Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Falling In Love With Dead People

My friend Pamela Curtis Swallow is writing a biography of her relative Ellen Swallow Richards. This is how our conversations go lately:

Me: Pam, could you please pass the salt?
Pam: Salt comes from mines, Deb, and did you know that Ellen Swallow Richards was the first woman member of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers?”
Me: Really?
Pam: Also Ellen was the first woman admitted to M.I.T. and did you know that she founded the first health food take-out restaurant and was the founder of Home Economics?
Me: Pam?
Pam: Deb, it all comes down to Ellen.

Pam is besotted. She talks about Ellen all the time. Did I mention she also giggles when she talks about Ellen sometimes? She is completely obsessed. And this is how it should be.

I have written four biographies and each time I fell in love. It wasn’t always love at first sight, and sometimes I had to fight to stay in love. But love it was. And being in love with your subject serves an author very well. Because when the road gets bumpy, love keeps you going.

My first love affair was with Barbara McClintock. I had heard of Barbara back when I was an editor at Scholastic News (See Karen Romano Young’s post of March 5, 2009). McClintock won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of jumping genes and we ran a photo of her holding up an ear of maize, the plant she worked with. A few years later, I was thinking about how much I loved biographies as a kid and I decided I wanted to write one about Barbara McClintock. She had won the Nobel Prize for work she had done three decades earlier and when she finally won, interviewers asked her, "Wasn’t it hard that nobody believed you for all these years?" She answered she knew she was right, and “it would all come out in the wash.” What kind of person believes in herself so much that she keeps on working despite the fact that nobody believes her? I had to write about her so I could find out what made her tick.

I read the first chapter of an adult biography of her, called A Feeling For the Organism by Evelyn Fox Keller, which gave some insight into McClintock as a person, and I was hooked. I wrote a proposal, got a contract, and then read the next chapters of Keller’s book and realized I couldn’t understand the science AT ALL. The short arm of chromosome number 9? What is a chromosome? Jumping genes? What is a gene? How do they work? I had barely taken any science since 9th grade biology. I wanted to give my advance money back. But of course I had already spent it on diapers and cheerios and printer ink. I had to write the book.

Besides, I was already in love, which was a very good thing because I stayed up late many nights giving myself a crash a crash course in genetics so I could write the book.

Love makes you do crazy things. Love made a telemarketer give me her rendition of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” when I told her I was on a deadline writing a biography of John F. Kennedy. Love made me write a first draft of said book, High Hopes, in six weeks, as my editor begged me to. Love made me, the only girl who didn’t get into the sixth grade chorus, sing the lyrics to J.F.K.'s campaign song “High Hopes” with Tita Cahn (“Sing it with me, Deborah!”), widow of Sammy Cahn, so I could get permission to use the lyrics in the book. And love made me agree to write the book in the first place even though I knew I would find out things about John F. Kennedy I did not like. (O.K., love and a decent advance.)

So what do you do when you find out things about your person you don’t like? You take a deep breath and say, I am a biographer. I am not, actually, marrying the person. (Not that the people we marry are perfect, either.) You tell yourself that you are obliged to give a full portrait of your subject. And you want to. Within limits, when you are writing for kids.

Writing is all about choices. Did I write about J.F.K.'s extramarital affairs? No. Not only was it not relevant for kids, it was not an integral part of the story I was telling. Did I write about the fact that he and his family covered up his poor health so he could win the election? Yes, absolutely. It was an integral part of the story: his illness and the decision to cover it up shows who John F. Kennedy was. When kids read the book I hope they come away with a sense of the real person – a boy who grew up in a large family in the shadow of his older brother, and overcame illness to become President of the United States. I must admit I was glad I couldn’t write about the affairs.

Love can be hard. Love is hard when your subject dies. I spent many years thinking about, researching, and writing about Charles and Emma Darwin for Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith. And every time I read or wrote about Charles or Emma dying, I cried. As time went on my tears did not lessen. Because as time went on I was more deeply in love.
By the time I was writing what would be my almost final draft, I started sobbing uncontrollably when Charles died. This moment coincided with our younger son packing to go to college. Everyone in my family knows I do not deal well with separation. Benjamin was only moving 13 blocks uptown, but he was moving out and we all knew things would change. So Benjamin assumed I was crying about him. He came into my office, patted me on the back, and said, “There, there, Mom, I’ll see you soon,” and I said, between sobs, “It’s not you. Charles Darwin died.” Benjamin has not yet forgiven me, and he’s a sophomore. My husband likes to tell the story that months later, when I got to Charles’s death again, this time in galleys (of my OWN book), I whispered to myself, “Maybe this time Charles won’t die.”

I wasn’t always in love with Charles Darwin, and I barely knew he had a wife. My husband sort of owned Darwin in our family. But one day he (husband, not Charles) said to me, “Did you know that Charles Darwin’s wife was religious? And they loved each other very much. She was upset that he would go to hell and they would be separated for eternity.” I fell in love with the subject immediately: marriage, science and religion, God, devotion, death… I knew I had a book to write. Now I just had to fall in love with Charles and Emma themselves. Primary sources were the way in. I read (and as the research went on, read and read again) a two-volume book called Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters. There is no surer way to love than through someone’s personal correspondence—assuming, of course, that person is wonderful and articulate and funny and kind and spunky and true and (oh, dear, stop me). I was in love with Emma.

Next I read Charles Darwin’s autobiography and then his journals, and letters, and the same thing happened. I fell in love with him, too. Irrevocably. How can you not love a man who writes in a private notebook, “But why does joy, & OTHER EMOTION make grown up people cry.—What is emotion?” while he’s thinking about the theory of evolution? And writes to Emma around the same time, “I long for the day when we shall enter the house together. How glorious it will be to see you seated by the fire of our own house.”

Darwin was “one of the true Good Guys of history,” as the woman who helped put together the Darwin show at the American Museum of Natural History said to me after my book was published. He was a terrific husband (and Emma deserved that!) and an attentive and loving father. Charles and Emma had a wonderful marriage, which was a profound influence on his work. When he finally wrote The Origin of Species, it was a different book than it would have been had he not been married to Emma. Although Charles Darwin saw wars in nature he also saw the beauty and--



But I can't help it. I'm in love.


Jeannine said...

Thanks for the funny and heartfelt post. I can't wait to read Charles and Emma after this, and alll the great reviews (my own current love is getting in the way of other reading, but summer is coming!)

Jeannine Atkins

Fortunate One said...

You know, I had just returned Charles and Emma to the library when it become apparent that I didn't have the time right now to read it, but now I will wait a respectable amount of time before requesting it again. Thank you, Deb, for your light-hearted but sincere "confession" of a passionate author. I'm sure that passion and besottedness comes out in the text. I know just the person to share this with.

MJ Murphy

lisa said...

I loved learning about Emma Darwin, thought your book was very nicely done, Deborah. But I'm curious: what were the discussions surrounding the decision to have your husband, Jonathan Weiner, write the foreword? Did you or your editors see that as a potential conflict of interest? He's absolutely qualified to recommend a book about Darwin -- his own book, The Beak of the Finch, was brilliant -- but as your spouse, he might be seen as having a vested interest in the book's success.

Barbara Kerley said...

Loved this post! I had never thought of the passion-behind-the-book process in quite this way before, but you nailed it.

Deborah Heiligman said...

Lisa, you know it's funny. I worried about it, but I was the only one who did. And you are literally the first person I know of who has questioned it. So I guess it was O.K. I think maybe most people saw it just as romantic, which it really was.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Deb! How could I not love this post? After all, we both fell in love with the same guy. I know exactly what you mean...I get blown away by the folks I write about too and I'd defend a couple of them to the death, especially if they've been maligned unfairly for the last gazillion years. I also want to invite them all to dinner so I can see if my takes on their personalities were correct. It's one thing to read every single word my subjects wrote, but I sure would love to check them out in action.