Lucy Hughes-Hallett on Using Fictional Techniques in Biography
From the Read Smart Podcast, Presented by the Baillie Gifford Prize
To mark 21 years of rewarding the best nonfiction writing, The Baillie Gifford Prize has launched a new podcast generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation. On the second series of the podcast, host Razia Iqbal will explore the increasingly popular world of nonfiction books. Each episode includes discussions and interviews with prize-winning authors, judges and publishing insiders, with guests including prize winner David France (How to Survive a Plague, 2017), publishing director at John Murray Georgina Laycock, 2020 prize judge Simon Ings, 2019 shortlisted author Hannah Fry, and many more.
On today’s podcast, Razia explores writing biographies with Baillie Gifford Prize alumni Lucy Hughes-Hallett (2013 winner), Sir Jonathan Bate (2015 shortlisted) and William Feaver (2019 shortlisted). They discuss the joys and challenges that come with studying and portraying other people’s lives. Hughes-Hallet won the prize in 2013 with The Pike (Fourth Estate), Bate was shortlisted in 2015 with Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, and Feaver was shortlisted in 2019 with The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth. This episode was recorded and produced completely remotely.
From the conversation:
Razia: You have said you use techniques more common in fiction than biography. You have completely abandoned the idea of the chronological narrative, because you decided to go towards something much more thematic but also focusing on episodes of his life that you find really interesting.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett: That’s right. Traditional biography … that begins with a subject’s birth and plugs through to his or her death, this is very dull. I love reading fiction. I read a lot of novels. Writers of fiction routinely take liberties which biographers until fairly recently didn’t allow themselves. It seems to me obvious that any storyteller will start at the most exciting part of the story … a biographer can do that too. I did use chronology. If you abandon chronology completely, you’re adrift, but I allowed myself many different changes of pace. There are parts in the book where I slow down right to real time to record a conversation or a crucial encounter, but there are other parts where i fast forward eight years where nothing much really happened.
Read Smart Podcast is commissioned by The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction and is generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.