Friday, July 8, 2011

The Dreaded Author Bio by Alafair Burke

The Dreaded Author Bio

by Alafair Burke

Thanks for having me here today.  I was wondering what to blog about when I got to the accompanying request for a short author bio.  It’s the kind of request I receive and respond to a few times a month, more now that I’m in the frenzy of publication time.

Here’s my usual bio, from the cover of my new book, LONG GONE:

“Alafair Burke is the bestselling author of six previous novels, including 212, Angel’s Tip, and Dead Connection in the  Ellie Hatcher series.  A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal law and lives in Manhattan.  Long Gone is her first stand-alone thriller.”

Go ahead, say it: Yawn, Snore, Zzzz....

I was once asked by the Mystery Writers of America for something a little more snazzy.  Borrowing in part from my website, I allowed myself thirty minutes to hammer out something that would give those who hadn't met me yet some sense of who I am and where I've been.

As I wrote, I couldn't stop thinking about the sterility of those book jacket author bios, scrubbed clean of all personality.  As writers, we're committed to exploring the human stories that lurk beneath the superficial, but when asked to describe ourselves: Yawn, snore, zzzz.....

I've spoken a few times during author appearances about a hypothetical world in which books (like the law school exams I grade as a professor) would be published anonymously, their authors known only by a randomly assigned number that readers could use to "identify" the authors they consistently enjoyed.  After all, what separates reading from television and film is the active role of our mind's eye.  To read books without knowing an author's age, gender, race, religion, region, education, attractiveness, or work experience might truly unleash our imaginations.

Despite my musings about a utopia of anonymous publishing, I've come to realize why publishers emphasize (and readers desire) personal information about authors.  The most delightful unexpected benefit of writing has been meeting some of my favorite authors.  I already read these folks religiously before I met them, but I'll admit that I read them differently -- and more richly -- now.  I recognize the wry winks in Laura Lippman's most leisurely paragraphs.  I hear Michael Connelly's quiet voice in Bosch.   I think I really know what Lisa Unger means when she writes on Ridley Jones's behalf that she's a "dork."  And those short, little, maddeningly frustrating sentences from Lee Child are now sexy as hell.

But I didn't get any of that from the book jackets.
As the traditional print media and personal appearance opportunities for authors to introduce themselves to readers continue to dry up, many of us have taken to the Web.  We do that not only to get our names out there, but also because we recognize that readers are more likely to experience our written work as intended if they come to it with a sense of who we are. (For example, an online reviewer once dissed a line of Ellie Hatcher's, something like "kicking it old school."  The fact that it's corny to talk that way is of course precisely why she'd say such a thing. And if the reader "got" Ellie or anything about my work, he'd know that's -- ahem -- just how we roll.)

So as we writers are knocking ourselves out to convey our souls to readers, maybe we should take another look at book jacket bios.  The publishers are going to type something beneath that favorite photo: It may as well be interesting.  And so I’m sharing  this unsanitized bio that I first wrote only for internal MWA purposes:

Alafair Burke is the author of six novels in two series, one featuring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher, the other with Portland prosecutor Samantha Kincaid.  Although reviewers have described both characters as “feisty,” Alafair might accidentally spill a drink on anyone who invokes that word to describe her or anyone she cares about.

Alafair grew up in Wichita, Kansas, whose greatest contribution to her childhood was a serial killer called BTK.  Nothing warps a young mind quite like daily reports involving the word, bind, torture, and kill.

From Kansas, Alafair dreamed of fleeing west.  Fearing their daughter might fall prey to a 1980’s version of the Manson Family (um, Nelson?), her parents prohibited her from attending school in California.  Ironically, she ended up at Reed College, where the bookstore sold shirts that read "Atheism, Communism, Free Love," and Alafair found herself (lovingly) nicknamed Nancy Reagan and The Cheerleader.

From Reed, Alafair went to the decidedly less hippy-ish Stanford Law School. Although she went with dreams of becoming an entertainment lawyer so she could make deals at the Palm and score seats at the Oscars, she eventually realized she had watched "The Player" one too many times, and instead decided to pursue criminal law because she was obsessed with the Unabomber.

Most of Alafair’s legal practice was as a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, where she infamously managed to tally up a net loss on prison time imposed during her prosecutorial career.  (Help spring two exonerated people from prison to put a guy called the Happy Face Killer behind bars, and it really ruins your numbers.)  As hard as it is for her to believe, she is now a professor at Hofstra Law School.

When Alafair is not teaching classes or writing, she enjoys rotting her brain.  She runs to an iPod playlist with three continuous hours of spaz music (think "It Takes Two" by DJ Rob Bass, "Smooth Criminal" by Alien Art Farm, and "Planet Claire" by the B-52's). She insists that Duran Duran, the Psychedelic Furs, and the Cure hold up just as well as the so-called classics. She watches way too much television, usually on cable.  She wants Tina Fey to be her BFF.  She likes to drink wine and cook.

She discloses TMI on the Interwebs, blogging regularly at Murderati and logging teenage-territory hours on Facebook.  She will golf at the drop of a hat even though she’s bad at it.

Most importantly, Alafair loves her husband, Sean, and their French bulldog, The Duffer.  She also loves her parents, but if you ask her about them, she’ll ask you about yours.

Should all authors let loose on their jacket flaps?  Would it affect that crucial decision of whether to purchase?  Would it change how we read?  If you're a writer, what should your author bio REALLY say?  And if you're a reader, what would you like to know about some of your favorite writers?



Kate Gallison said...

Alafair, your let-it-all-hang-out bio is a charming self-revelation by a woman completely at ease with herself. Some of us are too neurotic to pull this off. I have this nagging feeling that if I were to let on who I really was I would never sell another book. So I tell them I'm descended from a convicted Salem witch. Which is true, but not all there is to it.

Vicki Lane said...

I love your improved bio! Especially the comment re 'feisty' a word that should only be used for yappy little dogs.

Barry said...

Note to self - Purchase book by Alafair Burke

Note to Alafair - This will happen because of your self description! How can I not read your books to feel the "flair" that has been in your life and I'm willing to bet somehow works into your books! I didn't use "fiesty" so no drinks please!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Welcome, Alafair!

As one of your Facebook friends, and Murderati blog followers, I'll have to say that reading your blog pieces is what started me reading your books. Now I'm one of those "pre-order" people.

Kate - Hey! Let's hear more about that convicted Salem witch. I've always wanted to hear the rest of that story!

Vicki - Mornin'! I'm with you and Alafair regarding the word "feisty."

Barry - thanks for stopping by. I'm betting you'll be a fan of Alafair's work in no time.

Alafair Burke said...

Barry, your note to self consists of my five favorite words. Thanks!

And I'm glad to know I'm not the only person who realizes that "feisty" is not a compliment.

Thanks for having me here!

Rebecca Woodbury said...

Alafair... I am glad you share so freely. I too love your father (my favorite writer) and I love your dog. I am happy that you are so happy. You are well accomplished and your parents must be very proud of you. I would love to have you as a BFF. xo

stephanie said...

Alafair: I think being called "feisty" and "spunky" is the bane of female lawyer's existence. That's why I loathe those words. Your mileage may vary. I love your long-form bio. It's clear that you're not nearly neurotic enough, so if I ever did ask you about your parents, I'd gladly share ad-nauseum about my Jewish mom and black dad, 'cause there's neurosis aplenty to mine there.

You love of your fellow-authors is so genuine and endearing that I really get a kick out of it. It's almost as if you don't realize what a kick-ass writer you are and how much you belong alongside them. You do. See ya' around the FB watercooler. I'm a huge fan. I love seeing my hometowns of Portland and NY in your pages and I love your work. Thanks for the hours of diversion!


Susie Hudson said...

Alafair, I love your very open bio. I was first drawn to you when looking for new James Lee Burke novels and finding there was an Alafair. How could I not read an Alafair book after falling in love with the fictional Alafair. But what has kept me so interested is your total openness on Facebook. I've "friended" many authors that I love and read what "they" say. I soon realize that it is their people doing the posting. I knew immediately that you wrote your own. I love being a part of your "kitchen cabinet". I do wish more of my favorite authors would be more forthcoming with more information. I'd like to hear that voice better.

the old man down the road said...

The extended bio is a really good idea that I bet a lot of publishers might find odd, thus, all the more reason to go with it!

Having read anyone's real bio will change change their voice just bit in the reading. Hearing an author read is as revealing I think. My daughter and I saw Anne Lamott do an extended session and I had to re-read everything in her new, real, voice. Cool experience.

I won a Duffer Award and am trying to slow down my reading of Long Gone as best I can, but it's tough!

Deni Dietz said...

You ask: If you're a writer, what should your author bio REALLY say?

My Denise Dietz [mystery] bio is yawn. I have more fun with my Mary Ellen Dennis (pen name) book bio, which includes the following: "When she was very young, Mary Ellen developed a love for Alfred Noyes's poem The Highwayman and the Angelique series by Sergeanne Golan. Mary Ellen's fifth-grade teacher was gobsmacked to hear her rambunctious student state that someday she'd write novels inspired by her favorite poem and favorite series."

As a reader, I want to know something wonky or funny. Like, if you were General Santa Ana (writing a ghostly autobiography), I'd want to know that, when captured, you were naked except for your underpants.

Martha Paley Francescato said...

I am somewhat late to this discussion, but I want to add something anyway, prompted by what Alafair Burke wrote. I have taught college level literature for many (too many ) years, and the first thing I always told my students was not to confuse the AUTHOR with the NARRATOR, something especially difficult when it is a first person narrator. We want to know about the authors' lives because we are curious, but we should not interpret the works through the authors' lives.

I am now ready to start reading Alafair Burke!

Barry C. Allen said...

Thanks for the extended bio, Alafair. I greatly enjoy your novels. I'd give anything to be able to write well, let alone at a professional level. However, I am blessed to have had a father who taught speech, drama, and English lit. He also took me to the movies and that led to work in film preservation for many years at Paramount Pictures. I grew up in a house full of books. Everyone should be so lucky. Instead of having to go to some sort of summer camp, I rode my bike to the library and spent my summers with Doyle, Dumas, and Dickens. Keep the books comming. Think about writing a book about the writers you love. Warm regards and thank you for inviting your readers to communicate with you. Barry C. Allen, consulting film preservationist.