how to write a biography

Click to follow
I have written two biographies, one of Tintin (a cartoon character whom many feel to be tantamount to a real person) and the other of Richard Ingrams (right, a real person whom many feel to be tantamount to a cartoon character). From my experiences on these two projects, I feel I am now in a position to provide definitive advice to anyone wishing to write a biography of their own

Choose a subject in whom you are interested

If you are going to spend two years researching somebody down to his or her underpants size, it helps it you are actually interested in who they are and what they have achieved. Unless, of course, you have just been paid pounds 200,000 by Harper-Collins to expose Mother Teresa as a satanist and a child molester.

Choose a living subject

This comes in very handy when you get to one of those embarrassing moments in your subject's life when several versions of "the truth" are doing the rounds. Thus I was able to telephone Richard Ingrams at any time of the day or night, and ascertain from him the definitive version of what had actually happened. I was then able to dismiss this version from my enquiries as being an obvious fabrication.

Gain your subject's confidence

This is most important, as without an introduction from your subject you are unlikely to gain an audience with his (or her) friends and relatives. Ingrams' friends were highly suspicious at first, lest my intention was to criticise or do him down gratuitously. Once he had assured them that this was not the case, they spoke to me freely, criticising him and doing him down in great detail.

Obtain a large number of photographs of your subject as a youth

Nothing to do with the book, but they're usually highly embarrassing and good for a laugh.

Check that your subject is already the recipient of massive inter- national popularity

That way, your book will sell thousands of copies in America. Unfortunately, as I found out, biographies of crusty English satirists who have made it their life's work to annoy Guardian readers don't go down a storm in Detroit.

Make sure your subject has no enemies

In the case of Ingrams, literary editors were under siege from would- be reviewers who had been sacked or libelled by the great man, and who were determined to get their own back. This would never have happened with, say, Michael Jackson, whose enemies are still not old enough to write.

Spice it up a bit

For many years, rumours have abounded that Richard Ingrams was homosexually assaulted during his National Service in Korea. I investigated this accusation from every possible angle, official and otherwise, speaking to a number of people who were present in Korea at the time, and came to the unequivocal conclusion that the rumour was entirely baseless. Lynn Barber, writing in this very newspaper, concluded that I had obviously failed as a biographer, because a real biographer would have uncovered the truth about the matter. She was, of course, absolutely right.

Make sure that your biography is not only entertaining but also a major contribution to 20th-century literature, reaching a series of devastating conclusions about the life of its subject and the state of humankind in general, before hurrying to a shattering and unputdownable conclusion

Well, obviously, I did that bit, didn't I?

The paperback of `Richard Ingrams: Lord of the Gnomes' is published on 25 Sept, by Heinemann