Biographer Stacy Schiff compares autobiography to a striptease, and she loves the word "espresso." Find out about her favorite books, authors, and why she's attracted to writing biographies.
What are your favorite books/who are your favorite authors?
Transit of Venus, The Leopard, Duke of Deception. Harold Nicolson’s Some People; Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love. New books by Mary Karr and Michael Chabon always cause for celebration. Memoir generally. As V. S. Pritchett put it, autobiography is like a striptease; the suspense comes in discovering how much the author will reveal.
As far as authors go, my favorite has to be Elinor (The Family Man, The Inn at Lake Devine) Lipman, who reads all my pages before anyone else does.
What attracts you to writing biographies?
History through the lens of personality. Also, it has enough of an inherent form that the author has plenty with which to play.
What people or time periods or events in history interest you the most?
As you can see I have a bit of ADD—or at least a pronounced fidgetiness—on this front. But generally there is a sweet spot in biography after the advent of the typewriter and before that of e-mail. The corresponds roughly to the period after the discovery of the unconscious and before the moment when every drop of inner life wound up on the page. The best subject is a narcissist, or at least a self-reflector.
Do you have any writing rituals or habits? Where and when do you write?
Yellow legal pad and mechanical pencil. Before a window, at a large desk, and in the morning. I am useless after lunch, which I put off as long as I humanly can.
What are your favorite words? And what are your least favorite words?
Favorite: Espresso, snow day, room service (or in-room dining, as it has become), Boeuf Bourguignon, rapscallion.
Least favorite: Liaise, impact, task (when used as a transitive verb: “ I task you with liaising with Lopate to determine what how snow days will impact WNYC"). Or "The espresso machine is broken.”
Where do you find inspiration or ideas for your writing?
Out the window, on the 5th Avenue bus, or (and mostly) reading. Was it Schopenhauer who said that reading was thinking with someone else’s mind? It is. I feel I’m always talking back to a book—or to all books anyway except my own.