We loved Robert K. Massie’s essay for the NY Times on the pain of a biographer leaving his or her subject behind. During our interview, he told me he didn’t think he could write about a person he didn’t respect, and here he explains a little bit about why, while including some priceless insight into writing biography.
Setting out to describe a figure from the past, an author has to reach beyond names, places and dates and try to bring a human being back to life. The author does this by becoming an invisible daily witness, standing at the subject’s elbow, listening to the subject’s conversations, observing smiles and frowns, then using the advantage of hindsight to judge harshly when disapproving, indulgently when understanding.
But there was a bonus: The essay included updates on what some of our favorite biographers are doing now. Stacy Schiff is working on a book about the Salem witch trials. Brenda Wineapple has started writing “a history of American literature and culture from 1840 to 1870.” And Doris Kearns Goodwin has turned to Teddy Roosevelt. No word, of course, on when any of these books will be published.
Which begs the question: What is Robert K. Massie working on next? He wouldn’t say when we spoke—it seemed like he was still weighing options—and if a topic has been selected, he doesn’t reveal it here, either. Inquiring minds (OK, rabid fans) want to know, Bob!
Who is your favorite biographer, and which historical figure do you wish he or she would cover? Any requests for Mr. Massie?