Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Tatiana Serafin, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed John Lahr about his book Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W.W. Norton & Co.), which is among five finalists in the category of Biography for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Tatiana Serafin: The book was a labor of love and took twelve years to complete. How did you manage the enormous volume of research and how did you structure the book?
John Lahr: There was an enormous amount of reading to do and wrangling of material. If I waited to write the biography until I'd read everything at Harvard, Columbia and University of Texas, I'd still be in the library. [Williams] didn't have logorrhea. His mother had logorrhea. He had sort of scriptoria. He just couldn't stop writing.
So you not only have to read it and digest it, you have to make it mean something. My biography in a way is a criticism of other biographies because they're not dramatic enough. That's why I start with the drama. From what I'm hearing from the readers, they like the fact that it is structured dramatically so that there's a roller coaster for them.
There are two dramas in a biography. There is the story of the life. And then there's the story of the biographer subliminally trying to impose meaning on the material. And that drama adds an enormous amount of momentum to a book. Because there are two battles going on: the battle of the author for life and the battle of the biographer to take that life. And obviously you're distilling. My image for biography is generally is brass rubbing. Have you ever done a brass rubbing? You know if you take a piece of tracing paper and you take charcoal and rub it over the outline of the letters, they come up on the paper. And so the more you rub, the more the detail becomes finer and finer. So that what you're getting in biography inevitably is a more vivid outline of a life — an approximation.
The trick there is deep reading. Because I go to the theater a lot, the trick is in the style — a metabolism. That is to say the pen is connected to the hand, which is connected to the brain or the heart. And if you really read the rhythms of the writer carefully, you get his style or her style. You start to feel the writer. Because there's a great connection between, we call it literary expression - it's what the writer wants to get out of himself that you're after, what he's expressing, what he needs to get to.
In Williams' case it's the hysteria. It's this violent, intense, excited, nervous energy and fury. One of the tricks that one learns in writing for The New Yorker is to do very close quoting. So instead of describing what somebody said and then using two or three words as quote, I would take what Williams said and run it right up against what Kazan said. So that what that does is it creates over time a sense of both personalities because each person has their own rhythm and their own pulse. It's like a magnetic field. So if [Williams and Kazan] are having an argument about a play, when you run those quotes [together] it creates the illusion, of the energy between them and the argument between them. So you can make the aesthetic debate much more vivid.
It's one of the amazing things about and the odd things about such a great writer as Williams. Although these plays were extremely important to 20th century theater, nobody has ever told the story of how they got made before, let alone what they mean. Partially because people writing biographies feel that they don't have the critical equipment to do it. I happened to have the critical equipment because I am a critic as well as a cultural historian.
TS: Your approach to biography is truly unique. Do you think you created a new form? Can you discuss your process and outline further?
JL: What I'm trying to write is a literary critical book that gives you [Williams’] life, but tries to analyze the life in relationship to the plays and the plays in relationship to the life because Williams stated that that was his intention.
There is a chronology of his life. But where somebody went to high school and who their friends were in high school is a very old trope of biography. The psychoanalytic, the psychological dynamic of the parents and the childhood and the relationship of the children to the parents and to each other are really the formative things that come out of childhood from the point of view of understanding a life. Whether they went to summer camp or liked ice cream sodas is decoration. What you're going for in a study of someone is the emotional cornerstones of their life. And my view, as you rightly said, was to plot the geography of his interior. That's what he wanted to do.
And so my bet was that if you look at the plays you could see — as his heart opened, flowered and atrophied — the tensions and moral debate that he was having with himself through the plays. That's never been done before. That's the original approach.
But at the same time I had to keep to a timeline. Because my argument was about his metamorphosis over time and how the work, as Williams said ‘the work reflects my internal climate at the exact time of the writing’. So what he was writing in say 1946, in poetry, stories and plays, I had to read and see if the themes held in that period. And as he changed so the themes changed, if you see what I mean.
TS: Did any particular work or author inspire you?
JL: My hero is Dr. Johnson. Have you ever read Samuel Johnson? Dr. Johnson wrote the first English dictionary. And he was a great literary figure. Now if you look at his Lives of the Poets, he tells you the story of the poet and then in another section he analyzes brilliantly the outputs of the poet. What I try to do is bring those two things together — to put the art in the context of the life and vice versa — not separate them but merge them. The life is always in the context of the art and the art is always in context of the life. Williams' work, because he was the most validly autobiographical of American playwrights and because he was using himself and the workings of his psyche as his subject matter, my attack, my approach, fits perfectly. I don't know that it would be as easy to do with other kinds of playwrights.
TS: You have said that a great profile requires great interview questions. What question would you have asked Williams if you could?
JL: Whether you meet the person or don't meet the person if you're a biographer, you absorb them through the reading of their work and their letters and an understanding of their psychology. Williams said that he was the definition of hysteria. And once you understand the nature of hysteria and the sort of presenting behavior of the hysteric, you see that his work really is a case study of all the implications of a hysterical personality.
When I was writing the book, the question I would probably have asked him I asked his brother who was alive, Dakin Williams. I asked, “Did your mother ever hug you?” Dakin replied, "No." In this context the hysterical mother is so disgusted by the flesh that she can't touch but she eroticizes speech. She narrates her love: ‘I love you. I love you. You're the most wonderful person in the world.’ But she won't touch you. Out of that complicated psychological dynamic comes a personality and its disorders. I followed up my question with, "Did you ever ask?" He replied, "Why would you ask when you know it wouldn’t be given?"
Right away I knew that my hunch was correct - that this man, Tennessee Williams, spent his life in search of embrace, both the embrace of an audience and the embrace of the flesh. [He] had growing up been in a tormenting and tantalizing dynamic of trying to seek and reach and never get the embrace of his parents. Neither of his parents really touched their children or really saw them. The father disliked Williams and the mother was a monolithic “puritan” according to Williams. She refused out of her own fear of the flesh.
TS: Were there any specific processes you used to pull together your thesis?
JL: There's no secret. I could only write the chapter that I was researching. I suppose if there's any wisdom I have to impart it's not to look at the horizon but just look at the path in front of you. That if you look at the horizon and look at how much you have to do, you'll never do it. It’s not possible for me to calculate the man-hours that went into this book. But his book needed to be written because Williams’ career had flat lined for ten years after his death because of the caprice of Lady Maria St. Just. The debate about Williams had just gone dead, there was no new information or insight. So I did it one step at a time. The trick is deep research and to keep digging and making connections.
Being the senior critic of The New Yorker is a unique position; I knew a lot of the people that I was writing about. I met Kazan before he died. I knew Lady St. Just. I could get Aubrey Woods' letters and archives that another writer would typically not get. These are rare things, but they're the things that give the book its distinctive depth. There's a certain amount of luck in that – about being at the right time at the right place.
Here’s how I do [the writing]. Let's say I'm researching 1949. And I'm organizing the key quotes that I think I might use – I'm reading his letters, his notebooks, his quotes from reviews. I make a timeline, day by day, month by month. So let's say [Williams] says something in a book or he says something in The Miami Herald. I write it out and I put Miami Herald and the date. I might read a letter he wrote to Audrey Wood in August, and that goes in August under that. And it fills out like a date book. By the end of the process, when I'm ready to write, I might have 10 or 12 pages of potential quotes. When I go to write I may use them, I may not. But when I am finished the writing of that chapter, I have the sources already there, so all I have to do is sock in the footnote. With a biography I [also] have a wet board and I'll write down the main ideas that I want to hit in a chapter, maybe draw a diagram with quotes. It's very schematic, like a map.
TS: What does your writing day look like?
JL: I'm a professional writer. I believe in writing for money. I've never figured out a way to have a good day except to write. My view is just to keep writing. Take anything virtually that looks like fun or that you can learn something about and just keep going. I'm not in a real hurry to write another biography. But I just finished writing a movie. And I may write another one after this.
I try to write or be at my desk thinking about writing or organizing stuff or mooching around the subject, circling the airport, for four hours a day. I don't think anybody can actually write for more than three productive hours. But you can read, you can make notes. I don't do much after 3:00 - go for a swim, walk, go to the movies, go to the theater. I think that you need to get away from the thing that you're working on.
TS: What do you want to give a reader in the end? What should writers aspire to do?
JL: You're thinking of your audience in terms of delivering your ideas in a crisp and entertaining way. You can't anticipate. I never thought does my reader know this or not know this. Even if he knows it, I'm going to tell it in to him a way I hope that illuminates something for him anyway. And if he doesn't know it, I want to ravish him, corrupt him with pleasure.
The trick there is to write with style if you can. In other words, it's the style that keeps the reader engaged and thinking about or seeing a play in their head that they haven't actually been to. It's an extremely hard thing to do - to tell someone the story of a play and make it come alive.
You have to learn by making huge mistakes. I've learned to try and get the subject of a sentence as close to the verb and the object as possible. Once you've mastered that, the sentences line up with more drive one into the other. What you want to do is end the sentence on the thought so that the rhythm naturally stops on the idea that you want to emphasize. That means you have to write very crisply.
I've been working 50 years to write a good sentence. Samuel Beckett said in Endgame: “fail again, try again, fail better.” I say “try again, fail again, fail better.” I feel I've gotten as close to my idea of what theater writing and theater biography can be narratively. I grew with this book as a writer. I could feel it and it's thrilling - I feel lucky. I have a poem by Evan Wilson: “Keep working, never stop, sit tight, read something luminous at night.” And that really seems to me to be as close to any advice I could give a writer as possible.
Among John Lahr’s twenty books are Notes On a Cowardly Lion: the Biography of Bert Lahr, Dame Edna Everage: Backstage with Barry Humphries (Roger Machell Prize), and Prick Up Your Ears: the Biography of Joe Orton (‘as good as literary biography gets’ – New York Times) which was made into a film. He has edited the diaries of Joe Orton and Kenneth Tynan. Since 1992, Lahr has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker where for twenty-one years he was the magazine’s Senior drama critic. He has twice won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism and twice been included in volumes of Best American Essays. His stage adaptations have been performed around the world; he is the first critic ever to win a Tony Award for co-authoring the 2002 Elaine Stritch at Liberty. He lives in London.
Tatiana Serafin, MFA ’15, is a nonfiction student in the MFA Creative Writing Program at The New School. Serafin is also a Riggio Teaching Assistant, working with New York Times writer Sam Tanenhaus on his Political Journalism course. Last fall, she was awarded a Front Page Award by the Newswomen’s Club of New York for her series of articles for Forbes.com on Ukrainian politics.