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

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Margaret Drabble

When I’m browsing through a bookstore, like many readers,  it won’t take me long to decide whether I want to read a book. If I’m not drawn in by the opening I’ll put it down and move on to another book. After all, there is so much to read and time is precious.

In writing this post on Margaret Drabble I was intrigued by the openings of her novels and wondered what it was about them that captivated me so. Was it the clean and simple language? Her often short sentences? Her promises of a journey into  love, fate, mystery, grief, romance and depth as seen in these openings:

The Waterfall: If I were drowning I couldn’t reach out a hand to save myself, so unwilling am I to set myself up against fate.

The Millstone: My career has always been marked by a strange mixture of confidence and cowardice: almost one might say made by it.  Take for instance, the first time I tried spending a night with a man in a hotel.

A Summer Bird-Cage: I had to come home from my sister’s wedding. Home is a house in Warwickshire, and where I was coming from was Paris.

The Red Queen: When I was a little girl, I pined for a red silk shirt. I do not remember all the emotions of my childhood, but I remember this childish longing well.

The Pure Gold Baby: What she felt for those children, as she was to realize later, was a proleptic tenderness. When she saw their little bare bodies, their proud brown belly buttons, the flies clustering around their runny noses, their big eyes, their strangely fused and forked toes, she felt a simple sympathy. Where others might have felt pity or sorrow, she felt a kind of joy, an inexplicable joy. Was this a premonition, and inoculation against grief and love to come?

Proleptic? had to look it up: The noun form is prolepsis and means describing an event as taking place before it could have done so, the treating of a future event as if it had already happened. (New World Dictionary).

The Needle’s Eye: He stood there and waited. He was good at that. There was no hurry. There was plenty of time. He always had time. He was a punctual and polite person, and that was why he was standing there, buying a gift for his hostess. Politeness was an emotion – could one call it an emotion he wondered?  That was how he regarded it, certainly –an emotion that he both feared and understood.

Margaret Drabble was named the Dame of the British Empire in 2008 for her contribution to contemporary English literature. Here’s where I guess she  wrote these delightful openings. 

Writers' rooms: Margaret Drabble

Photographer: Eamonn McCabe

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