sarah broughton

writer & artist

On Writing

Blogs I've written on the New Welsh Review website.

When is a biography not a biography? (August 2009)

Answer – when it’s a metabiography.

I’ve been thinking about how to write a biography of a woman whose major claim to fame (or, in her case, infamy) is that she was briefly married to a man who has, at my last count, generated fifty seven different biographies, one autobiography and countless newspaper inches and television documentaries. Typing his name into ebay reveals one thousand and forty five items currently up for grabs. That’s forty odd pages of talking birthday cards, T shirts, thimbles, mousemats, cuff links and fully poseable action figures (with ‘real-like heads’) – never mind the ubiquitous dvds, posters and photographs. The man isn’t an actor, he is a manufacturing business like no other! I wondered about who in Wales might be metabiographical material. Richard Burton and Dylan Thomas, of course, spring to mind, but the ebay test disappointingly throws up only six hundred and eleven items for Burton (some of which are actually for the other Richard Burton – translator of the Kama Sutra) and four hundred and twenty for Thomas. There are no thimbles or mousemats and certainly no fully poseable action figures with ‘real-like heads’ - definitely a gap in the market there! In fact the items are almost all DVDs (Burton) or books (Thomas). Of course – one was an actor, the other a writer. Yet although entire, industrial-sized, myths have also grown up around these two, this is not reflected in wider popular culture - as in the case of the man who was once married to the woman I’m writing about. My final, deeply scientific, bit of research was checking out the Brontes on ebay. This is largely because the current trend of metabiographies includes the acclaimed The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller (as well as The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell. Marilyn on ebay - don’t even go there! A whopping five thousand and twenty seven items including ballpoint pens and pillow cases. I myself bought a pair of Marilyn flip-flops from a charity shop in Newmarket last weekend which, come to think of it, I could now sell on ebay thereby upping the count to five thousand and twenty eight!). Back to the Brontes. For all that they are now collectively known as a phenomenon, they could only rise to one hundred and seventy six items. Interestingly, these were largely books about them rather than by them – meat and drink for the metabiographer of course, with multiple representations galore!

So, how am I to write the biography – meta or otherwise? ‘Why’? is the most useful starting point: the career is small and the books about her add up to one, unreliable, autobiography. Yet the legacy is lasting and notorious – why? Because the fifty seven biographies and miles of column inches about her erstwhile husband continue to peddle myths and rumours about her as ‘the indisputable truth’.  And because it’s a great story.  

Up Close and Personal  (September 2009)

A couple of weeks ago I went to the launch of Blown, a new magazine for the culturally intelligent (or so it says on the tin) in the National Museum in Cardiff. Ric Bower, the editor, had commissioned me to interview Sarah Waters and while I liked the idea of meeting her again   (the last time was a while back when she was writing Nightwatch) I  didn’t want to repeat the process I’d gone through before... re-read the previous novels and discuss her approach to the current one. So, Ric suggested I try writing it ‘Gonzo-style’ – an idea I found simultaneously terrifying and intriguing.  After my usual period of procrastination, I decided to invite Sarah to the movies. In retrospect I should have had the guts to go to Leicester Square and see The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2 or even something sensibly gripping like Burn After Reading, both of which were out at the time, but I lost my nerve. Instead we met up at the BFI and watched a motley selection of films made by the GPO. My plan had been to have an intelligent conversation about what we’d seen and then write up the interesting bits. Okay, not that Gonzo but hey – it was a Friday night out in London - that counts for something, doesn’t it? Things didn’t go quite to plan... By the time I met Sarah late last September (we’d made the arrangements in June) the wheels were coming off bits of my life and instead of conducting a clever discussion about the merits of pre-war short films, we drank campari and soda and then we drank a bit more. Luckily I remembered to switch the recorder on at some point or the whole evening would have turned into The Lost Weekend. Which brings me to my point. How much of yourself should you reveal when interviewing someone or writing a book about them? What is appropriate or, more importantly, vaguely interesting to the reader? I confess to being torn between irritation and curiosity when I watch Nick Broomfield’s documentaries, for instance, but am always desperate to know more about the writers I love. Reading Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries led me back to his plays with more enthusiasm than I had for them in the first place and, Susie Boyt’s My Judy Garland Life (purchased purely for the title) has given me a somewhat unhealthy obsession with all thing Susie. Reading the article in Blown, nearly a year after I wrote it, felt a bit like hearing a snatch of a song that once meant something, almost visceral yet strangely remote. I haven’t watched The Wire for a year now either.

For more information visit www.blownmag.com

Questions of Identity (OCTOBER 2009)

I’m writing a biography of a woman routinely described as Welsh and sometimes, more specifically, Cardiff – as in ‘Cardiff girl’, ‘Cardiff actress’ etc. To be fair she has also, occasionally, been described as Irish – but my point is, she is rarely identified by the nationality she actually holds. She is now seventy five years old and a full sixty nine of those years have been spent outside Wales - including the first fourteen of her life. This makes me think long and hard about what qualifies you (aside of the Vinnie Jones rule) to be claimed as Welsh. For instance, at the other end of the spectrum, the distinguished writer Penelope Mortimer was born in Rhyl - yet there is no mention of her in the New Companion to the Literature of Wales or in the Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales. She does, however, make the following appearance in the Oxford Companion to English Literature: ‘MORTIMER, Penelope Ruth, nee Fletcher (1918...) novelist, born in North Wales & educated at London University; her works, with their emphasis on frankness about female experience, contributed to the development of the woman’s novel in the 1960’s.’ Her career as a writer was actually far broader than this entry suggests; as well as publishing nine novels, a collection of short stories, two volumes of autobiography, a travel book and (bizarrely) a biography of the Queen Mother, she was also film critic for the Observer, an Agony Aunt for the Daily Mail and adapted Nigel Nicholson’s, Portrait of A Marriage, for the BBC in 1990. With her then husband, John Mortimer, she wrote the screenplay for the Otto Preminger film Bunny Lake is Missing and in 1974 the New Yorker printed her novel Long Distance in its entirety – the first time they had done so since JD Salinger’s Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction a decade earlier . Hard to know then, given all that, why she has been wiped from the Welsh literary canon. She, of course, may not have identified herself as ‘Welsh’ and she certainly didn’t set any of her novels here. She did however write about her childhood in Rhyl and the clergyman father who had lost his faith and used the parish magazine to celebrate the Soviet persecution of the Russian church. She also wrote about the universal experiences of women in the post war world of illegal abortions, illicit affairs and paralysing marriages – experiences which were as familiar to Welsh women as they were to their English and Scottish counterparts. It’s ten years ago last month since Mortimer died – time perhaps to acknowledge her existence?

To Reveal or Not to Reveal? (November 2009)

These days it seems like any old celebrity can get a book deal to write their autobiography (as Eva Wiseman, assistant editor of Observer Woman magazine, put it recently, ‘I’m a celebrity – get me on the bookshelf’) but if they want it to become a best-seller, they really have to come up with an attention grabbing scandal: abuse, incest, shoplifting – that’ll do for starters. Now, even literary biographies are getting in on the act. In the last few months alone, a series of heavyweight books has revealed that William Golding despised both himself and Lord of the Flies, Diaghilev was a ‘sexual predator’ and Alison Uttley hated ‘The Blyton’. As Kathryn Hughes remarked in her review of the Uttley biography ‘whether we really benefit from learning that the creator of Little Grey Rabbit was actually a prize cow is another matter.’  

 I’m not sure what I think about this. For me, biographies ought to reveal information of a deeply personal nature – why else would I take the trouble to read them? I’m not interested in a glossy skate across the surface of someone’s life; I am interested in trying to put together the bits where the work came from in the first place - that doesn’t mean that they have to be prurient. Recently, I read Hermione Lee’s Biography A Very Short Introduction, published earlier this year, which looks at what literary biographies do and how they work. She is fascinating on the ‘fear and loathing’ that revelatory biographies can inspire in both the reader and the subject. She cites Justin Kaplan, the American author of biographies on Twain and Whitman amongst others, who maintained that ‘by current standards, biographies without voyeuristic, erotic thrills are like ballpark hot dogs without mustard.’ (he was referring specifically to Kitty Kelley’s sensational 1991 book on Nancy Reagan – which he said was ‘essentially a drive-by shooting’) and Germaine Greer, who described biographers of living writers as ‘the intellectual equivalents of flesh-eating bacterium’. 

To be incredibly topical; Tiger Woods’ statement concerning the current media blitz he is engulfed in is a salutary insight into what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a ‘drive-by shooting’. It includes the following: ‘No matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions.’

The problem is, that in the celebrity-eating bacterium age in which we live, personal sins do indeed seem to equal public confessions. I have to admit that I am now more interested in Tiger Woods than I was before he was involved in a ‘single vehicle car crash’ because he has inadvertently revealed himself to be a rather more complex and sympathetic character. Since there is no such thing as a neutral biographical narrative, what I long to read is a revelatory life story written by considerate and compassionate author.

Whose voice is it anyway?  (December 2009)

Over the past few postings I’ve been thinking about the different elements I’ve had to consider as I write my biography of the woman who was briefly married to a ‘Screen Giant of Electric Intensity’ (New York Times); from questions of identity to how much a biographer should reveal of themselves. One aspect I haven’t written about – probably because I find it the most troublesome – is the ‘voice’.  Recently, I read some interviews with ghost-writers who discussed how they managed to locate the ‘voice’ of their ‘ghostee’ (as they call them); Hunter Davies (Gazza - My Story; Wayne Rooney - My Story So Far; Prezza - Pulling No Punches) described himself as being a ‘ventriloquist, trying to capture the character of a person, but it doesn't have to be their exact words, just words and phrases and a style that accords with their received image.’ Another, Pepsy Dening (Fern, My Story, by Fern Britton; Learning To Fly, by Victoria Beckham; Extreme, My Autobiography, by Sharon Osbourne) said, ‘A successful autobiography is one where the "voice" is unique, the story fresh and the emotions true. Just setting down what the subject chooses to tell me will never achieve that. Clichés, banality, point-scoring and psychobabble are discarded. What is retained is detail, quirkiness, feeling and truth’.  

Although I can’t help thinking you’re halfway there if you’re literally pretending to be someone else, there is something in the fact that you can’t simply mimic or reproduce the language of your subject and hope that it sounds authentic – because it won’t – as anyone who’s ever typed up verbatim conversations between people on buses will know. There has to be something between capturing the ‘sound’ of someone – as you must in an autobiography – and the ‘essence’ of them as you ought to in a biography. One, which I think beautifully portrays the fundamental nature of the person by finding the appropriate means of telling their story, is Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J D Salinger written after Salinger famously sued Hamilton for unauthorised use of letters in the original biography. Undeterred by the fracas, Hamilton wrote a new version which he described as telling you ‘just as much about Salinger, in fact more, than the earlier, banned version did.’ It did more than that - it raised key questions about the whole business of 'biography' - what is it for? Why do we write it? Why do people want to read it?

Back to the voice; what Hamilton did was to find a new way of interpreting the material which enabled the reader to gain a different understanding. I have experimented with several voices during the writing of my book until hitting upon one which seems the most appropriate way of illuminating the remarkable, much maligned, woman I’m writing about. In the end it was her voice which opened the door: curious, unpredictable, intelligent, savvy and absolutely clear about who she is – Anna Kashfi, whose major claim to fame (or in her case infamy) is that she was briefly married to Marlon Brando.

What Lies Beneath  (January 2010)

‘Researching, like writing, is an individual, creative process.’ So says Ann Hoffman author of, Research for Writers, one of the best books on the process. In fact, I would argue that sometimes researching feels more creative than writing – if only because you are truly able to let your mind wander in whatever direction the subject takes you without constraint. When you are researching you are not bound by form or narrative, your responsibility lies in uncovering layer upon layer of a subject until you are down to the bare bones. The creative process begins in the aftermath of your discoveries when you begin to interpret the material, to decide which story you’re telling and how you will go about it. But before you even arrive at the beginning of your adventure, something has to draw you in; something has to make you commit to a virtual marriage with your subject.

Owen Sheers wrote his first non-fiction narrative, The Dust Diaries after finding a book in his father’s study. This led him into an exploration of the life of his great, great uncle Arthur Cripps – who happened to be both a poet and a missionary in Southern Rhodesia. For me, two seemingly random events collided several years apart. The first was when I discovered, by chance, that my grandfather may have been Anglo-Indian. The second happened when, while I was researching Welsh personalities for a television documentary, I came across a story about an actress who claimed to be Indian but was always referred to as having Welsh or Irish parents. The story stayed with me while I researched other projects including several documentaries on iconic singers - all of whom had various complex and conflicting problems – but none of them concerned identity. They all knew exactly who they were and where they had come from.

When I finally got around to doing some serious research on the ‘Welsh actress’, I began to realise it was the stories in and around her life that were consuming me. The beauty of research is that it enables you to ask questions obsessively:  ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘what happened next’. Sometimes they are unanswerable and sometimes I was unable to see what was in front of my face. But all of them led me to what lies beneath the surface – the perils and pleasures of research immersing me again and again in a life less ordinary than my own.

 Uncovering random pieces of extraordinary information is one of the best bits about writing a biography – long after you’ve given up trying to weave them into your narrative you remember them with the kind of fondness you have for long lost childhood friends. My current favourite is discovering that Myrna Loy, one of Hollywood’s most famous and highest paid stars in the 1930’s was of Welsh descent. In an article first published in Modern Screen entitled The Truth about the Mysterious Miss Loy, Grandmother Williams (Loy’s father’s mother) is held responsible for that ‘Celtic something’ in Loy’s ‘calm, provocative face’. Strange and haunting are the tales told of Grandmother Williams, of her fascination and courage, her Welsh wit and wisdom, the aura of mystery that always hovered over her...

Cataloguing Lives  (February 2010)

When you’re famous and then you die, you could find yourself in the potentially awkward and deeply invasive position of having everything you own placed on public display, photographed, labelled and valued in monetary terms. Each and every one of your beloved and not so beloved possessions will then be sold to the highest bidder. It might not be what you wanted, although chances are you’re past caring, but for everyone else the opportunity to crawl through the detritus of your life is invaluable. For writers I think there is something wholly fascinating about discovering the details of other people’s lives – and particularly which books people read. Think about it. If you were to discover that an actor, or musician or someone whose creativity you respected (I’m deliberately not including writers here as it is unthinkable that they wouldn’t have a book collection) had a shelf of books that added up to a Dan Brown, Ant and Dec’s autobiography (Ooh! What a Lovely Pair) and something called My Shit Life So Far by Frankie Boyle, all currently in Amazon’s top ten so obviously sitting on someone’s shelves, I think you would be disappointed.

On the other hand when you discover, as I did recently, that a very famous film star’s library contained four hundred and twenty four biographies and autobiographies (not to mention two hundred and twenty nine books on politics and philosophy and three hundred and thirty four books on self-help, health, psychoanalysis and psychology amongst many others) many of them annotated by the man himself it’s both inspiring and addictive. The items were in a Christie’s catalogue – a tastefully produced paperback consisting of the contents of the film star’s house at the time of death. So, what do the accumulated objects of a lifetime tell us about the person? Graham Greene had James and Conrad and Evelyn Waugh on his bookcase in a fairly anonymous apartment on the French Riveria – are we surprised? Probably not. In Roald Dahl’s writing hut in Great Missenden we can see that he wrote sitting in a large armchair with a china pot of yellow pencils beside him – can we imagine him conjuring up the world’s he invented? Sort of. Visiting the houses in which writers lived and work is a popular leisure activity and across Britain; we can walk where Dickens’s, Austen, Wordsworth and Thomas once walked - these are the living catalogues. Rarely do we have the opportunity afforded to Jay Parini, biographer of Robert Frost, who lived in Frost’s house in Vermont for several summers and lay in the claw-footed tub, imagining the writer in the same bath, listening to the wind in the bushy hemlocks outside the bathroom window. But still, by absorbing the artefacts of their lives whether it’s on-line, in person or through the pages of a book we peek slyly (always uninvited by them) into their private space and it’s illuminating.  

 

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August 2009

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February 2010