A. Scott Berg is a preeminent biographer who has won major awards. Berg just published "World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It," an anthology of nonfiction he edited for the Library of America (he wrote the introduction and more than 100 head notes). He's also a resident of Los Angeles and familiar with the entertainment world.
He's in town doing research for a new book about Thurgood Marshall and to give a talk entitled "Woodrow Wilson and World War I: A Century Later" at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 19 in the Charleston Museum auditorium, 360 Meeting St. The event, sponsored by the Princeton Club of Charleston, includes a 5 p.m. book signing and wine reception. Tickets are $35, with discounts for recent Princeton grads and local faculty and students. Go to www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2890175.
In anticipation of his visit, The Post and Courier asked Berg a few questions.
Q: You are a biographer extraordinaire, who has won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. You pick big subjects: Samuel Goldwyn, Charles Lindbergh, Woodrow Wilson. How do you go about deciding who to write about?
A: When I was in the middle of writing my first book — "Max Perkins: Editor of Genius," about the legendary editor who discovered and developed F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe — I was already thinking about writing a shelf-ful of biographies, each one about a 20th-century American cultural figure and each from a different wedge of the Apple Pie. And so, after writing about a Harvard-educated New Englander in the literary world, I turned to an East European Jewish immigrant who moved to the West Coast and helped invent Hollywood. Then I turned to the Midwest and wrote about a great aviator; and after that, I wrote about a Southerner who became one of the nation’s most influential educators and presidents.
Biography should illuminate not just the life of the subject but also the times in which he or she lived; and so, I look for people’s lives that enable me to present a larger picture; they must be lenses that allow for close-ups of the personal history and panorama shots of their worlds.
Q: Describe your process. How long does it take you to exhaust your subject?
A: It takes as long as it takes — in the case of "Wilson," 13 years. I begin with background reading, starting with the published writings of my subjects, if they left a paper trail. The next step is to interview people who knew my subject, for people inevitably leave us and papers don’t. I record my interviews in notepads — pen on paper; no machines. Then I move on to the archives. Each of my subjects has had his papers collected, usually in at least one or two libraries; there I encamp and take notes — on 5x8 notecards, when I started out; and now on a laptop. In time, I start jotting openings and closings of chapters; and one day, I suddenly realize I have the basic outline of the entire book... and I just need to take a few more years to fill in the story within those lines.
Q: You are working on a new biography of Thurgood Marshall, another big subject. What got you interested in Marshall?
A: For several years I have believed that the most important topic this country must grapple with in the next few decades is that of race; and in thinking of that as the next wedge in my Apple Pie, I asked myself whose life would enable me to explore that subject and whose life has not been adequately chronicled. For me, Thurgood Marshall was the answer to both questions.
Q: You are in town not just for your talk but to do some research on J. Waties Waring and others, right? How is that going?
A: This will be my first visit to Charleston on this book — though, I’m sure, not my last. I will be talking to people who actually knew (and know a lot about) the legendary Judge Waring. Civil rights have steadily marched forward in this country because of a number of courageous leaders, both black and white, who often defied prevailing sentiments. Judge J. Waties Waring was one of those leaders.
Q: You are a resident of southern California and steeped in the entertainment world. And yet you produce substantial, important, deeply researched nonfiction tomes. Do you cope with any cognitive dissonance or does L.A. provide a conducive writing environment?
A: Don’t get stuck in the cliches. People tend to forget that, for a century, Los Angeles has been a constant magnet for serious thinkers and artists: Thomas Mann, Gershwin, Stravinsky, Hockney and countless other heavyweights all chose to make Southern California their home. Beyond that, Max Perkins used to tell his writers that they had to go into a trance state when they wanted to write; and I find that the changelessness of L.A. weather helps me enter that state. As Randy Newman says, it’s always “another perfect day.” When I was writing the first draft of my first book, I looked at the calendar on what I had thought was the next day, only to discover that three months had passed... and I had 900 pages sitting on my desk!
Q: Something tells me that the new biography will inspire you to further examine the history of the American South. Any thoughts on future projects?
A: Biographies demand a lot of mental and physical power; and as this book will take me into the next decade, I’ll then have to take measure of my stamina. While the American South is endlessly fascinating, if I am to serve up another slice of Americana, I should probably be looking to another sector of our culture... and I may be writing about a female nuclear physicist from Seattle!