The old axiom is quite true: If you're going to write, you have to read. Since I've often commented that serious biography straddles literature and scholarship, that means I have to read both fiction and nonfiction, works of art and works of deep research. Beyond the sheer pleasure of the reading experience, of being transported to another life or time, there are specific strategies and lessons that can be learned from each book.
My first recommendation: Colum McCann's National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin. The thread that holds the multi-voiced narrative together is the tightrope that Philippe Petit walked between the two towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974. Yet the high-wire act merely supplies the frame for the tale, the skeleton; the flesh and blood is in the myriad characters whose lives criss-cross and finally come together in a heartbreakingly beautiful conclusion.
Why do I recommend this book? First, it's a stunning work of art. That's enough. More specifically, the prose is gorgeously lyrical. Not that I urge nonfiction writers to try to write this way; few writers of any stripe can. In fact, I'd warn against it. But it's a reminder to pay attention to the sound and impact of each word, to the power of the sentence.
Second, McCann's novel demonstrates that the heart of a historical moment is not in the broad structure of society or politics, important as that can be, but in the texture of life, the personal experience. He makes 1974 more real than any academic study ever could. No, the biographer should not fictionalize, but he or she should be alive to these matters in conducting research, to serve up the subtle flavors of the time.
Finally, McCann's portrait is panoramic in a social sense, from a hooker's walk under an overpass in the Bronx to an Upper East Side penthouse. I love this kind of sweeping view, taking in the range of human experience. Few can do it as well as McCann does, whether we write fiction or nonfiction, but it's a virtue worth striving for.