Michael Holroyd

In his book Works on Paper: The Craft of Biography and Autobiography Michael Holroyd refers to three categories of biographers:

  1. the biographer who writes about the very famous – film stars, murderers and royal family
  2. the ambitious professor who writes historical and political  biographies
  3. 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 BluesMosaic, 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.

Writers' rooms: Michael Holroyd

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?


19 thoughts on “Michael Holroyd

  1. Thank you, Carol. This is very interesting. I always think it takes a special kind of writer to craft a biography that is both readable (i.e. attention-getting and absorbing) and truthful.


  2. Hahaha, re the slow in front of your door. I just finished a biography that i want to write a post about. I think I will use the information you wrote here about the types of biographies to explain this book. It’s type #1. In that way, it’s different from most of the memoirs I write about because it’s not literary or artistic, but a researched book about a famous person. Thanks, Carol!


  3. His study, while hectic, looks cozy with all the books and artwork. Not a confident writer, I’m guessing no writer is (especially more so when writing about famous people as he does:)). In the end, as a storyteller, he is defined by the words he writes, and that can be a frightening yet wonderful thought. Lovely post.


    • Thank you. Yes, messy can be cozy.
      Confidence is really a difficult thing to hold unto. I often read of well known writers saying that whenever they start a new project it doesn’t get easier. I guess they have their reputation to live up to and that can be stressful.


  4. “an advance of more than a million dollars”—Wowsa. And that was in 1988. I can’t even imagine…

    I don’t read biographies very often. Not sure why I don’t. When I do, I’ve always enjoyed them. Guess I tend to focus more on fiction.


    • That’s a lot of money for an advance. Even by today’s standards. Makes me think what some writers like James Patterson gets. Here’s a quote from Forbes:
      James Patterson: $94 million
      Unlike many of the authors on this list, Patterson earns nearly all his money from his gargantuan book sales and relatively little from TV and film royalties. He published 14 new titles in 2011.

      This is insane. Publishing 14 new titles!


  5. Yes, I have read a few, but they’ve been the historical type. I have no interest in reading Roseann Barr’s biography. Or is her an autobiography? I read Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography and the one about Ann Frank. There’s a few others but they escape my mind right now.


  6. There are some bios I have enjoyed reading. Some lives are just astounding! However, I am such a painfully slow reader. My books are piling up before I can finish and move onto the next. I always have to re-read a few lines or pages thinking I am missing something LOL


  7. Pingback: Memoir’s Cousin | Writer Site

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