Monday, March 5, 2012

Your Words or Your Life: A Guest Post by Kris Farmen

My editor and I are currently in the final stages of revising my new book, which means it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty:  Time to draft the back cover copy, solicit the blurbs, and—most dreaded of all—to write my author bio.

By this stage of the game, I’ve read through the manuscript more than a half-dozen times, and frankly, I’m getting a bit weary of it. This is less a reflection on the quality of the story than a simple function of repetition. You can only read a story, any story, so many times in the space of a year without it getting tiresome. This is the nature of pursuing perfection, and I start to get a little sick of my own company during the process, which doesn’t make it any easier to sum up my life as an artist in thirty words. Writing a 100,000-word novel is cake. Bios are excruciating.

Describing yourself doesn’t come easy when you’ve been raised in a thoroughly blue collar environment where it’s drilled into your head from childhood to eat your Brussels sprouts, not complain, and never consider yourself to be particularly special. The question, at base, is what to say about yourself that doesn’t come across as trite and arrogant. We might also add cute and pretentious to that list. So the tortured artist stares at the blank page and ponders the meaning of his life, or at least where he’s going to find the money to pay his car insurance. There is also the dilemma of how to make himself sound interesting to the bookstore browser or Amazon shopper.

With my first book, I came to this moment with long-held dreams of finally being a published author. This was something to be savored. Or so I thought. I ended up staring at the aforementioned blank page for nearly an hour. I’m rarely at a loss for words when there’s a pen in my hand, but this was possibly the toughest writing assignment of my life. In the end, I scribbled a few lines of doggerel and sent it off, not having the energy to agonize over it any more. It was a bit too long, and maybe a little cute and pretentious into the bargain.

“An author should have no other biography than his books,” said B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And he’s right. If you’re a writer, it’s the writing that matters, the story, the words between the covers. Everything else is ultimately just a marketing ploy. At the end of the day, your work as an artist is the catalog of your life, not the small paragraph on the back jacket flap. It’s like Bob Marley used to say when he got pissed-off at interviewers: If you’re not listening to my songs, then what else can I tell you?

Traven’s own biography in my copy of Treasure reads, “Very little is known about B. Traven. He died in Mexico in 1968.” Or something to that effect. I’m in Anchorage at the moment, and my copy of the book is in Anchor Point, so looking it up is problematic. Actually, now that I think about it, I may be confusing the exact wording with A.C. Weisbecker’s bio in Cosmic Banditos: “Very little is known about A.C. Weisbecker, and A.C. Weisbecker wants to keep it that way.”    

I love both these bios, though it’s worth saying that this sort of tight-lipped attitude has the potential to devolve into its own peculiar brand of artistic vanity. Look at me!  I’m mysterious and reclusive! That sort of thing. The reading public quite naturally wants to know who you are, and an author should be eternally grateful for that. Even Cormac McCarthy finally had to submit to an Oprah interview.

Still, I’ve come around to the less-is-more school of thought with author bios. Two or three lines, maybe four at the very most, and keep the subjunctive clauses to a minimum. Mention your previous book, and tell the folks where you live. If you’ve won the PEN/Faulkner award, then say so. Beyond that, it’s the writing that’s important, not you.

Kris Farmen is the author of the novel The Devil’s Share, as well as numerous essays and magazine stories. His new novel, Turn Again, will be released this coming spring. He lives on the Kenai Peninsula, and has not won the PEN/Faulkner Award.

3 comments:

Sandy Kleven said...

When I was a reading kid, I didn't know the names of authors. I knew nothing about them. Nothing was lost. I loved the stories. HEIDI, THE BLACK STALLION (series), all the well rendered fairy tales, too. In a way, the fact of a "writer" would have been burdensome because I was so enthralled with story. I only wanted the made-up reality. But, that slipped away as I grew older because now that I have history, the context of creation is important to me. Who is writing? I ask myself this. How did they come to this piece of work? I have dug into the book length bios of more poets than fiction writers but I like even the small stuff... as with Richard Hugo, to see that he grew up just scant miles from my father, around the same time - knowing this, I see my dad's world from another angle. Or, more often, I pick something up that shows me I was there then, too, at some event or in some geography. The author's story expands my experience. Even, "Oh, they know Jack," when,maybe, Jack is a writer I know or have studied. All of this builds a larger context, sometimes it builds a literary scene, a happening kind of thing... all Left Bank and ex-pat, that sort of thing. I think it is rich or can be. It sort of forces one to be a personality as well as a writer but, Oh, well. It can be an intellectual thing of the best kind... this community where ideas are kicked around. I have to know you (collectively) to engage with you. I think the bio at the end of the book can offer a few velcro points. Just to add this final thought, a few writers about whom "little is known" were writing under pseudonyms. They had another life that didn't combine with authorship. The writing self was a kind of fiction, too.

Teresa said...

Nice post Kris,

Only one correction to your author bio. It should say: "has not won the PEN/Faulkner Award yet."

Here's hoping more Alaskan authors will have the predicament of having to write an author's Bio.
Teresa

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Ack, Kris -- you've reminded me to question everything. The "author lives with her husband/ his wife" -- is that meant only to discourage stalking? Author's age or birthdate: not necessary? Hobbies besides the book titles -- when to include, when not?

But I'll say this: the bio is a lot easier than the photo.