On Biography: archive or interview?

One of the pleasures of being a biographer living with a biographer is that you spend a lot of time talking – often arguing – about the art of biography. Tonight it went like this:

Her: Looking back on the Ted Hughes experience, don’t you regret the extent to which you relied on interviews? All memories are fallible – and you kept finding that different people remember the same events in different ways.

Me: Granted, but it’s really important to get all the memories down before people die or lose their memories altogether.

Her: Stick to the archive, I say.

Me: I did spend five years in the archive, as you know. Besides, look at the history of biography: it all kicked off at the end of the eighteenth century when Boswell wrote the life of Johnson and Hayley the life of Cowper. One based on interviews and reminiscences, the other on manuscripts and letters. Which one do we still read today?

Her: Boswell, of course – but he was actually there in the room, recording Johnson’s words. That’s not like a biographer going to some elderly bit part player and asking them to remember what happened fifty years earlier. Listen, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Why did I write my biography of the amazing story of Kick Kennedy and how she nearly became Duchess of Devonshire?

Me: You told me that it was because you found her a completely fascinating, charismatic woman.

Her: Exactly. And how do I know she was like that? Not just from what people said about her, but by getting under her skin – reading two thousand pages of her manuscript letters and diaries, leafing through her scrapbooks, reanimating her voice on the page.

Me: But surely there’s a place for interviews – I’ve always loved that book called His Very Self and Voice, which gathers together all the extant conversations of Lord Byron.

Her: You can’t seriously believe those conversations are verbatim. There’s bound to be loads of embellishment. Stick to Byron’s letters, Jonathan, when you write your book about the Romantics. Listen, a woman called Lynne McTaggart wrote a biography of Kick Kennedy over thirty years ago. It was based entirely on interviews because the archive had not been released at that time. I’m certainly glad she wrote it. It’s got some great material in it, but loads of errors as a result of people’s faulty memories. It certainly wouldn’t be worth doing another interview-based biography now, but the material in the archive is so rich that there’s a real opportunity to bring Kick’s voice back to life – that’s what biography is all about.

Me: I grant you that – and of course you’re right that the archive doesn’t lie. I know how satisfying you found it to discover that Regimental Diary which showed that everybody had got a key detail wrong.

Her: I win. I mean, it was those unknown diaries, not anything from an interview, that really excited you when you were writing Ted.

Me: I’ll win the next argument.

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2 thoughts on “On Biography: archive or interview?

  1. Was this a transcription of a recording or based on fallible memory? Do you both really speak so coherently to each other?

    Last year I said to my wife; “The secret to our relationship is that I’m always wrong”. To which she immediately responded; “No!”. To which I said; “You see!”.

    Like

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