Over the weekend, I was lucky enough to have dinner chez Rachael Kendrick, blogger and cook extraordinaire. (I’ve also interviewed her for the Killings podcast, which you can find here.) We were chatting about her varied extracurricular activities – I feel like I can say ‘extracurricular’ about an academic – one of which is powerlifting. As she showed us her favourite powerlifting shirts (neither, sadly, was made of lycra), one of the other dinner guests professed himself astounded by the exotic range of activities Kendrick did in her spare time.
Although we were talking about hobbies (perhaps the favourite word of second-language teachers), the conversation reminded me of one of my favourite author bios I’ve read lately – that of Arthur Phillips, author of The Song is You, The Egyptologist and Angelica. It begins:
Arthur Phillips was born in Minneapolis and educated at Harvard. He has been a child actor, a jazz musician, a speechwriter, a dismally failed entrepreneur, and a five-time Jeopardy! champion.
Whoa, you think; this guy’s gotta have something good to say. Then comes the first cynical thought about such a bio, even if it belongs to a man the Washington Post called ‘one of the best writers in America’: that his publisher’s marketing staff must love it. It’s quirky and loaded with references that positively burst with ‘this book will be good to read’ juice. But of course marketing staff love it – so do we. Hello! … I mean, he’s won Jeopardy! five times.
Many writers who do time in other industries feed those experiences into their writing. Anton Chekhov used his experiences as a doctor in his fiction, and Peter Conrad said of Portuguese novelist and doctor António Lobo Antunes that he ‘discovered his literary vocation while delivering babies, performing amputations, and carving up corpses.’ And then there are writers who let writing and living intertwine in symbiotic (and sometimes dangerous) ways: see Hunter S. Thompson, the Hell’s Angels era, during which he spent a year with the infamous bikers.
Of course, what a writer does when they’re not writing is just one small part of the reader–writer romance – one snifter in the goop of why we lay our money down on the counter to buy any book, magazine, chapbook or access to an online publication. Just like plot, character, cover design, blurb copy or a couple of press mentions, the writer’s life experience is but one element that can bridge the divide between ‘something I wouldn’t read’ and ‘something I must read’. However, when it’s a juicy one, it can pay off. I certainly got excited when reading author of Love Machine Clinton Caward’s bio:
After quitting his first job as a bank clerk and being retrenched from his subsequent position as a plumber, Clinton Caward became a barman, landscape gardener, pizza cook and floatation tank maintenance technician before moving to Nimbin with his pregnant girlfriend to train as a Rebirthing Therapist.
Damn, you think. There’s no way that’s going to be a boring book.