Saturday, April 12, 2014

Q&A with biographer Brian Jay Jones

Brian Jay Jones is the author of Jim Henson: The Biography and Washington Irving: An American Original. He is the vice president of Biographers International Organization, and he lives in Maryland.

Q: Why did you choose Jim Henson as the subject of your latest biography, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: Jim Henson and the Muppets have been part of my life, and probably yours, for as long as I can remember. In fact, I’m pretty much Muppets Generation 1.0—I was two when "Sesame Street" premiered in late 1969, nine when "The Muppet Show" debuted in 1976, fifteen when "The Dark Crystal" was in the theaters, and in college when "Labyrinth" came out. 

That makes me part of the first generation entirely raised on Jim Henson and his work—and writing his biography was truly a dream project.

One of the really great things about Jim Henson is that he’s pretty much as you expect him to be: genuinely kind, dazzlingly inspirational, immensely talented and—as his closest collaborator Frank Oz said—“delightfully imperfect.” What you see up there on screen—that funny, frantic, Muppet family—really is Jim Henson and the way he worked with people around him.

Still, having said that, there were still some things that were somewhat surprising. First, he was almost pathologically conflict-averse. You suspect it, sure, because Jim’s such a decent guy, but I had no idea the sheer extent of it. Jim wouldn’t resolve debates with his attorneys, couldn’t fire or discipline his staff, and wouldn’t even bicker with his wife, Jane. As Jane herself told me, “it was fight or flight, and Jim always chose flight.”

Second, I was surprised and impressed with what a fantastic businessman he was. Again, it makes sense; you can’t own a company with workshops in London and New York without being good at what you do. 

But Jim was really good, even from a young age. He was seventeen when he started his company, and from day one, he knew his work had value. While still in his twenties, he was offered a very large sum of money to sell one of his characters outright, and Jim refused, telling his agent, “Never sell anything I own.”

Q: You've also written a biography of Washington Irving. What got you interested in writing about his life?

A: While I was a literature major in college, I never really got beyond Irving’s two quintessential American short stories, “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But I rediscovered him again in the late 1990s, because I’m a Christmas junkie.

At that time, I was reading a book about the history of the Christmas holiday in America, which basically explained that we as Americans have this misty-eyed vision of Christmas that never really existed, but we think it did because Washington Irving made it all up and then told us these were the traditions.

Well, that was all news to me, so I found Irving’s Christmas stories—which are hidden in plain sight right in the middle of The Sketch Book, his collection of short stories that includes “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip van Winkle”—and I was absolutely blown away by them. 

Not just the stories themselves, which are terrific, but also with his voice. I was expecting some stilted 19th century Protestant prose, and instead here was this guy writing in this really funny and surprisingly spry style, with winking asides at the reader. I wanted to know more about him. . . and promptly hit a wall. Nothing had been written about Irving in nearly 80 years.

What I really love about Washington Irving—apart from his stories—is that he’s almost like a 19th century Forrest Gump. If there was somebody famous around, Irving knew them. If there was some world-changing event going on, Irving was in the middle of it. 

He was not only our first great American writer, but one of our first internationally-famous American celebrities, and I really wanted to look at Irving both as a writer and as a pop culture figure. He’s a lot of fun.

Q: You're the vice president of Biographers International Organization, which is holding a conference next month. What are some of the issues you'll be discussing at the conference?

A: I’m really proud to be a part of BIO—we’re the only organization around dedicated to the craft of biography, and to supporting biographers—and one of our flagship events is our annual conference, which is in Boston this year on May 17 and 18. At the conference, we try to organize sessions that will address a broad spectrum of needs, from the first time biographer, to even the most experienced and jaded among our ranks!

Our panels are made up of and moderated by some of the best people at their craft, including award winners and best sellers, and if you join us in Boston, you’ll find plenty to intrigue you, I think. We’ll have a panel, for example, on creating suspense in writing biography – how do you draw out the drama, suspense, and cliffhangers in a life?

There’ll be a session on dealing with the family of your subject. There’s a cynical old bit of biographical advice that says, “First, kill the widow” – but there’s also a lot to be gained from talking with wives, widows, children, and mistresses.  What are the politics of that? And do you have the stomach for it? We’ll talk about that, too.

We’ll also show you how to deal with university presses, write biographies for the young adult market, and watch faces fall when we explain that biographers usually pay out of pocket to have their book indexed. Ouch.

Q: What are some of the biographies that you've especially liked or been inspired by?

A: It’s probably because I came out of politics—I was a Hill staffer for nearly 10 years—but I think Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate is one of the finest, and most exciting, bits of biography of all time. Another favorite of mine—and a book that really influenced me as a biographer—is Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, a really intensely researched biography that I re-read constantly. And if I can admit to a guilty pleasure, it’s Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon, a spectacular train wreck of a biography that I also re-read constantly.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I actually just started working on another project, which I’m keeping close to the vest until I’m a bit further down the road with it. However, I can say this: it’s been said my particular niche is enigmatic American pop culture icons, and my new subject falls solidly into that category as well. I’m having fun.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Go on YouTube and search for the 10-second commercials that Jim Henson made for Wilkins Coffee, a local Washington, D.C. company. I won’t say any more except: you’ll be glad you did. Trust me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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