TM: Leon Edel, the biographer of Henry James, used to say that writing a biography is a little like falling in love. Would you agree with that?
SD: That’s a dodgy issue. If you fall in love with your subject, you can so identify with your subject that you lose something of your own self to it. The first two biographers of Malcolm Lowry, who was a suicide, they both killed themselves. Maybe they had that inclination to begin with. But there is this sense of falling out of one’s own personality into someone else’s. That can happen.
TM: There are also cases where the biographer comes to loathe the subject.
TM: Look at Geoffrey Wolff writing about John O’Hara. That was a dark book. I saw Wolff give a talk in New York once, and he said he came to a point where he despised the man.
SD: I hadn’t heard that about Geoffrey, that’s interesting. Another case like that would be Jonathan Yardley writing a biography of Frederick Exley, and ending up hating the guy. There wasn’t much to like about him as a person, but he did some wonderful writing.
…TM: Why the impossible craft?
SD: Well, because if you try to construct the ideal figure for a biographer, you realize he or she has to be so many different kinds of things that no human being could possibly achieve. You’ve got to be a detective, you’ve got to be a drudge, tracking down every possible fact you can; at the same time you’ve got to be insightful as hell, you have to be psychologically acute, you have to take an objective view of things without losing sympathy for your subject. You don’t have to be unnecessarily tough. There’s a blurb from Peter Matthiessen on the back of my Fenton book that says I was tough where I needed to be. And that’s good. You want to be honest and tell the whole story, you don’t want it to be wrapped in any more concealments than are necessary, if any are. And let’s say that the most important reason of all it’s an impossible craft is that you cannot know what someone else’s life was like. You can try to come close. Charlie Fenton’s brother said to me recently that he thinks I caught Charlie. Well, that’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. That’s what you want to do.