Good Biographies Ask Big Questions

T.J. Stiles is a biographer whose works include "Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War" (2002) and "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt" (2009), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Stiles also authored a five-volume series of historical anthologies, and has written a number of articles for Smithsonian, the Denver Post, and the Los Angeles Times. His next biography will focus on the life of General George Armstrong Custer.
  • Transcript


Question: What got you interested in writing biographies?

T.J. Stiles: Well I like to say my own version of the classic formulation which is inform and entertain. The way I often put it is I like to tell good stories and ask big questions, and biography is a way of... it's sending a message to the reader that you're telling a story. You have a narrative arc. It's about a human being and it's a story with a beginning, middle, and an end.

At the same time biography allows me to explore big questions about the making of modern America. So for example, when I look at somebody like Jesse James or Cornelius Vanderbilt these are people who had very dramatic lives and had - they're also iconic figures. So they're well recognized and they speak to something about the way Americans think about themselves, about who we are as a people, and the way even more important we've argued about who are.

So, you know, there are these tremendously exciting and dramatic, and interesting stories within their lives. And at the same time they're about something big and they touch on big themes. So that's the - what draws me to those sorts of people and those subjects.

Question: Biography has been compared to resurrecting the dead. Can you relate to that comparison?

T.J. Stiles:
I suppose that's true in the sense that the dead... if you resurrect the dead they're going to go on and have a new life. They're not just going to repeat the old one and when you write a biography you are creating something that is going to have its own life. The book is about someone who is not the same as that person. But that's... I'm not sure I would ever use that actual terminology because writing a biography about someone who's deceased especially, someone who everyone who knew them is gone is necessarily a problematic enterprise.

This is someone who... about whom the sources are necessarily going to be fragmentary. Even the best documented life is going to have gaps. E. M. Forster wrote in aspects of the novel that there was a difference between fiction and history by which we could actually mean all non-fiction. History he pointed out is, stuck with the evidence and the evidence is always what shows up on the surface. So if you were going to be extremely exacting and precise you couldn't write for example that Edith Wharton was angry. The most precise and accurate way to say it would be, she frowned, she wrote in a letter that she was angry. There's some surface expression of her anger.

And Forster pointed out that, in this respect novels and fiction are truer than history because they can go underneath the surface into that interline that history cannot touch. And when I write a biography I both respect that barrier that I cannot penetrate and at the same time I'm constantly concerned with what is on the other side of that barrier. And trying to point to what lies beneath even when I can't take the reader there. And this is a very delicate aspect of biography. You can't make stuff up. You can't go too far in drawing conclusions.

Sometimes the very limitations of the evidence is the story or the fact that you can't quite figure something out itself is apart of the story. So you can't resurrect the dead ultimately. You can't get into their inner lives and yet at the same time we're constantly striving for it or trying to point to this untouchable aspect of someone's life, and to provoke thoughts about it in the reader.

Recorded May 25, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont