The Paris Review


Anyone else might have easily written off a life of Véra Nabokov as impossible. In the two major biographies of her husband—both written during her lifetime, when she controlled access to his papers—she is a cipher. Her letters, either lost or destroyed, are unavailable. But where other biographers see red flags, Stacy Schiff sees opportunity. Working from a hunch—that Véra’s reticence concealed her spectacular influence behind the scenes—she produced Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which forced a reconsideration of Nabokov’s career and won Schiff the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Biography. The book brilliantly demonstrates that Véra was far more than her husband’s secretary and chauffeur. She was his creative partner, a dynamic mind who played a crucial role as his sounding board and muse while silently seeing to his every need, both domestic and intellectual.

Schiff has made a specialty of wading into the gaps. Her books offer complex, thoroughly imagined, stylishly written portraits of figures whose histories had previously been subsumed in a murk of myth or otherwise obscured. In Saint-Exupéry (1994), she presents the author of the children’s fable The Little Prince as an urbane charmer and pioneering aviator with an unfortunate tendency to crash his plane. A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (2005) chronicles Benjamin Franklin’s years as a diplomat in Paris conducting a mission that, in Schiff ’s telling, casts the American Revolution in new light. In both Cleopatra (2010) and The Witches (2015), she pieced together dramatic narratives from disparate, terse, and unrevealing sources. Each book feels both surprising and inevitable, a departure from Schiff ’s previous work—she never repeats herself—but proceeding with her hallmark disdain for conventional wisdom and with a flair for the beautifully tossed-off aperçu.

Schiff ’s slender form radiates an intense energy: it’s easy to picture her as the high school track star she once was. She was born in Massachusetts in 1961 and received her B.A. from Williams College. After starting out as an editorial assistant at Basic Books, she held editorial positions at Viking and Simon & Schuster, as well as The Paris Review. Our conversations took place over several meetings earlier this year in her sun-filled office on the sixteenth floor of a Midtown high-rise, where she writes in longhand, on a legal pad, at a long glass desk. She proved a candid and generous conversationalist, though—as seasoned interviewers do—she often turned my questions back upon me and my own work as a biographer. Having noticed that I had a Diet Coke in hand during a public talk the night before our first conversation, she presented me with one at each of our meetings. Her drink is espresso, neat.

—Ruth Franklin


How did you come to write your first biography, Saint-Exupéry?


I reread Wind, Sand and Stars on my honeymoon and found myself enchanted all over again. Clearly one should pack carefully for one’s honeymoon. I also realized I knew next to nothing about the man behind that book. On the return, I began to hole up in the reading room of the New York Public Library during my lunch hours.

It turns out that the author of all those classics of flight was an unexceptional pilot, or at least a distracted one, which amounts to the same thing. The life was earthbound, short on the qualities that make the literature soar. Any number of things failed to add up. No existing work made sense of them. Which left me with that ticklish problem—the book you want to read is not on the shelf. As I was working in publishing at the time, I thought I should try to commission a new biography. Gradually, it dawned on me that I didn’t want to commission it. I wanted to write it.


Did you write that book while you were still working in publishing?


No, I left Simon & Schuster to write it. I assumed I would go back when I finished. But after you write one biography, you are—shockingly!—a biographer. Soon after publication, I began casting about for a new subject. Properly speaking, the impulse to bury yourself in someone else’s life is not normal. The first time, there is perhaps an excuse. Afterward, you could be expected to know better.


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