The Road Already Taken

With the right approach, even well-tread subjects can lead to compelling new books or articles.
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When former Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn was contemplating writing a biography of Johnny Cash in 2009, he asked Lou Robin, who had managed Cash for more than 30 years, how much of Cash’s story had been told. Robin thought for a moment and replied, “About 20 percent.”

That was a dumbfounding answer considering Cash had written two autobiographies, personal accounts had been written about him by both his first wife and one of his founding band members, and several other biographies on the iconic country musician had made their way onto bookshelves over the years.

This guest post is by Barry Sparks of York, Pa. Sparks is the author of the biographies Frank “Home Run” Baker: Hall of Famer and World Series Hero and Rick Riordan.

Hilburn started working on Cash’s biography the next day. After four years of writing and research, including interviews with nearly 100 people, Johnny Cash: The Life was published to rave reviews in 2013.

Although Cash insisted he wanted people to know his entire story, he’d failed to embrace such candor in his autobiographies because he didn’t want to hurt those closest to him, Hilburn says.

“One of the first things I learned about Johnny is that I had to double-check everything he said,” Hilburn told the Los Angeles Times. “He wasn’t one to let facts interfere with a good story. He wasn’t so much trying to mislead people as make stories more colorful.”

Johnny Cash: The Life is a classic example of why nonfiction authors should not shy away from subjects that have been previously covered.

When new or untapped interview sources or documents are revealed, or an opportunity to correct erroneous information or offer a new perspective presents itself, a well-tread subject might just warrant a fresh approach.

Cut through the veneer.

Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I flying ace, had been the subject of two ghostwritten autobiographies and three major biographies before author John F. Ross tackled his life story in 2014’s Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed.

To his earlier biographers, relaying facts took a back seat to creating the image of an all-American hero who led a charmed life. For example, Ross was surprised when he discovered Rickenbacker’s father was actually killed by a laborer in self-defense after provoking a fight, not in a “construction accident” as stated in Rickenbacker’s autobiography.

“The veneer of untouchable hero covers nearly every incident as thickly as the fiberglass protecting a boat’s hull,” writes Ross in the book’s Note to the Reader. Cutting through the hero worship to find the real man was one of his greatest challenges. Ross relied on largely neglected primary sources to paint a more accurate portrait.

Get people talking.

Fiery New York Yankees manager Billy Martin had been dead for nearly 25 years when author Bill Pennington considered writing his biography. Although Martin was already the subject of at least four books, Pennington felt their characterizations of Martin hadn’t told the whole story.

“I thought the last 20 years or so that there has been a caricature of him as a dirt-kicking lunatic who got hired and fired a lot. … Those things are all true. But he is much more than that. He has been reduced to a four-second highlight clip on ESPN. That’s all people under 40 know about him,” Pennington says.

In crafting his approach to Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius, published in 2015, Pennington believed the passage of time would allow for more candid and honest comments from those who knew Martin. He was able to get Martin’s only son, Billy Joe, as well as his widow, Jill—who had yet to be quoted—to agree to interviews. In the course of researching the book, Pennington spoke with more than 225 people, including all four of Martin’s wives, his childhood friends, teammates and rivals.

Utilize new documents.

Author Tim Weiner has long been fascinated by President Richard Nixon. Declassified government documents released from 2007 to 2014 form the foundation of his 2015 book, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon.

Weiner had unprecedented access to thousands of files from the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Council, the FBI, the CIA, Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman’s diary entries, and hundreds of hours of Nixon’s tapes.

“I felt like an archaeologist unearthing the palace of a lost regime,” Weiner wrote in the book’s Author’s Note.

Likewise, several books about the PT-109 incident involving President John F. Kennedy, dating back to Robert J. Donovan’s 1961 bestseller PT 109, had been published before William Doyle’s PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F. Kennedy was released in 2015. But Doyle boosted his account with declassified documents, JFK’s long-lost 1946 firsthand account, materials from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, archives from Japan, the Solomon Islands and Australia—much of which had been unavailable to previous authors.

He also interviewed the PT boat commander who served with JFK, surviving contemporaries of JFK, political aides, Ethel Kennedy and her son Max.

Add fresh perspective.

More than a dozen books have been published about what happened to the game of baseball during World War II, but author John Klima identified an opportunity for further discussion: The writers with expertise in baseball knew little about the war, and those well versed in WWII didn’t know much about baseball.

Klima, however, had grown up in a household where WWII and baseball were both familiar topics. He possessed a rare combination of knowledge and perspective. His book The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front in WWII, published in 2015, does justice to both subjects.

Rickenbacker’s biographer, John Ross, says he considers writing a book a voyage of discovery: “The best writing, I think, reflects that sense of discovery to the reader. The writer, like the reader, is sharing a new story, turning the page to see what’s next.”

That voyage can be different for every writer—even when documenting a seemingly tired subject—who takes a savvy approach to uncover something new along the way.

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