In his book Works on Paper: The Craft of Biography and Autobiography Michael Holroyd refers to three categories of biographers:
- the biographer who writes about the very famous – film stars, murderers and royal family
- the ambitious professor who writes historical and political biographies
- the literary or artistic biographer.
Holroyd belongs to the third category. And he does it very well. So well that he is referred to as “one of the most influential biographers and was invited to write the authorized biography of Bernard Shaw. At the time (1988) the deal caused a great stir as he got an advance of more than a million dollars – more than anyone had ever received.” In Writers and Company
His other works include biographies of Lytton Strachey, the painter Augustus John, and Ellen Terry and Henry Irving,
He has also published three autobiographical works—Basil Street Blues, Mosaic, and A Book of Secrets—and which are also meditations on biographical research and writing. In The Paris Review.
Although he never attended university (his father wanted him to be a scientist) he expressed gratitude for this as he didn’t have to forget all this academic nonsense, as he told Eleanor Wachtel in an interview. Later, he received an honorary doctorate of letters at the London School of Economics and also holds honorary degrees from the universities of Ulster, Sheffield, Warwick, East Anglia and the London School of Economics.
He is married to Dame Margaret Drabble. Although they’ve been married for over thirty years it took them thirteen years after their marriage to move in together, partly because, according to Drabble, two writers living in the same house need a lot of space.
Here’s a delightful insight on their writing habits from an interview at The Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal:
M.D.: His study is just chaos.
M.H.: Your own filing system is not obvious
M.D.: It’s not as bad as yours.
Proof that opposites do attract. Click here for a look at Margaret Drabble’s desk.
Photographer: Eamonn McCabe
I wouldn’t describe myself as a confident writer. I usually start writing when I’m about seventy-five percent of the way through research, when I wonder, Oh my God, can I ever do this? And will I have the material I need? By that stage, everything I do seems to add to the complexity of it, and I feel that if I can only start writing it will give me the energy and guidance to finish the archival work. Starting to write is very difficult. And you don’t always have to start at the beginning. Paris Review
I am a slow writer – every year a little slower. The road-menders have actually painted the word SLOW on the tarmac directly outside my front door. Except for the hum and grind of decelerating traffic, there is not much sound in the room where I work: an occasional crunching or shuffling of papers, a muted crash as a pile of books collapses, and a voice (presumably my own) sighing, exclaiming, cursing – a consoling lament. Otherwise there is silence – a sort of silence. So when I finish a book (an increasingly rare event), I am eager to get out and see what is happening. The Guardian
Do you read biographies?