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vivir las vidas ajenas

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Por AMELIA CASTILLA y FIETTA JARQUE / El País – BABELIA – 29-08-2009

La tarea del biógrafo es obsesiva. Necesita de una entrega total. Construir una vida es como levantar una catedral, piedra a piedra”, afirma Ian Gibson. “Se trata de un trabajo detectivesco que se vive con la intensidad de un cazador detrás de su presa. Husmeas, reconoces las huellas… No puedes enviar a nadie a hacerlo por ti en una biblioteca, porque no vería lo mismo. Y cuando das con la pieza, con un dato valioso, es casi orgásmico. Lo juro. Es sexo. Si no quizá no lo haría. Cada día es una aventura total, muy personal. Tienes que meterte bajo la piel del personaje. Debes pensar cómo sería Dalí, García Lorca o Buñuel. Hay que tener la obra de cada uno de ellos dentro de ti también para que forme parte del conjunto. Yo hasta sueño con ellos”.

A J. Benito Fernández, biógrafo de Leopoldo María Panero y Eduardo Haro Ibars, los personajes llegaron a robarle el sueño: “Cuando no lograba hacerme con un dato, cuando no me cuadraba una fecha. Dudo mucho de que alguien sea capaz de escribir la vida de una persona a quien no se quiere o no se admira, pues son muchos años los dedicados a ellos”. El autor de Tras los pasos del caído compara su tarea con la de construir un puzle. “Cada movimiento es como una pieza que encajas. No entiendo la vida de una persona sin perfilar su entorno y su época”.

De la intimidad a la equidistancia. Así describe Jon Lee Anderson su experiencia alrededor de la figura del Che Guevara. Mientras documentaba y escribía una biografía que ha hecho escuela y que le supuso tres años de inmersión en Cuba, el periodista norteamericano confiesa que atravesó varias fases: “La primera, de acercamiento a un personaje que me era distante. Fue la etapa más frustrante, y me duró casi dos años; sentí que me eludía. La segunda, sucedió después de que empecé a comprenderle (fue como un chispazo) y creo que implicó una compenetración con su figura inusual. Es decir, ‘viví el Che’ de una forma tan absorbente que sentía a cada momento cómo habría pensado y reaccionado él ante lo que yo vivía, y el resto del tiempo estaba inmerso en su historia. Noté verdaderamente que lo conocía. En la tercera y última etapa, dedicada a la escritura del libro -la mayor parte transcurrió en Granada, lejos de las fuentes-, pasé de la absorción a sustituirlo por la distancia y la neutralidad o frialdad hacia él y su proyecto político”.

Con todos los datos sobre la mesa, Julián Granado (biógrafo de Mendizábal y de Ferrer i Guardia) recurre a lo que denomina como licencias del biógrafo: “Contemplar a un personaje por dentro y tratar de ser compasivo. La historia y los personajes que la conducen caminan por un hilo de funambulista que puede descarrilar en cualquier momento”.

Lejos del apasionamiento de los autores, Antonio López Lamadrid, editor de Tusquets y director de la colección Memoria Viva, resalta la curiosidad como característica fundamental de los autores de estas obras. “Ha de saber trasmitir ese deseo de saber al lector. Y, sobre todo, tener mucha paciencia, pues le esperan años de trabajo en archivos, revisando correspondencia, documentándose… A la hora de escribir debe saber guardar las distancias con el protagonista para que su texto no se convierta en una hagiografía; si, por último, tiene la cultura necesaria para enmarcar al personaje en su tiempo y su lugar, en mi opinión estaríamos ante el biógrafo ideal”, añade. Por experiencia, López concluye que se trata de un género difícil. “Estoy convencido de que tenemos mejores memorialistas que biógrafos”.

Pero lo difícil es saber contarlo. Hay biografías noveladas, asépticas, académicas y simplificadas. Con el libro entre las manos, la primera pregunta que se suele plantear el lector es: ¿cómo era él o ella? La biografía implica una mezcla de géneros: historia, política, sociología, cotilleos, periodismo, crítica literaria, psicoanálisis, ficción, ética o filosofía. A partir de todos esos fragmentos los biógrafos hacen un todo que además debe tener una característica: hacer un retrato vívido. Hermione Lee, autora de biografías de Virginia Woolf y Edith Wharton, sienta cátedra sobre el género en Biography: a very short introduction al afirmar que “los lectores son insaciables para los detalles”. Para la escritora, el género ha cambiado mucho con el paso del tiempo. “En el XVIII y XIX, Samuel Johnson y Thomas Carlyle apostaron por la veracidad por encima del panegírico, luego en la época victoriana se practicó una biografía más idealizada y en el inicio del siglo XX se optó por el lado más escandaloso. Hoy interesan más los asuntos corporales que van desde enfermedades y preferencias culinarias hasta vida sexual y adicciones. La biografía es historia pero también un género popular, muchas veces menospreciado por críticos y académicos”.

“Una biografía no puede ser una crónica”, añade Gibson. “Una vez encontré una especie de cronología día a día de la vida de Beethoven, lo que comía y lo que había hecho. La biografía es un género literario y hay que esmerarse si quieres que alguien la lea”. Llegados a este punto trabajar sobre los vivos siempre resulta más complicado. “No se deberían escribir biografías de una persona mientras esté viva”, sugiere Luis Antonio de Villena, poeta, crítico y autor de varias biografías. Como ejemplo cita la que publicó Ana Caballé de Francisco Umbral. “Al autor de Mortal y rosa no le gustó lo que estaba haciendo y le denegó su colaboración, como consecuencia, la segunda parte del libro parece escrita en contra del propio biografiado. Mientras viva una persona, su intimidad le pertenece”.

Autores y editores concluyen que el peor defecto es tratar de poner muy bien al biografiado, hacer de ellos estatuas de mármol. Frente a la biografía biempensante y aleccionadora destaca el biógrafo que elude condicionar la opinión del lector. “Hay toda clase de biografías, y no juzgo si un estilo es mejor que otro, pero mi deber era retratar y plasmar la verdad de la vida del Che, fuese la que fuese”, recuerda Lee Anderson. “Como antes de publicarla sólo existían demonizaciones o hagiografías, me exigí a mí mismo el esfuerzo de acercarla a la objetividad. Hay muy buenas biografías donde sus autores sí hacen juicios de valor, pero no era mi estilo. Tomando en cuenta las posiciones encontradas en torno al Che, y las mistificaciones también, preferí presentar la evidencia y dejar que el lector decidiera”.

Todas las personas tienen un lado oscuro. Descubrirlo y enfrentarlo con el resto de la vida pública del personaje, a veces luminosa, forma parte del trabajo del biógrafo, un género literario que triunfa en la cultura anglosajona y que en España cuenta con lectores incondicionales, aunque se mantiene como un género difícil desde el punto de vista comercial. ¿Por qué? “Mario Vargas Llosa explica muy bien la diferencia, en este aspecto, entre la cultura anglosajona frente a la española y la hispanoamericana. Los anglosajones cuentan pocas cosas de palabra, pero luego son capaces de ponerlo todo por escrito. Nosotros hacemos exactamente lo contrario, y si hace falta destruir los cuadernos de los padres o de los abuelos, se destruyen, y no pasa nada”, cuenta el editor de Tusquets. Eso mismo lo corroboró Gerald Brenan en un apéndice de su Historia de la literatura española: la alarmante ausencia de biografías en España se debe al temor de las familias a revelar sus secretos. “Así no se puede escribir sobre las vidas ajenas”, añade Gibson. “También decía Brenan que por eso había cierta pobreza en el análisis de las emociones y comportamientos. La biografía ayuda a ver los matices de la personalidad de un individuo. En el fondo, aquí tenemos un problema de identidad no resuelto porque no se ha conocido a fondo a muchos de sus grandes personajes. Cuántas veces me han dicho: ‘¡Y ha tenido que venir un extranjero para hacerlo!’. Lo oigo todos los días. Un país sin biografías es un país cojo”.

Sin embargo, algo está cambiando en el panorama español. Si hasta hace poco las mejores historias sobre la vida de Franco, el Rey Juan Carlos y hasta García Lorca, Buñuel o Dalí venían firmadas por hispanistas, como Paul Preston e Ian Gibson, aunque historiadores como Manuel Fernández Álvarez han tenido repercusión popular con sus libros sobre Isabel la Católica, Felipe II o Juana La Loca, entre otros, ahora el paisaje lo completan nuevos títulos y memorias rigurosas y documentadas firmadas por autores españoles. El penúltimo ejemplo, la monumental biografía de Azaña firmada por Santos Juliá.

A veces la Historia se asimila mejor a través de la ficción. Es el caso de Julián Granado. Su reciente novela biográfica De humanidad y polilla, todas las caras de Ferrer i Guardia, desvela un personaje con muchas contradicciones al tiempo que recrea el trasfondo ideológico del movimiento anarquista de principios del siglo XX y su vinculación con el terrorismo. “Fue precisamente ese lado confuso y oscuro del creador de la Escuela Moderna el que más me ha interesado sacar a la luz, no para llegar a ningún punto luminoso pero sí para acentuar los claroscuros”, añade. “La historia se enriquece a sí misma en la medida que se confrontan datos contradictorios”.

Con todo aún nos queda un largo camino por recorrer en ese campo. Basta acercarse a una librería para comprobar que la mayoría ni siquiera cuenta con un espacio habilitado para el género. Tampoco ayuda que en las estadísticas de lectura facilitadas por el gremio de editores se incluya en el apartado de historia y ciencias sociales. Antonio María de Ávila, director ejecutivo de la Federación de Gremios de Editores de España, cree que la mayor parte de los títulos van dirigidos a un público especializado, entre los que destacan historiadores y economistas, aunque el género cuenta también con lectores fanáticos que mantienen los niveles de venta hasta un nivel sostenible, eso sí sin llegar a la gran masa. “Unos y otros consiguen evitar que se llegue a una catástrofe económica y justifican que surjan nueva colecciones dedicadas al género en las editoriales”.

Y todavía cuando se quiere piropear a un biógrafo se dice que su libro ha sido cocinado a la manera inglesa, lo que viene a significar que la búsqueda ingente de datos ha propiciado un apetitoso refrito en el que emergen múltiples puntos de vista. Claro que las mitificadas biografías anglosajonas tampoco son perfectas. “Algunas son demasiado académicas, abrumadoramente llenas de notas al pie de página, que resultan prácticamente ilegibles. Las buenas biografías aportan detalles, pero hace falta que estén bien escritas. Los franceses y alemanes hacen una biografía más novelística”, añade De Villena. En opinión del autor de Che Guevara: una vida revolucionaria, no existe una escuela de biografía, ni un manual de cómo escribirlas. “Lo que funciona, más bien, es un género que tiene etapas en las que triunfa una moda o un estilo, y cada biógrafo hace sus cálculos de acuerdo con sus propios gustos o motivaciones, de acuerdo también a lo convenido con sus editores (en términos de enfoque y longitud, por ejemplo) sin dejar de lado ciertas biografías de referencia”.

Lo habitual es que políticos y artistas protagonicen la mayor parte de los títulos. El editor de Tusquets cree que probablemente se deba a que éstos tienen existencias más movidas y animadas. “Y, sin embargo, es triste pensar que una parte enorme de nuestro pasado histórico está sin narrar. Hay infinidad de personajes y episodios históricos que no han sido abordados o no lo han sido de la forma adecuada. ¡Qué diferencia con el mundo, digamos, de Estados Unidos, donde el alcalde más desconocido del pueblo más insignificante de Oregón tiene su biografía publicada!”.

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Written by Marisol García

October 14, 2009 at 10:03 pm

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Building Character: A Checklist

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By Jack Hart

Newspaper folks talk a lot about getting people into stories. But all too often that means trotting out direct quotes from a variety of sources. True characterization taps an array of techniques that novelists and literary journalists use to bring human beings alive on the page.

Characterization, unfortunately, isn’t often taught in journalism school. Nor is it a staple of the writing culture in most newsrooms. Which is why the people in our stories are often talking heads, our version of what accomplished fiction writers dismiss as “cardboard characters.”

Mark Flint, a freelance writer, once created a stir on WriterL, Jon Franklin’s literary-journalism listserv, with a checklist useful for character-building. It comes, Mark said, from the late Con Sellers, a prolific novelist from Grants Pass, Oreg. Sellers apparently picked it up, in some form, from somebody else.

Consider this list the next time you tackle a story in which character matters:
• Name:
• Age:
• Height:
• Weight:
• Birth date:
• Birthplace:
• Color hair:
• Color eyes:
• Scars or Handicaps (Physical, Mental, Emotional):
• Other distinguishing traits (Smells, voice, skin, hair, etc.):
• Educational background:
• Work experience:
• Military service:
• Marital Status (Include reasons):
• Best friend:
• Men/women friends:
• Enemies (Include why):
• Parents (Who? Where? Alive? Relationship?):
• Present problem:
• Greatest fear:
• How will problem get worse?
• Strongest character traits:
• Weakest character traits:
• Sees self as:
• Is seen by others as:
• Sense of humor:
• Basic nature:
• Ambitions:
• Philosophy of life (Include how it came to be):
• Hobbies:
• Preferred type of music, art, reading material:
• Dialog tag (Idioms used, speech traits, e.g. “you know”):
• Dress:
• Favorite colors:
• Pastimes:
• Description of home (Physical and the “feel”):
• Most important thing to know about this character:
• One-line characterization:
Key Questions:
• What trait will make this character come alive, and why?
• Why is this character different from other similar characters?
• Do I like/dislike this character, and why?
• Will readers like/dislike this character for the same reasons?
• Characters who are remembered are those who are strong in some way — saints, sinners or a combination. For what will this character be remembered?

Written by Marisol García

August 4, 2009 at 10:15 pm

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tools for your writing toolbox

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By Roy Peter Clark / Poynteronline / MONDAY, NOVEMBER 20, 2006

Writing the character paragraph

I’ve been reading thick books recently, most about the war in the Middle East. These books have hundreds of characters in them, some major players, and some who make cameo appearances. How to introduce new characters to the reader, and how to distinguish among them? One simple strategy is the development of what I’ll call the “character paragraph,” a short passage that tries to capture character in a nutshell.
Because these paragraphs appear in books, they can be much longer than we would tolerate in the slim columns of a newspaper page. Still, all writers can learn something from these narrative excursions into characterization.

Let’s begin with an example from Rajiv Chandrasekaran in his book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” a look at the war from inside the U.S.-controlled Green Zone. Here we meet 1st Sgt. Jerry Swope, who leads his platoon on a mission to spread goodwill among the Iraqi people:

On the morning of April 4, 2004, that goodwill mission fell to Swope and his men. At thirty-three, Swope was the oldest and most experienced soldier in the platoon. He was solid but not stocky, with close-cropped hair and a tattoo of three interlinked skulls on his right wrist. He hung out with the battalion’s older noncommissioned officers and smoked Marlboro Reds. Swope had been in the army for fifteen years, serving in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Bosnia, and Macedonia. A native of Richmond, Mo., he referred to the septic tankers as a Southerner would, calling them “honeydew trucks.”

Pretty efficient: I learn distinctive elements of physical description. His history in the Army. His habits. The brand name of a product he favors. A bit of colloquial slang.

My next example comes from “The Looming Tower” by Lawrence Wright, a description of one of the main characters, FBI agent John O’Neill:

For many of the agents in the room, O’Neill was an unfamiliar face, and no doubt it was odd to be suddenly taking orders from a man they have never met before. But most had heard of him. In a culture that favors discreet anonymity, O’Neill cut a memorable figure. Darkly handsome, with slicked-back hair, winking black eyes, and a big round jaw, O’Neill talked tough in a New Jersey accent that many loved to imitate. He had entered the bureau in the J. Edgar Hoover era, and throughout his career he had something of the old-time G-man about him. He wore a thick pinky ring and carried a 9-mm automatic strapped to his ankle. He favored Chivas Regal and water with a twist, along with a fine cigar. His manner was bluff and profane, but his nails were buffed and he was always immaculately, even fussily, dressed: black double-breasted suits, semitransparent black socks, and shiny loafers as supple as ballet slippers — “a nightclub wardrobe,” as one of his colleagues labeled it.

O’Neill is such an important character that Wright expends a couple of more such paragraphs of introduction. But this one takes me along way. I get physical description, dress, jewelry, weapon of choice, speech patterns, and, again, that brand name: Chivas Regal.

If you struggle with descriptions of character, use these two paragraphs as models and practice by trying to describe people you know well in one meaty paragraph.

Written by Marisol García

August 4, 2009 at 10:14 pm

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Character Sketches: Putting People on the Page

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PoynterOnline
Posted, Jan. 23, 2003
Updated, Jan. 24, 2003

By Chip Scanlan
In most newspaper stories, and even some magazine pieces, people are little more than a name, a title, age and address. “Janice Richardson, 35, advertising account manager at Hathaway Communications” or “William Masterson, 22, of 568B Crowne Court Apartments.”

It takes a little more effort to zero in on the physical attributes that distinguish one person from another, but that’s one of the writer’s gifts that makes storytelling such a special experience.

Madelaine Blais, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, captured the essence of this challenge in The Complete Book of Feature Writing. In her essay, “Don’t forget the “Ordinary” People,” she wrote,  “If novelists are faced with the artistic challenge of getting people who are not alive to seem alive, the journalist faces essentially the same problem: how do you make people who are alive in reality come alive on paper.”

In her ASNE award-winning St. Petersburg Times series, “Metal to Bone”, Anne Hull shows how it can be done in this brief but evocative description of a father and son:

Carl’s skin was black-gold, and his eyelashes curled over his eyes, just like Eugene’s. His beard needed trimming, and the T-shirt he wore was faded and too small, but there was something proud and impenetrable about him.

A person can be sketched quickly and with powerful effect with a few brushstrokes, as Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press did with his portrait of a football player and convicted rapist from Best Newspaper Writing 1996:

He is kind of thin for a football player, with a gangly walk, dark hair that falls onto his forehead, a thick neck, crooked teeth, a few pimples.

If these prizewinning examples seem beyond your reach, let me demonstrate how beginning journalists (students in Poynter summer fellowship program–can inject humanity into their stories in small ways:

WITH JUST A WORD. Rebecca Catalanello could have simply written, “Jason Myron, 8.” Instead, she wrote, “Jason Myron, a freckle-faced 8-year-old,” and evoked an idelible image of a child’s face.

IN A SENTENCE. Rhea Borja described a female minister this way: “She’s a woman with a friendly and open air, more comfortable in Birkenstocks and summer dresses than the vestments of her trade.”

A Prescription for Putting People on the Page

Look for models. Writers learn from other writers. I collect examples of physical descriptions that I admire and study them for content, tone, pacing, even sentence length. I find that even copying them out (being sure to note the source) helps me see the way the writer revealed the person and how I might do it with another subject.

the obituary writer, a short and rather shy man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smoking a pipe
from “Mr. Bad News” by Gay Talese in Fame and Obscurity.

More resources
Lillian Ross on her
Rules of Reporting

Gay Talese:
Portrait of Nonfiction Artist

by Barbara Lounsberry

Like Talese, Lillian Ross of the New Yorker is another writer who’s adept at bringing her subjects to life with vividly detailed and carefully crafted descriptions. I culled the following from profiles that Ross included in her most recent collection, Reporting Back:

He wears silver framed aviator style bifocals, sports on his little finger a gold college ring with an almost dime sized ruby in the middle. (Univ of Md. Class of 40), keeps a long cigar in his mouth (“I’m a chewer, not a smoker”), dresses conservatively (navy blue blazer, matching pants, too tight shirts, bright knit ties), and tears around the metropolian area in a telephone equipped car from one to another of his three offices (Forest Hills, West 5th St., Battery Park City) and to his buildings.

A genial forty three year old six footer with a graying beard

His own face cool and dry and cheerful, under a snowy thick man of hair. His gray suit was uncreased, a yellow print Hermes  necktie neatly done under his chin.

His face was freshly sunburned, and he had on a navy blue worsted suit, a white shirt with a button down collar, and a blue and silver striped necktie held by a brass pin, in the shape of a pt boat that was inscribed “Kennedy 60.

Testino is 44, a good natured, fleshy, large faced loosely put together, six plus two inch footer who was handsomely attired in a Bergere dark green coat, a Charvet painterly green shirt open at the collar and black English broughans. He carried a couple of small contax cameras and took photographs of his own photographs and of people looking at them

Miss King is a statuesque, super confident, cheery former news anchor with a perfect face and perfect teeth, auburn hair worn straight to the collar and the immediately chummy, quick-talking eager breathy rhythms of the Rosie Barbara Katie sisterhood.

A gracious, jolly, pink-cheeked man wearing toroise-shell glasses and a tuxedo

Mr. Gould, unslept and unbarbered, was in town for a couple of days from his home in Toronto. He had on his usual baggy deark blue suit with outmoded overpadded shoulders, a raggedy brown ssweater and a worn out bluish necktie. A yellow pencil protruded eraser end up from his coat pocket.

At times Ross may be guilty of descriptive overkill and I’m sure some editors feel their finger itching over the delete key on some phrases. But reading Ross I begin to see how carefully she studies people and the judgments she makes about appearance and personality. (Many writers are afraid to make such judgments, fearful of seeming biased or even cruel. A suggestion: Write the description and then run it past a colleauge and your editor to get a reader’s view.)

You can practice this particular craft challenge on friends and family. Describing people you know intimately will guide you to the type of details that swiftly capture a person and help readers visualize them.

That’s what I did In “The Only Honest Man,” an essay I published in River Teeth, a journal of creative nonfiction. My grandfather has been dead for more than 30 years but my memories of him are so strong (bolstered by consulting family photos) that it was easy to describe him:

My silver-haired and mustachioed grandfather, at 85 still the picture of a diplomat in his dark blue double-breasted suit, Fedora cocked at a jaunty angle, waving his polished hickory cane in the air, announcing to anyone in earshot, “There’ll never be another Billy Scanlan.

Write a paragraph describing one of your siblings or a favorite relative.

Try it on news sources. The next time you’re falling asleep during a boring meeting, assign yourself the task of writing one-line or one paragraph descriptions of every council member.

Report for story. If you’re not routinely taking notes on the way people look–specific details about clothes, mannerisms, physical characteristics–you’re cheating yourself of the raw material you’ll need to bring someone to life when you sit down to write.

Make it a habit whenever you interview someone that you take time to get down the details that will help you bring that person alive.

Here’s a list from notes I took during a recent interview:
He wears his hair like Ross Geller on Friends
He’s trim tall, dressed in all black
Boyish
Black suit
He’s in a shirt, collarless
He covers his mouth with a tent of his fingers and begins to type again
He rocks as he types when it begins going well. In deep concentration he stares at the screen, a touch typist, his mouth pursed and slightly open
His voice on the air is soothing
Hypnotic
Dark black hair
Nike swoosh sunglasses
he’s got a husky lusty chuckle
He’s young  handsome
Gleaming white teeth
Black hair glossy with gel
Black slipons and black socks
Hair parted on the left
Pale complexion
Clean shaven
His hands are epxressive
He tents them
Waves them to emphasize, invite, complete
The clean cut looks of an altar boy

Accept that you will probably take in ten times as much as you will ever use and if you’re like me, accept that you’ll rarely satisfied with the result. But keep at it. As Aristotle observed, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Getting in the habit of trying to put people onto the page will put you in good company.

“I definitely am trying to teach myself. to actually describe how someone looked, of actually writing down descriptive text.  I’m trying to learn how to do that all the time and I’m not great at it.  Some people have just such an incredible talent for that and I don’t really, but I am working on it.” That’s Ellen Barry, whose The Lost Boys of Sudan series won last year’s American Society of Newspaper Editors award for non-deadline writing, talking.



http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=18212
Copyright © 1995-2009 The Poynter Institute

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Written by Marisol García

August 4, 2009 at 10:13 pm

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So What Do You Do, Gay Talese?

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A legendary and innovative journalist talks about his craft, his career, and why we’re not calling him the father of the New Journalism.

By David S. Hirschman / MediaBistro.com – April 27, 2004

Gay Talese has a cold. Well, the flu, actually, and he’s just getting over it. It is the middle of January, and I’m sitting with him in his Upper East Side townhouse, surrounded by books—many his own—as he talks about writing and prepares for a television appearance on New York 1, the local all-news channel.

We talk for a few minutes about the process of interviewing, and I realize that, unlike most Q&As with writers, in this case I’m talking to the master about his own game. Talese, long a prominent journalist and writer, has made an art of the interview; in his pieces, incisive observations about a subject’s personality, character, and setting often take on more weight than the questions and answers themselves. It is a daunting challenge for a young writer to take on Talese.

I should admit that the famously sharp-dressed writer is a hero of mine, as he is to many writers in the generations following his own. Talese, in the magazine profiles he authored, challenged the way in which information was gathered and presented, creating much more intimate portraits of famous figures than had ever been attempted before. His most famous piece, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a profile of the singer that is perhaps the apotheosis of the New Journalism form, was labeled “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in Esquire’s recent 70th anniversary issue—that is, the very best article in the magazine’s long history of very good articles.

Talese is originally from Ocean City, New Jersey, and he started his journalism career in 1953, right after graduating from the University of Alabama. He was first a copy boy and later a sports reporter for The New York Times, and he went on to write for many magazines and published several books, including one, The Kingdom and the Power, about the culture of The New York Times.

He’s now in his eminence-grise phase—The Gay Talese Reader, a thick collection of his best profiles, was published late last year—but, at 71, he still cuts a sharp figure, donning a vest, well-tailored jacket, and hat to emerge onto 61st Street and settle into a chauffered car for the trip across town. In the car, in the NY1 studios, and also in his basement home office, Talese spoke to mb about his place in the journalism pantheon, the writers who have followed him, and why we’re choosing not to call him the father of the New Journalism.

Reading “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” in that recent Esquire, it was striking to realize how much the style you developed has become the standard form for profiles—and how original it was back in 1966. How did you develop this style, using the devices of fiction to tell a nonfiction story?
I’d always read short stories, and the short story writers—and the playwrights and the novelists—were just writing about people, about the interiors of people. And that’s what I always found challenging about nonfiction. My favorite short story writers were John Cheever and Irwin Shaw, and I figured I could do what they were doing without changing the names.

I wrote my impressions of people. But I did so with a real sense that I knew what I was talking about, because I spent a long time studying them. And I think I was never so incorrect in this assumption that people got angry with me. I never had a person that I interviewed or spent time with that I couldn’t see again. I never had a libel suit or a defamation of character lawsuit because I took very seriously getting my facts and my characters right.

It’s how you write it. I was always very careful with my writing. My turn of phrase was always an understatement; I got my point across without being unnecessarily harsh. I’ll give you an example of how to under-write a sentence. I was writing about the publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who was a notorious womanizer and who was ill at the time. And while I was talking to him an attractive young nurse came in. As she turned to walk away, I saw him looking at her and it immediately struck me that he was probably having an affair with her or whatever. But in my writing, I simply put that “Mr. Sulzberger had an eye for an ankle.” It was a small turn of phrase and you got it all.

This style you pioneered has been called the “New Journalism,” a term you dislike. Why do you dislike it?
I’m often given credit for “starting” the New Journalism. Tom Wolfe mentioned me prominently in a book he wrote in the ’60s called The New Journalism, and, while I was kind of flattered that people were, for the first time, starting to take notice of what I was doing, I have always kind of thought of myself as rather traditional in my approach and not so “new.” I never wanted to do something “new;” I wanted to do something that would hold up over time, something that could get old and still have the same resonance.

Some of the recent big journalism scandals—Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair—arose to some degree from reporters wanting to be celebrities themselves. Isn’t that a legacy of the New Journalism?
Again, the reason that I never liked the term “New Journalism” was that I think it marked the beginning of journalists wanting to be celebrities, and often of journalists thinking of themselves as celebrities. You can be a celebrity and be a very fine journalist; I’m not opposed to that. I’m just absolutely opposed to all forms of shortcutting, whether it is in the work that I do or the work that someone whom I respect does. What I disliked most about the idea of the New Journalism was that it seemed to be founded on the idea that you could get results quickly and easily by doing things in a certain way, which was attention-getting, whether that be by style of writing or in its destructive intent.

In some ways, I think the high point in this whole celebrity journalism thing was Woodward and Bernstein, which casts no doubt on the veracity of their work or their talent as reporters. It’s just that because of their work and the fact that they toppled the government, they became really big stars, all of a sudden portrayed by the likes of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men. You don’t get much bigger than that. And journalism students in the ’70s all wanted to be that kind of reporter, who, in their investigative fervor, could be capable of such power as to take on the White House itself.

But magazine writers like me, and like Tom Wolfe and David Halberstam, and even book writers like Norman Mailer, what we did was done with the intention of achieving remarkable things through reporting. What some of these younger writers started doing was inserting more of an editorial voice into their own writing, filled with attitude which wasn’t supported by the required amount of legwork. They would spend the minimum amount of time on research and devote more effort to the style or shine or sheen which would get them noticed.

“New Journalism,” to me, came to represent this easy kind of writing. I mean, Tom Wolfe himself is such a unique talent, but he is also a dogged reporter of facts and a researcher. A lot of these so-called “New Journalists,” however, were really sloppy people in terms of facts, and I didn’t want to be typecast as this. I mean I have boxes and boxes of files and careful recordings and impressions and notes that I jot on shirt-boards about every single thing that I publish. I keep outlines and letters of everything I’ve done, every little note and event and impression. As I go along, all the little details are part of the writer’s work and I try and keep as much of it as I can. But here these people were coming up with stuff off the cuff, without the proper research.

So then how do you feel about the journalism of the ’90s, when buzz ruled all?
I can’t fault anybody. I mean, Tina Brown is often given as an example of this kind of thing, but she is a very nice woman. I almost worked with her on a piece about John Bobbitt for The New Yorker, back when she was editor there. The buzz thing was true about her, but I still liked her very much. She was always very polite, very sensitive, and very respectful with me. Eventually when the piece didn’t work out, I was rejected in the most nice, well-mannered way.

In the process of writing a long piece, how do you approach it? Outlines? Diagrams?
Oh, yes. I do that extensively. I keep changing it; it’s like a storyboard for films. I once saw Francis Coppola, whom I am friends with, in the Napa Valley, near San Francisco, when he was doing a film called Tucker. I saw how he arranged the scenes with different note cards and outlines, and it seemed to me that his way of doing a movie was the same as the way I do even a magazine piece, certainly a book. It’s because I write things scenically.

What is the most difficult part of the whole process? Is it finding a subject and doing the research?
No, the most difficult part is when you’re done with the research and the interviews and you have all of this material and you have to organize it and make sense of everything. And even after all that is done, I work over every sentence and every page over and over again.

What are you working on now?
I have a new book that should be coming out soon which deals a lot with my efforts to get to people and to write about people and what happens when it doesn’t work out so well. It’s the story about the mind of the writer. It’s my story, which is the story of trying to get access to other people. I’ve had some trouble in the writing of it because I had to answer the question at the beginning “What is my story?” If my story is about writing about other people that I can relate to, then where is the me and where is the them? It’s a bit of an identity crisis.

Do you look for yourself in your writing about other people?
What draws me to people, in general, is that there is a vantage point that we share. There is something that I can hook into that is legitimately a part of these people’s lives that I write about. It may not be full, but it is enough that I can go further with it.

A lot of the people that you picked to profile were people who were past their prime, like Floyd Patterson and Joe DiMaggio. Why?
It’s because they had that experience of being up and down in life, and sometimes staying down. These are people who really have lived, and who have seen both sides of life. There’s a lot to learn from people who are down and who have been down, about friendship and relationships and who sticks with you when the buzz is gone.

If your new book is about not being able to get the access you need, it’s a book about failure more than success, then.
The thing is, in some ways it often works out better than if you’d gotten what you wanted. For instance, in the Frank Sinatra piece, the best thing about it is that I was able to write the thing without ever having talked to him. If I had gotten that interview, then I was stuck with his version of the events. This is not to say that his version would not have been valid, but it would have given the piece a sort of filter.

Written by Marisol García

August 4, 2009 at 10:12 pm

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How to get people into profiles

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By Don Fry / May 1998

Good writing

Editors nag and beg their reporters to get people into their stories, often without success. The profile seems like the logical answer, since profiles, by definition, center on a person. Yet many profiles don’t contain any people either. How can that be?

Profiles fail for two reasons: the writer tries to be definitive, and the writer gets swamped by the resume. Actually, that’s the same reason.

The least successful profiles merely rehash the subject’s resume chronologically, and that resume squeezes out the really interesting stuff, even if the reporter has it in the notebook. The writer starts typing the resume paragraphs; runs out of time, energy, and space; and the juicy bits die spiral-bound. The best profiles include two or three interesting aspects of the person, which sometimes contradict and always transcend the resume.

A little coaching can produce a deep profile, but no amount of editing can fatten a thin one.

Tackling the block

To keep the resume from swamping the profile, have the writer first move it entirely into a sidebar or block. I’ve only encountered one writer who managed to duplicate the entire contents of a resume block in the paragraphs beside it.

You can arrange the block chronologically, e.g., birth, education, accomplishments, prizes. Resume blocks can have themed sections, such as education, accomplishments, dreams, books read recently, charges dismissed, etc. The resume sidebar could comprise a series of pictures, with chronological cutlines.

The coaching editor will suggest the block in the assignment stage, and will follow up by asking the reporter to turn in the sidebar before typing or even designing the main bar. A coach might pick up tempting hints in the resume worth further reporting, and might predict graphic and photographic possibilities.

Briefing and debriefing

The writer should explore the paper’s library or online resources before the interview. Gathering the resume in a face-to-face interview wastes the subject’s and the reporter’s precious time. Good interviewers leap off from the resume, rather than drowning in it.

Talking with the writer before the interview can also lead the writer to imagine possible areas to develop, usually by good questions:

* What’s unique about this person?
* How does this person manage to do what she does so fast, so long, so originally?
* Where does this person’s strength or weakness come from?
* What does this person do that the public does not see?
* What does this person really want to accomplish?, etc.

Talking with the writer after the interview, but before the writer starts tying typing helps develop a point for the piece and gives the editor a chance to review the visual possibilities, and negotiate a length and a deadline. The coach who hears nothing but resume details can milk the reporter to see if the potentially interesting material lurks unrecognized in the notebook, again by asking good questions, such as the ones above. If the reporter’s notes prove as as thin as the dialogue, the reporting should continue. Obviously, the conversation will go better if the reporter submits the resume sidebar first.

Sending it back

What happens if you still get a shallow profile after all these efforts? Cynics and good-guy editors usually just edit the mess, and print it. Then once again you’ve told the entire newsroom that dull profiles are good enough. And you’ll get a lot more of them. You get what you print.

So, you send the profile back, and you send the reporter back into the field.

Think you don’t have time for all this hand holding? Well, you have a choice: you can talk a little bit with your reporters in the front end and get good profiles, or you can spend a lot of time in the back end editing and reading bad ones.

Written by Marisol García

August 4, 2009 at 10:07 pm

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al final se muere

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El escritor y periodista Alfredo Sepúlveda acaba de publicar “Bernardo”, una extensa y actualizada biografía de Bernardo O’Higgins que mezcla periodismo e historia. En este ensayo exclusivo para “Cultura” cuenta por qué y cómo un periodista se metió en el terreno de la Historia y vivió para contarla.

Por Alfredo Sepúlveda / La Tercera

1

Voy a contar el final de mi biografía: Bernardo O’Higgins muere. La última vez que supe de él, llevaba así más de 160 años. Todos quienes lo rodearon, lo amaron, lo odiaron, andaban en las mismas: polvo sobre polvo sobre huesos. Vaya paradoja: Bernardo formó parte del club que enamoraba mujeres a la luz de las velas de sebo, de los que se emborrachaban con aguardiente, destripaban fulanos con lanzas de coligües y al día siguiente redactaban constituciones. Y está así.

¿Qué tanto están con nosotros hoy estos muchachotes de antaño? ¿Son algo más que los billetes, los nombres de las calles? ¿Están cómodos en sus roles de estatuas ante las que los embajadores ponen arreglos florales?

Durante la mayor parte de los dos años en que pasé escribiendo e investigando “Bernardo”, me costó mucho decir por qué estaba en algo así. Bernardo está –estaba, después de este libro… espero, por mi bien– pasado de moda. De alguna manera estos búfalos del proceso de independencia dejaron de ser material atractivo para los historiadores, y en buena hora: estos intelectuales están más abocados a iluminar lugares aún oscuros de nuestro pasado: la vida privada, la de la ciudad, la de los pueblos indígenas.

Engominado con los aceites sacramentales que han usado para transformarlo en mito fundacional, Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme pertenece a los regimientos y a los escolares. No podía ser de otra manera: desde hace más de ciento cincuenta años que la sociedad chilena recurre a él como el héroe portátil que sirve para aprender o recordar que estamos juntos y que no debemos separarnos.

2

Antes de partir este proyecto tenía en la cabeza dos biografías que me parecen periodísticamente notables en su doble juego periodístico y literario: la de Norman Mailer sobre el joven Picasso y la de David Remnick sobre un chico llamado Cassius Clay que se transforma en otro llamado Mohammed Alí. Pero en el camino tuve que enfrentar un detalle. Si iba a encargarme de un tal Bernardo Riquelme que se transforma en Bernardo O’Higgins, si quería bajarlo del pedestal no para destruirlo, sino para entenderlo, si quería ver la versión moral de esa foto que el anciano y flaco Bernardo no se alcanzó a tomar con el primer daguerrotipista que llegó a Lima en 1842 (porque se murió antes), iba a tener que entrevistar a los muertos.

Janet Malcolm dijo una vez –estoy parafraseando– que la biografía es una suerte de venganza contra los muertos. Indefensos, solo pueden contemplar cómo el biógrafo, impune, les arrebata sus secretos y los ofrece a la vista del mundo.

Bernardo O’Higgins es un cadáver con secretos, pero esos secretos también han fallecido. Ha sido tan usado y reusado, ha sido tan monumentalizado, que sus episodios privados, su complejo de Edipo, sus vacilaciones como padre, su vida sexual, sus búsqueda de figuras paternas, sus rabietas y berrinches se han ido a la tumba con él. Quedan en la forma de rumores o tradición oral: que mató a Manuel Rodríguez por un lío de faldas que tuvo en Mendoza, que era gay, que lo raptaron unos piratas. Como dijo Pinochet en Londres: “embustes”. O, si se mira con algo más de escepticismo y distancia, simples y algo inocentes ficciones que se han construido casi espontáneamente para llenar los espacios que la historia oficial borró porque había que tener un héroe que fundara un país, aún si esa tarea fue en realidad acometida por muchas personas con mucha menos prensa.

Todo lo que se sabe de O’Higgins está escrito ya. Está en muchas y variadas biografías, papers, ensayos. Yo ocupé todo esto y agradezco de todo corazón a mis antecesores. Además, gracias a Internet, soy un biógrafo con contactos globales y muchas bibliotecas al alcance del computador. La gracia fue que la tecnología me permitió juntar lo disperso: hacerme de los libros que respiran a duras penas en librerías de viejo o en bibliotecas, y leer lo que hace tiempo nadie lee. Los libros fueron los “muertos” que entrevisté, y no es algo metafórico: los viejos y polvorientos testimonios que los historiadores consideran para sus pies de página, para mí fueron fuentes.

Yo no sé si periodismo e historia van de la mano. Creo que son vecinos, y que alguna veces el pasto en el jardín del lado es más verde y otras más amarillo. Lo único que quise al hacer esta mezcla fue tratar de que las cosas fueran más normales, que el viejo Bernardo, emergiera también como el tipo que tocaba piano y pintaba acuarelas, que pudiéramos experimentar los desgarros, pasiones y bonanzas de su vida sin el filtro del gran hombre del que somos tributarios. Del gran hombre que, en todo caso, realmente fue. A su manera, tuvo bienes que hoy escasean: valor, cojones, locura. Que se equivocó y cayó en los pozos negros, por supuesto, quién no. Tan distinto a nosotros no es: al final, como todos los que estuvieron antes y después de él, también se muere.

Autor de nueva biografía de Bernardo O’Higgins:
“Lo del ‘Padre de la Patria’ es insostenible”

Jueves 20 de Septiembre de 2007
Sebastián Cerda, El Mercurio Online

SANTIAGO.- El 30 de noviembre de 2005, el periodista y escritor Alfredo Sepúlveda anunciaba al mundo su próximo proyecto, a través de su blog. “Hoy me lanzo a trabajar en un proyecto que me tendrá ocupado al menos gran parte de 2006. Una biografía de Bernardo O’Higgins”, decía entonces.

La particular idea tenía una doble explicación: por una parte “se viene el Bicentenario y quiero vender libros” (algo dicho “un poco en serio y un poco en broma”, dice hoy el autor) y porque consideraba que no se habían escrito biografías por fuera de los mitos (“todos nuestros héroes son héroes sin manchas”, se quejaba entonces).

El trabajo de casi dos años ya se encuentra finalizado y hoy se puede acceder a él a través de “Bernardo”, el libro que Sepúlveda acaba de publicar a través de Ediciones B ($15 mil) y que anuncia como “la verdadera biografía” del llamado “padre de la Patria”.

Sepúlveda reconoce que la frase “es algo marketero de mi parte, pero me refiero a que traté de hacer una biografía no desde el partisanismo, sino desde el sentido común. Lo que se ha hecho desde la historiografía clásica sobre O’Higgins es partisano, siempre a favor o en contra, según el autor sea o’higginista o carrerista”.

-¿Qué te interesó del personaje como para decidir hacer algo tan absorbente como una biografía?
-Son razones más bien inconscientes. Yo creo que fue esta especie de tradición oral sobre que era huacho, que sufrió mucho. Me llamaba la atención que podía ser una persona que tenía algún rollo con su padre, y lo que yo pensaba era que el odio a su padre que lo abandonó lo llevó a encabezar la revolución. Ése fue mi punto de partida, pero después vi que todo era más complejo.

-¿Y el eslogan de “padre de la Patria” te interesó también?
-Desde la sospecha. Periodísticamente me pareció bastante insostenible que haya solo un padre de la Patria. Vi que la figura de Bernardo estaba dando botes de una manera muy básica, muy ramplona, con este eslogan de “padre de la Patria”, que es insostenible. Nadie puede echarse tamaño proceso en los hombros y reclamar ser el único. Por ahí sospeché que la historia era más compleja que como uno la recordaba.

-Cuando empezaste a escribir dijiste que estabas convencido de que O’Higgins era más que lo que enseñaban en el colegio, ¿comprobaste esa tesis?
-Sí. Lo que te enseñan en el colegio es la tradición que uno maneja inconcientemente sobre O’Higgins, parte de una operación de mitificación, que es una misión que la historiografía clásica asumió, porque en algún momento la sociedad chilena estuvo a punto de disgregarse y necesitaba una figura que la congregara. Esa figura fue O’Higgins. Porque, ¿cómo puede ser que alguien que durante 40 años fue un “paria de la Patria”, desde su exilio hasta su reivindicación, de la noche a la mañana sea un “padre de la Patria”? Lo que intentan hacer en el colegio es una operación para tu identidad como chileno.

-En el cauce de información, mitos y rumores que te encontraste, ¿qué valor otorgaste a la interpretación y la especulación?
-Alto, pero siempre advirtiendo que estoy especulando o interpretando. Y hay cosas que simplemente no consideré. Por ejemplo, en el caso de Ambrosio O’Higgins, hay un historiador colonial que se llama Vicente Carvallo Goyeneche que lo odiaba y que da a entender que pudo haber tenido una tendencia homosexual. Pero yo en el libro digo que hay que tomar esto de donde viene, y que la evidencia dice lo contrario, que era un tipo bueno para las mujeres, que tenía sus aventuras amorosas. También hay harta tradición oral, pero poca en que uno diga que valga la pena investigar. Uno de esos rumores dice que Bernardo O’Higgins pudo ser homosexual. Yo lo consideré, busqué al respecto y no encontré nada, ni sus peores enemigos llegaron a deslizar esa idea, por lo tanto la dejé fuera. Hay rumores que tienen algo de peso documental, y otros que tienen cero.

-Otro rumor histórico que mencionas en tu libro es lo libertina que pudo haber sido Isabel, la madre de Bernardo.
-Eso de que Isabel era media díscola son unos comentarios que los historiadores de la primera mitad del siglo XX siempre se encargaron de decir. La tratan de ardiente, irreflexiva, describen su escote, están medio obsesionados con el tema, que no tiene ningún asidero. Ella pudo haber sido una cabra chica que un viejo violó. Pero me encontré con un texto sobre amor y sexualidad en la América Hispana, que uno tiende a ver como un tiempo en que todo el mundo iba a misa, pero era igual que ahora nomás, la gente estaba viva. No era la primera adolescente que se embarazaba y la élite tenía ciertos mecanismos para tapar estas vergüenzas y legitimarlas después. Incluso es probable que la familia de Isabel haya aplaudido la relación con Ambrosio, porque la subía socialmente.

-¿En qué se nota que este trabajo no fue escrito por un historiador?
-Yo no puedo interpretar las cosas como lo hacen los historiadores. Tampoco tengo capacidad para ir a lo que se llama “fuente primaria”, como partes de guerra o cartas manuscritas. Yo tomé lo que había, traté de verlo con distancia, con escepticismo periodístico, cruzar datos y reescribirlo. Yo fui mucho tiempo editor, y tengo una obsesión con el “esto no calza”.

-Sin embargo el libro no está escrito de forma desapasionada.
-No, pero yo pongo mi pasión en el estilo, en la forma de narrar. Traté de escribir una novela sin escribir una novela. Que sea algo entretenido de leer. Una cosa que me pasó mucho cuando contaba lo que estaba haciendo, era que lo primero que me decían es “por qué te metes en algo tan aburrido”. Y cuando empezaba a contar, me iba transformando en el centro de la sobremesa, me empezaban a preguntar cosas y siempre me respondían con un “no sabía”. Me soprendió que siendo O’higgins alguien tan popular hubiera tan poco conocimiento de los datos. A mí me interesa llegar a la gente que no tiene idea de O’Higgins.

Written by Marisol García

August 4, 2009 at 9:36 pm