On Monday, November 8, the latest installment of the Adamson Visiting Writers Series welcomed Australian biographer Hazel Rowley. In her discussion, Rowley described her frustrations in writing about dead people and the greater frustrations of writing about the living.
The distinguished-looking Rowley, dressed in a black blazer and a crimson turtleneck, began her discussion by lifting one of her textbook-sized biographies from the Adamson Wing podium.
"I've learned not to write such silly thick books," she said. She proceeded to explain that writing a biography is not like writing a fat textbook. It is not just a string of facts, but a narrative. In this manner,Rowley stressed her philosophy that biography should be like fiction in the way that plot and narrative are developed. As an example, she briefly described her experience in writing Christina Stead: A Biography, which narrated the life of the Australian author.
Rowley also focused on her process of writing Richard Wright: The Life and Times and her upcoming biography on the relationship between French writer/philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. To develop this most recent biography project on Sartre and Beauvoir, Rowley traveled to France to interview them. The interviews allowed her to understand the men through their own voices, and to became a first-hand source with direct dialogue quotations. With this direct research she described the events of the men's lives with authority and details that make her narrative more authentic. Rowley stressed the importance of interviewing or reading sources about not only the subject of the biography, but also other people in their life. These other people become characters in the narrative and therefore the biographer must understand them and their voices as well as that of the subject.
For example, to write the biography of Wright, a prominent, mid-century African American writer from Mississippi, Rowley moved to the United States. As an outsider, she saw our country as a melting pot, and felt that "race relations were the most important and bewildering issue" in regards to the biography. When she got here, though, she found American race relations "full of anguish. I saw a different America. It changed my life." She mentioned, for example, in Austin, Texas, "I-35 cuts white from Hispanics."
Moving to the United States helped her understand the race dynamic that she felt was central to her narrative. Although she said that research is vital to the biography process, Rowley also said that getting required permissions often isn't easy. For example, when writing about deceased subjects, a biographer must get permission from their literary executor to quote from personal correspondence. These executors tend to have more than a moral obligation to obey the wishes of the deceased. The biographer must therefore watch out for copyright lawsuits.Wright's executor is his wife. Although it may seem difficult to research the lives of the dead, Rowley said that it's even tougher to research the living. When researching living subjects, she said, that it's important to interview everyone in their lives. This includes wives, lovers, and mistresses.
"Stuff comes out, and they'd rather be dead. It's far easier to do dead people. There's plenty of them."
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