BLOG Sarah Broughton 10/12/2009
Whose Voice is it Anyway?
Over the past few blogs, I've been thinking about the different elements I've had to consider as I write my biography of the woman who was briefly married to a 'Screen Giant of Electric Intensity' (New York Times); from questions of identity to how much a biographer should reveal of themselves. One aspect I haven't written about - probably because I find it the most troublesome - is the 'voice'. Recently, I read some interviews with ghostwriters who discussed how they managed to locate the 'voice' of their 'ghostee' (as they call them); Hunter Davies (Gazza - My Story; Wayne Rooney - My Story So Far; Prezza - Pulling No Punches) described himself as being a 'ventriloquist, trying to capture the character of a person, but it doesn't have to be their exact words, just words and phrases and a style that accords with their received image'. Another, Pepsy Dening (Fern, My Story, by Fern Britton; Learning To Fly, by Victoria Beckham; Extreme, My Autobiography, by Sharon Osbourne) said, 'A successful autobiography is one where the "voice" is unique, the story fresh and the emotions true. Just setting down what the subject chooses to tell me will never achieve that. Clichés, banality, point-scoring and psychobabble are discarded. What is retained is detail, quirkiness, feeling and truth.'
Although I can't help thinking you're halfway there if you're literally pretending to be someone else, there is something in the fact that you can't simply mimic or reproduce the language of your subject and hope that it sounds authentic - because it won't - as anyone who's ever typed up verbatim conversations between people on buses will know. There has to be something between capturing the 'sound' of someone - as you must in an autobiography - and the 'essence' of them as you ought to in a biography. One, which I think beautifully portrays the fundamental nature of the person by finding the appropriate means of telling their story, is Ian Hamilton's In Search of J. D. Salinger written after Salinger famously sued Hamilton for unauthorised use of letters in the original biography. Undeterred by the fracas, Hamilton wrote a new version which he described as telling you 'just as much about Salinger, in fact more, than the earlier, banned version did'. It did more than that - it raised key questions about the whole business of 'biography' - what is it for? Why do we write it? Why do people want to read it?
Back to the voice; what Hamilton did was to find a new way of interpreting the material which enabled the reader to gain a different understanding. I have experimented with several voices during the writing of my book until hitting upon one which seems the most appropriate way of illuminating the remarkable, much maligned, woman I'm writing about. In the end it was her voice which opened the door: curious, unpredictable, intelligent, savvy and absolutely clear about who she is - Anna Kashfi, whose major claim to fame (or in her case infamy) is that she was briefly married to Marlon Brando.
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