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A Life in Biography

A Life in Biography

By Carl Rollyson
Talks and interviews about the life of biography as experienced by a biographer over forty years and fourteen biographies, dealing with subjects ranging from Sylvia Plath to William Faulkner, Marilyn Monroe to Susan Sontag, and much more.
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Episode 48: A discussion with Sydney Stern about her book, The Brothers Mankiewicz

A Life in Biography

A Faulknerian novel in which Faulkner appears
What happens when a novelist reads, writes like his subject, and puts that subject in a novel?
May 21, 2022
The Gatekeepers
You know what I mean, don’t you?
May 12, 2022
A conversation with Michelle Morgan one of the masters of Marilyn Monroe biography
We delve deeply into a kind of time capsule of 1956, when Marilyn met the Queen and so much else
May 07, 2022
A conversation with David O. Stewart about the worlds of biography and fiction
The overlapping worlds of biography and fiction and how they are inter-dependent
April 30, 2022
A talk with master biographer, Nigel Hamilton.
About the making of a biographer and what keeps him at it.
April 23, 2022
Cynthia Ozick and “The Biographer’s Hat”
What happens when biographers become the subjects of fiction
April 16, 2022
Why John C. Calhoun still matters: a talk with his biographer, Robert Elder
There is much more to Calhoun, that proponent of slavery, than you might imagine.
April 08, 2022
The poetry of biography, and the biography of poetry, with Iris Jamahl Dunkle
The poet as biographer and the biographer as poet
April 02, 2022
Talking with Lee Kravetz about his fresh, intriguing depiction of Sylvia Plath and her world
A follow up to my New York Sun review of Lee Kravetz’s marvelously inventive novel about Sylvia Plath and the conditions of her life and her creativity.
March 27, 2022
A conversation with David Beveridge, narrator of volume 2 of The Life of William Faulkner
What goes into an audiobook: the commitment, the performance, the technical details and equipment, and why, in this case, it matters that we hear Faulkner’s voice.
March 19, 2022
The Story of My Psychoanalysis and Sylvia Plath
An excerpt from my work in progress, The Making of Sylvia Plath
March 12, 2022
Hemingway’s Widow: A Conversation with Timothy Christian about his new biography of Mary Hemingway
A conversation with Timothy Christian, who provides new insight into the Hemingway marriage, and into the way biographies are constructed and managed between biographers and their sources.
March 05, 2022
A conversation with Kathleen Brady about her biography of the saints of Assisi: Francis and Clare
Learn how Kathleen Brady did Plutarch proud and managed, as well, to write a biography for our times.
February 26, 2022
Another biography for Black History Month.
The Recovered Life of Isaac Anderson, a well composed biography by Alicia K. Jackson, published by University Press of Mississippi.
February 23, 2022
A conversation with James McGrath Morris, author of Tony Hillerman: A Life
A wide ranging talk about Hillerman and Morris’s other subjects and how they fit into his conception of biography.
February 19, 2022
A Biography of the Day for Black History Month
A biography of the first Black archeologist that tells us a good deal not only about Black history but about the enticements of biography.
February 17, 2022
An unusual group biography: The Psychologies of Political Exile: From Ovid to the Dalai Lama
A talk with prolific biographer and psychoanalyst, Jay Martin, about exile, displaced peoples, and why it should matter to you.
February 12, 2022
A conversation with Ralph Eubanks, author of A Place Like Mississippi
We range from speaking about the importance of place in memoir and biography to the real and imaginary landscapes of writers, and much more.
February 05, 2022
Don’t Be Afraid! We’re talking theory here.
A discussion with David Veltman and Kerstin Maria Pahl about their contributions to a new book about biography, Fear of Theory.
February 03, 2022
A lively talk with Steve Paul about Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S Connell
From Kansas City to medieval alchemy and a lot in between, the life of Evan S. Connell and what it took for a biographer to cover the interstices of this important writer.
January 29, 2022
Biography of the Day, Part 3
Tune in to a special announcement at the beginning of this podcast.
January 26, 2022
Who is Assia Wevill? Why Does She Matter?
How one life can illuminate the lives of others.
January 22, 2022
The Biography of the Day, Part 2
What happens when Frederick Douglass and Andrew Johnson track one another in a Plutarchian biography of parallel lives in the throes of Reconstruction?
January 19, 2022
Who is Assia Wevill? Why She Matters. Part 1
A conversation with Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick and Peter K. Steinberg about their edition of The Collected Writings of Assia Wevill
January 15, 2022
The Biography of The Day, Part 1
Just browse in the bookstore with me. This won’t take long.
January 14, 2022
Reposting, due to technical difficult. My interview with Debby Applegate about Madam
A look at the career of Polly Adler and why it matters.
January 12, 2022
Plutarch Redux: Parallel Poems in the Age of Trump by Robert Hamblin
Join a conversation in progress about what Plutarch means to us and how to make poetry of Plutarch and biography.
January 08, 2022
Who’s Afraid of Theory?
My take on a new book, Fear of Theory, and why biographers are reluctant to theorize. Also, a preview of coming attractions.
January 01, 2022
Christmas 1942 at the Faulkners
One kind of traditional Christmas
December 25, 2021
Mystery Podcast #1: Every biography is an autobiography
It is a mystery, so you’re not getting anything from me. Just listen
December 18, 2021
A Conversation with Cathy Curtis about her new biography of Elizabeth Hardwick
Cathy Curtis gets into the nitty gritty of biography, explaining how she does her work, why she chose Elizabeth Hardwick, and why her next subject is Edna O’Brien
December 11, 2021
A talk with Hilary Holladay about her stirring new biography of Adrienne Rich
A deep dive into the life of one of America’s greatest poets and how a biographer goes about her work. Don’t miss Holladay’s concluding remarks about how to approach the poet.
December 05, 2021
What’s New in Biography for 2021: The Unknowns and the Knowns
Two biographies that say a lot of why we turn to biography.
December 04, 2021
Ray Boomhower talks about his biography of acclaimed war correspondent, Richard Tregaskis
How a biography of a war correspondent gets done with a veteran biographer of war correspondents, Ray Boomhower.
November 20, 2021
Gay Faulkner and Biography, how the story gets told, and why.
Faulkner’s performance of gayness, why it was important, how it enters his work, and why a book such as Gay Faulkner destablizes biography is a good thing.
November 13, 2021
What’s New in Biography, 2021: Three Well Worn Biographical Subjects
Why write another biography of? Three biographers answer the question for Robert E. Lee, Oliver Cromwell, and Winston Churchill
November 06, 2021
Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and most of all Assia Wevill in a new light in Capriccio
Part of a continuing series on the biographical novel and the way it contributes to our understanding of biographical subjects—this time with Dina Davis who does justice to Assia Wevill
October 31, 2021
The Business of Biography: An Addendum, courtesy of Karen Christensen
A wide-ranging discussion with Karen Christensen, publisher and biographer, about libel, indemnity clauses, the widow Eliot and others widows and wives.
October 23, 2021
The Role Of Interpretation: A Discussion with the Inimitable Hans Renders
A wide ranging discussion of how biographers treat the issue of interpretation, how much to comment as opposed to just telling the story.
October 21, 2021
The Answer to One Biography is Another Biography
I explain why in terms of my own experience researching and writing about the life of Sylvia Plath
October 16, 2021
The Answer to One Biography is Another Biography
I explain why in terms of my own experience working on Sylvia Plath
October 16, 2021
A conversation with Joseph McBride about Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge
A wide-ranging discussion of Billy Wilder’s career, why McBride decided to do a biographical/critical study of the director, and the different objectives of biographical and critical studies in view of McBride’s own work on Frank Capra, John Ford, Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles, and others.
October 09, 2021
A Capsule History of The Biographical Novel with Michael Lackey
How the biographical novel got started, what it is now, and where we are headed.
October 02, 2021
What’s New in Biography, Part 3: Show Business and the Archives
Three new biographies that say so much about the art of biography.
September 25, 2021
A talk about a great figure in the Civil Rights movement, Fannie Lou Hamer.
A talk about a great figure in the Civil Rights movement, Fannie Lou Hamer, with a master biographer, Kate Clifford Larson
September 18, 2021
What’s New in Biography, Part 2
Introductions to five new biographies of miscreants and saints: Louis Lorax, Mary Todd Lincoln, Robert Maxwell, Simone Weil, and Queen Victoria
September 11, 2021
Part 1: What’s New In Biography
Brief forays into six biographies of Monica Jones and Philip Larkin, D. H. Lawrence, Alfred Hitchcock, Helen Frankenthaler, William Blake, and Napoleon
September 04, 2021
Season 2, Episode 1: A Preview of Coming Attractions
More interviews with biographers, biographical novelists, discussions of issues that concern biographers and readers, and my take on several new biographies published in 2021.
August 28, 2021
Part 5 of my conversation with Tim Christian and Carol Sklenicka about the business of biography
Part 5 of a long-running series about the principles, practices, and mechanics of biography. This episode concentrates on the business of biography.
August 20, 2021
Part 4 of a discussion of the principles, practices and mechanics of biography
Part 4 of a discussion of the principles, practices, and mechanics of biography with Tim Christian, biographer of Mary Hemingway, and Carol Sklenicka, biographer of Raymond Carver and Alice Adams
August 14, 2021
A conversation with Susan Ronald about her new biography about Joseph Kennedy, The Ambassador
Susan Ronald explains why FDR chose Joseph Kennedy, a man without diplomatic skills, to be ambassador to Great Britain between 1938 and 1940
August 07, 2021
Talking with Connie Palmen about her biographical novel, written in the voice of Ted Hughes
Talking with Connie Palmen about her biographical novel written in the voice of Ted Hughes: Your Story, My Story. We discuss the principles, practices, and mechanics of biographical fiction.
August 04, 2021
A talk with Jerome Charyn about his novel, Sergeant Salinger, and the aims of biographical fiction.
Think there is a sharp dividing line between biography and biographical fiction? Jerome Charyn disagrees.
August 01, 2021
Part 3 of our discussion on the principles, practices, and mechanics of biography
A special treat in this episode: Tim Christian reads from his forthcoming biography of Mary Hemingway.
July 31, 2021
More with Tim Christian & Carol Sklenicka about the principles, practices & mechanics of biography
More with Tim Christian & Carol Sklenicka about the principles, practices & mechanics of biography with examples from our work
July 24, 2021
Episode 66: The Principles & Practices of Biography: A Talk with Tim Christian & Carol Sklenicka
Episode 66: Talking with Tim Christian (biographer of Mary Hemingway) and Carol Sklenicka (biographers of Raymond Carver and Alice Adams) about the principles and practices of biography.
July 17, 2021
Episode 65: Biography and the Hermeneutic Circle
What it means to circle around your subject in a biography and how that circling is hermeneutical. I draw on my biography of Lillian Hellman for examples.
July 10, 2021
Episode 64: Janet Malcolm and the Black Art of Biography
My encounters with Janet Malcolm’s assault on biography, beginning in 1994 and continuing through several books of mine in the new millennium.
July 03, 2021
June 28, 2021
June 28, 2021
Episode 63: Talking with Carol Sklenicka about her biography of Alice Adams
The biographer of Raymond Carver explains what drew her to Alice Adams and the history of the generation that came into its own after World War II
June 27, 2021
Episode 62: A Talk with Kai Bird about his new Shakespearean/Faulknerian biography of Jimmy Carter
A talk with Kai Bird about his Shakespearean/Faulknerian biography of Jimmy Carter
June 19, 2021
Episode 61: Biography Anne Sebba discussing Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy
A wide-ranging discussion of why Ethel Rosenberg matters, what is new in her story, and why American writers continue to be obsessed with her life.
June 12, 2021
Episode 60: The Case for Literary Prurience
I draw on my experience of writing biographies of William Faulkner, Michael Foot, and Amy Lowell, to explain why biographies have to be about the whole person, notwithstanding the charge of literary prurience.
June 05, 2021
Episode 59: Biographology
What you need to know about reading, writing, and reviewing biography.
May 29, 2021
Episode 58: The Roth/Bailey Uproar
My view of what has happened to Bailey’s biography of Roth, how reviewers and readers have responded, and why what I’ve seen so far is inadequate.
May 22, 2021
Talking with Gail Crowther about her new book on Plath & Sexton, Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz
What goes into a dual biography, and what a sociologist can bring to the study of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.
May 08, 2021
Episode 56: A talk with Ira Nadel about Philip Roth, Leonard Cohen, and authorized/unauthorized bios
A wide-ranging interview about how biography gets done, both authorized and unauthorized, with Nadel’s subjects, Leonard Cohen & Philip Roth, and more.
May 01, 2021
Episode 55: Tales Told Out of School, Part 2: 40 Years of Interviewing
What happens during and after interviews, with examples drawn from my biographies of Lillian Hellman, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, Jill Craigie, and Michael Foot.
April 17, 2021
Episode 54, Part 1: Tales Told Out of School: 40 Years of Interviews
What happens during and after interviews with subjects ranging from Walter Matthau to Ellen Burstyn to Richard Wilbur.
April 10, 2021
Episode 53: Mike Peros, biographer of Dan Duryea and José Ferrer & how Mike became a biographer
Mike Peros describes how he became a biographer, how he researched his biographies of José Ferrer and Dan Duryea, and much more.
April 03, 2021
Episode 52: A Plethora of Plath, or Why So Many Biographies
Through the examples of Marilyn Monroe, Amy Lowell, William Faulkner, and Sylvia Plath, I explain why so many biographies of the same subject are published.
March 27, 2021
Episode 51: Talking with Bob Batchelor about his book, biography—how it gets done and so much more.
A conversation with Bob Batchelor about his work from John Updike to Stan Lee and much more about biography and its place in the world and in our imaginations.
March 20, 2021
Episode 50: A talk about biography with John Matteson, author of A Worse Place Than Hell
A wide ranging discussion of the choices a biographer makes and how John Matteson put together his group of figures present at the battle of Frederickburg
March 13, 2021
Episode 49: A talk with Kathleen Spaltro, Author of The Great Lie: The Creation of Mary Astor
A wide ranging of discussion of a great character actress, active in both silent and sound film, her relationships with Ronald Colman and Bette Davis, and her career as a writer of novels and memoirs.
March 06, 2021
Episode 48: A discussion with Sydney Stern about her book, The Brothers Mankiewicz
What it takes to write a biography of the Mankiewicz brothers and other issues biographers encounter.
February 27, 2021
Episode 47: Justice to Charmian London, a writer who was much more than Jack London’s wife
A wide ranging discussion of Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s new biography, including reflections on the biographer as villain and how biography can be an act of restitution.
February 20, 2021
Episode 46: How I Became A Biographer: A conversation with Richard Bradford
I speak with Richard Bradford about how he became a biographer, the role biography should play in literary study, and why he chose to write about Ernest Hemingway, Patricia Highsmith and others.
February 13, 2021
Episode 45: William Faulkner’s Civil War, a talk with Michael Gorra about his new book
All things biographical and how Faulkner, the man and the writer, approached the Civil War.
February 06, 2021
Episode 44: The Past Is Never Dead
How does a biographer recreate the past the milieu of a subject’s life. I draw on my own experience in biographies of William Faulkner, Lillian Hellman, Rebecca West, Michael Foot, and others.
January 31, 2021
Episode 43: Talking with William Souder about Mad at the World, his new biography of John Steinbeck
William Souder explains his attraction to Steinbeck, what it takes to do a biography, the audience you can expect to reach as a biographer, and much much more.
January 23, 2021
Episode 42: Talking Faulkner biography with Larry Wells, author of the memoir, In Faulkner’s Shadow
A wide ranging discussion of Larry Wells’s memories of the Faulkner family, of Faulkner biographers, Joseph Blotner and Carvel Collins, and what it takes to research and write biography, which often feels like a Henry James story.
January 17, 2021
Episode 41: Heather Clark on her new Plath Biography.
We talk about how Heather Clark became interested in Plath, how she came to write the biography, how biography is a product of its age, and much more.
January 09, 2021
Episode 40: John Bryant on his new multi-volume Melville biography
A wide-ranging discussion of biography, how to work on literary figures Melville’s “black consciousness” and much more.
January 02, 2021
Part 3 of my interview with Alexis Coe
Slavery, capitalism, what went into the making of Washington’s life and those of his contemporaries—plus Alexis Coe puts THE BIG QUESTION to me.
December 29, 2020
Part 2 of my interview with Alexis Coe
More discussion of how to shake up the genre of presidential biography.
December 29, 2020
Part 1: Alexis Coe author of You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington
A wide ranging discussion of presidential biography and why Alexis Coe decided on what has been called a “historiographical intervention.”
December 29, 2020
Episode 38: Ten Tips For Enterprising Biographers
My experience over 40 years of contacting sources and how they responded, and how I got them to respond.
December 26, 2020
Episode 37: Why Plath: My Rollicking Interview with Emily Van Dyne about her forthcoming book
Much talk about Emily’s book, Loving Sylvia Plath, how students and other readers react to Plath, and the role biography plays in the mixed reactions to her work.
December 19, 2020
How it took 30 years to write 2 pages of The Life of William Faulkner
Discussing my experience and Faulkner’s in Hollywood and how all that gets on the page.
December 12, 2020
How it took 30 years to write 2 page of The Life of William Faulkner.
Describing my experience and Faulkner’s in Hollywood and how it all gets onto the page.
December 12, 2020
Episode 35
Talking with Peter K. Steinberg, co-editor of The Letters of Sylvia Plath.
December 04, 2020
Episode 34: Speaking with Celia Stahr about her splendid biography Frida in America
A conversation about Frida Kahlo and her three years in America with a great cast of characters, including Henry Ford, the Rockefeller’s, Georgia O’Keefee, Louis Nevelson and much, much more.
November 28, 2020
Episode 33: How I Became an Outlaw, Part 2: The Case of Michael Foot
Dealing with family and friends.
November 21, 2020
Episode 32: My conversation with Jonathan Alter about his new biography of Jimmy Carter.
We discuss the first full-length biography of Jimmy Carter, his achievements and failures, his rise from the bottom third to the top third of U.S. presidents, and much more about what a biography can accomplish.
November 14, 2020
How I became an outlaw biographer
Working on Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, Jill Craigie, Michael Foot, Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan, Amy Lowell, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner.
November 07, 2020
Episode 30: The Biographical Novel: Who Cares?
I discuss novels about Marilyn Monroe, Walt Disney, Martha Gellhorn, H. G. Wells and mull over a universe in which biography and biographical novels can co-exist.
October 31, 2020
Episode 29: The Biography Police
An account of the campaigns orchestrated against biographers, using as examples biographies of T. E. Lawrence and Susan Sontag.
October 24, 2020
Reading and Writing Biography: A Primer
The sorry state of reviewing biography as reviewers turns in what amounts to book reports, letting down the genre of biography and those who practice it.
October 17, 2020
What a biographer knows.
I read and discuss a section from The Life of William Faulkner, pointing out my use of evidence, and concluding that I am my own best evidence.
October 10, 2020
What is a definitive biography?
I consider the question in the light of biographies of Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Olson Welles, John F. Kennedy, and others.
October 03, 2020
The Cruelty of Biography
A wide ranging discussion of the anathemas against biography perpetuated by modern writers, including Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Somerset Maugham, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Anthony Powell.
September 26, 2020
Episode 24: Psychologizing Biography
What does Psychologizing biography mean? How I have used it.
September 19, 2020
Reviewing Biography: The Case of Sylvia Plath
I read a review of my book, The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, in order to discuss the methodology of biography and of the reviewer.
September 12, 2020
Episode 22: The Case Against Biography
What to say about the epistemology of biography and why it is sometimes better to not have been there, but to see it all from afar and yet in closeup, as the past is recreated in the biographer’s imagination.
September 05, 2020
Words Often Applied to Biography
Authorized/Unauthorized; Gossipy/Salacious/; Plodding/Workmanlike/Revisionist
August 29, 2020
3 Questions You Should Never Ask About Biography
1. Is the subject worthy of a biography. 2. Is the subject too small? 3. Why another biography of?
August 22, 2020
Episode 19: Proposing a Biography
Why it is important to do a proposal? Why not just write the book? This podcast tells you why.
August 15, 2020
Episode 18: Biography, The Historical Present, and You
When does it make sense to use the present tense in a biography? Examples from the work of Noel Riley Fitch, William Faulkner, and yours truly.
August 08, 2020
Marilyn Monroe and the Idea of Biography
Biography is its own form of knowledge, a view that many readers and reviewers of biography are reluctant to acknowledge, or do not even consider.
August 01, 2020
Episode 16: My Listeners Respond
Listeners who want to know how to navigate the varied access to sources with different subjects, or how to present a new vision without new sources.
July 25, 2020
The Gaps and Bulges of Biography
What to do when not all parts of your biographical subject’s life are equal, when the first part of the life seems the most exciting, for example, or when interest only really builds in the last part of the subject’s life.
July 18, 2020
Episode 14: Who Deserves A Biography?
The answer to who deserves a biography is everyone, or anyone. It all depends on the materials you have, if the story moves you, and you know how to tell it.
July 11, 2020
Episode 13: Homage to Deirdre Bair and the Purpose of Biography
My tribute to one of the great biographers of our time and why her work matters, and why biography matters.
July 04, 2020
How I Became a Biographer
A quick explanation of how it all started with Marilyn Monroe.
June 27, 2020
Fair Use Biography: Forget about the Don’ts in Most Cases. Just go ahead.
My account for forty years of dealing with fair use, biographical subjects, and publishers.
June 21, 2020
The Whys and Wherefores of Documentary Biography
How dating all the days of a life provide a different way of approaching what is left out in other biographies.
June 14, 2020
Episode 9: How To Begin a Biography: The Case of William Faulkner
I look at how biographers have begun their biographies and the merits of different kinds of openings and why biography has been called factitious.
June 06, 2020
Episode 8: How to End a Biography, The Case of Sylvia Plath
I read from the last paragraphs of Plath biographies, commenting on them, and explain my own choices in writing American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath and The Last Days of Sylvia Plath.
May 30, 2020
Episode 7: Prefaces to Biography
Who is the biographer? And why does it matter?
May 24, 2020
Building a Better Biography: How to Capture the Whole Man
I give a sense of the interplay between Faulkner the man, his fiction, and his film writing.
May 16, 2020
Sylvia Plath, Meet Rebecca West
I explore why it is that Sylvia Plath never seemed to be aware of Rebecca West, a world class writer, who still has so much to say to the readers of Plath and of modern literature.
May 10, 2020
A Tale of Two Biographies: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath and The Life of William Faulkner
Why I wrote these two books and what in the world Plath and Faulkner have to do with the world around us.
May 02, 2020
Episode 3: Faulkner Preludes
How I began my work on Faulkner; what I mean by an intertextual biography; why Joan Crawford matters in a Faulkner biography; Faulkner as diplomat; what Faulkner to read first.
April 25, 2020
A Life in Biography: Episode 2: Why Care About William Faulkner?
A two-minute podcast. Call it “The Elevator Pitch.”
April 17, 2020
The Last Days of Sylvia Plath
In about twelve minutes I talk about what it was like in the last days of Sylvia Plath, how people have reacted to her death, and why I think it wasn’t all just sad.
April 12, 2020