What makes a good biography? You’d expect the celebrated biographer Hilary Spurling to cite the importance of good research, accuracy and precision – and she does. After all, this is the author who won the Whitbread (now Costa) Prize in 2006 for Matisse the Master, the second in a whopping double-volume extravaganza on the painter’s life. “It was,” she says with not a little mirth, “immensely long.”
But Spurling isn’t so sure that with intricate factual detail comes added insight. The internet, she believes, has changed biography. “You can now know far too much, which is almost as bad as knowing too little,” she says. “Good biography has to penetrate as deep as possible into the inner recesses of another person’s mind and mechanisms, and to do that, you have to use your own imagination. It’s much like using the techniques of a novelist and applying them to real life.”
One of Spurling’s two events at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature covers this very ground. With the novelist Rachel Billington, she will discuss how fact and fiction overlap in literature, and where ideas and inspiration come from. Spurling is looking forward to it, not least because she admits that her favourite compliment is when a reviewer says one of her biographies reads like a novel. With that in mind, is it not a great temptation to embellish real life for the sake of a better read?
“That’s the tricky bit,” she agrees. “But you can never really know the most intimate, hidden parts of a person’s psyche. There’s no way of scientifically proving how they felt. And biography isn’t just about factual detail, because there are areas which no amount of research will take you into. It’s about trying to work out what makes somebody tick. What is it that drives people to do these extraordinary things? For that, you do need to use your own mind, your experience, too.”
Her latest biography, Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China, reflects both her fascination with the interior lives of public people and her views on the state of biography in 2011.
It’s an elegant insight into the life of the Nobel Prize-winning American writer who grew up in China, best known for her spectacular and groundbreaking chronicle of ordinary Chinese people, The Good Earth (1931). Buck went on to become something of a celebrity when she returned to the US, campaigning for equality among races and between the sexes.
But rather than involve herself in Buck’s time in the public eye, which coincided with some dismayingly bad romantic fiction (Buck was dashing out conventional page-turners to fund her social activism), Spurling’s book ends halfway through the writer’s incredibly full life. Her American adventures are passed over.
“Largely, America does know Buck as this public figure, this writer of trashy books, and I wanted people to realise how influential she was in opening up China to the world,” Spurling says. “And she was also unique in China – there was no one writing about Chinese farmers then. There is nothing comparable, and it’s the unknown Pearl Buck I wanted people to learn about rather than what happened in the latter part of her life.
“But it also ends where it does because I do think we need a shorter, more condensed form for biography these days. The focused book, emphasising one particular aspect or period of a life is more satisfying, richer and it can be more fruitful. In order to bring a portrait – which is essentially what a biography is – into focus, you can‘t give everything the same weight, because it becomes meaningless.”
Since her first biography of the writer Ivy Compton-Burnett in 1974 (Ivy When Young), Spurling has nearly always delved into the formative experiences of her subjects rather than their public faces. So her books are usually very strong on family and how that influences a creative life.
In Compton-Burnett’s case, despite a foreword to one of her own novels stating, “I have had such an uneventful life that there is little information to give,” Spurling discovered a deeply painful family history that had an undeniable impact on her work. And with Henri Matisse, she uncovered a hitherto unknown psychological torment that compelled the artist to use painting as a vision of a more stable life.
“I don’t go around thinking ‘I must find out some secrets,’ but it’s the intense inner life that interests me,” she confirms. “And how art and literature are extracted from that. That’s the kind of territory I’ve operated in all my life. Because whatever kind of artist you are – a painter or writer in the case of my books, but I would imagine a dancer or a musician too – the material that you have to make your paintings or write your books is what you’ve encountered in your life and what you understand.”
Is Spurling suggesting that all great art is, somewhat disappointingly, simply thinly veiled autobiography? Not quite. But 37 years of writing biography have convinced her that creativity doesn’t just come from nowhere. It’s propelled by life experience.
“When the imagination takes over in the creative process, what feeds and waters that process is undeniably the things that have happened to you,” she says. “The things you have emotionally understood and, indeed the things you haven’t, which you try to unravel through art. The greatest artists are the ones that can use that material absolutely fully. That’s why some people can be dealt a really rotten hand – Pearl Buck certainly was in China – and it doesn’t prevent them operating on a huge scale.”
So it’s clear that, for Spurling, it’s harnessing the imagination that’s vital, both for her and the subjects of her biographies. She likens writing biography to the processes a great actor uses when he takes on Hamlet – it’s possible to inhabit the part fully only when you use your own understanding, rather than merely speaking the lines.
“Oh absolutely,” she affirms. “Imagination is the instrument which enables you to penetrate somebody else’s life.”
Hilary Spurling talks about Pearl Buck on March 11, Al Ras 2, InterContinental Hotel.
Rachel Billington and Hilary Spurling: Fact And Fiction In All Its Forms is on March 12, Al Bahara 2, InterContinental Hotel.