In his Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of American aviator Charles Lindbergh, author A. Scott Berg begins page one not with Lindbergh’s birth but with a buzzing crowd in Paris. Lindbergh, hoping to be the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic nonstop, has not been seen since he left New York twenty-four hours earlier. Was he lost? Had he crashed? As spotters finally see him first over Ireland, then England and then Northern France, the celebrating crowd grows until it paralyzes the city infrastructure as Lindbergh lands and cements his place in history.
Beginning with the definitive moment in someone’s life is a biographer’s trick. It is also a tip for all writers wishing to capture a reader’s attention instantly. This fall, more than the usual amount of high-profile biographies, memoirs and autobiographies are being published. I list five of the most anticipated releases below. First, I’ll review definitions and list some questions to help you read these new titles like a writer.
Lindbergh is a classic example of biography. It is the complete, detailed story of Charles Lindbergh’s life written by an outside author. A. Scott Berg conducted extensive research to get to know his subject. He interviewed family members and tracked down primary sources such as letters and diaries. The result is a formal, thorough picture of an individual with verification to back it up.
Sometimes, a biography is published that has the word “unauthorized” in its subtitle. That means the author did not have the cooperation of the subject or the subject’s family members. If any interviews were done, they are usually with people well outside the subject’s inner circle. For example, a neighbor who once lived in the same apartment complex but had limited interaction with the person. Research is usually limited to secondary, and sometimes questionable sources, such as magazine articles and blog posts. These books are less detailed, more gossipy products such as Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography by Andrew Morton or Kitty Kelley’s books about Oprah Winfrey, the British royal family and Nancy Reagan.
We all remember from grade school that autobiography is someone’s life story written by the person who lived it (auto=self + bio=life + graph=writing). It encompasses the person’s entire life up to the time of publication, is chronological, and written in the first person. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is such a work. Douglass begins by stating he is unsure of the exact year of his birth. His earliest memories are of his mother’s secret nighttime visits to him, a young slave boy ripped from family and sent to a different plantation. He then recounts his pre-teen years in Baltimore where he was introduced to reading, several barely survivable plantations in his late teens and twenties, and his eventual escape and abolitionist work as an adult.
Where the line gets blurry, however, is when it comes to memoir. Bookstores place memoirs, biographies and autobiographies all on the same shelves. An English major, however, will tell you that memoirs are distinct. Traditionally, a memoir looks at only one portion of a person’s life—a “memory.” Events may flow freely in a randomized fashion with large doses of reflection carefully added. This recipe yields a more literary interpretation of a time or era. One of the most celebrated memoirs is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Remembering the year following her husband’s death, she writes:
“This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”
After determining if the work is a biography, autobiography or memoir, here are other brain ticklers for you to entertain.
- How did the author choose to start? Chronologically or with a defining moment? Is it effective enough to grab a reader’s attention?
- What’s the ending like? Is something from the beginning mirrored at the end? Screenwriters call this a frame. An example of this can again be seen in the Lindbergh biography. Early on, the author mentions the particular shade of blue sky sometimes seen in Sweden, the home of Lindbergh’s ancestors. He concludes the book with Lindbergh’s burial in Hawaii under a similarly colored sky.
- Where did the author get their information? Personal experience, interviews, primary or secondary sources? Did their research methods make the account more or less believable?
- If references and footnotes are used, where are they placed? Does the placement add to or detract from the flow of the narrative?
- Are there any extraneous details that could have been left out? For example, I despise extensive genealogies that don’t shed new light on a person. A good rule of thumb is to go only one or two generations back. To the contrary, was there something vital left out that would have given a more complete understanding of the person?
And Finally…The New Releases
Becoming by Michelle Obama
The former First Lady discusses the people and events that transformed her into the person she is today. Expect a lot of buzz when this book is available in November. Obama is even traveling around the country to meet readers and answer their questions.
The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King
While hard to believe, this is the first biography of the children’s television pioneer. The author, a former journalist, did thorough archival research to paint a vibrant picture of the man we knew only through the television screen.
In Pieces by Sally Field
The academy-award winning actress examines her painful childhood and how it impacted her fifty-year acting career. Although she mentions famous people she met along the way, her honest contemplations about family make this the most literary memoir of the fall.
Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton by Tilar J. Mazzeo
When Ron Chernow wrote a biography of Alexander Hamilton in 2005, he had no idea it would produce one of the most successful musicals of all time. Until now, little has been written about Eliza Hamilton except for historical fiction and children’s works. In this biography by Tilar J. Mazzeo, we find out what became of Eliza after her husband’s death by duel.
Place of Gold: Coming of Age with South Africa by Trevor Noah
Readers are still devouring Noah’s first memoir Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. If you wondered how Noah rose from apartheid to host of The Daily Show, this second installment will provide some clues. Since Noah is multilingual, this would be a good—and beautiful—title to listen to in audio version.
Perusing someone’s life story provides an excellent opportunity to read like a writer. When an author combines life-defining moments with solid research, a biography can be both informative and illuminating. For more examples, check out Amazon’s list of 100 Biographies & Memoirs to Read in a Lifetime.
Terri Frank is a professional librarian and holds a Master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Michigan. When she’s not working in a library, she’s probably visiting a library with her husband and two kids. Her current writing projects include a novel about a tuberculosis sanitorium.