Open Book News

On Writing, with James King

Photo Credit: Thomas Allen & Son

James King is the author of four novels and eight biographies, and has recently released a biography of Lawren Harris, one of Canadian's finest artists who was a member of the Group of Seven. Peculiarly, King's biography is the first biography of Harris; peculiar because it has taken an unnecessarily long time for a biography to be written on one of Canada's finest artists.

In this edition of On Writing, James discusses his biography of Harris, Inward Journey (Thomas Allen & Son). James reveals why a biography of Harris has not appeared until now, the process of writing biography, the biography's similarities to fiction and gives advice to aspiring biographers.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new biography, Inward Journey.

James King:

Inward Journey is the first biography of Lawren Harris, one of Canada's finest artists and the driving force behind the Group of Seven.


What caused you to want to write this book about Lawren Harris, and why now?


Lawren Harris has never had a biography, which is a strange situation because of his many accomplishments. About fifteen years ago, I asked Lawren P. Harris, Harris's son, and Margaret Knox, Harris daughter, if they would be agreeable to such a project. Lawren P. promised me any assistance he could provide; Margaret Knox did not wish a biography.

I only had the opportunity to research and write this biography when Stewart Sheppard, Margaret's son and now the holder of the copyright, was extremely enthusiastic about this project. In his opinion, a biography of his grandfather is long overdue.


What do you think readers will be most surprised to learn from Inward Journey?


Margaret Knox might possibly have been unwilling to give her permission for a biography because she feared that her father's separation and divorce from her mother might be handled inappropriately. I have attempted to deal with this matter straightforwardly and sensitively.

Some readers might be surprised to learn that the relationship between Harris and his second wife was, by design, a sexless one.

In Canada, Harris is regarded as an iconic figure largely because of his Lake Superior, Rocky Mountains and Arctic landscapes. In my book, I pay a great deal attention to his urban views (Toronto, Halifax and Glace Bay), and I suggest that those paintings show a socialist bent on Harris's part.

I also show how Harris moved from being a representational artist to being an abstract one. Although the abstracts have never been given sufficient attention, there are many strong, compelling images from this period of Harris's career.


How do you decide what structure and focus a biography will have?


In the case of Lawren Harris, I was very concerned that his inner struggles be dramatized effectively. He was a very reticent man about his personal life, and I wanted the reader to understand and feel what those conflicts were.


You have written eight biographies and four novels. How does your writing process differ when you are working on biography as opposed to fiction?


Biography as a genre is much closer to fiction than it is to history. The subjectivity of the biographer establishes point of view and makes him/her choose to highlight certain events and downplay others.

Having said that, the biographer must play by certain rules in the establishing of facts. In writing this book, I began each section with two or three paragraphs in italics in which I attempted to display my subject's emotional life during that time frame. In every instance, I stuck to the known facts, but I pushed that material in order to elicit Harris's feelings. In that sense, I allowed the worlds of fiction and non-fiction to meld.


What is your best advice to an aspiring biographer?


Biographers must obviously play by the rules. Their narratives must be built on solid research. At the same time, I think that a biographer must exploit his/her material in order to provide the reader with a vivid sense of how the subject experienced life.
I also consider, in the case of the lives of writers and artists, that a vital connection must be made between the life experience and the creativity.


What are you working on now?


I am just finishing a novel about a reluctant biographer who takes on a project that spirals out of control when he uncovers a myriad of troubling facts about his subject.

James King is the author of four previous novels: Faking (Dundurn), Blue Moon (Dundurn), Transformations (Cormorant Books), and Pure Inventions (Cormorant Books). He is also the author of eight works of biography, the subjects of which include William Blake, Margaret Laurence, Jack McClelland and Farley Mowat. His biography of Herbert Read, The Last Modern (St Martins Press), was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award. James King lives in Hamilton, Ontario, and teaches at McMaster University in the Department of English.

For more information about Inward Journey, please visit the Thomas Allen & Son website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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