‘My God, how does one begin to write a biography?’ wondered Virginia Woolf as she embarked on her life of the English painter and critic Roger Fry.
I have wrestled with the same question each time I’ve started a new project, whether it has been with my biographies of literary figures such as Patricia Highsmith or Sylvia Plath, pulp writer Harold Robbins, fashion designer Alexander McQueen or a group study of the survivors of the Titanic. Each subject seemed to demand a different beginning, a different way of telling.
With Highsmith — who wrote classics of suspense fiction such as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley — I began by describing an episode in which the author stalked the woman who had inspired her novel The Price of Salt, later republished as Carol. For my biography of Sylvia Plath I chose to open the book with the famous meeting of Plath and Ted Hughes in 1956; I did this to illustrate how over the years Plath had come to be defined by and through Hughes. My life of Robbins — who with books like The Carpetbaggers invented the modern potboiler — begins with him having a stroke, an incident which left the prolific novelist (he was known as ‘the man with the smoking typewriter’) unable to tap out a single word. The first chapter of my biography of McQueen recounts his extraordinary funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral in London; the grand setting, together with the starry guest list (Naomi Campbell, Sarah Jessica Parker, Anna Wintour) at odds with his roots as the son of a taxi driver in London’s East End. And my exploration of the lives of some of the 705 survivors of the Titanic begins with the sentence, ‘The sound of the screaming was the worst thing, they said.’
‘The biographer at work is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewellery and money…’
But when Virginia Woolf posed her question in 1938 she wasn’t just outlining the practical measures of how to begin a work of non-fiction. She was also alluding to the moral and philosophical questions surrounding the form of biography itself. In The Silent Woman, her meta-biography of Sylvia Plath, the New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm outlines the many perils facing a biographer. It does not make comfortable reading for anyone who has ever tried their hand at life writing.
‘The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewellery and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away,’ she says. ‘The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity.’
As Malcolm sees it, biography is nothing but the literary equivalent of dragging out other people’s dirty laundry then spraying the clothes with a spritz of pseudo-respectability to mask the stench. She continues: ‘The reader’s amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.’ Malcolm starts another of her books, The Journalist and the Murderer, with this arresting sentence: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.’
When Germaine Greer discovered that an unauthorised biography of her was being written she described the book’s author, Christine Wallace, as a ‘dung beetle’, ‘intestinal flora’ and a ‘wretched bloody woman.’ Dennis Potter regarded biography as ‘the most brutish of all the arts’, occupying an odd middle ground somewhere between ‘deliberate assassination and helpless boot-licking’. The playwright stated that one of the profession’s prime qualifications was the ability to impart the perfect Judas kiss, while ‘hindsight expressed in a decorous prose is a horribly effective and very one-sided weapon’. It’s no surprise to learn that in Potter’s 1996 dystopian television drama Cold Lazarus, the last words spoken by its central character, a writer, are, ‘No biography.’
The portrayal of life writing in fiction is often no more flattering. In Henry James’s novella of 1888 The Aspern Papers, the unnamed narrator, an aspiring biographer of a dead 19th-century American poet, is discovered trying to break into the desk of the writer’s former lover and literary executor. The man is branded ‘a publishing scoundrel’, a figure that James himself feared. Shortly before his death the novelist burnt a substantial number of his personal papers and told his nephew and literary executor that for him biography brought ‘a new terror to death’. Joyce referred to the figure of the biographer as a ‘biografiend’, a term is brought vividly to life in the pages of novels such as William Golding’s The Paper Men (1984) and AS Byatt’s Possession(1990).
So what do I, as someone who has written books featuring characters both real and imaginary, make of this culturally ingrained image of the monstrous biographer?
My first novel, The Lying Tongue, published in 2007, is about a battle of wills between an aspiring young writer, Adam Woods, and a reclusive older novelist, Gordon Crace, living in Venice. As the psychological thriller progresses, we learn that Adam is secretly working on a biography of Crace, a man who has much to hide. In fact, it could be said that the novel is a fictional extension of Robert Graves’s poem To bring the dead to life, which imagines a biographer immersing himself in the life of his subject, copying his handwriting, pretending to walk as him, and wearing the same clothes. The poem has a nasty sting in its tail, with a threat that the biographer may end up swapping places with his dead subject.
That the grave which housed him
May not be empty now:
You in his spotted garments
Shall yourself lie wrapped.
So what do I, as someone who has written books featuring characters both real and imaginary, make of this culturally ingrained image of the monstrous biographer? How is it possible to balance the demands of the general reader — who wants their fair share of sensation, revelation and narrative drive — with the moral responsibilities owed to interviewees, literary estates, as well as the subject themselves? Can a ‘good’ person even bring him or herself to write a biography?
Certainly, I’d agree with the biographer Michael Holroyd — whose subjects have included Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and Bernard Shaw — who said that ‘discretion is not the better part of biography’. If you are a sensitive soul who does not like the idea of offending, then biography is probably not the best career choice for you. It demands a degree of ruthlessness, a refusal to take no for an answer and an eye for a good story.
For example, consider the dilemma I faced while researching Beautiful Shadow, my 2003 biography of Patricia Highsmith, I spent the best part of a year buried away in the writer’s archive in Berne; the American novelist had died in Switzerland in 1995 at the age of 74. Amongst the enormous cache of papers — intimate diaries, letters, journals, manuscripts, sketches and photographs — I read of Highsmith’s love affair with a young female journalist who came to interview her. I duly wrote to this woman, asking her whether we could meet to discuss her memories of Highsmith. I received a letter back, in which she politely refused an interview saying she had had only a brief professional relationship with Highsmith. The encounter, she wrote, had been nothing more than that of a famous novelist and a starstruck novice reporter and she had little else to add.
But I knew the relationship had been much deeper than that, as Highsmith’s steamy diaries showed, and so I wrote another letter detailing a little of what I had discovered. By return of post the journalist agreed to meet me in London and she subsequently told me everything that had happened between them. Call that blackmail if you like, but if I had not written that follow-up letter I would not have been doing my job.
But before you dismiss me as a modern-day publishing scoundrel, let me outline my approach. Although my biographies often contain sensational material, I try to present it in a way that is non-judgemental. I hope I let my subjects and the witnesses I interview speak for themselves. Neither do I start a book with a thesis which I then set out to prove; rather, I seek out the evidence —from archives, the friends, lovers, colleagues, and the written and broadcast media — and then I let that shape the biography.
Highsmith was famous for the privacy with which she guarded her life — she was as enclosed and sensitive as one of the snails that she kept as pets — but she told friends that her secrets should be exposed after her death. In response to a question about how much of her personal relationships should be included in a biography, she wrote: ‘I replied if they picked me up or let me down, they should be mentioned. I said it would be hypocritical to try to avoid the subject, and that everyone must know I am queer, or gay.’
Highsmith also took the opportunity to burn anything she thought might embarrass her and only chose to throw onto the bonfire a small number of incriminating letters to and from a much younger lover. What she decided to leave behind is staggering: an enormous archive of 120 boxes which detail every aspect of her creative, emotional and sexual life. ‘O who am I?’ she wrote in one of her notebooks. ‘Reflections only in the eyes of those who love me.’
Similarly, a few years before McQueen committed suicide, in 2010, aged 40, he told his eldest sister Janet that if he were to die he wanted any future biographer to write candidly about him. This was a fitting approach for a man who once declared of his fashion shows, ‘I don’t want to do a cocktail party. I’d rather people left my shows and vomited … I prefer extreme reactions. I want heart attacks. I want ambulances.’
That is not to say that I’ve never had sleepless nights about some of the content in my books. When I was researching the McQueen biography, Blood Beneath the Skin, I came across evidence that the designer, known to his friends as Lee, had been sexually abused as a child. The accounts came from several sources and spoke of the great trauma suffered by Lee at the hands of an unknown man. When I discovered that the perpetrator of the abuse was McQueen’s brother-in-law — Terence Hulyer, the husband of McQueen’s sister, Janet — I did not know what to do. The story was so sensitive that it had the power to destroy lives. And so I put it to Janet, whom I had interviewed many times over the course of two years. I knew the identity of Lee’s abuser, but how did she want me to handle it? I gave her a few different options, including one in which I didn’t mention her husband’s name in the book — after all, Hulyer, who had died in 1985, was the father of Janet’s two sons. But after giving the issue serious thought, Janet — who only learnt of the abuse a couple of years before Lee’s death — came back with a clear answer. In order to understand her brother fully, she said, the truth would have to be told. After all, the issue lay at the very heart of his creativity.
As a boy, Lee would watch his older sister be attacked by the same man who was sexually abusing him. McQueen fused his experience with that of his sister and, later, he felt the need to express the feelings of anger, despair, corruption, guilt and revenge that raged inside him. Janet was the archetypal woman — his original muse — and it was for her that he began making clothes. She was strong, a woman who had experienced horrific beatings, and he wanted to dress her in clothes that would protect her, garments that would serve as armour against the world. ‘I hate this thing about fragility and making women feel naive,’ he once said. ‘I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.’
On its release in 2015, my book was greeted with hostility by some within the insular, profit- and reputation-obsessed clique of the fashion world; yet those outside the industry felt they understood McQueen for the first time. More importantly, Janet released a statement — and went on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour — to say that this was the book that Lee would have wanted to be written. Her blessing almost reduced to me to tears.
However, it could have been so very different. I did not want the biography to be authorised — where a subject or their relatives have the right to veto or erase anything they find objectionable and which often sucks all life out of a project — and so I had not shown any of the contents of the book to Janet or her other siblings during its research. I knew there was a great deal of upsetting material in the biography — details of McQueen’s two failed suicide attempts, his toxic relationships with his boyfriends, his HIV-positive status, his drug use and resulting paranoia. Yet I hoped that my portrait was an empathetic one, an attempt to explore what lay behind the superficial image of ‘the bad boy of British fashion’. I wanted to strip back the many masks that McQueen had created for himself in order to reveal the sensitive, vulnerable, conflicted character beneath.
‘A shilling life will give you all the facts,’ wrote WH Auden in his sonnet Who’s Who. And although the facts need to be there in a biography — who did what and when — the aim is to try to aspire above them to capture the essence of a person. Of course, all good biographers know that the ambition is illusory. We can only know so much about a person, even one who has left as extensive an archive as Highsmith. As she herself outlined, there were certain experiences that she did not write down in her notebooks. These memories were, she said, ‘Fixed in my head/And there they’ll remain/Even after I’m dead.’
This point is explored in Julian Barnes’s 1984 novel Flaubert’s Parrot in a section that uses the image of a net to explore the problems of writing biography. While the net might be used to catch a fish — a subject — it is also filled with holes. Consider what a biographer doesn’t catch, Barnes writes, ‘there is always far more of that … think of everything that got away, that fled with the last death bed exhalation of the biographee.’
It is into this slippery empty gap — the territory outside the realms of the dusty archive or away from the keen eyes of an observant witness — that fiction can ease itself. Here, in this liminal space where facts are limited, a stealthy novelist has a number of advantages over even the most committed biographer.
As a biographer I can tell the life stories of my subjects, but I know I will always be limited by my material. As a novelist I feel that I am free to invent
For example, here are some facts that might be told in a ‘shilling life’ of Agatha Christie, the world’s bestselling novelist and creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. In December 1926, the writer disappeared from her home in Berkshire. Her car was found abandoned at a deserted location near Newlands Corner, Surrey; the vehicle contained only her fur coat and driving licence. An enormous police hunt was launched: 15,000 volunteers, dogs and aeroplanes searched for clues, while the writer’s husband, Colonel Archie Christie, was suspected of murdering his wife so as to be free to marry his mistress. Unknown to the police, Agatha had travelled 230 miles to Harrogate, Yorkshire, where she registered at a hotel under the surname of her husband’s lover. She was finally identified 11 days after she went missing and subsequently diagnosed by psychiatrists as suffering from a serious case of amnesia. In Christie’s 560-page autobiography there is no mention of her disappearance; the writer refused to talk about it and, over the years, it has come to be regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most alluring mysteries: a crime writer who went missing from her own crime scene.
There are two very good biographies of Christie, but neither of them give totally satisfying explanations of the circumstances around the disappearance. I had long been fascinated by Christie; I read many of her novels as a child. My first extended piece of creative writing was an Agatha Christie pastiche, a 46-page story I wrote at the age of 12. And so it seemed like a natural step that I should write a novel, A Talent for Murder, featuring Christie as my central character. I took the ‘facts’ of the disappearance and into the black hole of what we did not know I injected a crime story.
The second in my series of novels featuring Christie, A Different Kind of Evil, is again based on a true event, Agatha’s trip to the Canary Islands in early 1927. Both books blend biographical facts with imaginative playfulness, a combination which I hope goes beyond the trite label of ‘faction’. In each book I write Christie in the first person and one could say that in some respects I ‘become’ her. The desired effect should be one where the reader feels they come to know Agatha — or at least the Agatha of my imagination — intimately, in all her contradictions.
As a biographer I can tell the life stories of my subjects, but I know I will always be limited by my material. As a novelist I feel that I am free to invent, imagine and explore the rich seam of inner consciousness. Woolf investigates this duality in her 1928 novel Orlando. A biography, she writes, is considered complete if it ‘merely accounts for six or seven selves,’ whereas a person, she says, may have thousands, something which, in the end, only fiction has the power to capture.