Monday, April 24, 2006

Vera Atkins and Sarah Helm


A fine working day in London - a quick stab at the pile of books awaiting me in the British Library ( a fine account of a gas explosion in Action in 1927 was today's special treat), then off to the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge for a Biographers Club lunch.
Sarah Helm was the guest - a fine talk without notes on the use of sources for her book on Vera Atkins, 'A Life in Secrets'. She told me she was somewhat shy of the bigraphers' tag, still being a journalist at heart. This book started out as research for a novel, including an interview with Vera Atkins, then Sebastian Faulks came out with 'Charlotte Gray' which stole that fictional ground. In any case the need to know the actual facts kept getting in the way of making them up. Sarah kept pitching ever longer story ideas to her newspaper editors, as newspapers were shrinking in size, in their scope for long pieces, and in funds. The narrative nonfiction specialist was being born.
I was interested in her distinction between biographers and journalists - for Sarah Helm that 'journalist' tag meant she was was primarily concerned with discovering the story. I guess that's my main obsession too, but it's a structural one. The fascination comes with a real character emerging into distinctive shape and substance out of shadow.
Vera Atkins might have been hard to come to love - though for Sarah Helm the main worry was that her character would come to seem uninteresting. Research dispelled that concern. Andrew Lownie, who runs the club, claimed the resultant book is a model for the way it displays a biographers concers. I look forward to reading it once I can step from my own research and beyond 1936.

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