An interview with Sir Michael Holroyd
by Elizabeth Rose Murray (originally posted on Listowel Writers’ Week 2011 blog)
Welcome, Sir Michael, and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Can you please tell us, what is it about biography, and in particular group biography, that inspires you?
“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man”.
I remember being struck by Alexander Pope’s lines when I read them in my teens. Then by adding the words “and woman” to the end of the second line, I made these words a compass guiding my work. I think it is perfectly natural to be interested in our fellow human beings – and am fortunate to have been able to make a career from this proper study.
What about fiction? Have you ever attempted to write fiction and do you see any similarities between biography and fiction?
I did write a novel many years ago – it was published in the United States but not in Britain and Ireland because my father (who was half-Irish) thought I was making fun of the family (including himself). So, in a sense, I am a novelist manque who has tried to shape my non-fiction into truthful stories with strong narrative pull. I do not invent things, but use quotations from letters and diaries to give the narrative immediacy – as dialogue brings immediacy to a novel. I have learned a lot from novels; and novelists, I suspect, do a lot of factual research on which to base their fiction. Literature is enriched by this inter-relationship between the two forms.
So it’s characters and truth that interest you. Unsurprisingly then, there’s a pattern in your books whereby a minor character in one book becomes a major character in a later book. How did this pattern evolve and what is it about this format you enjoy?
When I wrote my first biography about Hugh Kingsmill (an unknown writer who stubbornly remained unknown after the publication of my book in 1964 – it is available today as a Faber Find printed on demand), I became interested in Lytton Strachey because Kingsmill was said to have been influenced by him. So Strachey entered my mind and became the subject of my next book. In that book the painter Augustus John was a significant minor character- just as Bernard Shaw was in my Life of John. So I have the impression that these subjects were choosing me, not I them. I enjoy seeing how my pen portraits of these people change according to the book in which they appear.
The Guardian stated “it was Holroyd who first successfully combined rigorous scholarship, wide-ranging research and astute interpretation while also humanising the form (biography) through elegant narrative and emotional cognisance.” What’s your secret?
My secret is that I keep this secret a secret. If I explored and analysed my methods, I would grow self-conscious. I prefer to write by instinct – and sometimes surprise myself.
That makes sense; if you became self conscious, your books could lose their originality and verve. But writing using instinct; let’s look at how that fits with your own personal experiences. Eton, the army, journalism – you’ve lead a colourful and varied life. Do you think this is true for most writers and does it help with the craft?
There is no general rule for authors and no rule telling us how their lives invade their writing. As a biographer I lead a gregarious life, travelling all over the world and meeting many people while I am pursuing my research. Then I shut the door against the world and write in silence and alone.
Finally, Michael, after receiving a CBE in 1989 and being knighted in 2007, what drives you? What else would you to like to achieve?
It is pleasant to be given honours and awards, but they have no part in my motivation as a writer. I would like to achieve the writing of a genuine, long-lasting masterpiece that affected readers lives.
I guess that is the biggest aim of any writer; and it’s amazing to see that despite all your honours and awards, you have stayed true to the craft. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions.
(To view this interview on the Writers Week blog, click here)