Interview with Marc Eliot, Author of “Michael Douglas: A Biography”

Behind The Books with Marc Eliot

Marc Eliot is an everyman’s biographer. Reading him, you might feel as if you're settled into a cozy chair by a crackling fire, leaning in close to be regaled by the family storyteller's enchanting tales of old Hollywood. You’d be right to listen; of the film biographies he’s written, Eliot has captured the life stories of acting royalty. He's played personal scribe to legends like Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen, revealing new facets to their personalities with every publication. And he’s settled into something of a comfortable niche: Most of his subjects are men who hail from a more traditional era. They are men who comfortably balance grit and class with ease, many of whom (let's face it)  have had their fair share of infidelities, and all of whom -- in the careful hands of Eliot -- are far more complex than their two-dimensional projections (both on screen and in tabloids) would suggest.

The latest silver fox of the silver screen to have his life documented by Eliot is Michael Douglas. Once you put down this thorough record, you'll likely be struck by the intensity of the actor's personal struggles. Douglas's budding acting career was defined as much by what he wasn't than by what he was. His father Kirk Douglas, the lion of American cinema who loomed large over his career, transitioned from the role of revered giant to something of a begrudging victim as Michael's waxing success was an affront to Kirk's waning career. If you want to learn more about the book, walk down the popcorn-dotted aisle to Signature, where their interview with Eliot dives deeper into his work on Michael Douglas. In this more personal Q&A with Marc Eliot, we learn of his (teasing?) interest in "Fifty Shades of Grey," the athletic mind of a writer, why bio-pics are like "bio-lite," and how aspiring writers need to just hop in the driver's seat and "drive!"

Read any great biographies or memoirs lately?

I'm reading Spalding Gray's notebooks. He was an amazing fellow. I first saw him down at the Wooster Theater, when he was in the Group's version of Sam Shepard's The Tooth of Crime. He was spectacular. And I always loved his monologue work. He was less easy in commercial movies and obviously very disturbed. The notebooks are a source of a great deal of biographical and emotional information.

What book are you currently recommending?

I'm tempted to say "Fifty Shades of Grey" but that would only be a joke! Actually, I am reading "Ulysses" by James Joyce. A new bio of Joyce has been published, and I want to read it. The New Yorker just wrote an interesting piece about it, and I think another look at Ulysses is probably a good idea before tackling the bio.

What's your writing routine? Where, when and how does it happen?

I'm up early and writing by nine or ten. I write until five or six. I don't take breaks, except to have coffee while I'm writing. I spend the first part of the day going over the previous day's writing, then plow forward. If I have to interview someone, or do research, on those days I don't write, because I have to have total concentration on the blank screen (written page). To me writing is athletic; you have to be in good shape mind and body to handle the physical and mental toll it takes. Sometimes in the evening I go out to see friends, or take in a movie. Most people work with others during the day and want to be alone at night. My schedule is reversed. When I'm in New York City, I like to see films at MOMA and at the Film Forum. Being an auteurist, it doesn't matter what the films are, or if I've seen them before. Film is an art form, and art should be viewed over and over again.

What five writers, dead or alive, would you invite to an imaginary dinner party?

Shakespeare, Henry Miller, Herman Melville, William Goldman, Bob Dylan. Sixth person -- Julia Child

Being a biographer, do your subjects' memoirs (if they have one) play a significant role in your research?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There is a reason they call one a memoir and one a biography. Too often memoirs tend to leave the bad stuff out and glorify the writer. Except me, of course. My memoir will be great!

Being predominantly a film biographer, in what way do you think the experience of reading a biography differs from watching a bio-pic?

First of all, I don't consider myself predominantly a film biographer. I have written at least as many books about music as I have about film and film people. Having said that, watching a bio-pic is usually watching bio-lite. There is simply not enough time to tell the story correctly. What great bio-pics have I seen? Certainly Citizen Kane, Welles' brilliant interpretation of the life of William Randolph Hearst, and Reds, Warren Beatty's bio-pic of John Reed (thanks in great part to Dede Allen's editing).

Book first or movie first?

Depends on the book and depends on the movie. I like all movies, and they're easier to get through in a single sitting. But a good book on a plane, a train in a foreign country, or when you have the flu...there's nothing better.

What's next on your reading list?

Not sure. There are a couple of things floating around my stack. I don't read in any given order. I might take another look at some Raymond Chandler. He's always good for a laugh.

To the aspiring writer, what advice would you give? What advice helped you become the writer you are today?

Read as much as you can. Try to write every day. Be a harsh self-critic. Try to get down on paper (or screen) exactly what it is you are trying to say. To me, writing is rewriting, something I learned when I lived and worked in Hollywood. Think of that first draft as a clump of clay. You have to mold that into something finished. The first draft is only the beginning. The best piece of advice I ever got was from Phil Ochs, who, when I told him I wanted to be a writer, said "Great. Then write." Something like when my father took me for my first driving lesson. He put me behind the wheel, started the car and said "Drive!" You have to get in there and do it.