William Landay is the author of All That Is Mine I Carry With Me and three previous novels: Defending Jacob, which won the Strand Critics Award for best mystery novel; The Strangler, listed as a best crime novel of the year by the L.A. Times, Daily Telegraph and others; and Mission Flats, winner of the Dagger Award for best first crime novel. A former assistant district attorney, he lives in Boston.
The thumbnail bio above is the one I’ve been using lately. It does not reveal much about me, I realize. No doubt it will fail to satisfy the demand of the internet for complete transparency. But I don’t think an author ought to reveal too much of his biography, as I explain below.
I wrote the following little evasion in 2003, when I first launched a web site to support my novel Mission Flats, and I updated it superficially in 2007, when my second book came out. But essentially my feelings have not changed from the start: the author’s place is offstage. So I apologize for the lack of a proper tell-all author bio in this space. But don’t hold your breath waiting for one.
The author bio—that stilted three- or four-sentence blurb on the back flap of the dust jacket—is a dilemma for a novelist. Lately I’ve been scratching my head over it.
Its function, of course, is to sell you the book. And so it presents, in very compressed form, a summary of the author’s credentials: the books he’s written, the prizes won, the triumphant reviews. If he has none of these things, it offers other credentials that seem to guarantee the book will be “authentic”: the jobs or education that qualify him to write about cops or cowboys or pop stars or whatever. Lacking all else, it tells you where he lives. Mine is a blend of all these. Here is how it appears on the dust jacket of my new book, The Strangler:
William Landay is the author of the highly acclaimed Mission Flats, which was awarded the John Creasey Dagger as the best debut crime novel of 2003. A graduate of Yale University and Boston College Law School, he was an assistant district attorney before turning to writing. He lives in Boston, where he is at work on his next novel of suspense.
Publishers call this the ATA, for “About the Author.” Should I tell you more about myself here?
The trouble is that the ATA influences the reader’s experience of a novel. The reader inevitably will try to look behind the story, to see the writer in the act of writing. The urge is irresistible. As she reads, a little voice whispers in the reader’s ear: “Is the hero a stand-in for the author? Is this or that character based on someone he met? Did any of this really happen?”
The other aspect of ATA-writing is that readers demand credentials. Book-shoppers examine the ATA like border guards inspecting a passport. My bio always notes (accurately) that I used to be a prosecutor. An implicit promise is made: my books will be “true” in the sense that they will be based on experience, on fact. Readers insist on this sort of guarantee, but it is a mistake. No writer of any quality can base his novels on fact. The actual day-to-day life of a cop or prosecutor is by turns too dull, too incredible, and above all too haphazard to make a good story. The material must be shaped. Even the best-credentialed writer has to toss out most of what he knows in order to tell a good story. It is not that experience does not matter; it is just that experience does not guarantee anything. Some of our best crime novelists have no law-enforcement credentials (Elmore Leonard, for example); some of our worst are true-blue cops and lawyers.
So, how should an author write his ATA? How much to leave in, how much to leave out?
There seem to be two approaches. The first is Flaubert’s: “Hide your life.” So intent was Flaubert on disappearing behind his work that he did not even permit himself to be photographed or painted. No images exist of the great man between childhood and middle age. A publisher once requested his photograph. Flaubert wrote back, “You will see my photograph nowhere. I have refused to have my portrait painted by artist friends of great talent. Nothing will make me yield.” (Check out Frederick Brown’s amazing recent biography, Flaubert.)
The other approach is Hemingway’s, in which the author’s life is a self-conscious, purposeful extension of his fiction. Hemingway’s greatest creation was Hemingway, and it is impossible to read The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms without inserting the author himself into the story. There is nothing sinister or phony in that, of course. All writers draw on personal experience to some extent. Why not seek out material to write about? And once you have it, why not embroider a little, improve on it? Anything goes.
Personally, I prefer the Flaubert approach. I am a private person. That is one reason novel-writing appeals to me: Novelists — all storytellers — approach the world through misdirection, from oblique angles, through stories. We come on like crabs, scuttling up to the truth sideways. A more direct, forthright sort of person would be writing essays or memoirs or some other form that addresses the world head-on.
More important, I believe each novel has to stand on its own. Either it has the stuff or it doesn’t. The reader should not have to look outside the book cover for proof that it is convincing, moving, and authentic. My books are the only credential that matters.
Ideally, the reader should not be distracted at all by an ATA. She should not be called away by thoughts of an author who exists outside the book, like a ghost peeking over, watching her read, winking, saying, “I wrote that, I wrote that!”
So that is my ATA, I guess. It’s a little short on facts. You’ll have to look elsewhere to find out whether I have a golden retriever or was the prom king in high school. But then, maybe this is the way a novelist’s ATA ought to read. After all, the power of novels is more intimate, more alive than their facts. It is the author’s distinctive way of thinking, his vision of the world.
(Oh, all right: I wasn’t the prom king.) ♦