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Writing a biography from a collective viewpoint

edited October 2015 in Writing
I am starting a project - a book- about an artist I know. He is old but still producing art. I used to work with him many years ago. He has a welcoming and inspirational lifestyle and property and his circles of clients, friends, other employees, etc have all agreed to participate in this project of writing a biography about him based on our own recollections and experiences. However, not everyone is comfortable with writing so as I spearheaded this project, I have agreed to interview those who are more comfortable that way, and write their stories myself. Now I am learning that interviewing is an art form in itself and need some advice on how to draw out memories from people about someone else. Also, I only know some of these people as acquaintances so when interviewing them, I feel a disconnect as I don't know them very well. Is it okay to ask them personal questions to better understand their perspective on this other person? sidenote - the artist knows we are working on this project and is honored and flattered by it but would prefer to spend his time on his art.


  • I think it's ok - presumably they will tell you if they aren't comfortable with any line of questioning. You could even ask in advance - you wouldn't need that sort of a personal view from everyone. I'd get their confidence first though before asking...
  • Have you seeing Sophie King's book about writing memoirs? It deals with how to tackle 'questions' and how to create prompts. That might be a good starting point.


  • Maybe you could share some of your thoughts about the artist with them to sort of start them off? Or can you get a couple of them together. Often one memory sparks off another.
  • Some of your difficulty may stem from the fact that these must be, de facto, memories of shared experiences. They aren't just telling you about him, but about their own walk-on part in his life. It's his biography overall, but it's about them too, so you will have to ask personal questions.
    Give them a flavour of what other people have said about their interaction with him, and how it will be presented in the finished work.
    You could get two or three of them together for coffee, and chat about the project and about the artists: that may well liberate a few tongues simply because there is safety in numbers. Then you can build on what's said with each individually, if what you get from the joint meetings invites that. Reassure them that you will always check with them before anything they say goes into the biography.
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