Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writing a Life — or Two or Three

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I’ve written many biographies, ranging from books about a single person to volumes filled with more than 100 short biographies. I love writing them — as I say on my author page on this site, I’m nosy and curious about why people do what they do. And once I find out, I enjoy sharing it with kids and adults.

Biographies are fun. John F. Kennedy said, “All history is gossip,” and almost everyone likes a little gossip! Steven Pinker, in How the Mind Works says, “Gossip is a favorite pastime in all human societies because knowledge is power.” (Will Rogers said, “The only time people dislike gossip is when you gossip about them.”)

I think biographies also make history come alive. When kids read about the problems, foibles, and humorous incidents in historical figures’ lives, in addition to their accomplishments, they come to know these figures as flesh-and-blood people, not as cardboard cut-outs from “back then.”

But biographies can also be career enhancing. When asked which books have influenced or inspired them, many national and international leaders reply with the title of a biography or autobiography. It’s helpful, empowering and even educational to discover how some high achievers have dealt with handicaps or set-backs.

I think of all the people I’ve written about, my favourite is Harry Houdini, the magician and escape artist. I’ve been fascinated by him for a long time — I still remember buying a book about him when I was in grade eight. I’m sure Harry would have been a pain to live or work with since he felt he was the greatest, but I came to love and admire him.

Harry’s family was very poor and about his early years in Wisconsin he said, “We lived there, I mean starved there, several years. The less said on the subject the better.” How’s that for blunt? Just a few years later, Harry (real name Ehrich Weisz) was claiming, “With due modesty, I recognize no one as my peer.”

Towards the end of his life, Harry made it his work to expose mediums and the séances they held. Did you know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer who created Sherlock Holmes, believed completely in the ability of spiritualists to communicate with the dead? He and Harry were once best friends but fell out over this belief. Harry was certain the mediums were scammers because he knew all their tricks — he’d used them himself years before. Besides, as he said, “It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer.”

And Another Thing …
It was on this date in 1917 that the National Hockey League started its first season. It’s hard to imagine a better Christmas present for Canadians!

One minute into the game, the first goal was scored and no, it wasn’t against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Oh all right, it was against the Toronto team, but the game was between the Montreal Wanderers and the Toronto Arenas, and Montreal went on to win 10–9. What else is new? (Can you tell I’m a long-suffering Leaf fan?)

Sixteen of the players from that first game ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. And my favourite player ever (I HAVE to get in a mention of him) didn’t play in that game but of course is also in the Hall of Fame: that quirky, talented goalie Jacques Plante.

Thanks for reading.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Elizabeth MacLeod

Award-winning author Elizabeth MacLeod has written over 50 books for children. Her most recent book, Bones Never Lie: How Forensics Helps Solve History’s Mysteries, was published by Annick Press.

Go to Elizabeth MacLeod’s Author Page