Writer to Writer 15: Writing Biographies – Stephen Birmingham

[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to “Writer to Writer,”
a program for and about writing, sponsored by the
Florida Community College of Jacksonville. I’m Gerri Turbow
your host today. And with me is
Stephan Birmingham, a notable,
best-selling author who has over 20 titles of both
fiction and nonfiction. And today for our
half-hour interview, I’ve been asked to ply
you with questions as if I were an aspiring writer
or even a young writer who would like to learn from
your success and experience. And I thought I’d
start with, what is the most often
question that would be asked by an aspiring affair? How much money do
you make, you know? Then what is your answer? I tell them, you know,
young, aspiring writers, I say, well, don’t go
into this unless you have some other form of support,
or unless you’re rich or have an indulgent father who will
keep you in food and water and lodging. I think it was in The New
York Times not too long ago. The average freelance
writer in the United States makes about $2,200 a year, and
you don’t live very comfortably on $2,200 a year. So you need some other
means of support. And, of course, this astonishes
people because they say, well, you don’t have any
other means of support. Well, I’ve been at it for 27
years or something like that. I’ve published 25 books. And I’m one of maybe a handful,
maybe six or seven writers, who can really now afford
to do it full time. Well, does it discourage
your questioner? Well, I’ve always
believed that there are more than eight hours in a day. You know, if somebody
has another line of work, almost any other
line of work I think would work for an
aspiring writer, except possibly teaching. A teacher works more
than eight hours a day, more time than she or he
spends in the classroom. That seems to be a really
consuming profession. But working for a
newspaper, I worked for a while for an
advertising agency, writing advertising copy,
which was fun and simple to do. And then I’d go home, and
I’d be home at 6:00 o’clock. And I’d work until
midnight, writing a novel. Well, that was one of my
questions that I had for you. Do you have a set time to
work on your work in progress? Well, it’s funny. Since I started writing
in my spare time while doing a full-time
job, which is supporting the wife and the
little children, and did most of
my serious writing in the late afternoons
and evenings, I still had that
sort of pattern. I’ll fiddle around
in the morning, answering mail and paying bills
and doing The Times crossword puzzle and so forth. And then I’ll go out to lunch. And then around 4 or 5
o’clock in the afternoon, I really get to work
and work sometimes till 9:00, 10:00,
11 o’clock at night. So I’m sort of a night person. When it’s quieter. Yeah, it’s also when the
phone stops ringing, right. That’s true. Well, one of the
questions I found out by reading a little bit
of research about you was your background. And you have a literary
background, an English major, you graduated with
honors, invited to be a member of the Phi Beta Kappa. Congratulations. And then you went out
into the real world and became a copywriter, as
you said, and then worked on the side. Do you think this
kind of training is useful to would-be writers? Well, people sort of make fun
of the advertising business, you know, hucksters
and so forth. But fortunately, when I worked
for an advertising agency, quite a few years ago,
I was lucky enough to have nice accounts. I had, oh, a sports car
that I could write about and a Ladies Home
Journal advertising promotion I did which was
fun, a women’s magazine. I didn’t have to do laxatives
and mouthwashes and things like that, so I enjoyed it. And it does teach you, I
think, writing advertising, where you’re limited to
a short block of copy, you learn the value
of the strong noun and the strong verb. And you learn to eliminate
the silly, useless adverbs and adjectives. I mean, you know,
nouns and verbs. What wonderful
advice for students. Yeah, yeah, those are the
workhorses of the language. That’s right. And, of course, in
writing advertising copy, you’re trying to sell
somebody something. You’re trying to
sell them this glass or whatever, or this table. And any kind of writing, you’re
writing to entertain, inform, entertain. If you’re writing
a novel, you’re trying to sell the
reader on your heroine, make the reader care
about what happens to your heroine or your hero. Well, speaking about
the copyright business and working for the
Ladies Home Journal, I came across a bit of
information that amused me and excited me because I
remember this slogan very well. And this was a slogan that
I suppose is nationally, if not internationally, known. Never underestimate
the power of a woman. That was mine. That’s yours, and I
think it’s fantastic. They’re still using it. They’re still using it. And they’re still
using it, and it probably has a lot
more resonance today than it even did then,
politically and socially. But what was the reason? What was the need
for that slogan? What we were trying
to do, really, was to sell advertising
space in Ladies Home Journal to people like General Motors
and Ford and Chrysler, Detroit automobile makers. They laughed at us and
said, women have nothing to do with automobiles. A man makes the choice
of the family car. And we had research
to back us up that a woman did more
than just pick out the color of the
interior or whatever, and also she spent more
time behind the wheel than a man, her
husband, did, driving the kids to school and taxing
and errands and so forth. And quite often, the woman
chose not only the model, but the make. So that was why we
were saying, never underestimate the
power of a woman. So that was the
significance of it. We did get a few automotive
ads out of it, actually, so it sort of worked. So it was successful, and
they used it for a long time. They still do. Yes, still do. It’s on the spine
of the magazine. With your prolific
output, your 25 titles, how do you choose your subjects? Subjects or titles? Subjects. Well, sometimes editors
come to me with an idea. For example, a few
years ago, an editor said, what about a book
on the Dakota Apartments in New York, the oldest luxury
apartment house in the city? So I knew some people
who lived at the Dakota, so I was intrigued by
the Dakota and knew that there were supposed to
be ghosts at the Dakotas. And I thought that was
a heck of a good idea. So that was not my idea. But with a novel like
Shades of Fortune, which I see you have here,
it’s about the novel involving the cosmetics industry. And it was really based on
my old pal, Estee Lauder, who was a little
girl from the Bronx who started out wandering up and
down the aisles of Saks Fifth Avenue with their little
samples on a tray, passing them out to shoppers. Her own samples. Yeah, of her little
cream, Youth Drops, or whatever it was called. And, of course, now she heads
this giant cosmetics empire, so that’s sort of what gave
me the idea for that novel. Well, that comes to
the next question. How do you select your titles? Well, everybody gets into
the act with the title. Sometimes I win. I still don’t like that
title, Shades of Fortune. I don’t know what it means. Well, probably the shades
of the various cosmetics. Yeah, I guess so. It’s got a picture of lipstick
or something on the jacket. But I thought it made it look
like a book about lipstick. I still don’t like that title. But the paperback house, which I
think in that case was Berkley, they came up with that title. And they just loved it. And they were going to pay me a
lot of money for the paperback rights. And so I finally said, OK. Go ahead if you think it’s
going to be so wonderful. It’s going to be so wonderful
no matter what the title is. I think a good title is
a title of a good book. Yes, yes, well,
how much experience does a writer need to
make his work believable? Mm, I don’t know if it’s
experience or just intuition and maybe the help
of a good editor and a good literary
agent and probably a sympathetic spouse
or significant other who will be honest, who reads
your work and says, now, look. I didn’t understand
why she did that. Why wouldn’t she be mad at him? You know, why did
she go back to– and I’ve discovered that when
two people say the same thing about anything in my material,
they’re probably right. And I’m wrong. And you’re wrong. Well, how about imagination? How does that work? How does imagination work? Well, go ahead. I try to put myself into
my characters’ thoughts and feelings. In this book, for
example, the heroine is in love with two men. She’s in love with her husband. She’s also in love
with an old lover who comes back into her life. And she’s got to choose. And I’m not going to tell
you which one she chooses. No, because I’m
reading it right now. But I hope she made
the right choice, and readers seem
to agree with me. Well, talking about
your characters, I’ve heard interviews with
other authors who say, sometimes a character
that they’re creating will take off and
have a life of its own and will almost dictate the
characterization and the plot development and the dialogue. Do you ever have that happen? Yes, it’s wonderful when it
happens, and it does happen. And when you get to that
point, usually for me when I’m halfway
through the book, they have to behave
certain ways. When these two people
meet, they have to say certain
things to each other and react in certain ways. Then they begin to write
their own story, which is fun. So that really does happen? Because I’ve heard
people say that. And I thought, gee. Does that happen to a character
about whom you’re especially interested, or does someone
just suddenly pop up as a character that was a
minor and now becomes a major? I had a character in a novel of
mine called The Auerbach Will, and I knew she had
to die at the end. I mean, she was
93, so it was time. And I knew she had to die. But by the time I got to the
death scene, I was so in love with her, I was
weeping, seriously. Really? So you do become that
involved with your people? Yeah, yeah. As I was reading
Shades of Fortune, the first paragraph, the
character who is the father says to the son, you have
to be a good listener to make a good first impression. And don’t be a talker. I’m paraphrasing your words. And then he goes on to say
that the son takes the idea that the father said
and uses it to make imaginary dialogue with people
that he sees on the street. Do you use that yourself? Yeah, mm-hmm. Do you do that little trick,
watching people talk and– Mm-hmm, wondering what
they’re talking about? Uh-huh. Yeah. So it’s something that
you carry through a bit. You, yourself, appear
in the book then. Looking at the expressions
on their faces. You know, you’ve seen people
walk by who are obviously quarrelling over
something, and you wonder what they’re fighting about. Well, that’s marvelous. When did you begin
writing seriously? Well, I wrote in high school,
I guess in my early teens. Seriously writing. Yeah. Did you get encouragement from
your teachers or your family? Yes, I did. I think you’re lucky in
your educational experience to find at least
one good teacher who will sort of
pat you on the back and give you a little push. Inspire you a little behind. And I actually had two. I was very, very lucky. To get very specific,
I wanted to ask you, how do you go about
creating a specific novel? By that, I mean do you
work out a specific outline from beginning to end? Or do you wake up in
the middle of the night and get going with an idea? Or do you just go as
the spirit moves you? How technically do you prepare? Well, I guess you could
call it an outline. Although usually by the time
you get to the end of the book, the outline has changed
considerably, you know. But I do start out with
eight-by-five cards with the characters’
names, their ages, any distinctive speech
patterns, if one of them has a lisp, for example,
or whether they’re handsome or pretty or ugly
or fat, and their ages and so forth. And then I do
outline the major– there’s usually at
least two story threads. Two plot lines, uh-huh. Yeah, plus little subplots,
and I outline those. And it’s very helpful. So you do sort of follow a
prearranged plan that you have. Yes. Do you particularly like to
use a computer processor? Or do you use the good,
old yellow pad and pencil? What tools do you use? I have a Royal Standard
manual typewriter. I only type with one finger. But I can go very fast, and
I don’t make many mistakes. My friends who have
computers, it seems to me they’re always breaking down. Or they’re losing
something or getting some sort of computer virus. And I was collaborating
with a writer friend of mine on a television
project the other day. And we worked all day long at
his computer in his studio. And at the end of
the day, we were just taking a brief break for lunch. We worked from
9:00 in the morning till 7:00 or 8 o’clock at night. And he said, Steve,
do you realize we have done seven pages? And I said, well, Sam, you know,
I could sit at my typewriter and do seven pages in
an hour and a half. It wouldn’t take me
all day to do that. So I think it’s slower. You think it’s slower,
not because you were collaborating, but– It was just slower because then
you have to wait for everything to get printed out. Then all of a sudden,
something would go wrong. You’d have to call a
computer store to tell them what to do to
rectify why it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to. The spell check took forever. And we got to the word, weird,
and it said it was misspelled. And I said, weird is
spelled W-E-I-R-D. And the spell check in the
computer said, no, it was I-E. I said, Sam, the
computer is wrong. It’s W-E-I. And I said, let’s look
it up in the dictionary. But he didn’t have a dictionary. So I’m against computers. I agree with you. I agree. I think they’re a waste of time. So you’ll say that the
most useful tool you have is your good, old typewriter. Right, and it won’t die. It’s the same typewriter
I had in college. The other day, a little
screw fell out of it. And it was apparently
an unimportant screw. It still works fine. It still works fine. You’re known for your
fiction and your biographies and your social histories,
as many of the critics call these stories
about generations, almost epic stories of great
families in the Northeast, of people who are very
socially prominent, socially gifted, and the
elite, and the very rich. How much research does that take
to go into many generations? And how do you go about it? Women, the women in the families
are the traditional keepers of the family scrapbooks, the
old letters, old photograph albums, the locks of baby
hair, and the bronze baby shoes, and the memories. And somebody said, well, you
know, like my book, Our Crowd, about the German-Jewish
banking family of New York, a lot of strong
women in those families. And somebody said, well, the
women wouldn’t know anything about the business aspect. Well, that’s not true. I mean, the women
heard it on the pillow. They might not have known too
much about the daily routine at the office. But the big deals, when
Jacob Schiff and JP Morgan got together on a big railroad
deal, women knew all about it. They heard it first thing when
the husband got home at night. So they’re the key
often to the story. It always amazes me
in reading biographies that the dialogue, if it
hasn’t come out of a letter, is always so clearly
remembered by people way back. And also the author then
writes so clearly as if he or she remembers
so clearly what was said maybe three or four months ago. Do you use a tape recorder
when you interview? Sometimes, I find it
depends on the person. It scares some people. It makes them freeze. I’d rather just
sit and take notes. But some people would
rather be tape recorded. Because then it would
be absolutely accurate. But even so, it’s funny. People remember the same
event in different ways. There was a wonderful anecdote. When I did my biography of
John B. Marquand about a dinner party, he was at
the dinner party. And the hostess is still around. I had spoken to her. She told me that she
never had had a dinner party for more than 16 people. So that was her top
number of guests. So there were 16 people. One of them was Eleanor Belmont. One of them was Marquand. I swear I had 40
different people claim that they were there that
evening at that dinner party when they couldn’t have been. And when they
couldn’t have been, but they are sure
that they could. What do you do in
a case like that? You try to be honest with
the reader and say, look. There are many
different versions. This is what I think
probably happened. This is who I think
was probably there. How do you know when
you have enough research to begin your writing? Usually when you begin hearing
the same things over and over again. Over and over again, uh-huh,
so then you know you can begin. Then you’ll have to
go back sometimes, do you not, to confirm
and to fill in the holes? Yes. Do you prefer writing
certain kinds of works? Do you prefer the fiction over
the biographies, for instance? Or do you have a preference? Well, my last few books
have all been novels. And I’ve had an awful lot
of fun writing fiction because in real life,
things don’t always end up the way they should,
in case you haven’t noticed. Yes, a lot of plans go asunder. And people don’t end up
doing what they ought to do. And they don’t have nice,
tidy, satisfying endings. But with fiction, you can– Do it any way you want to. Exactly. Even if you let your favorite
character die at the end. Right, exactly. We must get to
this nitty gritty. Suppose an author here
in Jacksonville, Florida, has finished his or her work. And she wants to
get it published. And she really has no contacts
with the publishing world. What should that person do? Well, it’s nowadays in 1995. And it’s getting harder and
harder for first-time writers to get published. I would think that
he or she ought to go up to New York City
and ring doorbells of agents. There’s a trade association
of literary agents in New York called the
American Society of Authors Representatives. It’s in the phone
book and so forth. Get their list. Go around. Make appointments. Meet people. An agent is terribly important. A lot of publishers
won’t even look at manuscripts that
don’t come from agents, not even open them. And it’s slow. And it’s hard. And it’s expensive. And it’s sometimes discouraging. But I tell people to just
use every single contact and network as much as possible. If you meet a writer at a
cocktail party, glom onto him and say, can I call
your agent tomorrow and see if he’s interested? How do you find a
reputable agent? We hear stories about people– Well, there are
lots that aren’t. There are lots that aren’t. But some in that list would be. All these people. All these would be of
the reputable kind. This was an
organization that was founded way back in the 1920s. And its members all subscribe
to the same ethical standards. Anybody on that list, there
may be 50, 60 agencies, they’re all good. Don’t trust something like The
Writer’s Guide or one of those because those are the
people that advertise. And you have to put
in your own money. But with reputable
people, you should not have to do that at all. No, no. I’m not going to ask you what
works you have in progress because you told me before
that it makes you superstitious about their success. Well, I got it. I’m working on a book. So to close, I’m just
going to thank you so much for a
delightful conversation and to tell you how
happy we are to have you in Jacksonville today. And I know that in
the banquet you’re going to be the principal
speaker, and in the workshops that people will learn so
much more from you, even than what we’ve gleaned today. Thank you, Mr. Birmingham. Thank you. This is Gerri Turbow in
Jacksonville, Florida, from “Writer to Writer.” [MUSIC PLAYING]

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