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writing biography

Writers@Work: On Writing Biography

December 3, 2019



Note From Rochelle



Dear Writers,


journalingAs my gift to you this holiday season, I am offering a special journaling workshop to help you reflect on 2019 and get ready for 2020. The class will be held on Monday, December 16 at 5:00 PM central time. The class is free to attend, but you must register at this page: Journaling Workshop. If you cannot attend, you can purchase a recording after the class.


Have you thought about writing biography? Today I’m delighted to welcome Carol Sklenicka to the blog. She is the author of the new biography, Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer. She’ll appear at Boswell Book Company this coming Friday, December 6 at 7:00 PM.




writing biography


Writers@Work: An Interview with Carol Sklenicka

by Rochelle Melander


Hi, Carol! Welcome to the blog. Can you tell us a bit about your new book and its subject, Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer? 

Alice AdamsThis book is a biography of Alice Adams, one of the twentieth century’s finest short story writers, and I’m proud to be part of a revival of interest in her and her work. Her stories and bestselling novel, Superior Women, are being reissued, so it’s really a great time for people to learn who she was. My book is a rich, long narrative of a life that explores what a woman could do and be in her era. Adams pushed limits in her sexual and emotional life, and she was an astute social critic. Hers is the story of many women in that time.


You interviewed several people for this book, including Anne Lamott and Mary Gaitskill. How do you sort out your research, including interviews, without getting overwhelmed by details or contradictions? 

I interviewed way more than several. Probably several hundred counting phone calls and interviews. My organizational process is eccentric but I keep an index of it all in a separate document—it’s actually a chronology, but thanks to the search feature it works. As for being overwhelmed—I couldn’t pretend to understand another human being without being overwhelmed! Details and contradictions make up a life. The point is to embrace them and bring your subject to life for your readers.


What advice do you have for people who want to write a biography?

Talk to other biographers and join Biographers International Organization, which offers a monthly newsletter, annual conference, and coaches. Before I began my biography of Raymond Carver (Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, 2009) I sat down with Patrick McGilligan, who lives in Milwaukee and writes film biographies. He advised me about some basic research and about the perils of dealing with a subject’s family and heirs. Of course I didn’t listen to all his warnings.

Later I was in a writing group with Martha Bergland and Rick Ryan and Rae Brown, and they gave me careful readings of early chapters. If you ask friends to read, be sure they are people who actually like biographies and have patience to wait as you find your themes.


What bits of writing wisdom did you pick up from writing this book?

Interviews with people who knew your subject in a limited way are often more vivid than those of longtime friends who have trouble remembering details. I met with Alice’s gardener, who told me he could never satisfy her desire for blue flowers—and he also surprised me by bringing a tape he’d saved with a phone message he got from Alice just before she died. Thaisa Frank, a writer who went to dinner with Alice a few times, remembered her butter yellow boots and cranky insistence on eating early and the loneliness she conveyed in conversations. She was seldom that open with closer friends.


What are you reading now?

I’m toggling between natural science and history and literature I want to re-read. Right now it’s House of Rain by Craig Childs, The Ambassadors by Henry James, and (again) The Stories of Alice Adams.


Carol Sklenicka by Kaity Ryan

Carol Sklenicka by Kaity Ryan

About the author. Carol Sklenicka is the author of Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, which was named of one of the 10 Best Books of 2009 by The New York Times Book Review, and Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer. She lives with poet and novelist R.M. Ryan in northern California.

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