About Adam Sisman
An Interview with Adam Sisman
More About Adam Sisman
Adam Sisman is the author of A. J. P. Taylor: A Biography. He lives with his wife, the novelist Robyn Sisman, and their two children.
Why another biography of Boswell?
That's just what I thought, and what I didn't want to do. I'm not interested
in doing something that's already been done adequately in the past. And
what particularly intrigued me about Boswell was not so much his life
- though he had a very interesting life - but his work, in particular
his Life of Johnson. So I decided to write a book about the making of
a masterpiece, a biography of a book if you like. It helped that this
was an extraordinary story of struggle and sacrifice. Boswell experienced
disappointment, grief, humiliation, jealousy and almost despair before
his task was complete. Of course, you can't write about Boswell as a writer
without writing about him as a man - but the focus of my book is quite
different from that of a conventional biography.
You clearly developed a real respect
for your subject.
First of all, I feel that it's not for me as a biographer to judge my
subjects - I leave that to the reader. When I wrote about A.J.P. Taylor,
I was amazed how many people said I had showed him to be deceitful, or
a scoundrel, or whatever - and an equal number of people who said I was
too fair to him! What I try to do is to present as vivid and truthful
a portrait as possible, though I can't imagine writing a biography of
someone I didn't have some sympathetic feeling for. As for Boswell, well,
of course I identified with him completely: struggling to write a book,
staving off his creditors, under pressure from publishers and rival biographers,
constantly breaking off work on the book to try and earn enough money
to live on - that was me, just as it was Boswell. And of course, the more
I studied what he had done, the more my respect for him as a craftsman,
as a writer, as an artist, developed.
What made you want to write a book
about Boswell's Life of Johnson?
A.J.P. Taylor used to say that when he wanted to know about something,
he wrote a book about it. It was like that with me. I had become interested
in biography as a form, and Boswell's Life of Johnson is the starting-point
for all discussions of biography - so I found myself writing a book about
This is a book about two people, Boswell
and Johnson. How would you describe their friendship?
They were friends, and they enjoyed each other's company, though they
sometimes quarrelled and there was always a tension in their relationship.
It was never one of equals: Johnson was the senior of the two, and Boswell
never challenged his superiority. "I cannot help worshipping him", he
once said. "He is so superior to other men." It is a biographical cliché
to describe theirs as a father-son relationship, but nevertheless there
is some truth in this. Boswell and Johnson frequently used the term "love"
to describe their feelings for each other, and it was Boswell's love and
reverence for his friend that kept him to his task even when his own life
was falling apart. One should distinguish between the relationship between
the two men as individuals and the relationship between them as biographer
and subject. This was a constant tension in their relationship, and it
adds an extra fascination to the Life of Johnson; it is a biography in
which we can actually see the biographer at work, collecting information
from his subject and those around him. Within the pages of the Life of
Johnson one is repeatedly aware of Boswell as Johnson's biographer, trying
to pin down Johnson, and Johnson resisting him. It is like watching a
play in which you can see the playwright scribbling down the lines in
the wings. After Johnson's death, Boswell was free to manipulate his portrayal
of their friendship to suit his own ends, though his dedication to his
task and his sensitivity to criticism acted as a restraint on this process.
There is a sense in which the struggle for mastery between them continues
to this day.
You live with another writer (the novelist,
Robyn Sisman). Do you discuss each other's work in progress?
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