Andrew Wilson on Sylvia Plath

Tracking the twisted trails that writers like Patricia Highsmith and Sylvia Plath have left in the sand, Andrew Wilson is a  biographer of extreme lives. Himself a journalist transformed into an author, he is fascinated by transformations, as he told me when he came to Bloomington, Indiana, this spring to read through the Plath collection at the Lilly Library. After dinner one night on the verandah of  a local restaurant, we talked about his motivation and methods for getting inside some very difficult lives.–Carol Polsgrove, May 2011

Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson

You’ve written about Patricia Highsmith, you’ve written about Harold Robbins, and now you’re writing about Sylvia Plath, and all of these people had fairly high-octane emotional lives. I want to know how you keep your own sense of balance when you’re dealing with people who really – I mean just reading the Highsmith book, I was exhausted by the third chapter, her life was so tumultuous –

It was extreme.

Do you find yourself caught up in their emotions?

You do, because that’s the natural part of being a good biographer. You have to be empathetic, and then you also have to be imaginative. Those two things combined can be quite dangerous when you are coming into contact with a personality as extreme as Highsmith. And I think you just have to live your own kind of life and be balanced through your friends and your family and be as much away from that personality as much as you’re with them. You have to enter in there with a spirit of curiosity and in a way you have to let your guard down, and that can be dangerous for some people, because I know with Sylvia Plath, for instance, each person who has approached her before has not had an easy time. Some people have had breakdowns, there’s been a history of problems. I’m just hoping – fingers crossed –nothing like that happens to me.

You haven’t felt it so far?

Not so far.

And you’ve been working in archives.

Only for a few weeks.

 It’s possible of course that biographers are attracted to her because they themselves have rocky emotional lives.

That is true.

You don’t feel that’s true of you?


Well, what did attract you to Sylvia Plath? She’s been done and done –

She has, but I read her as a teenager, so I’ve always had a natural interest in her, a curiosity. What hasn’t been covered about Sylvia Plath is her early life so my book will stop in 1956 when she meets Ted Hughes. Lots of people have been so obsessed with that relationship that they’ve neglected the early life. I’m interviewing as many people as possible that knew her prior to 1956, which hasn’t been done. So the majority of the people I’m speaking to have never been interviewed before, which is astounding.

They must be elderly?

Late 70s, early 80s.

And some have died that you might have liked to interview?

Some have died, but she was born in 1932, so there lots of contemporaries that still are in very good states of health, they’re bright as anything, and they’re willing to talk, which is amazing.

Have you been surprised by what you’ve found about her?

Yeah, but just in the small details that people tell you, and the richness of detail that comes out about her, because she’s portrayed as somebody either suicidal or depressed all the time, and there are many more gradations to her personality, and a greater subtlety.

Why do you think that a boy from Lancashire will understand a girl who grew up in – where did she grow up?

She was born in Jamaica Plain, Boston, then grew up in Winthrop and Wellesley and then went to Smith.

An American girl.

An American girl, yes. But I don’t think necessarily there’s a boundary to understanding character. I think if you are creative enough and imaginative enough and empathetic enough, and you do your research and you talk to people, then you can understand somebody from a different background or a different country.

All of your biography subjects have been American. No interest in Brits?

I’m just fascinated by American culture, and I have been since I was a child. I suppose growing up with American TV and American books, and to me America has always symbolized the mythical idea of the American dream, where people like Harold Robbins and Sylvia Plath and Highsmith have all come from quite humble backgrounds but they’ve transformed themselves into in each case something quite extraordinary.

 And something very unpredictable from their own backgrounds.

Yes – Highsmith was born in Fort Worth. What would drive a girl like that to become a writer of psychopathic fiction and then end up living her life in Switzerland? And a boy from Brooklyn –like Harold Robbins – who would think he would end up a multimillionaire with a house in Acapulco and Los Angeles, leading the life of a playboy?

This must happen in Britain sometimes?

Yes, but I suppose in America the journey is much more extreme, and the contrast is more interesting.

There’s more cultural and spatial room to move around.

Yes, and I think the stories are much more dramatic sometimes.

Now in between these biographies you’ve written a novel, The Lying Tongue. Was that just for fun and relief? That was right after Highsmith?

It was right after Highsmith and it came very much out of that experience. Because I’d worked for five years on Highsmith, using like you say quite dark material, and I suppose this was my way out – my fantasy really, of what would happen if you were in a situation where you had a biographical subject who was alive, who was resistant to having their biography written. So those were the two forces coming up against each other – the battle for the biography to be written and that is taken up by the character Adam, and then the subject, who’s got a very mysterious past, who’s Gordon Crace, and there’s very much a cat and mouse that goes on between them.

Because Crace has his own agenda.

(Laughs) Right, right.

Your character is Ripley-like, too, but I think he’s not as charming as Ripley.

I tried to make him more unpleasant and darker, but again that was a challenge because I was using the first-person narrative and it’s very difficult to have a reader on your side of a character who’s writing a first-person narrative who is also very unpleasant. But I had to write this book in the first person because of elements in the plot, and also the strange aspect of reading a book written in the first person was very key to the understanding of what that book means.

 That’s right.

I’m choosing my words very carefully.

 I wonder if you had any difficulty with your agent or your publisher when you wanted to jump out of your “brand” as a biographer and be a crime novelist instead. Did your agent say, “Oh goodie, goodie, I’m happy to sell this new work?”

Yes, my agent was very supportive. But like you say, publishers like to see you as one thing, really, and no more. So for instance, that book, The Lying Tongue, wasn’t published by the publisher who published the Highsmith book. I went to Simon & Schuster in America.

 And the Highsmith – Beautiful Shadow – is Bloomsbury, which is British.

 And American.

Which is publishing the new book, on the Titanic – when is that out?

That’s Simon & Schuster. That’s out in November of this year, and it should be called Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived.

How did you come across these stories?

I’ve always been fascinated by the Titanic, just because it’s one of those great stories that fascinates everybody still, and I just wondered whether if there was anything original or new that could be done about the Titanic. It’s a great challenge for me to do new stories all the time. So for a number of months I was looking at different angles and different aspects, and did some reading about the Titanic, and I discovered in all the books, nobody had talked about what happened afterwards. All the narratives of the Titanic stopped as soon as the Carpathia, the rescue ship, comes into New York. So my natural curiosity wanted to know what happened to some of those people.

How many were there?

There were 705 survivors.

That’s a lot.

Which is a lot – and 1,500  people who died – but of course from that 705 you’re going to get some really fascinating stories, just because people’s lives are usually fascinating, so I had a wealth of material, from the very top of society. One of the stories I look at is Madeleine Astor, who was on the boat with John Jacob Astor, who was at that time probably the richest man in the world, and he died. She was 18, and pregnant with his baby – and what would happen to her? In the will that he left, he left all his fortune to her, which many people think is a wonderful thing, but in the will it said she could have this fortune as long as she would never marry again. And she was 18.

So what was a girl going to do in that situation? She went into mourning for a number of years –lived in the Fifth Avenue mansion – but then fell in love again with a man she’d known since childhood, relinquished her fortune. Luckily he was rich, nowhere near as rich as Astor but comfortably off, and then what happened after that? She divorced him because she fell in love with a handsome Italian boxer whom she met on another cruise across the Atlantic, who used her as a punchbag. So many, many fascinating stories –that’s just one of them.

How did you select which ones to do?

Some of them fit into patterns. I’m looking at three major themes. One is relationships. What happens when your partner dies in that situation? What happens when two people meet on the boat or immediately after on the rescue ship – looking at the kind of undercurrents, to use a marine metaphor, these waves of movement that affected people’s lives after the disaster. So relationships is one segment. There’s fame, opportunism, and celebrity – how some people used the sinking to boost their own careers. There was a silent screen actress on board, called Dorothy Gibson, and she made the first Titanic film four weeks after the sinking.

Four weeks? Her hair was barely dry.

Exactly. Starring herself, wearing the very dress that she’d worn that night. I call it the world’s first exploitation movie. There was obviously at the time huge appetite and interest about the disaster. And it hasn’t really gone away. The final theme is surviving, generally – what that means to be a survivor. Now we’d talk about it as post-traumatic stress disorder or survivor guilt, but of course nobody had a label for those emotions and those feelings – so what people did with those difficult emotions.

How did you find out about those?

I went through lots and lots of archives and cuttings. There were some people who committed suicide, for instance, so I looked at contemporary newspaper reports and tracked their progress and their lives.

You found an archive of correspondence from survivors?

When I started researching, I went to the National Maritime Museum in London, and there they have the archive of Walter Lord, who wrote the most famous book on the Titanic, called A Night to Remember, in 1955, and it’s a very slim book – it’s only 150 pages – but it captures  the essence of what it was like to be on that boat that night. It starts when somebody saw the iceberg and it finishes as soon as the (rescue) ship comes into New York. It’s a brilliant, concise narrative. He became so fascinated with the disaster that he kept up a correspondence with all the survivors after he’d written that book, mostly just for his own curiosity and purposes, because he was kind of a Titanic addict at that point. Nobody had really looked at this archive at all. Nobody had turned the pages of these diaries and these letters, so I was really one of the first ones.

You read it all?


 Did you have trouble finding a publisher for this?

No, this was commissioned before I started researching. I did a synopsis and then went to a publisher, and they said yes.

Is this an anniversary of the Titanic?

It’s the 100th anniversary – 2012.

 I’ll bet you’ll make a lot of money.

I don’t know. We’ll see.

Can you tell if a book is going to make money or not?

I don’t think you can, actually.

You’ve published on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you have any thoughts about the difference between literary and publishing cultures in the U.S. and Great Britain? There’s an idea that in the States that there are fiction writers coming out of MFA programs but then there’s a second fiction culture that comes out of New York, and that those are really sort of two different worlds. Is that the case in Britain?

I don’t think you have campus writing [in Britain] as you do in America, just because those courses don’t really exist. There’s one good one in East Anglia, but it’s a single instance where there’s a history that goes back to the ‘70s of professors who work on that and also write fiction, but I think also in Britain maybe it’s a slightly more quirky attitude towards what is successful. There’s still a huge amount of room for individuality of voice. I’m not sure whether that exists so much in America. Obviously what happens is there’s a huge import of British fiction into American culture, and maybe that’s slightly more daring, but then you get people like Karen Russell with Swamplandia!, which has a very new freshness, which is one of the joys of writing and reading fiction – you always get that originality of voice cropping up every now and again.

What do you read to keep up with what’s happening in fiction and biography – reviews?

I read the New Yorker, but that’s not especially good for knowing what’s happening in fiction, but just terms of general culture – that’s a good source. I read the New York Times Book Review, and then most of the information is either web-based or British newspapers – the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Observer.

But you’re living in Spain most of the time.

All those things are available online so it makes it so much easier now.

Do you mind going out on the road like this and being away from the sunshine of Spain and your idyllic village?

I do mind, but when you become obsessed with a subject, like you do when you’re working on a biography, it does become all consuming – it’s how I write about it in The Lying Tongue ­– there is a certain amount of clues that are hidden from you, and the challenge is to uncover them, and that for me is a pretty exciting process.

You are a very energetic researcher – it’s obvious in your books. Do you write at all as you go along or do you do all the research and then do the writing?

I do all the research. I completely finish it as much as possible; obviously you feel that you can never finish. As soon as I feel I’ve done what I need to do, I sit down and then I spend about six months collating it and messing about with that research before I start writing, just to get everything in place.

So you don’t write at all as you go along.

No, nothing but I have lots of bits of jigsaw puzzles. I suppose the writing is going on subconsciously in my head. I’m thinking about how I’m going to start, how it’s going to finish, certain scenes I’d like to write.

Do you take notes for yourself? Do you keep a journal?

I don’t keep notes.

It’s all in your head?

Or on my computer in terms of files, documents. But I try not to be too linear because I think at that stage everything is still very much crossing over with each other and mashed up in a way, and that’s the kind of process I trust to my subconscious without sounding too pretentious about it, but it’s something that goes in the background of my mind.

When you start, do you have a question in mind? Like with Sylvia Plath – well, you had the question of what was going on in her life before she –

I’ve got no preconceptions. I try not to read too much.  I’ve done a bit of reading from the other biographies but I don’t want those to impinge on my view on her. I’m trying get every single possible piece from an archive that I find myself, so secondary sources at this stage aren’t important to me, and they’ll come in at some later point, I should think, when something is missing, but at this point it’s a primary source-gathering mission.

Are there questions that you keep in mind?

I suppose one of the main questions is why would a girl who on the surface seems to have a perfectly happy, respectable life, end up writing such violent poetry, and where does that source come from? It’s like when I was writing about Highsmith – there the roots are quite easy to find because her childhood was so traumatic, but why did she have such a compulsion to write about murder all the time? That’s such a dark vision. And then with Harold Robbins – what does money mean to him?  Was that a substitute for something? And why did he want to make so much money?

In the case of Highsmith, and I would guess in the case of Sylvia Plath, literature and the writing of literature seem to have been a lifeline for them.

Yes, I think that’s true.

Highsmith – it seems she might have done herself in if she had not had writing ­– is that true for you in any way?  Not that you’re on the brink like she appeared to be.

For me, it’s more about a deep curiosity about people, that’s the underlying facet of my writing life. It’s trying to understand people, and that’s my interest in biography, and hopefully I’ll write other novels and perhaps that will underlie those as well.

Where did that come from?

I don’t know. It was something I always had as a child, actually. When I was a child I’d make newspapers and I’d find what the neighbors were doing and write about them.

And then you became a journalist.

And then I went into journalism for 20 years.

And how did you make the break from journalism to writing books?

I was writing increasingly long pieces, biographical pieces, and I knew I wanted to write a biography, it was just a compelling urge, so I was looking for a subject to write about. I was reading at the same time quite a lot of crime fiction. Somebody recommended a book of Highsmith’s. I read it. I wanted to find more about her. There was a number of newspaper profiles but not a lot of depth. So that came out of a natural curiosity to find more. So then I did some research, realized there was no biography written, went to Switzerland to look at the archive, because she left all her documents to the Swiss Literary Archives and realized what an extraordinary treasure trove of material –

Because she kept detailed journals –

She kept everything from the age of 15, and wrote everything down, and nobody had looked at them, no other researcher had looked at them.

How long had they been available?

They’d only just become available at the same time. They’d just finished being catalogued. The level of detail was extraordinary. So that was a year’s work, sifting through Highsmith’s personal diaries and journals.

You dreamed of her, right?

I dreamed of her a couple of times.

Did you dream of Harold Robbins, too?

I don’t think I did quite so much. I think he might have sped across my subconscious in a speedboat, but with Highsmith, the first dream, she was sitting at a kitchen table and looking very green around the face, and I came up to her and she sort of nodded to me as if to give me permission to write about her life. But I can see that was obviously a wish fulfilment dream.

But she did expect to be written about and that’s why she left all these things.

Yes, she left detailed arrangements with her best friends to choose an appropriate biographer. I met them and talked to them. And of course there were the dealings with the literary estate.

So you had permission to quote freely?


Did they intrude in any way? Did they want to read the manuscript?

They read the manuscript.

Did they say, Hmmmm – no, not on that one?

It was a battle for them to relinquish certain aspects of her character. But I think every time they realized there was an openness in which I was treating the material in a sympathetic way. I wasn’t treating it in a sensationalist manner.

She had a serious alcohol problem. Do you engage in what if – what if she had not been such a drinker? Do you think that alcohol undermined her talent?

She probably wouldn’t have been able to write at all if she hadn’t been able to drink. I think the drink probably didn’t really take effect until right at the very end. I think she was fine with it for the majority of her career. It kept her going. She did drink an awful lot. She had this idea that beer was nutritional so she would have it for breakfast.

Eventually it didn’t seem to affect her?

She just had more and more to drink over a long period of time and people say after a while your ability to function is not affected by it.

Was there any time in Highsmith’s life where there was a clear turning point, where she might not have wound up a writer, or she might have settled down in a little New York town and written bucolic pastorals?

I think with Highsmith she was given a very clear choice because she was engaged to be married, and she went to Yaddo with a boyfriend, and she was in love with him, and she went for six months of therapy to convince herself that she was heterosexual so she could marry him, and I think at that point if she pretended to herself, as many women did in the late 40s and early 50s that she wasn’t gay, she could have had a married life, but I’m convinced that if she’d done that she would probably have committed suicide like many of the women that I detailed in the book, some of her contemporaries in the same situation.

One of the women she loved –

Yes, one of the women she loved – there was the wife of her British publisher, Katherine Cohen, who committed suicide, and they were lovers, and there was also the woman that she glimpsed in Bloomingdale’s when she bought a doll from her, which inspired the classic story, The Price of Salt or Carol.

Which was a lesbian novel but she published under a pseudonym –

Under a different name in the early 50s, under the name of Claire Morgan. Highsmith was working in Bloomingdale’s and she saw this woman, and this woman left her delivery details for this doll that she wanted to buy for one of her daughters. So Highsmith took a train and stalked this woman, went to look at her house, and this woman inspired that figure of Carol in that book. But then Highsmith didn’t know anything more about her. But what I did, because obviously all this was written down in her diary, there was an address there, so I contacted the school, found the records of those girls who went to the local school, tracked them down, wrote to them to see what happened to their mother, and then I discovered that a number of years later this woman had committed suicide, most probably for the same kinds of reasons.

Really the biography is an amazing story just as a record of what it was like to be lesbian in that period of time, which was – Highsmith graduated from Barnard in –

1942, and at the time New York – and I couldn’t put all this in the book because I didn’t have space – but you could write a whole book about Highsmith’s love affairs in 1942, and the idea that we have that sex didn’t really come into consciousness until the 60s, which is true, the general consciousness [of sex], but in terms of New York society, it was certainly buzzing.

I would say that that in the U.S. writing biographies is not quite respectable in universities – it’s more of a popular genre, it’s not taken entirely seriously as a form of either history or literature, and I wondered if the same was true in Britain.

It’s changing. Now in Britain we have departments called Life Writing, which is bringing biography into the academic sphere.

Not just memoirs –

No, it’s very much biography, so students, usually MA students, do a two-year course at the end of which they will write a biography, and a professor will take them through both the theory of biography writing and memoir and at the end, they should have learned quite a lot about the practice of research methods, tracking people down, interviewing people, but I think the problem is that it’s a mix of so many elements, you have to be a journalist, a detective, a creative writer –

A historian –

A historian, a geographer, in some cases an expert in medicine, an expert in many, many different fields, and blend them together in some kind of form that is unified, so perhaps that’s why it’s considered slightly off center and outside the sphere of respectable academia.

How has being a book writer changed your life?

It’s given me a huge amount of freedom not to just live in one place but to move around a great deal, so now I live in Spain whereas before I lived in London and worked as a journalist. It’s given me a greater capacity to understand one subject in as much depth as possible because before as a journalist I would perhaps spend a couple of weeks on one subject, and even though I’d write 2,000 words, that was really very much skimming the surface, but now I can spend – with Highsmith I spent five years, and then the privilege of knowing somebody in that kind of depth is extraordinary.

Send a comment to Andrew Wilson or Carol Polsgrove.