Interview: Kathryn Hughes on biography

Biographer and literary critic Kathryn Hughes convenes the UK’s only MA in Biography and Creative Non-Fiction. She talks to Lauren Razavi about career diversification and shares advice for life writers...

What attracted you to biography?

Actually it crept up on me. I was looking for a subject for my next book and failing to find one. My agent told me that during a recent lunch an editor had mentioned that he thought that the time was right for a new biography of George Eliot. The moment I started writing a biography I realised that the genre was made for me – or perhaps, more modestly, that I was made for the genre. Biography involves detailed archive research with the ability to tell a jolly good story. And those are the two things I like best in the world.

Books, journalism, radio, teaching – your CV is bursting at the seams! Is writing biography naturally supplemented by other projects?

No! I think most writers would say that they’d prefer to be writing books and nothing else. But you have to diversify in order to make a living. The funny thing is that, once you start doing these sidelines, you find that they start contributing rather than detracting from your main work. It does all come together, even though it can feel a bit muddled at the time.

You convene the Biography and Creative Non-Fiction MA course at the University of East Anglia. Is studying biography important for aspiring biographers?

It’s absolutely not essential.People have been writing brilliant biographies for decades without doing a course in it first. University programmes are a new development – academia has always been sniffy about biography, and in many ways that’s still the case. Writing is a terribly solitary business and it’s easy to lose heart and lose direction. A course can keep you on the straight and narrow.

What paths lead writers into biography?

On the MA we’ve had everyone from surgeons to asparagus farmers, psychoanalysts to bartenders. Some people have PhDs in Literature and others have just finished a BA in Computer Studies. Life itself is huge and varied and impossible to predict. So it seems entirely appropriate that biographers should be the same way.

What are the most important skills to develop as a biographer?

Nosiness is a good place to start. When you hear biographers talk about their subject, they can sound like stalkers. That’s a good thing, honestly. Apart from that you need to enjoy detective work – hunting down your subject through dusty old documents, determined not to let them slip away. And then you need to develop what all writers need – a “voice” that is personal to you. As a reader, I want to be as interested in the biographer as the biographee. I want to know what he or she thinks and feels about the story that they are setting out for our entertainment.

How do you decide a subject is interesting enough to write about?

It’s tricky. Biographers make the mistake of thinking that, just because they find their subject fascinating, so will everyone else. On the other hand, if the biographer has a compelling “voice”, they can make anyone compelling to read about. I’m a big fan of biographies that deal with someone not-famous but manage to make them seem like the most fascinating person on earth, like Stuart by Alexander Masters.

What’s your advice for somebody starting a biographical book?

Accept that it’s going to take several years. Biography is a slow, slow business. I research for years before starting to write. My first drafts are all about finding out what the story is. I often have no idea until I start writing how it’s going to turn out.

You have to write every day. You can’t wait for inspiration because it will never come. I get up early and force myself to write 1,000 reasonably polished words a day. Once they’re done, I spend the rest of my day doing what needs to be done – journalism, reading and so forth.

It’s mostly about hard slog and keeping going. You have to have a slightly deluded sense that your biography is the only thing that matters in the world. And a skin like a rhinoceros, for all those occasions you find yourself answering the question, “Do we really need another biography of Byron or Princess Diana?” The answer is, “Yes – for the simple reason that I’m writing it”.

Originally published by IdeasTap. Image above courtesy of Kathryn Hughes.

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