The Art of Biography

This six-part series was first published in The Independent Scholar, Vol. 21.2 (Summer 2007) to Vol.22.3 (Fall 2009), a publication of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars. It describes my work in-progress, THE SURGEON WHO BECAME A BEST-SELLING AUTHOR: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. RICHARD SELZER (more), a literary biography of Richard Selzer. It contains: "Overview and Getting Started," "Focus and Foreword," "The Interview," "Authorial Tone," "Love Letters," and "The End Game Strategy–Design Matters & The Author-Publisher Partnership." The series derives from my conference presentations and university lectures given over a ten-year period and was written in real time, showing how I addressed particular issues as they came up.

1. Overview and Getting Started

Thinking about writing a biography? My first advice is, choose your subject wisely. For you will be living with him or her for a long time. The biographer David McCullough started working on Pablo Picasso, and two years later he abandoned the project, saying he found Picasso’s personal life too repellent and his story uninteresting, with too few personal struggles. He commented that choosing a biographical subject was like finding a roommate: "You’re better off with someone you like." On the average, biographers will spend four years researching, four writing, and then two promoting all of their hard work. When the subject is living, as mine is, there are added concerns, but it may be more interesting as well.

Find your subject: I first was acquainted with my subject, Dr. Richard Selzer, a Yale surgeon-writer, when I read his cross-over book, Mortal Lessons in 1976. I approached him about compiling a bibliography on him, which was subsequently published in The Bulletin of Bibliography in 1990. I followed that with master’s (1993) and doctoral work (1997). I have been in touch with him all throughout these years. So it seemed a natural progression to move forward with a biography. But when I asked him in 1998 about writing one on him, at first he said he was "unworthy" and that his life had already been revealed in his writings, making it "an open book." In fact, his eleven books of short stories, essays, and memoirs are a valuable resource, but they are literary (read: partly made up). Sorting fact from fiction makes a biographer’s job doubly hard. But while these jumbled writings confuse chronological order, they show Selzer’s brilliance, humility, and imagination. Undeterred, and not realizing the full extent of the above, I pressed on and at last he consented. I had my work cut out for me.

Define subject’s merit: Why is Richard Selzer (b. 1928) an important subject worthy of so much of my time and effort? He is a renowned doctor-writer often mentioned in the same breath with John Keats, Anton Chekhov, and William Carlos Williams. This is his first full-length biography. Following in his literary ancestors’ footsteps, he was among the first contemporary physicians to understand the power within medicine of writing and reading fiction. His work influenced other writers, and the new literature-and-medicine movement was born, transforming medical education. It recognized that which it can only get from the humanities and particularly from literature. His works are integral to the canon of literature and medicine. Furthermore, Selzer’s attempts "to make art" in the midst of a busy surgical career are interesting—his road hasn’t been an easy one to walk. At first mainstream medical thinking viewed his poetic prose and humanistic thinking as warm and fuzzy and useless—compared to the teachings of the hard sciences. His colleagues wouldn’t sit with him at lunch in the Yale-New Haven Hospital cafeteria, fearing that as he wrote he was "telling the secrets of the priesthood." They were right, he did. But their early resistance has shifted, and now these same people consider Selzer their spokesman, and three-quarters of medical schools now teach literature. His work broaches controversial topics like mercy killing, organ transplantation, and abortion. Important issues appearing in Selzer’s work include: how doctors may feel inadequate—like impostors—with fears and trepidations just like the rest of us; how doctors may hate a patient and have to overcome their feelings of revulsion to adequately treat him; and how doctors have to carefully approach writing about their patients because they may be breaching doctor-patient confidentiality.

Identify your sources: The bibliography I had compiled gave me a leg up; I was started. Also, the face-to-face interview I conducted with Selzer at his home in New Haven, CT in 1992 for my master’s work set a foundation. From 1998 on I have interviewed him in person every year. To prepare for interviews, I read ongoing publications on him, which tender valuable facts and let Selzer spin stories. In 1998 a Selzer Archive was established at the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston, so I made several visits to look through boxes and boxes of letters, diaries, and drafts, using my scanner to copy onto my laptop. The archive is being continually added to. Over the last eight years I have conducted telephone and personal interviews with over 100 Selzer intimates, acquaintances, and family members (some were not forthcoming) for corroboration and alternative perspectives. I augmented all of these compelling accounts with facts and ideas gleaned from numerous book reviews and critical pieces.

State your problems: Setting out, you can’t possibly know all the problems you will have to deal with. My main problem was to put the events of Selzer’s life in chronological order, thereby squaring away some facts. I was able to show what contributed to his becoming a surgeon first and then a writer. As an added bonus, as I researched each stage of Selzer’s life I felt the pleasure of getting to know, all over again, the mind that created some of my favorite writings. I felt sorrow when a grandson was born with birth defects. I also experienced joy when he was named runner-up for the prestigious Pen-Faulkner prize. But no matter how exhaustively I researched, I came to realize that some things are unknowable. Like most people, Selzer’s memories, self-styled as "gap-toothed," can be sharp and focused or foggy. But when he’s in storyteller’s mode he comes to life.

Set your objectives: My objectives, which evolved, became fourfold: I connect Selzer’s works to his life experiences, showing how his imagination flies; I comment on his themes and styles; I explicate his role in balancing the technological outlook of medicine with empathy for patients; and I establish his significance in the evolving canon of literature and medicine.

Know personal challenges: Because of Selzer’s accessibility, I admit to being a bit of a sycophant when I first started this project ten years ago. Anything I wrote on Saint Selzer at that point would have turned into a Boswellian hagiography. Fortunately that honeymoon phase was replaced with a biographer’s objective realism. Other qualities desirable in a biographer are an obsessive tendency and inbred patience. These are necessary to keep focus and follow-through.

Expect this next: In part 2, I discuss the many hats I wear and the team I have built (one got me out of trouble). I explain how I research and record historical events, retell stories, and find parallels and use examples. I show the importance of keeping heads-up throughout the process to avoid the quicksand of ethical dilemmas. At last, I show you how I test my product.

Here are tips: To digitally organize your material into each chapter, create a master document. Also, to physically organize your material (photos, drafts), separate it into chapters laid out onto a large table or several smaller tables. I use colorful toy bins for the overlap.

2. Focus and Forward

More people read biography than any other kind of genre. The biography you are currently engrossed in tells something about who you are. And, if you are writing a biography—and you are what you think about all day—your biographical subject has impacted your life. [Tell me whose life you read. Tell me who haunts you; I will tell you who you are—André Breton, Nadja.] For these reasons, I am grateful to say my subject is not Jack the Ripper, Son of Sam, or Saddam Hussein, but rather he’s a friendly genius named Richard Selzer (b. 1928). Nearly an octogenarian, he’s witty, kind, and generous. A former surgeon turned author, he’s taught me a great deal about medicine and literature—and its history. Beyond contributing to the end-product of my biography, he has personally enriched my life.

Get a foothold. The importance of getting an early foothold is shown in this story the famous biographer Richard Ellmann told his friend, Richard Selzer. "After the huge success of his James Joyce (1959), Dick Ellmann was casting about for another biographical subject and decided upon Ezra Pound. He wrote to Pound who was then living in Rapallo, Italy, after his release from St. Elizabeth’s. By that time, Pound had fallen silent and refused to utter a single word. Dick had broached the subject of a "Life." Pound had read Joyce, and Dick further blandished him with a small volume of his essays. Pound sent word for him to come, as Dick had requested. When he arrived at the house in Rapallo, Pound’s old mistress Olga Rudge let him in and went upstairs to get Ezra Pound who did come down, sat in the room with Dick, but never uttered a word. After a while, he went back upstairs. Dick knew then that it would be impossible. That was when he decided to write his biography of Oscar Wilde (1988; [he worked 20 years on this!]."

After my tentative first meeting with Selzer, I was fortunate to get his quick turnabout. I see him at least once a year in person, and he always gives me the names of people to call. Of these suggested interviewees, he opens the door, telling them, "give her the whole unvarnished truth, warts and all." He responds to my direct questions promptly via email. At times his entertaining and informative answers catapult me off into another area of interest, such as when I learned recently that in the 1970s he befriended and corresponded with John Irving and Erich Segal.

Travel has been a part of this work. First, I visited his beloved homeland, Troy, New York, on the mighty Hudson River and talked with his childhood and high school friends, whom he had given a heads-up on. Second, I shadowed Selzer around the Yale University campus where during his fifty years in New Haven he has acquired a retinue of disciples, many of whom I interviewed. Third, I met him as he traveled around the country to speak at Stanford University, the University of Colorado in Denver, and the University of Texas—Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas where I recorded his words, observed his deeds, and interviewed others. Officially into the project for a decade now, I find my subject a wise choice as I recognize his broad and lasting humanistic contributions not only to the education and practice of medicine but to all readers (we are all patients). For this reason, his eleven books, beginning in 1974, have never been out of print.

To be or not to be authorized. In some cases having the subject’s or family’s signed consent to write a biography (indicating free and open access) can lead to grants. However, I took another path. While I have received Dr. Selzer’s full cooperation, this is not an authorized biography in the sense that he will read and approve the pre-publication manuscript. This subject came up between us only within one context: he understood my need not to be bound by his perspective alone but rather, after considering all alternative viewpoints and additional facts, to give my audience at large the bigger story. This involved considerable trust on his part, and, more specifically, a confidence in me that I complete this task showing tact, truthfulness, judgment, and the flexibility to deal creatively with unexpected issues. On my part, I must fulfill his only requisite that he not lose the affection of his readers. This said, he would be embarrassed by "a puff."

Wear many hats. I wear many hats as a biographer: first and foremost I’m a researcher, interviewer, and storyteller. I’m also an ethicist, psychologist, biblical scholar, and historian. I’m all of these and more. To give you an historical example, part of the art of biography is placing your subject within the broader cultural currents of the times. Therefore, I go back one hundred years to write about the hardscrabble life of Selzer’s White Russian ancestors who emigrated to Ellis Island during the turn of the last century. Selzer, like Faulkner and Twain, has influences deeply rooted in his early life. In order to elucidate this, I have also researched the history of the Hudson Valley area—they are a "watery people"—and talked with many Trojans. A local person helps me immeasurably with photographs and clippings as well as verifying facts.

Build a team. Bounty naturally flowed to me in the form of individuals who were interested in lending their expertise, advice and help; i.e., my team. They include a retired linguistic professor who helped zero in on genealogical research, a Communication’s scholar who has read and commented on the manuscript-in-progress; an attorney who has advised me on intellectual property issues; and a journalist who has given me tips on interviewing practices. If you don’t know something, ask someone who does!

Know copyright law. Facts and ideas are not copyrightable, only the unique expression of them. When in doubt, careful attributions are imperative. Footnotes keep you out of trouble. Know copyright law and get a fundamental understanding of fair use practices. See The Chicago Manual of Style (the 15th edition is online). I also subscribe to and ask questions of experts in an online legal forum ( One that comes to mind is, who owns the letters in the Selzer Archive? The action I took was to get the signed permission of my subject to use specific letters.

Another issue came up regarding the stories Selzer’s tells, which, like Homer, he keeps alive through repeated tellings. Over the years, he told the same story to me and other interviewers on his surgical interpretation of Jonah and the Whale, which has appeared in several publications. An IP attorney explained to me that, even though an earlier interviewer might think she has copyright in this story—feeling ownership through "the sweat of the brow theory"—that only the aspects original to her publication are protected by copyright. To address this issue, in my acknowledgments I state explicitly: "Some of the stories Selzer told others he repeated to me—at times nearly verbatim. Unless otherwise attributed, the factual information in this biography comes from my personal interviews and letters or other primary documents."

Understand libel law. Legal issues are a slippery slope that await you at every turn. To be grounded in basic libel law, read The New York Times v. Sullivan re public figures (freedom of the press v. malice of forethought). It answers, how do you steer a course toward truthfulness and accuracy while avoiding the shoals and reefs of libel lawsuits? Libel case law may give you concrete answers to your specific dilemmas, but of particular concern is a subset of defamation law called "false light/invasion of privacy" that sets lower legal action standards. Rely on your publishing house to put its machinery behind you for a rigorous peer review. To avoid sandbagging, when you feel the hint of a problem, flag it for your editors.

There will be times that test your personal morality. Can you live with the consequences of disclosing intimate details of your subject’s life that could hurt people who love and need him? In the end, the greatest challenge might be deciding to not write about everything you know. In a future expanded and edited version of your biography, such material might be more appropriate.

Test your product. To get important feedback, I publish excerpts from my manuscript and send chapters to readers. Recently a Stanford Emeritus Medical Professor who was at Yale Medical School with Selzer in the 1950s, read an early chapter and slightly corrected his quotations. In addition, he commented that it was "a wonderful recreation of the times." It’s just what I wanted to hear.

Expect this next. The creative art of biography (voice and style): set an overall tone that reflects your relationship to the subject; decide whether to put yourself in; create a feeling (pathos, empathy, pride) in telling historical events and stories; use parallels and examples.

Here are tips:

  • Build a bibliography
  • Establish a chronology (events in the life of)
  • Create a genealogy (use a program like Family Tree Maker)

3. The Interview

In the old days the writers of note died, and then they were taken up. But in this day of ours, when time is compressed, it happens that a writer such as myself is taken up before he is dead. It’s awkward. It seems that it has come out of its time—that I should have died. And then it would be easier for everybody. But then, on the other hand, for a person like you, you have the singular advantage of having looked at me, talked to me, and heard me. The biographers of yore did not have that. But you can feel my personality and record it in your writing.

—Richard Selzer to author (1998 interview)

In 1993 Professor Betsy Colquitt, my Master’s degree committee member, said to me, "You have a living subject. Go interview him." That was my first interview with Richard Selzer, Yale surgeon-writer, who is now my biography subject. For our ninth interview, last October, I arrived twenty minutes early for the 10 a.m. meeting at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale and waited on the plaza. Selzer saw me sitting 30 yards away from the main entrance and came out to greet me. As he gave me a hug, I noted his ribs had healed from a January fall on the ice and that his low vision problems did not keep him from coming out to meet me. Chatting like old friends, we walked up to our meeting place on the mezzanine level, just steps away from the Gutenberg Bible, which is left open in a display case. Selzer confirmed that the librarians turn one page each day.

The Beinecke is a windowless six-story tower that houses priceless old papers that would deteriorate in direct sunlight. So its Danby marble walls transmitted a subdued, ethereal light down upon the large round table Selzer led me to. But there were no chairs. Almost eighty, Selzer waved off my offer of help and went over to a stack of heavy metal chairs and brought two back, one at a time. He had been ill and was tired from giving a key note address in North Carolina. But in this action I see his habitual courtesy and the former surgeon who maintained a schedule no matter how he felt. We sat down, but before I could refer to my questions, Selzer softened his eyes and said, "I want to tell you something. I have to tell you that the older I get the more difficult it is for me to write. Lately I’m finding it arduous, but before I would leap to my desk and let it flow out of me." The last time I heard these words was in 1993, and Selzer was still recovering from a 1991 coma caused by Legionnaire’s Disease contracted on a book tour. He feared oxygen deprivation to his brain for those three weeks had caused his "image-maker" to fail. But slowly his abilities came back, even if "not to the feverish degree that existed before," he said then, adding: "There is a certain word, ballon, in ballet, when the dancer makes a leap up. It's the lift that he or she has and then seems to pause at the apex for a second, seems to hang in the air before descending--and that lift and pause is called ballon. Before my illness, I had ballon. I could leap and then descend. I probably lost something in that illness. It doesn't seem to me quite so effortless. It's as though the ballet dancer has gotten cold and arthritic, and he can't quite make it up in the air the way he did before. I have that feeling."

But sixteen years after his coma—and in spite of his self-professed frailties, Selzer is still working. Besides all of his eleven books remaining in print, Yale University Press will publish a book of his letters and a book of his diaries this spring. Then a novel he wrote fifty-four years ago, when he was a 24-year-old second year surgical resident drafted into the army and sent to Korea, will be next. The novel, retitled Knife/Song/Korea, describes his work south of the demilitarized zone, including delivering the babies of natives and amputating legs in a country thick with landmines. He reflects on those times: "I felt inadequate because I had total responsibility, so to keep my sanity I decided to keep a journal of my experience. I wrote every day and just before I returned to the states I decided to turn it into a novel. There was a good reason for me to change it into fiction; I did not want to offend anyone. For all these years I completely repressed what had been written because it was such a difficult period in my life. Finding the novel in the archives was a literary incarnation. There’s a lot of curiosity about it. Just the way it resurfaced. Even though I’m not sure it will be to my credit, I’d like it to see the light of day. There are still three new books coming out of this old carcass, which is exciting because I’m 79 years old and still functioning."

These are the words of a disciplined and resilient man still passionate about his work. Essays, a play, and stories will be collected into a new anthology, his 9th book since the coma. I always love to hear the genesis of a new story, and when he recounts it my ears perk up. One day he was walking across the Green Island Bridge in his homeland, Troy, New York, he explained, and spotted a half moon in the sky. "I took it as a sign," he says of his new story, "Half Moon," about Henry Hudson’s third voyage in search of the direct route to the Indies. "Hudson came up the great river that’s named after him. He went as far as what is now called Troy and couldn’t go any farther. Then I knew I must write an account of that third voyage." He told it through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old Dutch boy, a gifted youngster taken from an orphanage by a childless Jewish surgeon who wants to convert him and teach him medicine. "But he could never accept Judaism. He just couldn’t do it. So his mentor sent him away!" The boy went to the docks of Amsterdam where Henry Hudson took him on board as a cabin boy. Selzer named his hero Kees Nooteboom—after a Dutch author he admires, Cees Nooteboom, "who helped shape me into the kind of writer I am." Selzer read me a passage from the story, but I will have to wait for the publication of the obviously autobiographical piece to learn of Kees’ fate.

As our two-hour talk wound down, Selzer’s voice was thin but thoughtful: "I’m lucky in a way because I found my calling in surgery and I also found my destiny in writing. I’m very happy to have lived those two lives and to have succeeded in both beyond my imagination. I never expected that my writing would be read by so many generations of medical students, nurses, and doctors all over the world. It’s amazing to me." I felt heartened. Although Selzer’s an obsessive stylist fearful of not being good enough, he’s no longer refuting his merit as a biography subject. In the end, history will determine his stature. As we exited the building to head for lunch, Richard Selzer showed me his sturdy wooden cane stored in the cloak closet. His practical wife, Janet, had triple-tied it with red yarn at its base, so he won’t forget it. It helped Selzer with his balance after his coma and again following last winter’s fall. But this time he left it behind, taking my arm for the short walk down Wall Street to Mory’s.

Notes: The Selzer Archive is at UTMB, Moody Medical Library in Galveston. Mory’s, a restaurant at 306 York Street, is filled with old Yale memorabilia.

Expect this next: I placed my subject in a particular place and time to get a substantive portrait that includes his interior life.

4. Authorial Tone

Approach your subject with a clear sense of purpose and a strong point of view. Readers expect the truth, warts and all. You’ve been a fact-gatherer and tried hard to be objective. Now, paradoxically, good storytelling requires that you appear to be in the background while relating an attitude or opinion. Your carefully selected words will convey the all-important tone, in a general sense to the entire biography and in a particular sense to each scene.

Examples of general authorial tone, given on reviews of biographies in the New York Times Book Review, are: Even and respectful. Gratuitously hostile, appearing to settle a debt. Confident, not arrogant, with a touch of irony. Irreverent with an often comically absurd tone. Breezy and superior—bordering on condescending. Of uncompromising authority. Now consider the more refined tone appearing in "Molestation and Lapse from Faith," a scene excerpted from my literary biography of Richard Selzer:

It was April 1941, and the small, sad boy sat alone in the movies. Two weeks earlier his father had died from a heart attack, at age 42, leaving the family to sink into genteel poverty—everyone went to work. This afternoon, seeking a brief respite from reality, even the antics of the romantic screen duo Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy could not pull Dickie out of his depression. As the theater darkened, the man he called "Father," the priest at St. Peters where he worked, quietly sat down beside him. All of a sudden he felt a tickle, and then sat in disbelief and terror. So soon after his father’s death, the vulnerable boy felt even more anguish and anxiety as the man’s fingers began working. The molestation escalated, continuing at the church.

The molester was known to the boys at school, who would say "Don’t get within arm’s reach of the father." But Dickie, a dreamer who lost himself in his books, kept it to himself. For weeks he feared being found out—fretting and already punctuating his life with cigarettes. His mother was incapable of hearing such news, and he did not tell his older brother. He sickened at the thought of being discovered. But there on Sunday the priest in his robes said mass and doled out the body and the blood of Christ. Finally, Selzer says, he got the courage "to run away from it. Fast."

Sexual abuse by a trusted father figure was the worst thing that could have happened to the unhappy twelve-year-old boy missing the affection of his father. But even though he felt fear and shame at the time, today Selzer says he decided "not to elevate it to the satanic." He downplays his experience as "only a happen," but his lapse from faith was secured.

Molestation was then a taboo subject, and few molesters were prosecuted. They repeated their crimes over and over again. Many of their young victims lost faith in humanity, entering what psychologists call a liminal crisis and retreating to a wasteland, including alcoholism and promiscuity. Instead of this, Selzer gained the ability to take life as it came, saying about this as an adult, "We are all hiding the same things and are only different in the carrying out of them. Can one hate a man for taking what he desperately needed? No, for since then I have had a few crepuscular urges of my own." Sixty years later, perhaps in an attempt to extricate his molestation, Selzer wrote about it in a short story, "The Garden, The Garden." The experience has never left him.

Did you react to this event in Selzer’s young life with pathos, disbelief, and finally outrage at the anachronistic view I have presented? If so, I have done my job as a biographer by creating a sense of being there with the subject. Using a direct authorial tone I show how Selzer, a sensitive child, withstood molestation at the time of his greatest vulnerability. It did not crush his spirit; instead, he became an empathic, caring adult. In the end, some avid biography readers admit skipping past the dull account of the subject’s childhood to adult-type adventures, but in Richard Selzer’s life the stuff that makes a riveting biography is not lacking anywhere.

5. Love Letters

One large section of my biography on Richard Selzer derives largely from 660 pages of love letters to his young wife. They had known each other for a few months when he was drafted out of a Yale internship and had spent only five days together as man and wife. These letters, written from South Korea in 1955, give a chronology and vivid details of his experiences setting up a medical unit south of the demilitarized zone. They record his emotions, from despair to hope, as he tends to the medical needs of the Korean natives and American soldiers. The letters tell compelling stories with characters, location descriptions, and narrative drive, giving the first inkling he’s a writer. He tells his wife something new and interesting every day. In the first letter Selzer declares his undying love then reveals how his marital happiness is tinged with fear: "I live for the moment of our reunion. I pray for you to have the courage to wait—I already know I have it. Whatever happens to us from this time on, I want you to know forever that I have never been happier than when I was with you. If we only have the chance. . . ." Unreliable mail delivery—going weeks at a time without a letter—causes fear of estrangement to build.

As the only doctor in the area, when he’s busy, he’s very, very busy, but interludes of inactivity caused by the bad weather create a mixture of boredom, sadness, and yearning, all making him feel that his mind is disintegrating. He confesses to his wife that he’s really looking forward to his next drink. "That’s a sort of measure of the astronomical heights to which my ennui has soared. But there’s an amusing side, if you merely ‘open up your heart and let the sun shine in.’" It is "their song," repeated throughout these letters, becoming a comforting liet motiv, a thread to hold onto. Selzer’s also poetic in expressing the hurt he feels, both physical and emotional, at being away, and how holding her just one more would make it all go away. "But I wake from this reverie to remember that a thousand tears must fall til that happens, and a thousand love wishes must ebb away unsatisfied—the wasted ones. Never mind, sugar. I see you in a cloud that is passing overhead, and I waved and blew a kiss. I can’t write about this again. Goodnight, little girl. Dick."

There is temptation everywhere for a lonely solider in war-ravaged South Korea. To help assuage frustrations and the uncertainty in their lives, the soldiers spend desirable American dollars on alcohol and sex. The prostitution business is so good that a rambling two-story house sprang up one mile from Seventh DivArty, with a girl handling up to 30 customers a day. A big sign on the outside door read: "Number One [first-class] Intercourse." When they were forced to take the sign down, the next day they put up another: "Number One Laundry—formerly Number One Intercourse." Besides those in the house, several hundred prostitutes with their gold teeth and tight-slit skirts strolled along the road. Whore houses sprang up in every village, and Selzer went around taking loads of penicillin and syringes to give everybody a jab in the rear. He was waging a one-man war on VD and other contagious diseases spread by prostitution. Although propositioned all day by the girls, the madame paid him the highest compliment, "Doc and I are like brother and sister." Later Selzer ruminated on his situation: "That I did not catch gonorrhea is further evidence, if any were needed, that surgeons do not get to commit but a fraction of the sins to which everyone else is entitled. It is so arranged that we have neither the time nor the energy." He does not deny temptation nor claim virtue, but merely states logistics. This news, plus his hiring a female assistant to help with the large number of OB cases, made his wife uneasy. She started planning to come to Japan to be near her husband. He responded, quickly quashing that notion: "It is impossible and impractical. Do you really know where I am? Yet somehow I feel that it will always be easier for me to bear things than for you. Seems like hardships bounce off me like rubber balloons. But you’re such a little tiny thingamabob that I worry over you." At their two-month anniversary, though, the drastic changes in his life made him afraid that they were growing old apart. "My heart is with you, and our music is again in my ears. Sugar pie, it’s the middle of April and there’s just one more April after this one, to be spent here. And so many other Aprils after that for us to be together—forever—never leaving each other until one of us should die. I’ll never leave you, darling. Each time I did, it would be like another Korea."

As busy as his days were, the loneliness that came in waves at night was inescapable. Drawing as usual on his imagination, he conjured up his wife, then after a fitful sleep, awoke to the reality of Korea. His letters express that "old ache." "All I want to do is something—anything—to take my mind off what it is always on. It’s getting so that you grieve and daydream even when you’re busy. Like when I was 16 and wanted something, but I didn’t know what. By the time I get home, I’ll be so used to repressing my desires that I’ll go berserk in a hurry if you don’t restrain me. Oh how I miss you—for your kiss and your touch are my dearest memories. It makes me a winner, somehow—out of all this game."

With infrequent radio messages and sparse phone calls, the letters—albeit erratically spaced— kept their relationship alive. He’s always conscious of trying to be upbeat and newsy. A mood is easily transmissible even across 10,000 miles, and one day in a letter she didn’t sound okay. But he felt, "It’s nice to be able to say, ‘Well, she felt blue six days ago but probably not now.’ Anyway, buck up old girl. It won’t be too long now. Remember our song! ‘Smilers never loose & frowners never win.’"

The letters, a magnificent saga filled with love and other emotions, show how contact with his wife keeps him focused: "I’ll never get sidetracked," he assures her. They contain many gems screenwriters would drool over, such as "You complete me," written long before Tom Cruise said it to Renée Zellweger in Jerry Maguire (1996). In each letter there’s something different that is memorable and romantic, but toward the end of his year-long deployment, Selzer found them tougher to write each day. He became very ill and worn out, and the distance seemed to grow between him and his wife. He starts leaving out of these letters parts of his life.

Expect this next: Publication and Marketing

Note: When using archived love letters, quickly secure permissions from the author (if possible), especially when the letters are to mistresses and not wives. See Meryle Secrest‘s Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject (Knopf, 2007).

6. The End Game: Design Matters & the Author-Publisher Partnership

After obsessively chipping away for over ten years—far longer than most sculptors spend attacking a large block of granite—I’ve finished part I of my biography. In a final read-through, I’m paying close attention to details: from each topic sentence does there flow a captivating idea, and in looking over the footnotes can I consolidate some, integrate others into the body, or eliminated a few? But more importantly, I’m scrutinizing how I dramatize Selzer’s life: he pulled himself up by his bootstraps from a poverty-stricken life, just as his father had, to become a famous Yale surgeon-writer. In telling his life story, have I engaged my reader with a carefully constructed plotline from his birth, youth, love interests, career, family, and into middle age? There’s the requisite sex and a lot of romance. The suspenseful events are legion, including a nearly Hollywood-scripted life-after-death experience. This project has been a test of how much I understand humanity and can explain the medical world, but it’s also made me appreciate a life well-spent often in the service of others. This said, I know hints of an author’s emotionality tend to distance the reader, so, ideally, my feelings will be buried as subtext so as not to eclipse objectivity. This is not an "authorized" biography, so Selzer has not looked over my shoulder with the right of review. But he has been fully cooperative throughout the process, saying to tell his story "warts and all"; he only asked that he keep the affection of his readers. Paradoxically, while it’s necessary to show Selzer’s "grit" to make him a worthy subject, it tests his request and our friendship.

I look across the room where my manuscript, a ream high, sits proudly in its wicker basket, begging to see the light of day. In submitting it to the press, I’m continuing an author-publisher partnership that started with my first query. I’m following the press’s website guidelines for submission, and I’m redflagging for my editor any areas of concern in the mss. This includes noting questions on fair use, checking for libel/false light issues [reputations are at stake], and highlighting previous (redundant) scholarship where another’s sweat-of-the brow ownership claim might pop up. A final check on permissions, including for old newspaper photographs, is on-going. Once the manuscript is accepted, I’ll negotiate a contract. In lieu of an agent, my intellectual property attorney will review what will be a boilerplate contract with add-on clauses. In particular, Dr. Selzer suggested to me: "Probably you will want a publisher’s guarantee that the book will be kept in print for a good while, say 50 years? I say that, at the suggestion of my Yale English professor friends who feel that my reputation will take a while to come into its own. The feeling is that I will be around for a good long while. I'm so pleased to hear that."

I’m not turning off my computer just yet, but it’s time to think of marketing. I’m the expert on who the audience is, and my book back matter directs me to it. The acknowledgements and subject index I’m generating help develop the market and locations for book tours, as will the publisher’s carefully filled out author questionnaire. On the practical side, I’ll get a press photo and tips from a PR agent. Each audience is unique, and I’ll adapt my talk to particular interests and media. My first lecture on the biography, "Richard Selzer in the Twenty-First Century," scheduled in October, 2008, addresses the annual meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. I’ll mark up a five-minute passage from my prepublication manuscript to read. There’s nothing to compare to an author’s reading his/her own material. But I’ll edit this written material, eliminating distracting clauses, descriptive phrases, etc. that would "take out" a listening public. A table of contents, flyers, and book order sheets will be handouts.

A last caveat. Surely bits and pieces—descriptive elements or an engaging quotation—will crop up, ad infinitum, begging to be added. But at this time I’ve place my rewriting on hold, taking the advice of a scholarly friend: "You don’t need all the tinker toys to play." I realize that the book won’t be thoroughly "cooked" until after the press editor and two outside readers have a go at it, and there’s another pass or two of the proof to fuss over. This is my final checklist: do I inform, entertain, and move my reader; and will Selzer keep the affection of his readers?

Postscript: What started out to be a two-volume biography is now one volume in two parts.

Recommended biographies

  • Bliss, Michael. Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery. Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. Random House 1974.
  • Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1998.
  • Churchwell, Sarah. The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe. Metropolitan Books/Holt, 2005.
  • Mackenna, Dolores. William Trevor: The Writer and His Work. New Island Books, 1999.
  • Massie, Robert K. Peter the Great. Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.
  • Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.

Recommended resources for biographers

  • Back-Scheider, Paula R. Reflections on Biography. Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Casper, Scott E. Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
  • Hamilton, Nigel. Biography: A Brief History. Harvard University Press, 2007.
  • Harrington, Walt. Intimate Journalism: The Art and Craft of Reporting Everyday Life. Sage Publications, 1997.
  • Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing a Woman's Life. W.W. Norton, 1988; reader's-guide edition, Ballantine, 2002.
  • Houghton Mifflin Dictionary of Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
  • Oates, Stephen B. Biography as High Adventure: Life Writers Speak on Their Art. University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.
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