Finding my Subjects

By Catherine Reef

A few years ago I felt ready to write a new biography, but I had no idea who my subject would be. I wanted to select a woman – so many of my books had been about men—yet it seemed that every woman who interested me was too obscure to appeal to publishers or had been written about again and again. Of course, I needed only to open my eyes, because when I did, I saw my ideal subject everywhere: on television, in movies, and in passengers’ hands on the Washington Metro. The result was my most recent biography, Jane Austen: A Life Revealed.

Ideas are everywhere, inside us and all around us. I learned this lesson in the 1990s, while reading about nineteenth-century America. Whether my research took me to the slave markets of New Orleans, the hospitals of Civil War Washington, or the mountain railroad passes of the West, I kept bumping into the same bearded, dreamy-eyed fellow. Walt Whitman would be there to meet me, chronicling his century in exquisite free verse. I grew curious about this “Good Gray Poet.” And when I discovered, to my great surprise, that a young adult biography of Whitman had yet to be written, I had the idea for a book. Whitman was so conscious of his future readers that I felt his presence constantly as I studied his life and work. He remains one of my favorite writers long after Walt Whitman was published, in 1995.

I have always had favorites, though, because I have always read. Recalling myself as a young reader led me to write two biographies, John Steinbeck and E. E. Cummings: A Poet’s Life. Steinbeck was the first author I read when I felt ready to tackle novels written for adults. He appeals to adolescents and teens because he never lost his youthful idealism – he never sold out. And fortunately for me as a writer, Steinbeck’s story is entwined with history, so telling it let me present the Great Depression from a unique viewpoint.

Cummings first called to me when I was a little older, in high school. Like my literary-minded friends, I wrote poems in the Cummings style, as teenage poets still do. Cummings’s work embodies playfulness, irreverence, and rebellion – all youthful qualities – perhaps because he never really grew up. I knew next to nothing about Cummings the man when I began his biography, so plunging in was a great adventure. Luckily for me, his life was an eventful one that included imprisonment in France during World War I and a daughter resulting from an adulterous affair. I had a singular story to tell.

By fall 2005 I had finished my work on Cummings and wanted to write another literary biography. I had yet to settle on a subject when I received a telephone call from an education specialist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, inviting me to speak on a panel there. In the course of our conversation the specialist mentioned that the library houses the Hemingway Collection – Ernest Hemingway’s many letters, manuscripts, photographs, and miscellaneous papers. Such a wonderful resource was impossible to resist, so I wrote next about Hemingway. I knew that presenting his suicide to young readers would be a challenge, but challenges force writers to grow. Hemingway proved to be a fascinating, complex subject, although his story is a sad one in which death is a constant presence, so once Ernest Hemingway: A Writer’s Life was written, I looked for an antidote.

I found it in Leonard Bernstein, a man who joyfully embraced life. Bernstein was one of the fortunate ones among us who know what they want to do from an early age. He was born to make music and to share his love of music with the world. He was dynamic, enthusiastic, and charismatic, and although he never managed to channel his enormous talent in any one direction, he made lasting contributions to classical and popular music. Bernstein had his low moments, of course, but he was great company for a biographer. Also, writing about Bernstein offered the challenge of writing about music. Nothing is more elusive than music, so how does a writer capture it in words? Readers can see my approach when Leonard Bernstein and American Music is published later this year.

Finally, travel can lead biographers to their subjects. In 2003 I visited Chile, and in the curious port of Valparaiso, I toured La Sebastiana, an eccentric house built into a hillside that had been home to poet Pablo Neruda, who died in 1973. Neruda was a born collector who had filled the house with curios and clocks, colored glass, a ship’s bell, and a carousel horse. More marvelous than the house, though, is the way Chileans from all walks of life revere Neruda for his breathtaking contribution to poetry as well as for his tireless humanitarian work. He represented the poorest Chileans in the national senate, rescued thousands of refugees from the Spanish Civil War, and became a defender of freedom when it was threatened in Chile. Neruda seemed an ideal subject for a young adult biography, but several years would pass until I felt ready to write one – until I had the confidence needed, I guess, to immerse myself in Latin American poetry and to plunge into source materials available only in Spanish. But what an honor it was to write Poetry Came in Search of Me: The Story of Pablo Neruda, another book that will be published in 2012.

Those of us who write biographies for children and young adults need to keep in mind such practical matters as curriculum tie-ins and marketability when choosing our subjects. But we also must trust our curiosity. It leads in unexpected directions!

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