Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Story behind the story: The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton

My friend and writers' group colleague Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge is the author of the just released biography The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton, which received a wonderful feature review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review a few days ago. I was there as she began the long process of research and writing that led to this achievement -- and to be honest, I doubted that Connie's passion and painstaking attention to detail would be enough to convince publishers that young readers would welcome a Wharton biography. I'm delighted that I was wrong. Connie agreed to share a bit of the story behind the story of Edith Wharton in this guest post.

If it’s possible to boil the writing of a young adult biography down to three key elements, the three, for me, would be these: extravagance, simplicity, and passion.

Extravagance has more to do with time than with money. It took me over six years to write the first draft of The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton. The book is not even 200 pages in length. What took me so long?

Early in the game I realized the information-filing process that worked so well for the shorter pieces of nonfiction I’d always written was threatening to crumble under the weight of the information I needed to write a full-length book. I took a six-month break, purchased accordion files, three-ring binders, and file boxes and developed a system for cataloging photo-copies, notes, and quotes that put every last bit of information within easy reach.

I spent another few months trying to figure out World War I when I realized I had no idea what all the fighting about All of that information was filed according to my handy, dandy new system.

I read all of Wharton’s books (about 40 of them) and short stories (about 80). That extravagant investment of time paid off in spades. Wharton was very guarded in her letters and journals but almost nakedly transparent in her stories. What she was living and thinking poured onto every page of her fiction.

Another time extravagance: Three trips to the Beinecke Library at Yale and another three to the Lilly Library at Indiana University where the bulk of Wharton’s papers are housed. Touching the actual paper Edith wrote on and seeing her handwriting brought me so much closer to her.

All that extravagant information-gathering had to be funneled down into a short, clear, gripping narrative. That’s the second element, simplicity. At this stage in the biography-writing process, extravagance is the enemy. I had to sift through all that was merely interesting to find the truly significant. It was painful! I wanted my readers to have access to every bit of the information I had so carefully gathered and filed. In the simplifying process, the story takes center stage and everything that doesn’t move the life story forward has to go.

People ask me if I’m working on another biography, now that I’ve finished The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton. That brings me to the passion part. What those people are asking is this: Now that you’ve finished your book on Edith Wharton, have you found another person that you care so passionately about you are willing to spend hours, days, and years getting to know her? Have you found a person who is so intriguing you don’t mind being awakened in the middle of the night as you try to figure out why she said what she said or did what she did? What those people are asking is: Have you found a new best friend?

The answer is not yet. But I’m on the lookout!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

On hiatus

Temporarily. But I hope to share a new "Story behind the story" guest post soon.