Writing About Someone’s Life: “Why Is This Person Worth Knowing About?”

From a story by Jason Strykowski in the Santa Fe New Mexican headlined “Living someone else’s life: Biographer James McGrath Morris”:

So, here are a few things about James McGrath Morris that I looked up before we spoke: He has written biographies on the lives of John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Ethel Payne, Joseph Pulitzer, and Tony Hillerman. The Hillerman book is due to be released by the University of Oklahoma Press in the fall of 2021. . . .

If there’s a commonality among the historical figures that Morris profiles, it’s their experience in journalism, and it’s not a coincidence that Morris himself worked as a reporter for years. In fact, Morris worked on the same Missouri beat that Pulitzer once filled. Morris also came across Hillerman while working in New Mexico. “I fled deadlines all my life,” Morris says. “I started off working for radio, which meant hourly deadlines. Then, I went to work for print which meant daily deadlines. Then, I went to work for magazines which meant monthly deadlines.”

It wasn’t the government pages or even the front page, that got Morris interested in biographies. It was the obituaries. “I became entranced as a teenager with obituaries, and I’ve always read obituaries, and if you think about them, they’re miniature biographies. They’re written at the end of somebody’s life, and they tell you why this is being written, and they tell you why this person is worth knowing about.”. . .

Morris kept his interest in obituaries even as he moved across the United States and the world because his father worked as a foreign service officer. He grew up in France, Belgium, and in Washington, D.C. Then, he went to boarding school in England and upstate New York.

Morris went on to work in journalism in New Mexico and Washington, D.C, but he found the subject of his first book in Missouri. “I was a reporter in Missouri, and I used to walk by the state prison, and it was one of those state prisons built in the 19th century, huge stone-block prison,” Morris says. “I called up the warden, and I said I’d like to see the prison, and he said, surprisingly to me, sure come on over. So he gave me a tour, and while I was in there, I met two inmates who were running the prison newspaper.” Both men had violent pasts but were amenable to talking shop with Morris. Their conversations became the basis for the book Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars. First published in 1998, the book is still one of Morris’ most consequential because there aren’t many experts on the topic; Morris has frequently been called upon by news outlets and others for sound bites on the subject.

It was the success of his 2003 book, The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism, that set up Morris for his new life as a biographer. The book sold well and then the rights were optioned for film. The book also paved the way for Morris to get a contract with a major publisher for a biography of newspaper impresario Joseph Pulitzer. Morris points out that the advance payment for the book looked substantial on the surface but was ultimately equivalent to his salary as a teacher in Ithaca, New York, if you spread it out over four years. Still, the advance allowed Morris to travel the world for research.

Through travel, Morris gained familiarity with locations that added depth and color to his books. “Biographers parachute in like reporters, and we quickly look for authentic things that we can use to give our books local flavor. To describe what Santa Fe looked like in 1952 when Hillerman drove down the street. . . .Morris says. For his biography of Pulitzer, he traveled to France. While recently researching Hillerman, Morris went to Texas and Oklahoma.

Research travel also means trips to the archive. The University of New Mexico’s Hillerman collection made Morris’ current book possible. “This kind of writing is very much like one of Hillerman’s favorite hobbies. It’s fishing. I go to the archives and I open up box after box and file folder after file folder, and I have to do it very methodically,” Morris says. Among Hillerman’s papers, Morris found great nuggets, such as early letters between Hillerman and his book editor.

Hillerman, the celebrated author of mystery novels that take place around the Navajo Nation, was otherwise a unique subject for Morris. “It’s different, in part because I’m trying to make a case for something. When I wrote a book about Hemingway and Dos Passos — although most people have forgotten Dos Passos — I wasn’t trying to prove anything beyond the significance of their friendship and how it influenced literature. With Hillerman, I’m trying to make a case that what he did was far more significant than write mystery novels, and it’s unrecognized. What he did was he used the genre of mystery writing to solve the mystery of Navajos worldwide.”. . .

Writing about someone from a different background and different lived experience can be part of the pleasure of biography, as long as they’re fascinating. Finding the right subject is central to the success of the project. “To begin with, it has to be someone who interests you and to say to yourself or, in my case, my wife ‘this is someone I’m going to spend the next three years with,’” Morris says. “You live with someone else’s life. My wife has described living with me as living in a ménage-à-trois.” Morris hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with his subject, but he is always captivated by them

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