For his most recent book, Truthful Fictions: Conversations with American Biographical Novelists, Michael Lackey interviewed 16 renowned authors who collectively have garnered prestigious prizes, fellowships and fame as well as international accolades (and controversy, as with Sherry Jones’ 2008 novel The Jewel of Medina). During private, in-person interviews, Lackey plumbed the minds of such celebrated authors as Julia Alvarez, Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Cunningham and Jay Parini, among others, with the goal of uncovering how the biographical novel came of age to reach its level of escalating popularity today.
With the abundance of best-selling biographical fictions in the past decade, such as Anne Enright’s The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch and Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, “one could safely say that the biographical novel is one of the dominant literary forms today,” Lackey noted.
Thanks to funding from the University of Minnesota, Lackey was able to travel to the authors’ hometowns and speak with them in person. Over one year, he flew or drove to Miami; New York City; Boston; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; Nashville; Middlebury, Vt.; Rochester and Plattsburgh, N.Y.; Spokane, Wash.; and Minneapolis.
A scholar of 20th- and 21st-century intellectual, political and literary history, he teaches courses such as Holocaust Literature and Film, The American Biographical Novel, The Harlem Renaissance and In Search of Nietzsche. He graduated from St. Thomas in 1986 with a major in English and a minor in philosophy.
Lackey, professor of English at the University of Minnesota-Morris, also is the author of The Modernist God State: A Literary Study of the Nazis’ Christian Reich and African American Atheists and Political Liberation: A Study of the Socio-Cultural Dynamics of Faith, which won the Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Title in 2008.
He spent some time with the Newsroom discussing the rise of the biographical novel and his experience conversing with 16 authors of note.
What motivated you to pursue this project?
I first took an interest in the biographical novel during the summer of 2011, and Truthful Fictions was published in February of 2014. Everything started when I read Jay Parini’s biographical novel about the Jewish scholar/cultural critic Walter Benjamin. I was struck by the way Jay blended fact and fiction. He describes the last year of Benjamin’s life when he was fleeing the Nazis, but he invents a character in order to help readers understand what Benjamin experienced during that time. I contacted Jay to see if he would be willing to give a lecture at my university about the biographical novel, and he agreed to do so. In the meantime, I started reading more biographical novels, such as Bruce Duffy’s The World as I Found It, which is about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Lance Olsen’s Nietzsche’s Kisses, which is about Friedrich Nietzsche. A year after reading Jay’s novel, I hosted and moderated a public forum at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Advanced Study with Parini, Duffy, and Olsen on the topic of “The Uses of History in the Biographical Novel.” At that time, I also interviewed all three writers separately, and it was then that I realized that this could be a book. From that point, it only took me one year to complete the project. In all, it took me about two-and-a-half years to get the book published.
Did your studies at St. Thomas prepare you at all for the work you did or are doing on the biographical novel?
Yes, definitely. As a college student, I used a lot of what I learned in my theology classes to help me analyze and interpret the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was a Catholic priest. Hopkins wrote many brilliant and memorable poems, but one of the most poignant was “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” which tells the story of five nuns who were expelled from Germany and decided to emigrate to the United States. Unfortunately, their ship crashed and they all died. Hopkins was devastated by this event. He struggled to reconcile his belief in the providential design of a loving God and the horrific reality of the nuns’ untimely deaths. One of the most important essays I wrote while at St. Thomas was about Hopkins and his crisis of faith as depicted in “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” In 2008, the Catholic writer Ron Hansen authored a biographical novel about the time period in Hopkins’ life when he was writing his poem about the five nuns. Ron intelligently and convincingly gives readers access to Hopkins’ inner life at this decisive moment in his career as both a priest and a poet. Without my training in theology and literature at St. Thomas, I’m sure my interview with Ron would have been less informed.
Where were the interviews held once you arrived in the authors’ cities?
Most of the interviews were in the authors’ homes, and the writers were extremely welcoming and generous. For instance, Anita Diamant, the author of the feminist biographical novel The Red Tent about the Old Testament figure of Dinah, had me conduct the interview at her dining room table. Anita’s book sold more than two million copies, and when I asked her if it had been translated into many languages, she took me to a bookcase in her living room which was filled with copies of the novel in more than 25 languages. Almost all the writers treated me more like a friend than a scholar. But this is probably because we had extensive email contact before the interview.
Was every author amenable to helping you with your book?
Almost every author was excited about the project; however, I could not get a response from David Mamet, who wrote a very powerful biographical novel about Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman who was lynched in the South for supposedly raping a young girl. We now know that Frank was innocent. I tried many times to contact Mamet, but he never responded.
I was able to get interviews with famous writers like Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, and Julia Alvarez mainly because of Parini, who is friends with all of these writers. Without Jay’s connections, I don’t think I would have been able to secure interviews with such major figures.
If you were to write a biographical novel, who would you choose as your subject? And have you written fiction?
I have never written fiction and I have no interest in doing so. This project started when I was working on a biography about the African-American intellectual, J. Saunders Redding. I had written about three chapters, but then I realized: I don’t know how to write a biography. At that point, my wife suggested that I read Jay Parini’s biographical novel about Walter Benjamin, which led me to abandon the Redding biography and to start my project about the biographical novel.
The biographical novel that I would like to see written would be about the black writer Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was a charismatic person, always the life of a party. She had a rough life, but she was ultimately an optimist. Take, for instance, this fact: Hurston worked for the white writer Fannie Hurst, who authored the novel Imitation of Life. This work earned Hurst a fortune, though few people today have heard about it. By stark contrast, Hurston earned just a few hundred dollars for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is now considered an American classic and frequently taught at most universities. How could Hurston manage her rage given the flagrant injustice of the universe? How could she continue to write even though she was never properly compensated for her labor? I would love to read a biographical novel that would give me access to the interior life of an extraordinary person like Hurston.
How did you narrow your list down to the 16 authors you ultimately selected for the Truthful Fictions? Were there any novels you would have liked to include that aren’t in your book?
Hundreds of biographical novels have been published over the last 30 years, but I focused on the authors who did something original or groundbreaking. For instance, Parini published in 1990 The Last Station, which is about Leo Tolstoy and was made into a Hollywood film starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer. To picture Tolstoy’s life, Jay has five or six different narrators tell Tolstoy’s story, and they sometimes contradict each other. This gives readers a rich but conflicted perspective of Tolstoy. All of my authors had a unique approach to their subject matter, which is how I determined who to interview.
The person I would have most liked to interview was Jerome Charyn, who wrote a spectacular biographical novel about Emily Dickinson (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson). Unfortunately, I discovered his novel too late.
Speaking of Parini, you wrote in the Acknowledgements of your book that it was Parini’s biographical novel Benjamin’s Crossing that compelled you to take a closer look at “the rich power of this aesthetic form.” Could you elaborate on that influence?
The biographical novel is unique in that it blends two seemingly contradictory activities, the nonfictional act of accurately representing a person’s life and the fictional act of inventing characters and scenes. If the author merely describes a person’s life, then the work, no matter how well written, would be just a biography. And if the author does not base the creative work on an actual historical person, then the work would be a novel, but not a biographical novel. What makes a biographical novel effective is its believability. For instance, we know that Marilyn Monroe and JFK had an affair, but we know little about what happened behind closed doors. In the brilliant novel Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates gives us a fictional version of the private and intimate moments between Monroe and JFK. In essence, she does what a biographer would never do. But her fictional version strikes many as plausible, because she has a commanding grasp of her characters’ inner lives – she certainly did her research about Monroe and JFK. Biographical novelists believe that they can use fiction to answer important biographical and historical questions that were once considered unanswerable.
Was there a consensus among the authors you interviewed regarding the liberties a biographical novelist may take?
Consistent among my writers is the stratification of “truth.” They all alter facts about a person’s life, but only if it enables them to express a more important truth, such as a political or psychological truth. Let me give you an example from Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, which is about the lives of the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic. In the mid-twentieth century, the country was run by the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who frequently used young girls for his own personal satisfaction. Trujillo took a particular interest in Minerva Mirabal, who was repulsed by the older man’s advances. At a formal party, Trujillo clearly made an indecent remark to Minerva, which prompted her, so the story goes, to slap him so hard that it left an imprint on his face. But in a discussion with the surviving Mirabal sister, Julia was told that the slap never occurred. It was just part of Dominican folklore. And yet, Julia decided to keep the slap in the novel. Why? Through the story of the Mirabal sisters, Julia could express some important political and psychological truths. Men in the late 1950s felt that they were entitled, that they could take all kinds of liberties with women. How could Julia express the psychological rage that women felt about the political system that allowed men to violate women with psychological and legal impunity? The slap, while literally untrue, expresses a psychological truth that women experienced about the unjust political system in which they lived. My biographical novelists agree on this principle: it is permissible to alter historical fact, so long as the writer remains faithful to more important symbolic truths.
In your interview with Julia Alvarez you tell her your reason behind your project: to find out why the biographical novel came into being. What answers did you glean from your interviews?
In my estimation, Russell Banks gave me one of the best answers to this question. While contemporary biographical novelists seem to be writing about the past, they are really writing about the present. For instance, in his stupendous novel Cloudsplitter, which is narrated by the son (Owen) of the abolitionist John Brown, Banks made the character of Owen a homosexual. I asked Banks if there was any evidence to justify this characterization. He said there was not. So I asked him why he decided to take this liberty. He told me that there are significant parallels between the prejudices against blacks and gays, and he wanted to picture in his novel how racism creates the same kind of cultural pathologies as homophobia. So while Cloudsplitter is seemingly about the racial hatred of the 19th century, it is also about the homophobia of today.
Among my writers, there is the conviction that knowing the oppressive structures of the past will enable us to identify and perhaps overcome some of the oppressive structures in the present. So the biographical novel is really an attempt to bring about cultural well-being and social justice.
What are some of the reasons your writers gave for their enjoyment of writing biographical fiction?
My writers expressed more satisfaction than enjoyment in what they were doing. In the novel Wintering, Kate Moses vividly pictures the last year of Sylvia Plath’s life. This is when Plath was writing her groundbreaking volume of poetry Ariel. Kate told me that something puzzled her. The original volume of Ariel concludes on an optimistic note, while the version of Ariel that first got published ended in despair. This was the case because after Plath’s suicide, her husband, Ted Hughes, rearranged the volume, so what readers got for many years was Hughes’ version of Ariel, and not Plath’s. What prompted Hughes to make the specific changes he made to Ariel? Hughes’ Ariel makes it seem like Plath always had a suicidal impulse, while Plath’s Ariel suggests that she ultimately triumphed over that impulse. To correct the biographical record, Kate wrote Wintering, which gives readers a very different perspective of Plath than the one we get in the pages of Hughes’ version of Ariel. For Kate, writing Wintering was deeply satisfying because she was able to recover Plath’s poetry and story.
You interview many prominent authors of best-selling books. Although you have had five of your own books published, were you ever starstruck or intimidated?
It’s true that at this point in my career, I am not as intimidated by famous writers as I would have been in 2007, when I published my first book. During the interviews, the dominant emotion I experienced was thrill or excitement, a kind of intellectual intoxication from working with writers who share my passion for understanding how literature illuminates history and life.
Describe your anticipation in writing this book. You must’ve felt like a kid in a candy store being able to invent your project, pick the brains of these authors and chat privately with 16 of them!
There was certainly excitement in the anticipation, but it was less about interacting with my writers than answering some perplexing questions. There have been some radical shifts in our theories of knowledge that have enabled authors to write biographical novels and readers to accept and appreciate them. But what exactly were those shifts? What led to them? And how have those shifts altered the way we understand literature, history and politics? It was in anticipation of getting answers to these questions that I got most excited.
At least one of the writers you interviewed noted that the lives and personal nuances of biography subjects warrant some tinkering to give any written narrative of their lives the dramatic oomph needed to maintain readers’ attentions. In your opinion, are there any historic figures who have lived lives dynamic/extraordinary enough that no historical tinkering is necessary?
This question gets to one of the major dilemmas with regard to defining the biographical novel. If an author merely describes the details of a person’s life, even if they are totally captivating details, then that work would qualify as a biography but not a biographical novel. This explains why Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song would not qualify as biographical novels. To put the matter simply, what qualifies a biographical novel as fiction is creative license. Eliminate the creative license, and you no longer have a novel.