The new school year is well underway, and it’s almost time for another visiting author for our Readings and Lectures Series! On October 2, author and biographer Tracy Daugherty will speak in the bookstore at 7:30 pm.
Daugherty’s most recent work is The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion, published in 2015. This was the first published biography about Didion, an American essayist and author. Daugherty has also written several other biographies, telling the stories of figures such as Donald Barthelme, Joseph Heller, and Billy Lee Brammer. He is not known solely for his biographies, however, having written many fiction novels and story collections.
Just as Daugherty’s works are not confined to one form, they also explore an astonishing variety of topics. His fictional writing ranges in focus from America’s deserts, to life in Houston Texas, to mapmaking. His stories can be found in publications such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and British Vogue. Daugherty is also a professor at Oregon State University and a five-time recipient of the Oregon Book Award.
You’ve written on such a wide variety of subjects. How do you decide what to write about next? Would you say there’s a theme that’s a common thread through your works?
Like many writers, I was taught when I was young to “write what you know,” which always struck me as a very limited palette. I liked better a pair of variations on that advice: “Write what you want to know” and “Write what you think you don’t know.”
The great Russian short story writer Isaac Babel has a piece entitled “You Must Know Everything,” which sounds to me like proper literary ambition. I don’t exactly decide what to write. I follow my curiosity wherever it leads me. Often, I wind up at a dead end. But sometimes even dead ends offer surprising escape hatches. Persistence is what’s necessary in writing–maybe even more than conscious decisions.
Perhaps the strongest thread unifying my work is a fascination with the intersections between public and private lives.
How did you gain an interest in writing biographies? What is the main difference (in the process, etc.) between writing a biography and writing a different kind of book?
Biography is a perfect literary form for exploring the overlap between public and private–at least the way I approach writing biographies. I think of biography as a form of cultural history. That is, I like to tell the story of an individual life and to use that life as a vehicle leading me into larger subjects: what were the cultural, social, and historical forces shaping that life? And how did that individual, in turn, affect the currents of his or her time?
As to process: a fiction writer is not as absolutely bound by fact as a nonfiction writer, but other than that, I find little difference between writing, say, a novel or a biography. In both cases, the challenge is to write a compelling narrative. Quite simply, I’m concerned with good storytelling.
Do you have a favorite film? What about it makes it your favorite?
I cherish many films, but one of my very favorites is Paris, Texas, written by Sam Shepard and directed by Wim Wenders. What makes it so compelling for me is the way it demonstrates the ripple effect of every life: even our simplest actions have enormous consequences in other people’s lives, often in ways we can’t foresee. That’s a good definition of narrative. I also admire the film’s spare imagery and sparse dialogue–nothing wasted–and its emphasis on how we’re all shaped by our landscapes.
You didn’t ask about books, but most recently I’ve been impressed by Ali Smith’s series of novels based on the seasons (Autumn, Winter, Spring, with Summer yet to come). They are marvelous examples of how whimsical prose can be deadly serious, and how topical subjects can also be timeless.
Do you have any favorite hobbies outside of writing? How do they influence your works?
I am of the generation that saw the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Like countless other kids of that era, I was struck by two things: what a relief it was to experience such a burst of energy and joy after months of gloomy headlines about the killing of John F. Kennedy, and what a revelation it was to see young people having so much fun playing music together. Specifically, I looked at Ringo and thought, “That guy’s having more fun than anyone I’ve ever seen. I want to be him!” So I took up drumming and I’ve been drumming ever since. I’ve played a variety of styles. Most recently, I’ve become immersed in Scottish and Irish music, playing a hand drum called the bodhran. And I’m teaching myself to play the hammered dulcimer. Unlike the isolated activity of writing, music is very social, and I like the contrast.
I think there’s a strong correlation between my drumming and my writing. Language is a form of music. It takes a lot of practice to learn how to play it. Moreover, nothing happens in writing–at least for me–until I find the right rhythm. All writers are different. Some are idea-driven, others are very visual. I write by ear. I have to get into a groove, sentence by sentence, and follow the beat.
Even more basic: I always have to have something in my hand, whether it’s a drumstick or a pencil. Even in the digital age, I still do a lot of writing by hand because I like the physical aspect of that. It’s like having a magic wand, pulling abstract thoughts out of my mind and turning them into something tangible on the page. Or–to return to music–like having a conductor’s baton, finding the right speed and rhythm for my ideas. Writing is a physical activity. It’s not just mental work.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Aside from the obvious–read, read, read and keep regular working hours–I’d return to the idea of rhythm. I’m convinced that a writer’s true voice is linked to his or her metabolism. Finding that voice is a matter of paying attention to and keying into your bodily rhythms. Some of us amble, some of us lope, some of us fast-walk. Some of us have a slow drawl while others talk a mile a minute. Voice, I think, is more important to a writer than ideas (or: our ideas are contained in our voices) and our voices are linked to the particular beating of our hearts, the movements of our nervous systems. My advice: learn your unique rhythm and then articulate it!