capture the character of a person, but it doesn't have to be their exact words, just words and phrases and a style that accords with their received image'. Another, Pepsy Dening (Fern, My Story, by Fern Britton; Learning To Fly, by Victoria Beckham; Extreme, My Autobiography, by Sharon Osbourne) said, ‘A successful autobiography is one where the "voice" is unique, the story fresh and the emotions true. Just setting down what the subject chooses to tell me will never achieve that. Clich├ęs, banality, point-scoring and psychobabble are discarded. What is retained is detail, quirkiness, feeling and truth.'

Although I can’t help thinking you’re halfway there if you’re literally pretending to be someone else, there is something in the fact that you can’t simply mimic or reproduce the language of your subject and hope that it sounds authentic – because it won’t – as anyone who’s ever typed up verbatim conversations between people on buses will know. There has to be something between capturing the ‘sound’ of someone – as you must in an autobiography – and the ‘essence’ of them as you ought to in a biography. One, which I think beautifully portrays the fundamental nature of the person by finding the appropriate means of telling their story, is Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J. D. Salinger written after Salinger famously sued Hamilton for unauthorised use of letters in the original biography. Undeterred by the fracas, Hamilton wrote a new version which he described as telling you ‘just as much about Salinger, in fact more, than the earlier, banned version did'. It did more than that – it raised key questions about the whole business of 'biography' – what is it for? Why do we write it? Why do people want to read it?

Back to the voice; what Hamilton did was to find a new way of interpreting the material which enabled the reader to gain a different understanding. I have experimented with several voices during the writing of my book until hitting upon one which seems the most appropriate way of illuminating the remarkable, much maligned, woman I’m writing about. In the end it was her voice which opened the door: curious, unpredictable, intelligent, savvy and absolutely clear about who she is – Anna Kashfi, whose major claim to fame (or in her case infamy) is that she was briefly married to Marlon Brando.

Sarah Broughton

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

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Monday, 7 December 2009

What Lies Beneath

‘Researching, like writing, is an individual, creative process.’ So says Ann Hoffman, author of Research for Writers, one of the best books on the process. In fact, I would argue that sometimes researching feels more creative than writing – if only because you are truly able to let your mind wander in whatever direction the subject takes you without constraint. When you are researching you are not bound by form or narrative, your responsibility lies in uncovering layer upon layer of a subject until you are down to the bare bones. The creative process begins in the aftermath of your discoveries when you begin to interpret the material, to decide which story you’re telling and how you will go about it. But before you even arrive at the beginning of your adventure, something has to draw you in; something has to make you commit to a virtual marriage with your subject.

Owen Sheers wrote his first non-fiction narrative, The Dust Diaries, after finding a book in his father’s study. This led him into an exploration of the life of his great, great uncle Arthur Cripps – who happened to be both a poet and a missionary in Southern Rhodesia. For me, two seemingly random events collided several years apart. The first was when I discovered, by chance, that my grandfather may have been Anglo-Indian. The second happened when, while I was researching Welsh personalities for a television documentary, I came across a story about an actress who claimed to be Indian but was always referred to as having Welsh or Irish parents. The story stayed with me while I researched other projects including several documentaries on iconic singers – all of whom had various complex and conflicting problems – but none of them concerned identity. They all knew exactly who they were and where they had come from.

When I finally got around to doing some serious research on the ‘Welsh actress’, I began to realise it was the stories in and around her life that were consuming me. The beauty of research is that it enables you to ask questions obsessively: ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘what happened next’. Sometimes they are unanswerable and sometimes I am unable to see what’s in front of my face. But all of them led me to what lies beneath the surface – the perils and pleasures of research immersing me again and again in a life less ordinary than my own.

Uncovering random pieces of extraordinary information is one of the best bits about writing a biography – long after you’ve given up trying to weave them into your narrative you remember them with the kind of fondness you have for long lost childhood friends. My current favourite is discovering that Myrna Loy, one of Hollywood’s most famous and highest paid stars in the 1930’s was of Welsh descent. In an article first published in Modern Screen entitled 'The Truth about the Mysterious Miss Loy', Grandmother Williams (Loy’s father’s mother) is held responsible for that ‘Celtic something’ in Loy’s ‘calm, provocative face’. Strange and haunting are the tales told of Grandmother Williams, of her fascination and courage, her Welsh wit and wisdom, the aura of mystery that always hovered over her...

Sarah Broughton

To Reveal or Not to Reveal?

These days it seems like any old celebrity can get a book deal to write their autobiography (as Eva Wiseman, assistant editor of Observer Woman magazine, put it recently, ‘I’m a celebrity – get me on the bookshelf’) but if they want it to become a bestseller, they really have to come up with an attention grabbing scandal: abuse, incest, shoplifting – that’ll do for starters. Now, even literary biographies are getting in on the act. In the last few months alone, a series of heavyweight books has revealed that William Golding despised both himself and Lord of the Flies, Diaghilev was a ‘sexual predator’ and Alison Uttley hated ‘The Blyton’. As Kathryn Hughes remarked in her review of the Uttley biography ‘whether we really benefit from learning that the creator of Little Grey Rabbit was actually a prize cow is another matter.’

I’m not sure what I think about this. For me, biographies ought to reveal information of a deeply personal nature – why else would I take the trouble to read them? I’m not interested in a glossy skate across the surface of someone’s life; I am interested in trying to put together the bits where the work came from in the first place – that doesn’t mean that they have to be prurient. Recently, I read Hermione Lee’s Biography: A Very Short Introduction, published earlier this year, which looks at what literary biographies do and how they work. She is fascinating on the ‘fear and loathing’ that revelatory biographies can inspire in both the reader and the subject. She cites Justin Kaplan, the American author of biographies of Twain and Whitman amongst others, who maintained that ‘by current standards, biographies without voyeuristic, erotic thrills are like ballpark hot dogs without mustard’ (he was referring specifically to Kitty Kelley’s sensational 1991 book on Nancy Reagan – which he said was ‘essentially a drive-by shooting’) and Germaine Greer, who described biographers of living writers as ‘the intellectual equivalents of flesh-eating bacterium’.

To be incredibly topical; Tiger Woods’ statement concerning the current media blitz he is engulfed in is a salutary insight into what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a ‘drive-by shooting’. It includes the following: ‘No matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions.’

The problem is, that in the celebrity-eating bacterium age in which we live, personal sins do indeed seem to equal public confessions. I have to admit that I am now more interested in Tiger Woods than I was before he was involved in a ‘single vehicle car crash’ because he has inadvertently revealed himself to be a rather more complex and sympathetic character. Since there is no such thing as a neutral biographical narrative, what I long to read is a revelatory life story written by a considerate and compassionate author.

Sarah Broughton