The Embedded Biographer

The recent travails of David Petraeus and “the other woman,” his biographer, Paula Broadwell (no jokes, please, and stay away from jokes about the book title, All In) remind me of the perils of close literary association. I have been involved in many projects that worked, with the author and the subject getting along well, and others that almost produced violence.

I remember, for example, when a ghost writer for Garth Drabinsky’s book, Closer to the Sun, had a crisis meeting with him in his office one Sunday.

While Avie Bennett (the Chairman of McClelland & Stewart) and I watched glumly, the writer and Garth stood nose to nose, screaming at each other. Avie whispered to me that we were wasting our time. I counselled patience, that maybe they could work this out.

Avie was right.

On occasion the relationship between the ghost writer and the author of record, or the writer and the biographee, produces such strains that the luckless editor or publisher has to step in as referee, almost wrapping his arms around one of the combatants like a hockey linesman. The strains can extend far beyond the romantic. I remember the wife of a prominent man whose biography was in the works who came to my office to threaten suicide if the book was not to her liking.

Sometimes, as with David Petraeus and Ms. Broadwell, a dangerously close relationship develops between author and subject. Interestingly, Ms. Broadwell had a co-author on the Petraeus book named Vernon Loeb, who was “dumbfounded” by the news of the romantic liaison. But then, Mr. Loeb’s wife has described him as “the most clueless person in America.”

Sometimes, instead of an attraction developing, the opposite happens — a husband and wife author team split up in the course of writing the book. This was the case with George Jonas and Barbara Amiel, who were in the thick of writing their true-crime book about Peter Demeter, By Persons Unknown, when they broke up. They courteously came to my office to inform me of this development. Taken aback, I said predictable things about being sorry to hear it. When I politely offered to do whatever I could to help in this situation, George (an old-fashioned man with a quick wit) mentioned that he now would have a problem with his laundry.

There is a Canadian angle to all this. When Jill Kelley (suspected by Ms. Broadwell of being the other “other woman”) started to receive threatening e-mails (which brought in the FBI, and then the world), they included the words “Who do you think you are?”

It’s clear that all of the best stories prove to have links with Alice Munro.

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One comment on “The Embedded Biographer

  1. Leslie Nadon says:

    I can’t help it, Douglas. You always make me smile when I read your posts and tips. As I read the above post and saw By Person’s Unknown, I looked 4 feet to my right and there sat my copy of the same, sitting on one of my bookshelves. I always enjoy reading your posts, even if I don’t comment on every one. I’m finishing up my second book about my THREE CF ANGELS and beginning a third one at the same time about my years in the broadcasting industry.

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