Q & A with Debby Applegate

  • May 24, 2011

Debby Applegate won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Doubleday). She’s at work now on Madam: The Notorious Life and Times of Polly Adler, forthcoming from Knopf. Charles Shields spoke with her about making history and biography vivid.

Interview by Charles J. Shields

How has the jump from writing about the life of a Yankee preacher to a New York madam affected your style?

I’ve been trying to shake the Harriet Beecher Stowe out of my voice and sound a little more like Damon Runyon, which is not so easy. I’ve been reading a little about Frank Sinatra, because Polly Adler, like so many shtetl kids went from New York out to California for her retirement. And I find that hanging around the Rat Pack has really ring-a-ding-dinged my writing style. I’m on a self-study program of old gangster movies and Broadway musicals because that was her business— a lot of entertainers. I can tell that the immersion is working because I used to start my long, procrastinating with “I apologize for being so remiss….” Now I begin, “I feel like such a heel…”

Do you use any techniques of fiction in your writing?

I do. When I turned in the first few chapters of the book on Beecher, they were just horrible. And the editor was shocked, I’m sure, when she realized the level of help she needed to give.

Did you have any idea what was wrong with your first few chapters of the book on Henry Ward Beecher?

No, no. It turned out I had mastered the style of academic writing, which I learned in graduate school, and I had mastered how to write a proposal. I went through seven drafts of my proposal with my agent, Susan Rabiner, who puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of proposals. But I had oversold the book, I would say, because I had absolutely no idea how to write a book that people would want to read.

So I realized I was going to have to teach myself— but I imagine that’s how it goes for everyone. I went to the Yale library near my home and checked out every book I could find, at first, on how to write biographies. But they were collections of essays or they would become theoretical. So finally, I thought, “What is the point?” And the answer was, “I wanted to engage the reader.” It was clarifying and felt incredibly freeing. And second, “What’s the key to keeping people’s interest?” It’s suspense—one way or the other. Getting someone to care enough about what’s happening to turn the page.

Did you begin looking out for juicy things or anecdotes from your research that would maintain readers’ interests?

No, not at first. I just thought everything was interesting! That was the problem with my first draft: “and then this interesting thing happened, and then this interesting thing.” Calling it “heavily chronological” was the kindest thing you could say about the way I was writing.

Why was it hard for someone with an academic background to develop a storytelling voice?

One thing I had going for me during my PhD. in American studies is that I am a serious bookworm. So something I studied for my dissertation, which ultimately became my book on Beecher, was the relationship between the novel as a social form, a technology, and the middle class. Beecher was the first preacher to write a novel; his sister was a famous novelist; novel-reading was becoming an acceptable social pastime for the middle class, and there was an explosion of technology in printing and binding that brought about the mass production of books. What I wanted to know, as I researched my dissertation, was “What is the novel, and why does it work? What is it about pulped wood and ink that can move people?” That at least helped me later as I was learning how to write for a popular audience. I didn’t think, though, that I could ever become an author. I thought they had magic powers.

Did you have to give yourself permission to write like a storyteller instead of an academician?

Believe me, the problem was not that I was secretly repressing my fantastic inner voice. No, the problem was that I needed to learn the basics. I’m a structuralist: I’m not a lyricist, and I’m not great at describing. I had to break down what writers were doing so that I could do it.

What did you find?

The plot or drama of a novel comes down to people who speak and think differently— who represent big slices of society— rubbing up against one another in conversation or in conflict. That’s what creates a world. I believe that one of the ways to handle ideas in a biography is to ruthlessly anthropomorphize and find characters who speak those ideas or resist them. That makes ideas move through time and culture as voices carrying ideas.

I’m not a person of faith, for instance, but religious revivalism was an important part of the era when Beecher lived. So I found people could state their beliefs, and others who could rebut beliefs. That way, you can make the best possible case for a variety of interpretations.

All right, but you said you prefer to learn by analyzing structure. Did you study how novels are structured?

So now the challenge was how to link suspense and ideas to make the story move. I read books on how to write thrillers, how to write mystery novels, I got a really great book on how to write pornography, because I wanted to move readers. And I did the exercises, and started a little writing apprenticeship program for myself.

Did you think you might be overstepping your bounds as a biographer, borrowing techniques from fiction writers? Does storytelling come at the cost of truth?

No, of course not! Fiction isn’t meant to fool people, it’s meant to fool the senses. You’re trying to enlist as many senses in the act of reading as you can. You’re trying to inspire as many “Ah-ha’s!” of recognition as you can. That empathy on the part of a reader for the subject of a biography is what brings to life the person you’re writing about.

Ultimately, though, by using a variety of voices, expressing different ideas, I let the reader decide what is the truth. There was an issue, a scandal in Beecher’s life over whether he had an affair. Readers what to know what you, the author, actually think. I can tell you what I think, but there’s room to differ. So I leave room for debate. More fun for you, and more fun for me.

As the author, then, you’re like a facilitator or conductor in a large room of voices, trying to move the discussion forward?

Hmmm…. yes, in both a seductive and didactic way!

Charles J. Shields’ most recent biography is And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November). He blogs about his experiences as a biographer at www.writingkurtvonnegut.com

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