© Brigitte Carnochan
Ralph Ellison: A Biography
Alfred A. Knopf
Interview conducted by Jennifer
JG: What was the hardest
part of your book to write – and why was it so
The hardest part of the book
was when I realized that I had to reveal certain unpleasant
facts about Ellison’s life or compromise my standards
as a biographer—which was never really an option
for me. I knew that some readers would inevitably mistake
my approach for hostility, but I was also confident
that many more would remember Ellison’s artistic
achievement and see these facts as indicative of the
complexity of one major American writer’s life.
JG: What’s the
greatest personal debt you incurred while writing this
In addition to the debt I owe
my family, I owe much to John Callahan, a professor
of English at Lewis and Clark College who was Mrs. Ellison’s
main advisor on literary matters. Much of the Ralph
Ellison material at the Library of Congress was closed
to almost all scholars, and a biographer was yet to
be chosen by Mrs. Ellison when he encouraged me to think
about taking on the task.
JG: How long did you
work on this book for – and how much do you think
you ended up earning per hour?
I worked about eight years
on the book, but three of them were spent as a dean
and of course I was also teaching classes the rest of
the time. As for the money, it’s a labor of love
subsidized by my university, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.,
and, for a year, the American Council of Learned Societies.
JG: What are three
of your favorite non-fiction books of all time?
The Souls of Black Folk;
C.L.R. James’s Beyond the Boundary; and
R.W.B. Lewis’s biography Edith Wharton.
(Perhaps it has something to do with all those initials?)
Three that come to mind readily
are W.E.B. DuBois’s
Of all that transpired
after your book was published, what was your favorite
After the book was in bound
galleys and began to circulate, I received two wonderfully
generous telephone calls—one from Cornel West,
and the other from Toni Morrison. Both of them wanted
me to know how extraordinary they found the book and
how much it meant to them personally as a biography
of a particularly complex and difficult subject. Although
they were not strangers to me, I knew they would not
have made those calls unless they absolutely meant what
At your lowest moment,
how many times a day did you check your Amazon rating?
I’ve never checked my
Amazon rating. I really don’t know how to do so,
although my wife has offered to pass on the number to
me. I really wouldn’t want to know where I stand.
That’s not why I wrote the book—and I don’t
like bad news.
What’s the single
best piece of advice you received while working on this
The Invisible Years, 1913-1952.” I had published
a two-volume life of Langston Hughes some years ago,
and rather liked the idea of working again on such a
large canvas. At Knopf, Jonathan Segal took the time
to read “The Invisible Years” and
then advised me—that is, ordered me—to get
real. This proved to be very good advice indeed.
For a while I tried to make
it a two-volume biography, despite the terms of my contract,
and at one point I actually sent my editor at Knopf
what I called volume one—“
What impact, if any,
do you think your National Book Award nomination will
have on your future work?
I am not sure that the nomination
will have any significant impact on my future work,
but I should say that the number of congratulatory messages
that I’ve received and continue to receive has
surprised me. Of course, the volume and variety of notices
about the book itself have been remarkable. It’s
not at all what I expected. The ordeal of writing the
book left me quite pessimistic about its likely reception.
Gonnerman is a contributing editor at New York Magazine.
She was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award
for Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine
Bartlett (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Photo © Nina Subin