undefined

 

Anyone else might have easily written off a life of Véra Nabokov as impossible. In the two major biographies of her husband—both written during her lifetime, when she controlled access to his papers—she is a cipher. Her letters, either lost or destroyed, are unavailable. But where other biographers see red flags, Stacy Schiff sees opportunity. Working from a hunch—that Véra’s reticence concealed her spectacular influence behind the scenes—she produced Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which forced a ­reconsideration of Nabokov’s career and won Schiff the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Biography. The book brilliantly demonstrates that Véra was far more than her husband’s secretary and chauffeur. She was his creative partner, a dynamic mind who played a crucial role as his sounding board and muse while silently seeing to his every need, both domestic and intellectual. 

Schiff has made a specialty of wading into the gaps. Her books offer complex, thoroughly imagined, stylishly written portraits of figures whose histories had previously been subsumed in a murk of myth or otherwise obscured. In Saint-Exupéry (1994), she presents the author of the children’s fable The Little Prince as an urbane charmer and pioneering aviator with an unfortunate tendency to crash his plane. A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (2005) chronicles Benjamin Franklin’s years as a diplomat in Paris conducting a mission that, in Schiff’s telling, casts the American Revolution in new light. In both Cleopatra(2010) and The Witches (2015), she pieced together dramatic narratives from disparate, terse, and unrevealing sources. Each book feels both surprising and inevitable, a departure from Schiff’s previous work—she never repeats herself—but proceeding with her hallmark disdain for conventional wisdom and with a flair for the beautifully tossed-off aperçu.

Schiff’s slender form radiates an intense energy: it’s easy to picture her as the high school track star she once was. She was born in Massachusetts in 1961 and received her B.A. from Williams College. After starting out as an editorial assistant at Basic Books, she held editorial positions at Viking and Simon & Schuster, as well as The Paris Review. Our conversations took place over several meetings earlier this year in her sun-filled office on the sixteenth floor of a Midtown high-rise, where she writes in longhand, on a legal pad, at a long glass desk. She proved a candid and generous conversationalist, though—as seasoned interviewers do—she often turned my questions back upon me and my own work as a biographer. Having noticed that I had a Diet Coke in hand during a public talk the night before our first conversation, she presented me with one at each of our meetings. Her drink is espresso, neat.

 

INTERVIEWER

How did you come to write your first biography, Saint-Exupéry

SCHIFF

I reread Wind, Sand and Stars on my honeymoon and found myself ­enchanted all over again. Clearly one should pack carefully for one’s honey­moon. I also realized I knew next to nothing about the man behind that book. On the return, I began to hole up in the reading room of the New York Public Library during my lunch hours. 

It turns out that the author of all those classics of flight was an unexceptional pilot, or at least a distracted one, which amounts to the same thing. The life was earthbound, short on the qualities that make the literature soar. Any number of things failed to add up. No existing work made sense of them. Which left me with that ticklish problem—the book you want to read is not on the shelf. As I was working in publishing at the time, I thought I should try to commission a new biography. Gradually, it dawned on me that I didn’t want to commission it. I wanted to write it. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you write that book while you were still working in publishing?

SCHIFF

No, I left Simon & Schuster to write it. I assumed I would go back when I finished. But after you write one biography, you are—shockingly!—a ­biographer. Soon after publication, I began casting about for a new subject. Properly speaking, the impulse to bury yourself in someone else’s life is not normal. The first time, there is perhaps an excuse. Afterward, you could be expected to know better.

INTERVIEWER

Describe your research process.

SCHIFF

As soon as I have my bearings I tend to head to the official archive, ­assuming one exists. For Saint-Exupéry there was no such address—his papers were scattered among friends and family. On another front, I was ­immensely fortunate. Saint-Exupéry charmed on contact. From children to cab drivers, no one who met him ever forgot him. He had moreover died young, which meant that his generation survived him. Several pioneering Aéropostale colleagues were still around. At the end of his life, Saint-Exupéry flew ­reconnaissance missions from Corsica with a squadron of young Americans. He was twenty years older than they. They knew he was a national treasure but had no inkling why. Well, I suppose one did—“We were illiterate,” he explained. Saint-Exupéry was a wizard with a deck of cards. He spoke not a word of English. He was utterly unqualified to fly a P-38. He rather made an impression. 

He also lived between the invention of the typewriter and the invention of email, an historical sweet spot documentation-wise. His letters were delicious, as was every scribbled note and inscription. The Bibliothèque nationale holds a collection of his manuscripts. I even had an archive of ephemera, of the kinds of clippings normally scattered to the winds. Into all of this I sauntered unknowingly. Beginner’s luck! I had trouble only with Saint-Exupéry’s longtime Parisian mistress, with whom I jousted weekly for several painful seasons. She withheld her papers, today under seal in the Bibliothèque nationale. With great glee she informed me that they would remain unavailable until after I was dead. 

INTERVIEWER

How frustrating. 

SCHIFF

It got worse with the next book. Véra Nabokov’s letters haven’t survived. It’s possible she destroyed them. It’s equally possible her husband misplaced them. That left me to write Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) uniquely from his side of the correspondence. For years my dream was that Véra’s letters would turn up. Today that qualifies as a nightmare. Among the roadblocks with that book—I won’t mention the Russian collector who would share documents only if I would pilfer others from the family archive—was Véra’s sister, in Geneva. She categorically refused to see me. Shortly after she died, I got a call from Dmitri, the Nabokovs’ son. I have all her papers, come quickly, he said. I got on the next plane for Switzerland. In his hallway, Dmitri had lined up five brown paper shopping bags. Inside were receipts, tax returns, and postcards—and not a trace of either Nabokov. 

One day I want to write about the intense rapport that develops between the subject’s family and the biographer. You wind up playing therapist and archivist. By definition you come to know your subject better than he did himself. You also inherit the family dates, feuds, and deceptions. Dmitri used to call to ask, When is my aunt’s birthday? Where is my cousin this week? And of course you know things you would rather not mention. At the other end, I know a writer’s child who felt nearly traduced when her mother’s biographer moved on to a new subject.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever wonder if your narrative is on the wrong track, whether you have overlooked what was truly important about a subject’s life? 

SCHIFF

My general rule of thumb is to worry about everything. My second rule, at least in writing biography, is to take no one at his word. In the end I suppose I worry less about the priorities than about the minor inaccuracies. If you cover the waterfront, the priorities take care, I think, of themselves. What surprises me more, I suppose, is where the errors creep in. A subject’s proximity to us in time is not necessarily advantageous. Among Saint-Exupéry’s friends were those who reported he was tone-deaf and those who reported he sang splendidly. Some swore his eyes were blue and others that they were brown, as they were. 

I do worry about emphasis, about who and what was truly essential. A surprising number of the Wellesley women who had studied with Nabokov insisted they were the models for Lolita. A legion of friends provided Saint-Exupéry with the paints he used to illustrate The Little Prince. Ben Franklin may have been the worst offender—even at his most candid he was a slyboots. While in Paris, he misled the French about the viability of the American cause and the Americans about the allegiance of the French. He wrote as much for the spies around him as for his intended recipient. What he actually believed is nowhere on the page. He was also the kind of man who, having written an irate letter, tucked it securely into his top desk drawer. Which arguably tells us more than do the contents of that letter.

INTERVIEWER

So you don’t set out at the beginning knowing the story you want to tell?

SCHIFF

Absolutely not. I think it my obligation to set out with neither thesis nor agenda. Time and again I think of E. B. White’s counsel—“It is best to have strong curiosity, weak affiliations.” The preconceptions, the convictions are what blind you. Similarly, I feel the material should dictate the form of the life. With the Nabokovs, for example, there is throughout the book a sort of fox-trot between past and future. That was not something I could have anticipated. I’m not sure I ever actually think without a pencil in my hand. Certainly I never wind up where I thought I would. I’m unapologetic about this. It means the reader and I arrive together at our destination, which strikes me as the point of the exercise. 

INTERVIEWER

How does the book evolve? 

SCHIFF

I begin to write only after I’ve completed the bulk of the research. This is not the most efficient way to proceed, but it’s the only way I seem able to. The themes have emerged by then. Sometimes the shape of the narrative has begun to glint in the distance. Which won’t matter, as it will evolve anyway.

The years in the archives can feel endless, as if you’re on an eternal grocery-­shopping expedition and will never actually cook anything. If ever you were actually a writer, you are no more. You’re more like a sponge, with all the personality of one. Finally one day you wake to discover sentences forming in your head, the signal that it’s safe to leave the archive. And of course your deadline is by now also uncomfortably imminent, if not somewhere behind you. The panic is propulsive.