What Our Writers are Reading: A. Scott Berg
A. SCOTT BERG is the author of five best-selling biographies: MAX PERKINS: EDITOR OF GENIUS (1978), which received the National Book Award; in writing GOLDWYN: A BIOGRAPHY (1989), he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship; and his 1998 biography LINDBERGH won the Pulitzer Prize. For twenty years, Berg was a friend and confidant of Katharine Hepburn, and in 2003, his biographical memoir KATE REMEMBERED became the #1 New York Times bestseller for most of that summer. His biography of America’s 28th president, WILSON, was published in September 2013.
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I know you are knee deep still in touring for WILSON, but is there anything you are reading now that is captivating you?
I’m just getting off the road, and a stack of books awaits me. The newest title is POILU, Edward Strauss’s translation of the diaries of a French soldier during World War I. I hear it’s fascinating. And while I’m wading in that era, I’ve also got Margaret MacMillan’s THE WAR THAT ENDED PEACE and Scott Anderson’s LAWRENCE IN ARABIA. And I’m about to dive into Doris Kearns Goodwin’s THE BULLY PULPIT; she is always as entertaining as she is enlightening.
How early did you know you wanted to be a writer and were there books in your growing-up years that prompted that desire?
I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I was halfway through my first book, four years after I had graduated from college. I realized then that this was an enthralling occupation – one at which I was still getting daily on-the-job training and one that would remain a great challenge for the rest of my life.
When did you know writing biographies would be your literary calling? When and why did the great editor Max Perkins, subject of your first book, seize your imagination?
I went to Princeton, in part, because of an intense interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald and Woodrow Wilson; and by my second day on campus, I was excavating the Fitzgerald archives. I soon realized that the most interesting papers in that collection were the letters between Fitzgerald and Max Perkins, the editor who had discovered him and developed his career. The summer before my sophomore year, I suddenly thought of writing about him; and so I presented my idea to Carlos Baker, Hemingway’s biographer, who was teaching at Princeton. He said to me, “Scott, Max Perkins is the great enigma of American literature. Why don’t you solve the riddle?” He suggested that I make Perkins the subject of my senior thesis and that if I were still interested in him at graduation, I could expand my thesis into a book. By then, I had developed a real penchant for literary biographies – especially Arthur Mizener’s THE FAR SIDE OF PARADISE, Andrew Turnbull’s SCOTT FITZGERALD and THOMAS WOLFE, and Arthur and Barbara Gelb’s O’NEILL, among others. And, of course, Baker’s ERNEST HEMINGWAY: A LIFE STORY.
What makes for a great biography? Are there particular styles of the form that you resonate to and how would you describe your own “school of biography?” Are there three great bios that stand out for you?
Great biographies tell more than the life of the subject – they illuminate the times in which the subject lived. I also feel they should be as objective in nature as possible, with the biographer remaining between the lines. Above all – I believe they should be readable. The biographer’s task is the same as that of the fiction writer: he should tell a good story. Robert Massie’s NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, David McCullough’s MORNINGS ON HORSEBACK, and Richard Holmes’s SHELLEY have long served as models for me.
When you research a book like WILSON, how many other books do you read on the man and his times? Which of the many stand out?
Practically all my research comes from primary sources – my subjects’ writings. As a rule, the only books I read specifically about my subjects are memoirs of people who actually knew them. I was obviously unable to interview the members of Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet, for example, but many of them wrote autobiographies, which allowed me to quote them as if I had interviewed them. They are not always truthful, which makes the biographer’s job challenging, for I must suggest where the authors are deviating from the facts, which allows me to illuminate their personalities as well as my subject’s. In the end, I read hundreds of books on my Wilson shelves, many of them about different aspects of life during the years in which he lived. Among them, I was unexpectedly impressed with THE ORDEAL OF WOODROW WILSON by Herbert Hoover, who had been an important member of the Wilson administration, especially during the crucial postwar months.
Do you read fiction much? If so what have you loved?
I read virtually no current fiction. The Max Perkins authors – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe – remain favorites of mine.
Is there a book you re-read – something that still takes your breath away or makes you laugh out loud?
I regularly re-read what has been my favorite book for almost half a century now – what I consider the most profound, moving, and funny book ever written: DON QUIXOTE.
With KATE REMEMBERED, you had access to your subject, someone you knew well. How different was it to be dealing with a living person? What was she like?
My conversations with Katharine Hepburn began as a magazine interview, but our relationship quickly blossomed into a friendship. Although she explicitly stated that she wanted me to write a book about her, our encounters over twenty years were always personal, not professional. And so, when it came time for me to write her life story, I couldn’t write about her in the same objective way in which I had written about my other subjects. That’s why I composed the book in the form of a memoir. It’s not even an autobiography. It is my recalling Katharine Hepburn’s life as she recalled it. It’s what Kate remembered. She was a very romantic figure – smart, funny, beautiful, generous, and loving.
Who’s next for Scott Berg?
I don’t know. I’m looking…and open to all suggestions.
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