Interview with: Donald Spoto - Biographer/Historian

by Writers Store Staff

Biographer and historian Donald Spoto believes the goal of the biographer is first and foremost to tell the truth.

"Our purpose, " he said, "is to set the record straight, celebrate lives, and set forth certain aspects of history and human behavior that is good for people to read about. "

After 19 thoroughly researched books, he's earned the right to say, "The biographer is obliged to tell the truth---even at the risk of saying something good about someone. I know it's not popular today, for we are part of a culture of gossip and innuendo, and professionalism in writing has taken a back seat."

Professionalism has never been a stranger in Spoto's life. Following a 12-year stint as a university professor, Spoto decided to pour out his passion for the films of Alfred Hitchcock into a book, and came up with The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, now considered a classic in the genre of film analysis. Hitchcock supported Spoto's premier effort, and when Hitchcock died in 1980, it was logical for Spoto to undertake the biography, which is still in print in more than 20 languages after the passing of 17 years.

Since the late 1970s, it's been an interesting ride for the academician who brings his scholarship, tenacity, and dedication to each book project which, to date, have included such subjects as Marlene Dietrich, Tennessee Williams, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and many other stellar personalities.

Spoto believes that the biographer's first writing tool is serious research, with a deep respect for the truth, a skill he learned pursuing his Ph.D. degree. And, the first stop for any dedicated researcher is a library, he said, where you can touch and feel the books. "There is no substitution for the library," he added. "I have never found online research particularly helpful; it might be for students, but in my experience there is nothing more beneficial than having the full text in front of you, and you can only get that in a library. Online resources are often inaccurate."

Talking with associates and friends of the subject and in-person interviews, if possible, are also critical to understand your subject. "Good biographers understand the necessity to give a human context to the mere facts of a person's life. It's not enough to say "she went there or made this movie or traveled here and there." Rather, the biographer must ferret out the motifs, the themes of a life. "A good historian doesn't impose his own ideas from the beginning, certainly I never do. As I go along in my interviews, travel, archival studies, the life of my subject emerges. It is a constant series of astonishments and surprises. If there are no surprises, then you're not doing the research."

"It is, therefore, almost impossible to be objective, and perhaps it may not even be desirable. What is important is to have an understanding of a human life, the patterns of meaning of the life lived according to a certain value system, theirs."

Spoto explained, "We live our lives, you and I, by interaction of what happens to us and the inner workings of our reactions, stirrings, and motivations. These are so much more useful to understanding a character than just the bare facts. If you just want the facts you can get those in any almanac or encyclopedia.

"The biographer/historian tries to understand his subject and make that understanding interesting to the reader. Even knowing the subject in the flesh is no guarantee that we would really appreciate them. Although there are many other ways of knowing and understanding people, there is, after all, only one who fully understands us, and that is God himself."

And, what about a biography of Spoto? "Oh, no, I can't imagine anyone interested in the life of a writer. We sit in a room alone all day with little bits of paper and try to make sense of them."

We think Spoto too modest. He has made marvelous sense of many lives, fascinated thousands of readers, and this fall, will enchant television viewers when one of his subjects comes to US households by way of a mini series.

These days Spoto is taking on even more responsibilities as executive producer for a CBS mini series on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, starring Joanne Whalley, Tim Matheson, and Tom Skerritt due for the November schedule. The project is currently filming in Long Island, New York City, Washington, D.C. and Montreal and is expected to be completed by September.

"Being an executive producer is just another aspect of the creative process," he commented. "I'm still writing, helping to edit scenes, give input to the creative adaptations. Filmmaking is a wonderful collaborative process and I enjoy it very much."

The filmmaking is a new surprise in a career that began as Fordham graduate, then as a professor, then evolved to writing biographies, and now, translating his stories for the screen.

Although he has not given up the biography genre, he believes that the general public is no longer interested in serious work. "I view this as an extremely difficult and depressing time for the biographer/ historian. I think things will get worse before, or if, they get better."

Fortunately, Spoto need not wait for the tide to change. He has several other film projects planned, one is a mini series about the ancient world, and the other a proposed mini series, again for CBS, on the life of Ingrid Bergman, a subject whom Spoto knew personally for the last seven years of her life and the topic of one of his best-selling books, "Notorious ".

As for plans after the television series, Spoto revealed, "I have no five-year plan, but am happy to go where the future takes me. It's been wonderfully serendipitous so far."

Since 1987, Donald Spoto has been an enthusiastic customer of The Writers Store, and eager to embrace the computer technology, from software to modems to CD-ROMs. For his books, he works with Microsoft Word 97 for Windows 98. "I can't say enough good things about Gabriele, Dan, and Jesse; they're a constant source of help and support, give terrific service. They truly understand the writer's job and his needs."

Donald Spoto is the author of nineteen books, among them the recently published Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: A Life, from which the television series is based. This year sees the paperback publication of Rebel: The Life of James Dean and Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich (his second book on the actress, the first was Falling in Love Again.)

His first book, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Films, remains a classic, and Stanley Kramer: Film Maker and Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges remain enormously popular among film buffs.

He has written of royalty with Decline and Fall of The House of Windsor and Diana: The Last Year, and of singer/actress Lotte Lenya, playwright Tennessee Williams and film stars Elizabeth Taylor, Lawrence Olivier, and Marilyn Monroe.

His bio of Hitchcock, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, won the Edgar Award for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year in 1984.

Spoto earned his Ph.D. degree in New Testament studies from Fordham University, and has written an innovative biography, The Hidden Jesus: A New Life, that reflects both his academic training and experience as a dedicated researcher, historian, and writer of lives of fascinating men and women.

The Writers Store