The Best Advice for BiographersPrint
By Witold Rybczynski
October 28, 2013
It was 1995. I had written eight books of essayistic nonfiction, and I decided to try my hand at a biography. I’d considered several architectural subjects, but had settled on the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. I was intimately acquainted with his Mount Royal Park in Montreal, and I was intrigued that he had had an early career as a journalist, had written an influential book about slavery in the antebellum South, and had an important role in the Civil War.
I was a bit nervous venturing into this new literary territory, however, so before starting I thought I should ask the advice of a real biographer. I turned to my friend Stacy Schiff, who a decade earlier had been my editor for the book Home and had just published a well-regarded life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer and aviator. She recommended that I read Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, Henri Troyat’s Catherine the Great, and Richard Holmes’s Footsteps. She mentioned the biographer’s risk of getting halfway through a book and discovering you no longer liked your subject but admitted that there wasn’t much you could do about that danger.
Stacy also gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me ever since. It’s very important, she said, that I know as much as possible about my subject, no matter how trivial. It was important for me, but not for the reader; I should resist the urge to include all my research in the book. I think that this is a sound rule for all nonfiction writing. Learn all you can, then edit, edit, edit.
Witold Rybczynski is emeritus professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, How Architecture Works: A Humanist's Toolkit.