Doyen biographer Sir Michael Holroyd (pictured) revealed that he suffers from a state of grief when he comes to the end of his books as he has to relate the funeral of his subject.
“I feel I am a comic writer who has been fated to write tragedies because in the end they die,” he told a packed Marlborough Literary Festival audience at the town hall on Friday night.
“I am a slow writer and my books take a long time to write. I have a longing to finish them. Can I do it? I ask. Can I do it? Then I do finish it – and there’s a sense of grief.”
“And my occupation’s gone. These are people whose deaths I have to present. I have to be there at the end. It’s a strange feeling.”
But 76-year-old Sir Michael added: “I think you should feel some grief if a book is to be a living thing. So it’s an odd situation. I long for something – the end of the book – and when I get there it’s not quite what you want.”
Sir Michael, award-winning author of acclaimed biographies of Bernard Shaw, Augustus John and Lytton Strachey, was in conversation at the festival with Observer journalist Robert McCrum, who described Sir Michael as “the head of our profession”.
And McCrum told the audience: “The good thing about Marlborough is that it’s about literature, not celebrity. A couple of the major festivals that used to be good have been ruined by celebrity and the media. It’s good to see a festival that puts books first.”
Sir Michael, whose latest biography is called A Book of Secrets, detailed some of his own, in particular how close a biographer becomes to his subject.
“You’ve got their letters in your hand, you have their journals, you can see what’s been crossed out,” he said. “You’re there. And you also know something that’s going to happen in the future which they don’t know yet.”
He referred to Lytton Strachey’s extraordinary love affair with Carrington, a subject which became a film. “I held her books in my hand and her letters, and I was taken over by them for a time,” he confessed.
“I was closer to dead people than alive ones, which is a dangerous place to be.”
Research for his biographies have taken him round the world and he always faces the dilemma of preferring the research to the writing aspect when he finds he has reached the moment of decision.
One problem is that all of us have incomplete memories. “There is a layer of what you might call fiction in our factual lives,” he explained. “Everybody has it. People do remember things incorrectly.”
While novelists had taught him how to tell a story, he suffered from the problem of not being able to invent.
“I can speculate but I can’t invent,” he said. “But what you do is use short quotations from letters or journals in inverted commas, just as a novelist would use dialogue to bring a story immediately to life.”
Nevertheless, the task of a biographer in recreating someone was a much longer process.
“A good day’s writing is when you’ve actually discovered something from the act of writing,” Sir Michael revealed. “There are many bad days. I still do all my first drafts with a pen – and I have a wastepaper basket, a very big one, beside me.”
“There are a lot of times when you have a problem, when you can’t connect or interpret something. Then I go off to bed. And in the morning there I some idea of a solution, some clue.”
“It’s what Stephen King calls the boys in the basement. I always rely on them to sort out my problems. It’s very true that you go to bed with a puzzle, then you wake up in the morning and the puzzle is gone.”