Natalie Bober is an award-winning and critically acclaimed biographer and historian. She is the author of eight books of nonfiction, most recently Adventures of a Biographer. Her book Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution was the winner of both the Boston Globe/Golden Horn award for nonfiction and the Golden Kite Award. Her biography Thomas Jefferson: Draftsman of a Nation led to her consulting for and appearing as a historian on the PBS documentary Thomas Jefferson. In addition to publishing biographies for adult readers, Bober has also written them for young readers, including Papa Was a Poet, about Robert Frost, and Marc Chagall: Painter of Dreams. Bober currently lives and works in New York City.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing? And how has this helped you as a writer?
As a biographer, I have learned to write nonfiction that is absolutely accurate yet reads like a novel and keeps the reader turning the pages.
Since I stumbled into the role of biographer quite by accident, writing lives – and the research it entails – has been an exciting adventure. As I read, interview, travel, and study the work my subjects produced – be it paintings or poetry, personal letters or the Declaration of Independence – trying to build bridges into their minds and their hearts, to see and hear and feel what they did, I never know what I will discover. I must study the past with a revealing searchlight, all the while looking for details. Like a hog digging for truffles, I’m always after those dark, hidden morsels.
For a writer to breathe life into people who lived a long time ago, she must eavesdrop across the centuries to find the details that give the past a pulse and that help the reader see it and understand it. It’s the search for these details that is often the most interesting part of the process for me. Indeed, it is the challenge of recreating a life from details and making a story out of the chaos of reality that has kept me on a perpetual treasure hunt.
I have learned to think of myself as a portrait painter, but a painter whose palette is words. The painter recreates on canvas the visual appearance of a person. A fine biographer sets her subject against the canvas of history and makes the reader feel the presence of a real person behind the great artist or statesman. The story becomes, then, not simply the life of a subject, but the portrait of an era as well. In this way, biography becomes a prism of history. In fact, biography has been described as the human heart of history. The biographer, then, becomes a historian as well as a portrait painter.
But the biographer must be a storyteller as well – a storyteller whose facts are accurate. Research and documentation must be thorough and meticulous. A good biographer is under oath to interpret the material she has gathered honestly, for if I paint a picture colored by my priorities, it is a false one.
I must be careful that the biography I am writing doesn’t become just a dull list of facts. The personality of the hero or heroine must shine through. This is where the art comes in. I must select and arrange the details I have gathered in my research into a story that draws readers in and keeps them turning the pages as though they were reading a fine novel. Good writing not only conveys information, it has balance, form, and grace. It becomes a work of art.
In writing, I am constantly bewitched by the rhythm and sound of the words, and by the interaction of their sound and sense. I always read my work aloud. It is only then that I can tell if it’s alive.
I have learned, too, that in my biographies, I was better able to describe certain aspects of my subjects’ lives as they related to my own. For only when a book is written out of passion will a reader respond with passion. I think of Robert Frost, who said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
—Gabriel Packard is the associate director of the creative writing MFA program at Hunter College in New York City and also the author of The Painted Ocean: A Novel, published earlier this year by Corsair/Hachette.