BRIAN LAMB, C-SPAN HOST: Stacy Schiff, author of at least four books, what’s the best training to become a biographer?
STACY SCHIFF, AUTHOR: Probably a career as a private investigator. If there’s anything that I sadly, sadly lament is the fact that I have to go asking the really hard question and putting together the pieces that any kind of, you know, logical way, the way a police detective might be putting the pieces together. So I would say, you know, go to police school or train as a private detective first, and then you should work your way back to writing biography.
LAMB: Who was the first person you thought about writing about in a biography?
SCHIFF: The first person is actually the first person about whom I wrote, and that was Saint-Exupery, the author of ”The Little Prince,” the pioneering aviator. I’d been working in publishing. I had the idea. I had reread ”Wind, Sand and Stars” I think that’s how it began and was surprised I was coming off a series of reading great books about flying. I had just adored Bara Marcum . I had gone on to Saint-Exupery, whom you read in, you know, sixth-grade or eighth-grade French class and I think never think about again, except perhaps for ”The Little Prince.”
And I was struck by how lucid and brilliant the writing was and how it really held up, went back to look at the life a little bit, discovered that this man who we think of as a pioneering aviator was, in fact, a pretty lousy aviator, very distracted in the cockpit. His engineers were constantly clearing out the cockpit of the rumpled balls of paper that he left there. And realized there hadn’t been a life in a long time and that no one had really delved into all the pieces of the life.
He’d written ”The Little Prince” in New York. There were all sorts of unexplored corners of the story. And I meant I was I was an editor in a publishing house at the time. I meant to hand the idea on to an obvious biographer, and I just couldn’t seem to let go of it, and fell somewhat in love with the subject myself and left publishing in order to write the book.
LAMB: Simon & Schuster.
SCHIFF: That’s right.
LAMB: How many years?
SCHIFF: Only a couple of years at Simon & Schuster. I had been at Viking for four or five years before that doing both fiction and nonfiction. And, in fact, the timing was particularly fortunate, in terms of that book, because I was starting it just at the point where people who had flown with Saint-Exupery at the beginning of his life, the French aviators, were still alive. The young Americans who had flown with him at the end of life were obviously all around. And his girlfriends were still all around. So in terms of hitting a project at just the right moment, I was lucky to be on the scene when I was.
LAMB: Was there a biography that you had edited that made an impact on you to do what you’re doing?
SCHIFF: I had spent a lot of time on Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles biography, which I adored. I adored her. I adored the project. If I remember correctly, the book had come in slightly too long, and I had helped to shape it a little bit. Viking had the good fortune to publish that biography I think the week or the month that Orson Welles died, which is always the publisher’s greatest dream. So it was a terrific experience.
But honing other people’s work and reading book proposals had obviously been a terrific education for me, in terms of how to shape a book proposal and how to think about writing a life. And for the fledgling writer, there’s something very reassuring about biography. It has an obvious structure, at least most of the time an obvious orthodox structure, has a beginning, a middle and an end, and you have the delicious pleasure at the end of killing off your subject. So it’s a particularly gratifying kind of work.
But it was an easier narrative project to undertake than would have been, say, a straight history of something.
LAMB: Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but Saint-Exupery I was actually able to closely pronounce that is not a household name, is it?
SCHIFF: No, and I think for a while my publisher feared I was only ever going to write about people with unpronounceable names, unpronounceable long, French names, in fact.
No, I think most people know ”The Little Prince.” I think I was surprised there was a kind of cult of ”The Little Prince” out there. But, yes, it was an uphill battle, in the sense that the rest of the work as much as he was a best-selling writer in his time in America, entering the war especially, his work has largely been forgotten or, as I say, relegated to eighth-grade French class.
And ”The Little Prince,” which he always thought of as a book he wrote on a whim, he was stranded in New York, unable to fly, very deeply unhappy, up most of the night drinking caffeine, and sort of amusing himself with these little drawings. A book tossed off as a lark and as a solace, in a way, became the book that most obviously survives, the most loudly survives him.
LAMB: Again, go back to the beginning of your first writing. Had you written much before you had become an editor at either Viking or Simon & Schuster?
SCHIFF: I had written a tremendous amount of flap copy, catalogue copy, editorial memos. Nothing of any length, with the possible exception I did a corporate annual report to help pay my rent. And I did a lot of cutting down the New York Post used to run book serializations in its centerfold. And one of the other editorial assistants at Viking in those days very kindly handed me her ex-job of cutting essentially, you would cut a biography down to the five most embarrassing parts, you know, Frank Sinatra beating his children, or whatever they were.
And that was my great those were my greater editorial or literary, so to speak, experiences in those years.
LAMB: What would you say from your experience of editing and writing that the public wants?
SCHIFF: Something streamlined, where you’re always I think always looking over the shoulder of the subject. I think you don’t want to lose sight of your of the subjects. You always want to sort of feel as if you’re somehow involved with the center of the biography. And I think you just always want to give your reader that feeling of the pages turn. No matter what you’re writing about, whether it’s wartime or or something much more domestic, I think there has to be some kind of narrative suspense.
The big names, I think I mean, I think we’re always hungry for another book on George Washington or another take on Thomas Jefferson. But I think something where you’re demystifying a little bit, a name that is familiar but somehow foreign, which I think was the case with Cleopatra, where a name is instantly recognizable, but in that same moment, we suddenly stop ourselves short and think, oh, my goodness, I actually don’t really know that much. The name is familiar to me, but I couldn’t go on for more than three sentences on this subject.
LAMB: The four books you’ve written are what?
SCHIFF: ”Saint-Exupery” was the first.
LAMB: What year?
SCHIFF: What a good question you ask. 1994. The next book was about Vera Nabokov, another non-household name, the wife of the writer Vladimir Nabokov, best known for ”Lolita.” And that was really a portrait of a marriage. The third book was about Ben Franklin and his years in France, which was a thorough pleasure, very difficult to research, but a thorough pleasure. And then changing text completely, Cleopatra.
LAMB: There’s the one trend it seems that these all these people come from outside the United States. Is there any reason for that?
SCHIFF: Stupidity on my part, possibly? You know, it’s a good question. With the Franklin book, I was very aware even with the Nabokovs...
LAMB: I mean, you wrote about his time in Paris, when you were...
SCHIFF: Right, right. I’m very aware that when you take a person out of context, you see them better. And I think I became most aware of that with the Nabokovs, although it was also true of Saint-Exupery, when he’s washed up in New York.
The Nabokovs, Russian exiles, moved to obviously, leave for Germany, to France, to the U.S., at which point Nabokov recasts himself as an American writer.
With Franklin, there’s this unknown piece of Franklin’s life, and there’s a very unknown Franklin. I mean, this is a very different Ben Franklin in France during the American revolution than the one we think we all know. And this is a man speaking a language he doesn’t speak particularly well on a diplomatic mission, which is little understood and little talked about. So I felt as if I were somehow playing with a more original version of Franklin in some way.
I’m not sure what the other answer to that would be. Cleopatra you know, she could be anywhere. The documents are everywhere.
My new book is about the Salem witch trials, so finally I have a home I’m from Massachusetts, so I feel like I’m back home in some way.
LAMB: And when will that come out?
SCHIFF: Many years from now, I’m afraid.
SCHIFF: I’ve just started. I’ve just started. It usually takes me four to five years to write a book, so this will this is somewhat in the future, still. I’ve really only I’m a couple of months into the research.
LAMB: Do you still live between Canada and New York or Canada and Boston?
SCHIFF: Mostly I live mostly in New York.
LAMB: Mostly in New York?
SCHIFF: Mostly in New York, although I’m hoping to spend a lot of time the Salem archives are all the material for the Salem book is all of it in Massachusetts, so I’m hoping to spend a good deal of time there.
LAMB: But you married a Canadian?
SCHIFF: I did. I married a Canadian, who mostly lives in Canada.
LAMB: How long ago?
SCHIFF: Twenty-two years ago.
LAMB: Do you two have children?
SCHIFF: I have three children, yes.
LAMB: How old are they?
SCHIFF: Twenty, eighteen and eleven.
LAMB: Well, what do they think of their mother being a writer like this?
SCHIFF: I think for the most part they think I type for a living. They I don’t think any of them has yet read a book. Maybe if they see your show, they will. They’ll be shamed into it.
I don’t know. It’s a really good question. I think they think I spend a lot of time at the office. Maybe that’s a good thing, though. I think they’re grateful to the fact that I’m a negligent parent, because I’m so often at the office.
LAMB: Losing your father had an impact on you in what way?
SCHIFF: My father never read my first book. He died right around the time of publication of my first book, which was a huge disappointment to me. And I obviously think of him often, but it was somehow that just that first moment at which I had changed careers, the book was splendidly reviewed. The week he died, which was a very poignant moment for me, because I wasn’t able to share that with him I’m sure that if you really were to look into this, there’s some studying people out of context and working in in different locales has something to do with where I grew up.
But I have never really one of the blessings of biography is you don’t have to look at your own life. The whole point is that you want to spend your time examining someone else’s life. And I’m sure there’s a reason for that.
LAMB: What did he do in his life?
SCHIFF: He was he owned a clothing business in...
SCHIFF: ... in western Massachusetts.
LAMB: What town?
SCHIFF: Adams, Massachusetts, population 13,000-ish when I was growing up, now smaller, I believe.
LAMB: Was he a reader?
SCHIFF: Not a great reader. My mother was an academic and was the great reader and...
LAMB: And is she alive?
SCHIFF: She is alive.
LAMB: And what kind of an academic was she?
SCHIFF: She taught French comparative literature and French, and a voracious reader, although much more a reader of European fiction than of American fiction. So I think I grew up more on the in the sort of on the border line between American fiction and what people were writing in Europe at the time.
LAMB: But if you look at the fact that your mother was an academic and interested in the novel or the literature that French based and you’ve got your three kids, and they haven’t read a book yet, what’s going on here? Because, I mean, what’s your what is your what are your own rules as to how you want to bring your kids up?
SCHIFF: I think my kids are all voracious readers, I should have said. They’ve read they’ve read everything under the sun, but they haven’t read my books.
LAMB: Oh, I see. OK.
SCHIFF: I should have said that. But I do think there is a certain backlash there. I mean, books were, in a way, forced upon me. And although books have always been a feature of my kids’ lives and a happy one, I don’t think I’ve been I think I’ve been a little more recessive about pushing those books along the way in the in that we react against our parents. But, no, they’re all of them voracious readers, and and several of them better read than is their mother, so...
LAMB: What impact did it have going to Williams College? And where is it?
SCHIFF: Williams College is in western Massachusetts, not far from where I grew up. And it was it’s a great liberal arts school where I did a lot of philosophy and art history, much more than I did any kind of literature courses, and where essentially you have at your fingertips a great university library, a fabulous, fabulous faculty, a really lovely teacher-student ratio, so you feel tenderly taken care of, and where the open mind is cultivated. So it was a tremendously good education, in terms of writing, in terms of just intellectual probing, and in terms of learning how to do research.
LAMB: So if you look back at when you were at Williams, what was the best biography you’d read at that point?
SCHIFF: I’m not sure I’d ever read a biography at that point, Brian. What a great question. I read a lot of fiction. I still read a lot of fiction. I grew up on those biographies that every kid the Landmark Books and those little sort of red, white and blue sort of potted biographies that we all loved at kids, and it was reading those that I realized retrospectively, anyway, when I writing Cleopatra, that all the ones about women were about women who had died glorious deaths or were somehow deluded. They were, you know, Joan of Arc or Florence Nightingale or Sylvia Plath. I mean, they were always they seem to be women in distress in some way.
But I loved those little books when I was a kid, Helen Keller. And there weren’t very many women in that series, in fact, but those were those books were certainly formative.
LAMB: Of the four books, which one has sold the best?
SCHIFF: I think ”Cleopatra” has probably sold more than the others combined many times over. I never had a book that really sold in any way in any way before.
LAMB: And why do you think that happened?
SCHIFF: It has a beautiful jacket?
I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s hit a nerve. And, you know, the writer never knows I mean, it’s one of those interesting things. You don’t have any idea what people are going to find in your work. You sit in a room alone for three or four or five, in my case, years, and you hope someone might read what you’ve written at the end and might even understand or, if not, enjoy it.
I was in I came to it interested partly in the ideas of women in power, partly in the resonance between East and West, which is so much a feature of our life today. I think those two themes have certainly hit home. I think there’s been a lot of interest in it in terms of female empowerment.
I’ve been so touched by you know, a lot of men have come to readings and asked me to sign books for their daughters. And, you know, Cleopatra is not necessarily a role model. Going around poisoning your relatives is not something that you want to encourage.
But there’s clearly been a sense here of a woman, a smart, canny, shrewd woman who does the improbably that I think has appealed to people. And I think the unveiling of mystery is always we’re always interested in solving a mystery. I think the human mind just works in that loves to embrace that idea.
And this is a book that says our our conceptions are wrong. We have so many ideas about her that are misplaced. The very basic ideas about her are false. She’s not Egyptian. She’s not Nefertiti. She is rich. She’s not beautiful. And I think just the unveiling piece of it has been alluring to many people.
LAMB: You do speaking for a living, some?
SCHIFF: I wouldn’t say that. I occasionally have spoken publicly.
LAMB: You’ve got a speaker’s bureau?
SCHIFF: I have a speaker’s bureau now, yes.
LAMB: You write books for a living. You write articles from time to time for the New York Times and New Yorker and other publications like that. Of all of this and you’re on a book tour, and it’s a long book tour, and many stops, and all that of all this, the research, the writing, the speaking, the book tour, what of all that do you like the most? And what do you like the least?
SCHIFF: Well, I think, for me, as for many writers, there’s nothing to compare with that day you go into the library and, you know, I spend a lot of time in libraries and archives, and you find that one document or that one passage that just restores you, just keeps you going. It either helps you to it helps to solve a mystery or it bridges two pieces of narrative that you had never put together or it puts the keystone on a theme or I mean, with Mrs. Nabokov, for example, there was an enormous bag of correspondence at one point in Dmitri Nabokov, the son’s, basement, and it was postcards she had received over her lifetime, had never been filed or really gone through before.
And in that bag was a postcard that she must have received in the ’70s from a woman she had known in Berlin in the 1920s. And the woman reminded her the friend reminded her of a conversation they had had shortly after Mrs. Nabokov had married, in which Mrs. Nabokov had talked about how there was a book to be written on the importance and the inspiration that a woman provides her writer husband, which was precisely, of course, what I was writing about, and what she denied all her adult life. So that one little postcard kept me going for the next three years.
Or it might be an interview. You may go to an interview I went to see the artist Saul Steinberg when I was working on that book, and he I walked in, and he said, ”I’m so glad to see you.” This was very early on. And I was still apologizing for what I was doing. And he I walked in, and he said, ”You could write a book about Vera without writing about Vladimir Nabokov, but you could never write about him without writing about her.” And I just felt entirely validated.
So I think it’s that that moment. It’s the moment where you’re leafing through Plutarch, as I did a lot of with Cleopatra, and you read, you know, a wonderful line in Plutarch, where he says something like, you know, murdering your siblings was axiomatic among sovereigns. It happened in the best of families. And you realize, well, that puts Cleopatra’s entire family history in perspective. So for me, it’s always it’s those, it’s those illuminations or those moments in the library or when you’re researching that are the thrillers.
LAMB: On the Nabokov book, first of all, how many books did Vladimir Nabokov write?
SCHIFF: I don’t know that I know the answer to that. A lot, each of which is dedicated...
LAMB: A lot?
SCHIFF: ... yes more than 20 and fewer than 50, each of which is dedicated to Vera.
LAMB: Somewhere out there in the ether, I found you saying that, when you saw the book dedicated to Vera, that that impacted you and led to you doing that book on her. Is that true?
SCHIFF: Yeah, that book started with I had always loved Nabokov’s work. I was interested in doing I was interested to see if it were possible to write a joint biography, so to speak. I mean, I just I was raising the bar a little higher. And I felt that one life would illuminate another.
And he was very difficult he was very difficult in terms of interviewers. He was very hard to get to. People had been scared off. And I thought this was an interesting way to get into his life.
And I knew very little about her, aside from the fact that he was a Russian aristocrat, but she was Jewish, which was an unusual combination. She went to every one of his classes when he taught at Cornell every day, and no one really understood why. She had a gun, and that every book was dedicated to her. And those were, I think, the four sort of odd and sort of the odd facts that I somehow had to blend together to start to begin to conjure with who she might be.
LAMB: How did you find out or anybody in the past find out that she had gone to every class? And did the students know she was in the class?
SCHIFF: Blessedly, yes, it was they who said, very strange, she came to class every day. I mean, do you remember a college course where the professor’s wife was in class every day?
SCHIFF: Every day. Opened the door, brought his galoshes, brought his books, turned on the lights, was called upon occasionally when he needed help. And what was thrilling with that book was that, needless to say, this isn’t the kind of behavior anyone forgot, because it was so odd, and so there was this kind of Greek chorus for that book, with the Cornell students in particular, who remembered her vividly and each of whom had a great anecdote about and a great theory as to what she was doing in the classroom.
And that was where I, too, began to play with doubt on the page, something that came into play with Cleopatra. First, we didn’t know what she was doing there. And I let those students each speak with his or her own theory. You know, they had great theories. You know, she was there because he because she was his seeing he was blind, and she was the seeing-eye dog. Or, you know, that wasn’t his wife, it was his mother. There were great theories, and I just included them all.
And the answer to the question really was, he was playing to an audience of one. He wanted her approval over what he did. And what was most important to him was not educating these callow undergraduates. It was that his wife deem his performance to be as good as ever.
LAMB: This book that you have, you dedicate this way. ”Finally, for Max, Millie, and Jo.” Who are they?
SCHIFF: Good reader, Brian. Those would be my three children, who have repeatedly pointed out to me although they have not read my books that I had never dedicated a book to them before. So this was finally the moment.
You could also read it as, finally, meaning I don’t intend ever to write another book, which I hadn’t realized when I wrote the line, but they have my children have subsequently pointed out to me in this you know, this kind of threatening way, does this mean you’ll never write another book?
Yes, but those those would be the three neglected children.
LAMB: So go back to how you got into all of this, these different books. How did you get into Franklin? What tipped you that way?
SCHIFF: I had always been enchanted by Franklin, whose writing I think I cam to it almost for literary reasons. Franklin is the most lucid, gorgeous writer, and he talks, obviously, in his autobiography about he trained himself to write as he does, but it’s crystal and beautiful prose, and very much holds up.
I’m not a great fan of the autobiography, but I was a tremendous fan of his writing. And I began to think about how at in his 70s, in 1776, he sails off to France to essentially enlist the French in our revolution. And it’s a seminal chapter for him. It’s a seminal chapter in our history, very little explored, and for which the documentation is, for the most part, abroad.
So I realized, you know, it’s something people haven’t touched because the documentation is difficult to get to, and this was a very different Franklin from the one we knew. I didn’t realize until I was about a year-and-a-half into the project that, while I was in Paris, that if Franklin went to court every week, as he had to as an American representative, and every other ambassador in Europe was at court every week, at the court of Louis XVI, then every one of those ambassadors was also writing home about Franklin.
So one of the great jewels of that project was, in the Portuguese archives, in the Viennese archives, in the archives in Venice and Denmark and elsewhere were fabulous reports and quotes from fabulous reports on and quotes from Franklin, this extraordinary outsized American. So there was actually new material. There were new lines of Franklin that we had never heard from the 1770s, from his time in France.
It’s also a wonderful moment between Franklin and John Adams, of course, because the two men are at tremendous odds, and they’re stuck in Paris together, and they are the bane of each other’s existence. And so there was there was great sort of inter-American drama. And it’s the moment from which America really gains its independence.
LAMB: Biography. What impact let me first ask you about you said made a comment about autobiography. You’re not a big fan of autobiography. Did you ever edit autobiographies?
SCHIFF: I’m a great fan of reading them more on autobiography, which I could live on. I’m trying to think if I ever edited one. I’m sure I did. And I just can’t imagine quite writing one, but I’m a huge I gobble them down, one after another, happily.
LAMB: So because you’ve seen both sides of this, what’s the difference between a biography and an autobiography?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, the lovely the lovely thing about writing biographies is you don’t have to reveal anything or even understand anything about yourself. And the funny thing that I noticed with the Cleopatra book and I’m sure other biographers have noticed this, as well when you have an inert subject or a subject who won’t reveal him or herself, the biographer has no choice but to step onto the page a little bit more. And so there’s actually a lot more of me in that book. As little as I have in common with Cleopatra, there’s a lot more of me certainly in that book than in any of the others, where I’m a much more neutral, much more objective narrator than I am in that last book.
And I found that a little bit frightening. I had no model with the other books, I’ve always had some some sort of touchstone with another book, another biography, or a model of the genre. With the Cleopatra book, I didn’t know anything that had either the tone or the stance that I wanted to take.
I had thought a lot about other subjects that were as difficult to write about, Shakespeare, Jane Austen. Jack Miles did a wonderful book on God. I mean, subjects where there was really very little documentation.
But there was nothing that kind of took the approach I wanted to take, which was very frightening at the outset. I didn’t I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted to start the book, in terms of tone.
LAMB: What was the magic moment in the Cleopatra book for you, the first time you discovered something you thought was unique in your research?
SCHIFF: I think it was well, there were two. One was reading Plutarch, not for the first time, and reading the scene where Mark Antony and Cleopatra are out fishing. And it’s a scene where he although he is the most splendid military commander of the day can’t catch a fish and attaches pre-caught fish to his line, and Cleopatra catches him in the act, and ups the ante by the next day attaching an imported salted herring to his line, much to his embarrassment.
In that scene, Plutarch gives us dialogue. He gives us Cleopatra’s voice. And he’s already told us that this is a woman with a velvety, caressing voice whom you couldn’t come in contact with without being captivated by. And here she is, resplendent, really sort of resisting this Roman military commander, teasing him in front of audience, and Plutarch sets the entire scene for us.
And I thought, at that time, maybe you couldn’t do a complete narrative history, because there are so many blanks in the story, but if you’ve got a scene that’s as strong as that, with actual dialogue, even though it’s 100 years later, Plutarch’s writing 100 years later, then you could really craft some kind of some kind of narrative out of this.
And the other was, in going to Egypt, there’s a wonderful old fortress called at Pelusium, which would have been the eastern frontier of Egypt at the time, which is in a state which is being excavated. It’s extraordinary. It’s out in the eastern Sinai, just east of the Suez Canal.
And standing there in the desert, which looks very little different than it did in Cleopatra’s day, the Mediterranean’s in the wrong place, because of the sedimentation, but it’s so evocative, and you can imagine so easily the young Cleopatra, the 21-year-old Cleopatra, exiled from Alexandria, camped in the desert with the mercenary army that she herself has raised, and that is where she is, in fact, when she gets word that Caesar has arrived in Alexandria and she has to make her way somehow back past her enemy, the enemy troops, which are being led by her brother, and into the barricaded palace.
But standing there, I just thought, this is where this is a Cleopatra we don’t normally think of, this young, vulnerable woman who has, all the same, the gumption and the money to raise an Army, and that’s where I realized that’s where the book started.
LAMB: I want to go way off this topic for a moment, talk about something you did back in 2006. You wrote an article for the New Yorker or New York Times you can tell me what it was I think I have it here about Wikipedia. And the reason I want to bring it up is because it’s about truth and how often you fight that when you’re trying to find this the information on biography. What is the story of you taking on Wikipedia?
SCHIFF: I had written I had written an op-ed piece for the New York Times in which I had lightly mocked it tells how long ago it was I had lightly mocked the idea that an encyclopedia could be built from the ground up. And I instantly got an e-mail from Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, saying, I’d invite you to come down and see what we’re doing, or something like that, which I promptly forgot about, or I think I pinned it to my bulletin board and thought I was writing the Franklin book, I think, at the time. I thought, fine, in five years, I’ll look into that.
And in those years, of course, Wikipedia began to take off. At the time, it was really a fledgling thing. And so having finished the Franklin book and having begun to realize that people were increasingly consulting Wikipedia these were early days still I decided this was a fascinating project. I mean, it spoke so much to all of our ideas of which are now so much in the drinking water of, you know, who’s an expert? And where does knowledge come from? And was this actually a viable was this actually a viable way of aggregating knowledge, so to speak?
So I went down and you know what’s interesting, of course, is that Wikipedia at the time was a had a headquarters of four people. There was it’s so you know, it’s so much not a centralized organization in any way. But what was fascinating, of course, was, how is knowledge generated? And where was all this material coming from? And who’s an expert?
LAMB: But the fellow that you outed, who was representing himself as an editor and that he had a college degree from, I think, a religious school and all that...
SCHIFF: Right, no such thing, exactly.
LAMB: Yeah, but, I mean, you know, Wikipedia has a tremendous audience out there. And what was the reaction did you ever meet him?
SCHIFF: I didn’t meet him. I mean, we spoke only over the phone.
LAMB: And what was he doing that...
SCHIFF: He was doing a massive amount of editing. I mean, what’s interesting about Wikipedia is that certain and I don’t know if it still works this way, because I haven’t looked into it in a long time but obviously, anyone edits any piece, and certain people have certain territory, so to speak. There may be a person who monitors the hockey page, for example. And if you make a change in the rules of hockey, that person will notice it in two minutes, whereas an article on ships of the line may not be under anyone’s particular purview and it may a mistake may persist for a much longer period of time.
But this was someone who was very actively so actively editing that it was unclear when he slept. And so he seemed to be a good a good person to profile.
There are many there’s a small cadre of very super-active Wikipedians who do a lot of the editing. And then there are many, many people who simply throw in changes here and there. And then there are some warriors who battle over the pages which are the most contested pages on the site.
LAMB: Well, his name was Ryan Jordan.
SCHIFF: I think that’s right.
LAMB: He was 24 years old, and he went by the name ”Essjay.”
SCHIFF: Right, purported to be a professor of theology, I think, right?
LAMB: Yeah, but he was and it would and you found out no, you didn’t. Noam Cohen of the New York Times found out that he had attended a number of colleges in Kentucky, and he lives outside Louisville.
SCHIFF: Right. Which does not, by the way, mean he doesn’t know what he was talking about, which is the fascinating thing about Wikipedia. He may have been lying about his credentials but posting perfectly legitimate and valid information.
LAMB: The reason I bring that up is, have you tried to put into context the world we live in today? You’ve watched it change over the last 20 years. What do you make of all this? You’re writing books that people are reading on Kindles and Nooks and places like that, and Wikipedia exists. I mean, if I wanted to find out about you, first thing I’d do is go to Wikipedia, and there it is.
SCHIFF: And you might be wrong.
LAMB: And I might be wrong.
SCHIFF: And have you noticed that when someone introduces you using your Wikipedia entry, there’s almost always a falsehood in it?
Two things strike me. One and this very much came into play with the Cleopatra research. You always want to consider your source. It took me a long time when I was working Cleopatra, we have her story entirely from Roman men. She’s a Greek woman. They’re all of them writing with some degree of enmity, or at least with a lack of admiration, and it took me a long time to realize I had to sort out who was who. Who was writing for the sheer sake of sensationalism? Who was writing because he didn’t because he wanted to use her as an example of moral failure? Who was writing because he hated women? Who had even seen Egypt?
And, you know, that’s not all that different from what you’re talking about when you say who builds an encyclopedia or who contributes to an encyclopedia. History’s always been written that way, and as we both know, legend always somehow prevails over history, and that no matter how much you try to keep history on a good, steady diet, it seems to get out of shape quite easily.
And with Wikipedia, again, you can get some tremendously good information there. You just have to be really you just have to know which information is it’s like birth control in Cleopatra’s day. Some of it was extremely effective; you just had to know which ones.
So I certainly would say, you know, use it, but use it with care and checking it elsewhere, as well.
LAMB: As you go about the country, talking to audiences about maybe this time about Cleopatra, what’s the first question you’re asked all the time? What’s the most-asked question of you?
SCHIFF: I think a lot of people wanted to know what she looked like, which is a question that’s very hard to answer, because other than our coins, there is no accurate representation. And the coins would have been, obviously, the image that she wanted to project to her people. So as much as they’re indicative of what she looked liked, they are they are Cleopatra at her most authoritative, I would assume, wanting to look as if she were, indeed, a sovereign.
I get asked a great deal about whether she was in love with Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, a question that I don’t a question that I anyway see rather dimply. I see it more as political alliance than I do as any kind of it’s an affair of state rather than an affair of the heart, in both cases, in my mind, anyway.
I get asked a great deal about how she died, and I get asked a great deal about how a woman could have been so powerful, which I do think maybe, when you ask about the resonance of the book, I think may go to the heart of it. I think it’s astonishing to us today that a woman could have accomplished so much at a time when the world was so male and so militaristic.
LAMB: Why do you believe Plutarch, writing 100 years after the event?
SCHIFF: Well, partly, he’s our only somewhat unbiased source. Partly, he’s closer to the events than most chroniclers. The two people writing the one person writing closer would have been Lukan , who is a poet and a sensationalist, whose chief job seems to have been to want to send shivers down the spine, which he manages to do, but I pretty much discounted him.
Plutarch is writing what he considers to be from the time straight-up biography. He’s writing lives. He’s using people as moral examples, but he is trying to write history as reported, as we understand it. And he’s getting thrice-told tales. He’s getting eyewitness accounts, which no other chronicler had.
His grandfather had handed him stories. Stories have come down to him from Cleopatra’s doctor. So he’s really the only person remotely near the scene who was getting stories handed down from the actual scene. And everyone else is pretty much later.
LAMB: So you we have a dinner party, and you invite Saint-Exupery, Vera, Franklin, and Cleopatra. They’re all at the table.
SCHIFF: I don’t think I would survive that dinner party.
LAMB: What would you what are the characteristics, their personal characteristics that we would see at that dinner table?
SCHIFF: Well, I think, hands down, Saint-Exupery would be the amusing one. I mean, this was the man who he was all charm and sort of childish pranks, so he would have been off doing his magic tricks.
LAMB: And he died, what, at 44?
SCHIFF: He dies at 44 on a reconnaissance mission off the south of France, exactly, very much the sort of perpetual child, I mean, a very whimsical, highly amusing character. I think his letters are just deliciously amusing. And actually, after I did that book, I swear, I would never write about anyone who wrote a less amusing letter, and then I somehow ended up with Mrs. Nabokov, who hardly fits that description.
LAMB: And did you meet people that knew Saint-Exupery?
SCHIFF: A lot of people. And that’s why I say the timing was really fortuitous, because many of his friends, many of the women in his life, a lot of the people who had known him in New York were still alive.
LAMB: And they were they talked to you?
SCHIFF: Yes. And in some cases, people had never talked to anyone else before, so it was you know, I didn’t get the recycled memories. I really got the firsthand there’s a wonderful there’s a woman in New York named Heta Stern , who had been Saul Steinberg’s wife, in fact, who met Saint-Exupery when she was a young refugee in New York, and he had just arrived. And they used to walk her dog together and just have these long, rambling conversations around New York. No one had ever talked to her before. And he had actually drawn little princes for her. There were some letters that he had written her. It was marvelous material.
So, yes, I was incredibly lucky in that these people were still around and eager to talk.
LAMB: What would Vera have been like at that dinner?
SCHIFF: Vera, I suspect, would not have been the most ebullient guest at the table. She tended to be very protective of her husband, very combative, very fierce. Had anyone said anything that was politically incorrect to her mind she was rather right-wing, rather severe in her views very much of the politics of someone who had escaped Russia during the revolution.
LAMB: And wasn’t he a Nixon supporter?
SCHIFF: Yes. She actually was a McCarthy supporter. So there would have been a real black-and-white feeling with her. You could easily have crossed her. Many people told stories about her not exactly walking out of dinner parties, but saying something a little bit hostile, which pretty much dampened the spirits, which Saint-Exupery could have been relied upon to lift, I’m sure.
LAMB: And she would have had a Russian accent, and he would have Saint-Exupery would have had a French accent?
SCHIFF: Saint-Exupery’s English was execrable, and Franklin’s French was equally bad, so that would have been an interesting combination. I mean, John Adams when he arrives in Paris is shocked by the state of Franklin’s French, because he assumes that after all those years in France, Franklin should speak it fluently. And, in fact, Franklin admits that he pays no attention whatsoever to grammar and simply forges ahead on charm. And Adams is appalled by this, and he says to a mutual friend, I can’t get over how bad Franklin’s French is, to which the Frenchman replies to Adams, yes, his accent is horrible, it’s difficult to understand him when he speaks, but honestly, your French isn’t much better, which crushes Adams.
LAMB: What would now how was by the way, Franklin, when he went back to when he went to France, what you wrote about, the eight years he was there?
SCHIFF: He’s there for eight years. He comes back when he’s almost 80.
LAMB: So what would he be like at the table?
SCHIFF: You know, I always thought and I think we all do of Franklin as a verbal as a verbal gymnast. I mean, he’s so incredibly wordy on the page, and he seems always to have a bon mot for everyone. My sense of him, particularly in those years, is that he’s rather taciturn, interestingly, and that in person, he’s a little unforthcoming. He’s that dinner guest whom you invite who sits back, observes everything that’s going on, says very little, and then suddenly a perfectly formed epigram just falls from his lips. I mean, that strikes me much more as how Franklin would have operated. Certainly, it was how he operated when he was in France.
LAMB: How would he have gotten along with Vera and her politics?
SCHIFF: You know, the politics were so different in the 18th century, it’s very hard to translate. And as we know, Franklin had a rather flirtatious attitude, which I like to think Vera would have been somewhat susceptible to. I’ve never put them in a room together, I have to admit.
LAMB: And then what would Cleopatra have been like at that table?
SCHIFF: Well, that would have been the interesting combination, to see Franklin to see Franklin and Cleopatra, two major strategists...
LAMB: But she was she died when she was 39, so how would she...
SCHIFF: She dies when she’s 39, exactly.
LAMB: How old do we want to put her at the table?
SCHIFF: I think let’s put her at the table at about the age of 25, when she’s at her most seductive, as Plutarch tells us.
LAMB: Was she married to her brother then?
SCHIFF: She’s married in name to two brothers. I don’t think I don’t think it’s anything other than a trick of nomenclature in this case that they are king and queen together. But we know about Cleopatra, that she’s that kind of person who walks into a room and the temperature of the room changes. She’s incandescent. And utterly supple, as is Franklin, ridiculously charming, able to adapt herself to any audience. And so if anyone in that room could have conquered those different that different group of personalities, I suspect it would have been she. It’s quite a dinner party you’ve just assembled.
LAMB: How long is it going to last, do you think, the dinner party?
SCHIFF: I don’t know. What are we serving at this dinner?
LAMB: I don’t know. What would you serve?
SCHIFF: I think she would serve one of Cleopatra’s feasts, because those would have been the most extravagant. And Cleopatra understood better than anyone the value of pageantry and of luxury. And so let’s assume that she is our host or hostess, in which case lots of rather remarkable things would have been served, and we all would have gone off with the table where the furniture and horses and Ethiopian slaves, in fact.
LAMB: Back in 2010, you wrote for the New York Times Cleopatra’s Guide to Good Governance. And the reason I have this is because some of your personality comes through in this, maybe some of your politics even comes through in this. There are a number of things I can ask you about, but here’s under the heading of ”Don’t Confuse Business with Pleasure,” you write the two have a chronic tendency to invade each other’s territory, but then you say, but what were John Edwards, Mark Hurd, Mark Sanford, and Eliot Spitzer thinking?
LAMB: What does that say about you, not about the whole issue? Why did you throw that in there? There’s not that much politics in here, but why did you throw that in?
SCHIFF: I think I just thought, why can’t politicians behave? Or at least if they’re going to misbehave, why couldn’t they do some with some degree of discretion, was all I was getting at there.
You know, it’s funny that Cleopatra goes down in history as this great seductress. So far as we know, she has affairs with two men, and only two men, and both of them, obviously, for political reason. So, really, my point there was simply, let’s try to separate, insofar as we can, you know, the politics from the pleasure.
LAMB: It appears from what we know...
SCHIFF: Isn’t that a bipartisan crowd, by the way, that I put together? I thought I had.
LAMB: I think you’ve got it, from John Edwards to Mark Sanford, from Mark Hurd to Eliot Spitzer, yeah. Why is it as long as you...
SCHIFF: It’s good to know that misbehavior is bipartisan.
LAMB: I was going to why is it that men seem to always do this more than women? I mean, there are always two to tango in this thing, but it’s the men that seem to be the one who initiate it. Or is it?
SCHIFF: I don’t have an answer to you on that one. I mean, my only guess would be it has something to do with the power dynamic. And at least until now, men have generally been the ones to wield power. I don’t have a great answer for you.
LAMB: Will it change as women continue to get more power?
SCHIFF: You mean, will women philander more once they’re more powerful? I look forward to finding out.
LAMB: Under the heading of ”Appearances Count,” as President Obama has learned and unlearned, theater works wonders. This is back in 2010. You may campaign in poetry, but you are wise to govern in pageantry, deliver carnivals rather than tutorials. A little vulgarity goes a long way. Just wear the flag pin, already. I didn’t say that very well, but you know...
SCHIFF: You said that beautifully.
LAMB: That’s there’s a lot in that paragraph right there.
SCHIFF: Well, you know, what was interesting in writing about Cleopatra is that hers is an age of images, just as is ours. The difference, of course, was we watch our we see our images on television. Her people came out to see her.
The flag pin, why don’t you just wear the flag pin already? It just seemed to me as if it were one of those easy concessions to patriotism. And what I did feel that she had handled has handled better than anyone almost in history was this amazing ability to appear before her people, cater to their greatest needs, in terms of what a leader should look like and how a leader should comport herself. She changes her title repeatedly to essentially answer to her constituents. She passes herself off as a god, which always a good a winning proposition for a politician, but she chooses a goddess, the goddess Isis, who is going to unite the different ethnicities, the Greek and the Egyptian constituents, in her in her among her subjects.
She’s very, very good at controlling the narrative through the imagery, the pageantry, sailing down the Nile with Caesar, for example, an advertisement to him of the riches of her country and an advertisement to her people of her unbelievably close alliance she’s pregnant at the time her very tight and intimate alliance with a Roman, which is proof of her diplomacy, in fact.
LAMB: If you get on Amazon.com and I’d be interested if you ever do this and you read the reviews of your Cleopatra book, more so than the others, it seems to me, there’s a wide group of wide different of views on it. And you have a lot of people think it’s the greatest thing that ever happened; then you have a whole bunch of people that can’t stand this book and they think it’s boring. Do you read that stuff, by the way?
SCHIFF: No, I’m happy to say. This is not news to me, because I’ve been told that. But, no, the only way I’ve figured to stay sane through this and any, for that matter, publication process has been not to go to Amazon.com, except to order a book occasionally. So I haven’t read it, but I know the reviews are very mixed. Do you want to break the news to me now? What did I do wrong?
LAMB: Well, no, it’s just I mean, it’s people’s perception. Some people just think it’s a boring book, but others you know, you’ve gotten tremendous reviews on this. You know, what do you do always do when you’re writing a book that makes it interesting for people? Is there do you have certain rules that you use as you’ve learned over the years that works when people read books?
SCHIFF: Well, I find it certainly as I say, keeping your subject at the center of the narrative is always hugely helpful. You really want to be able to answer the question, what is he or she thinking? Obviously with Cleopatra, it’s a really tall order. I don’t know it I don’t know at any moment really what she was thinking, with Ben Franklin, either, by the way. It’s very difficult to know what he was thinking.
Keeping the narrative going is really important. And I think there were times, for example, with this book Cleopatra leaves Rome. She goes to Rome to visit Caesar. She’s in Rome when Caesar is murdered, in fact, with their son. And for the next X number of years, as the Roman civil wars continue and as the battle goes on for Caesar’s mantle, she’s nowhere in the picture. Hence, she’s not written about, because she’s off the Roman radar, so to speak.
So what to do with those years, how to fill in those years, in terms of the narrative, while keeping the reader interested? And those were the years that I chose to that was the part of the book where I chose to insert what Cleopatra has actually done as a ruler, how she has revived the intellectual tradition in Alexandria, what an intellectual she is, what a scientist she is, what things have been attributed and misattributed to her, and what she builds.
So the idea there was to be able to talk about these things, which maybe are out of chronological order, but give us a sense of what she is doing while on the thrown, while the Roman civil wars kind of simmer down.
LAMB: Another guidance you give on good governance is, underpromise and overdeliver, but here’s the politics of it. You say here at the end, a couple lines, it pays to sweat the details, as Newt excuse me, Newt Gingrich reminded us when he shut down the federal government in 1994 after he was assigned a lousy seat on Air Force One. I mean, most of this is just about Cleopatra, but you’ve got that little needle in there. What’s that about?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, it’s interesting how small-minded many of us are. And that one comes to me because Cleopatra goes down in history Cleopatra’s visit to Rome is documented by only one person, and that is Cicero. And she goes down in Cicero’s bad books.
Now, in all fairness, Cicero would have been ill-disposed towards her. He’s a born and bred republican. He had hated her father. He finds Egypt highly suspect. He doesn’t like women particularly. He’s just lost his daughter, who’s about the age of Cleopatra. He likes to be the wittiest person in the room, and Cleopatra has a better library than he does. So there’s really no reason to warm to her.
But she promises him a book. We don’t know if it was from her library or if it was just a book she was going to get for him in Alexandria, which was the source of most books. Rome was a lousy place to buy a book at the time. And she doesn’t deliver. And he’s furious about this. He’s infuriated. She hasn’t come through for him.
And, you know, Cleopatra Cicero is a very vain man. This is a point of honor, that she has made him this promise and failed to deliver. And yet it damns her for 2,000 years that she has let him down because of this lousy book, so that’s it was the small-mindedness of it that I was really getting at there that, again, taking to mind taking to account always how where are the historians coming from? And if you promise something, it’s better to deliver it.
LAMB: Where did you learn how to learn?
SCHIFF: Gosh, what a good question. I think I’m still learning how to learn.
LAMB: Yeah but go back there, I mean, you talk about your mom being a professor.
SCHIFF: Right, my mother was always very good at editing my stuff and teaching me how to write a not necessarily a short, but a clear sentence, and cutting the wheat from the chaff. That was always a huge education. I had some very...
LAMB: When did she start that?
SCHIFF: I don’t know. Fairly early on, I think to think.
LAMB: Are you doing the same thing with your three?
SCHIFF: I like to think so, although they’re all of them pretty good writers without me. But, yes, I mean, I do think there’s a certain amount of any piece of writing can be edited again and again. And that’s, on the one hand, the beauty of the sport; on the other hand, the frustration of it. I mean, I could take that book and happily make it better or at least, I think better, if I were to take a pencil to it again right now. It’s just it’s an endless process of which the first 364 drafts, to my mind, anyway, are no good, and the 365th is perhaps acceptable.
LAMB: Where do you write?
SCHIFF: I write in an office on 43rd Street in New York City which has a view of the sky, which is the only there seem to be only two criterion for me for where I can write, and the two criteria are a view of the sky and a very large desk, because needless to say, the biographer assembles a lot of paper, and it’s what you’re doing is a very synthetic process. You want 90 percent of that paper the contents of that paper to land on the cutting-room floor, but I find I can only work by having it all arrayed in front and being able to sort of weave little bits of things from it.
And when you ask about Wikipedia, I should have said, Wikipedia and the Internet haven’t really changed the way I, anyway, research. I still and I think most people writing the kind of things I’m writing I still go back to the original documents. So you need to be the archival research hasn’t changed, except the finding aides have changed, now that things are digitized.
LAMB: What do you write on?
SCHIFF: Oh, you ask the embarrassing question. I write with a pencil on a legal pad for the first draft. And by hand.
LAMB: Pencil? Not a pen?
SCHIFF: Mechanical pencil. No, mechanical pencil, because there’s something about I’m a very fast typist. It’s one of my few skills. And I type much faster than I write. So I find that when I write something on the computer, I’m first of all, it’s longer always. I don’t know if everyone notices that. And it’s softer somehow. It doesn’t have the terseness it could have.
So the pencil the pencil on the paper slows me down. Once we have a first draft, then I will enter it into the computer, which is already an act of editing, and then edit subsequent drafts from there.
LAMB: Stacy Schiff, author of four biographies, ”Saint-Exupery,” ”Vera,” who’s Nabokov’s wife, ”Ben Franklin,” and the paperback version of Cleopatra out now. Thank you very much for joining us.
SCHIFF: Thank you so much.