Saturday, March 17, 2018

Susan Goldman Rubin

Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of many biographies for young people, including Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People and Hot Pink: The Life and Fashions of Elsa Schiaparelli.

Her new book is Coco Chanel: Pearls, Perfume, and the Little Black Dress.

Recently I asked Goldman Rubin about what she was reading. Her reply:
I write biographies for young adults and middle-grade children, and struggle to bring my subjects to life. What events are the most important to include? How to dramatize those episodes as if I had been there? I look to other biographers as role models whether they write for adults or children. I found understanding and delight in The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas. I’ve devoured every chapter. Atlas, the celebrated biographer of poet Delmore Schwartz and writer Saul Bellow, is also a former editor at The New York Times. Despite his professional achievements, he confides how he struggles along as I do with each biography.

Atlas discusses his process of research and writing with humor, honesty, and brilliance. The reading, the trips to the library, the heaps and piles of endless notes, are, he says, “the pleasures and ordeals of archival research.” Atlas writes as though he’s talking directly to me! “Biography is a lonely trade,” he says. “It requires a capacity for sitting by yourself all day for years, sometimes decades.” In some chapters he presents his own heroes in the field: Richard Ellman, Leon Edel, and James Boswell. In others, he talks about his personal life as though it were a sidebar to his obsession with a work-in-progress. Finally, he questions the purpose of biography. How can a writer explain the genius, the talent, of someone worthy of a biography? You can’t. However, says Atlas, we can show other factors and influences that contributed to forming the person. “There is no such thing as Biography School,” he concludes. But his marvelous book reassures me.

Because I write nonfiction for young readers, I crave adult fiction at the end of the day. I especially love novels by English women writers. One of my favorites is Tessa Hadley. I’m currently reading her newest book, Bad Dreams and Other Stories. Hadley is masterful with imagery, surprise, and character development. Her writing is so exquisitely compact, that climactic moments come without warning and hit hard. With a few lines of dialogue, interspersed with the narrative, Hadley brings her characters to life. She knows exactly what to include and what to leave out. I finish a story and find myself going back to see how she packed such a wallop, and to linger over the beauty of her poetic language.
Visit Susan Goldman Rubin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue