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5 Questions: Serial biographer Jeffrey Meyers

September 29, 2009
by Pat Joseph
a painting of a man in a white suit wearing a fez

Having written 43 books, including more than 20 biographies, you’re nothing if not prolific. What’s your work routine?

JM: I work every day— it’s important to keep up momentum—from 9:30 to 1 in the morning and from 7:30 to 11 in the evening. In the afternoons I recharge by playing tennis (inexpensive psychotherapy), taking long walks, frequenting bookstores, going to the Cal library, and wandering around San Francisco. I do research and interviews with family and friends for six months. I then write by hand on yellow pads, type three pages a day and 100 pages a month on the computer, and finish a 400-page book in four months. Finally, I spend two more months revising.

When I’m done, I follow the example of my longtime friend, Iris Murdoch, who began her next novel the day after completing the previous one. (More momentum.) While the editor is reading my typescript, I do the research and write a ten-page proposal that secures the contract and advance for my next book.

Your most recent book is a life of Samuel Johnson. How do you compete with Boswell?

Boswell’s Life of Johnson is the most authoritative source on Johnson, but even Boswell was unaware of crucial aspects of Johnson’s history, and deliberately suppressed some sensitive but revealing material. He had not read Johnson’s private diaries. And he certainly did not know Johnson’s “secret far dearer to him than life”—his ritualistic chains and beatings by Hester Thrale.

Who’s next?

I’m now writing a life of the fascinating John Huston, who directed The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Misfits, and his final masterpiece, based on James Joyce’s finest story, The Dead. Huston, a cross between a Renaissance prince and a Regency rake, was one of the most fascinating men who ever lived and would be worth a book even if he’d never made a movie.

How do you choose your subjects?

I’m drawn to writers, painters, actors and directors. My choice depends on who interests me, who has commercial prospects and who’s most likely to get a good contract from a publisher. I especially like aggressive, contentious, manly subjects, with whom I can identify, like Wyndham Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, George Orwell, and Errol Flynn. I may be the only writer sufficiently versatile to write a biography of Marilyn Monroe and immediately follow it with a life of Samuel Johnson. Though Sam, of course, would have adored Marilyn.

You’ve written that Hemingway changed your life and inspired you to become a writer. Did researching his life for your biography heighten your admiration for him or diminish it?

Hemingway inspired me to travel in Africa, spend four years in Spain and write clear prose. Though not everyone liked Hemingway, all the people I interviewed were tremendously impressed by him. My admiration for him increased as I gained a deeper understanding of his personal courage, and his intellectual and artistic achievements. I think he’s the greatest American writer of the twentieth century (hostile feminists should read “Hills Like White Elephants” before pronouncing judgment). His work is as fresh and vital today as it was when he first wrote it.

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