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Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: The Art of Writing Biographies

I have this wonderful quote from Henry James: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” I’d modify that to: “Never say you know the first word about any human heart.” But that’s what made it so interesting to me. I came to see that you have to go forward, you have to write your book, but I found ignorance liberating. That line from Robert Lowell: “Why not just say what happened?” Well you can’t, really. So what do you do? You think, you interpret, you write in your own voice. It made me think harder about what I wanted to say.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?


James Atlas

Michael Lionstar

It’s a miracle that I wrote this book at all. When I started out, about 2010, I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t describe the book. I would have needed to go to the top of the World Trade Center to give my elevator pitch. And I didn’t have a contract. So it was scary. The genre I had in mind didn’t exist. Was this the autobiography of a biographer? Not really. I didn’t want to be a major figure in the book, and I don’t think I am. I’m in it, but only when I need to be, when something would be incomprehensible without my fleeting presence.

For the first month I was writing it, I couldn’t even sit at my desk, I was too embarrassed, I sat in this rocking chair with a little laptop. It took me five years to find the tone and structure of the book. When I finally got it, it was because I said, Tell a story, just like you do in a biography. Start at the beginning, where you’re in high school and reading and discovering literature, and at the end you’re … not fading out, but you’re fading into the woodwork.

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

The blues singers I grew up listening to in Evanston, Ill., during the ’60s. I’d go to Theresa’s Lounge in Chicago on 48th and Indiana to hear Buddy Guy or Junior Wells. It was beyond authentic. I was 16 or 17. It was a black club, but race didn’t seem to matter. No one cared I was there. I felt utterly at home.

Listening to that music gave me a jolt. These guys were creating art in the same way writers were. I was electrified by Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. They made me realize I was not going to be a lawyer. I was going to do something in the arts.

Persuade someone to read “The Shadow in the Garden” in 50 words or less.

It’s a book that explains how biography works. It shows you the assumptions that are in the background, undeclared and unknown. It’s also, as the title indicates, a tale. It’s rich in character and incident. It was very important to me to be entertaining and instructive.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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