Sunday, 9 November 2014

Kevin Chong on Writing Biography - at SIWC 2014

Workshop:  “Mapping Another Life” (Writing Biography)

Kevin Chong, born in Hong Kong, educated (MFA in fiction writing) at the University of British Columbia, lives and works in Vancouver. 

Kevin teaches writing creative fiction and writing creative nonfiction (beginner to advanced levels) at UBC and SFU (and gets an “A” on Rate-My-Professors with a  chili-pepper on the 'hotness' rating).  

He's the author of: 

  • Northern Dancer: The Legendary Horse that Inspired a Nation, 2014
  • My Year of The Race Horse, 2012
  • Neil Young Nation: a quest, an obsession, and a true story, 2005. (Crisscrossing the continent, Chong follows the route that led Neil Young to become a musical legend.)

  • Beauty Plus Pity, 2011
  • Baroque-a-Nova, 2001

A volunteer introducer reads the intro to Kevin’s workshop which says he’s “a showdog handler and jazz musician.” When she concludes, Kevin tells us it’s all lies.
“My first tip on writing biography is not to use Wikipedia,” he quips. Apparently a friend and he had some kind of gag that resulted in this information going into his Wikipedia biography and there it remains, untrue.
Background to Northern Dancer

--how in Northern Dancer his tack was to write about the people who loved the horse:
·        E.P. Taylor (owner);
·        The Argentinian trainer. Quite a character: asked what he wanted after he died, he said he wanted to be “turned into a woman’s saddle so I can be between the two things I loved the most.”
·        Jockey Bill Hartack

--and about how Canada was in 1964 (Kevin was born in 1975). The only people he talked to were  some riders and that was by phone.
“I remember Canada being much more insecure than it is now. We didn’t feel we could beat the best. Then Northern Dancer showed we could beat the best.”
Kevin’s own experience in horse-racing before he wrote ND:  he’d written one book about it before, about how he bought a horse at Hastings Racetrack which had some Northern Dancer blood.   
Kevin talked about the many things you need to consider before you start the actual writing.
About biography subjects:
·       Does he/she have to be famous?
·       Does he/she have to be human? Can write bios of inanimate objects, e.g., Salt; or The Suit,a book by JJ Lee that wove in stories about his father, a tailor. There are sometimes called “cultural histories.”
·       Does the subject have to be one person (companies> corporate histories)?
Ways you can write about a life:
·       Memoir – can be writing about segments/periods in your life – i.e. just divorced and took a trip to Italy; your lifelong interest in soccer; an interest in your life – e.g. The 100 Mi. Diet
·       Autobiography – Writing about your own life, the world that you came from. You try not to skip  any of the events of your life (but they may  be separate books).
·       Biography (“I consider bio to be cradle to dotage”)
·       Co-authored Autobiography – examples: Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg’s; Justin Trudeau’s
Considerations about the book, approaches to the subject, etc.
·       How will your book be different?
·       Initial Research >Writing a proposal. “Before you travel to Paris – has anyone else written a book on your subject? Check on the internet.”
·       Is the person still alive? Do they want to work with you? Or if recently deceased, is there anyone else working on an authorized biography?
·       Tip: approach your subject with a thesis or a statement or a question – so the bio does not become a recitation of dry facts.  “He was born… died…..”
·       His thesis for Northern Dancer - that ND “changed the way Canadians felt about themselves in 1964. Northern Dancer was a hero when the country really needed one.” (i.e. we were between having been a colony of Britain and becoming a kind of economic colony of the U.S.)
·       If you’re writing your own life, you might want to talk to key figures in it. Your spouse and “If you’re brave, your former spouse. “Their actual sense of what happened might be different from yours.”
Subject - Living person:
·       Interviews - let them pick the place, their comfort area; bring a list of questions but be flexible.
·       Famous person – “go sideways a bit.”
·       Don’t be afraid of awkward pauses – they may fill them with something interesting.
·       Good to have a recorder. Yet the technique of, at some point, turning the recorder off: “People become more animated. but you are still taking notes.”
·       For famous or other people – you want to speak to anyone who knows about them – people who knew them as kids. About the middle age years ,talk to their children).
·       Talk to their enemies.
·       Other sources: news clips – magazine profiles (how they felt in 1963 vs. say 2014). Then can ask them about why they felt a certain way back when they did.
·       Old photos – present them to the subject – sparks new memories.
Subject - deceased person:
·         Library and archival research; travel to [pertinent] locales.
·         Interviews – Experts on that person work or on the era or place that person lived; regional content.  It may tell you about their influence, influence of their work, etc.
·         Kevin made a trip to Ottawa for Northern Dancer. Had to get permission to access the archives. Became sticky because the person designated by EP Taylor to give acces had died – so Kevi had to prove to the archives that Taylor’s grandsons had the authority to grant him access.

Why you?
Why are you the one who needs to tell the story?  Could be important.

Other considerations:
·       Question from audience: Have there been themes or motives for what Kevin’s written about? Answer: I wanted to know more about a subject. So I don’t start off as an expert - e.g., the  Neil Young book: “I needed to write my own personal biographical story about being a fan of his.”
·       His first book was on a racehorse: “I wanted to learn more about horse racing and folded in my own anxiety about a young adult who had accomplished what I wanted to do in life. I was hoping other YAs, who had crossed things off on their list, could identify what he was going through.”

·       Suppose someone’s accomplishments were in midlife, you might not have the chronology go from 20 yrs. to 80 yrs. in the same intensity.
·       First in Northern Dancer, he used an unconventional order, then his editor’s suggestion, told it chronologically – thought it was clearer
·       Tip:  “A lot of biographies start off with a scene from the middle of the life – then go to the early days. We want to get a sense of hwy this person is important/interesting/etc. (example – he used the EP Taylor anecdote right off about going into the mid-Atlantic lifeboat in his pajamas).(c)
·       Tense (thinkinga bout which to use – present, past). He did Northern Dancer in the present tense.

·       Voice - finding your authorial voice – Objective or journalistic or opinionated? Considerations: Closeness to your subject. What’s the approach that best serves the story?

--Margo Lamont

(c)2014 Margo Lamont 

1 comment:

Alamin Islam said...

Write a brief biography to introduce yourself, highlight achievements, list credentials and any notable projects with which you are involved. Bios should be short and concise, listing only relevant information. Avoid listing personal statistics, such as family and hobbies; instead angle the bio to the intended audience, whether for a personal website or a professional networking website.See more company biography.