Every time Jonathan Eig starts writing a new biography, it’s like falling in love.
“It’s like going into a relationship, a long-lasting relationship,” Eig said. “For three or four years, I’m going to be deeply immersed in the subject’s life. And then I’m really going to live with that person — in a more distant way — for the rest of my life.”
Eig is Week Three’s prose writer-in-residence at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center. His Brown Bag, “Biography as Love Affair” will be at 12:15 p.m. Friday on the front porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.
Eig has authored numerous biographies. Some of his previous subjects include Al Capone, Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson. His biography of Muhammad Ali, Ali: A Life, is set to be released in October. Eig said he still feels “deeply involved” with the people he’s written about.
“These are characters that are like family to me now,” Eig said.
Beginning the process of writing a biography is like initiating a relationship, Eig said. That often means there are surprises along the way.
“First you have to discover them and find wonders about them that you never imagined,” Eig said. “And then, ultimately, you hope that the flaws don’t overwhelm that and you still end up feeling warmly toward them, even if the relationship grows more complicated.”
Eig said he went through a lot of these feelings when writing about Ali. He said he’s spent a little over four years working on the biography.
“When I first started out with Muhammad Ali, you really do just think he’s perfect, and you can’t get enough of him,” Eig said. “You just want to be around him all the time. And then you begin to see those little flaws, and those flaws grow bigger, and you have to decide if you still love him or not. If you’re doing the job right and really getting deep into this person’s character, you look for all the different levels of emotion that you go through with a love affair. It’s not all pretty. But it’s important.”
Part of thinking about those different levels, Eig said, is realizing the contradictions that exist in a person’s character. He said he was struck by how much Ali loved interacting with his fans and regular people, but often at the expense of his relationships with his wives and children.
A great example of Ali’s contradictory nature, Eig said, was his stance on the Vietnam War.
“He was one of the first important celebrities to come out against the Vietnam War, and it’s a thing that made his reputation as someone who wasn’t just an athlete, but who was an outspoken social activist,” Eig said. “And then a few years later, he said he regretted it. He said he regretted making all those people mad at him. So in some ways, he’s really hard to figure out. That was what made this book such a great challenge.”
Eig said he will mostly focus his lecture on his experience writing Ali: A Life, since it’s freshest in his mind. He said he hopes his audience will see how writing a biography can be “an impossible task.”
“But I hope they’ll come away with an appreciation for the passion that goes into writing a biography,” Eig said. “And I hope it’ll come across how much I love getting to do this — telling these life stories.”