Wednesday, May 13, 2020


Sheila Mitchell:
Reflections on Writing a Biography

I embarked on writing a biography of my husband HRF (Harry) Keating when the first Christmas came round after he had died. I had decided to stay at home on my own rather than join any of the rest of the family and needed to think positively. However, being an actor rather than a writer it took me a long time and more than one false start before I arrived at the point when I was ready to let anyone else read it. I was always sure that I wanted the book to be as much about his writing as about his day to day life but it wasn’t until I found an American article published in 1987 that I was certain it was the right thing to do. Contemporary Authors, a multi-volume publication had asked authors how, if they were to do so, they would approach writing their autobiography. Harry had started his article: My life in terms of the events that have occurred has been no different from thousands, from millions of others. It is worth no particular record. But the books that it has come to me to write are perhaps, perhaps, worth considering. Had Harry somehow conveyed to me what I should be doing? I did not stop to find out. I was reassured – the books would be at the centre of the biography.

I had a massive amount of reading to do. Not only were there sixty-five published books and countless newspaper and magazine articles but he had also kept a diary for a short period and although containing a certain ‘dear diary’ element, it was largely a chronicle of self-education detailing, as it did, his reading lists – he read voraciously - as well as the descriptions of visits to the theatre and concerts and opera and above all, being able to listen to the wireless as the BBC was then called. Those were the days before television and the licence fee was solely used to fund radio, a device harnessed by the visionary Lord Reith to make programmes to ‘inform, educate and entertain the masses.’

The diaries began when he was nineteen, the Second World War was over and he was called up to do his national service on VJ (Victory over Japan) Day, 1945. He kept writing them until after he was demobbed and was in his second year at Trinity College, Dublin where, having overcome many obstacles he had arrived to read Modern Languages.

I was also lucky to find that, subsequently and with percipience, he had kept all the reviews the books had received, and there were hundreds, good and bad, each stored in the flap of the dust jackets of the first editions. As such, I was enabled to quote what others thought rather than relying on what might be considered my own biased views.

Of course it would not have been a biography if it was just a chronicle of his work. The early chapters tell the story of his origins and life up to the time the first book was published and from there on each book was set against the background of what was happening in his life. Throughout, I tried to follow Harry’s advice that a book should have an ongoing narrative that would keep the reader glued to the page in their desire to know what will happen next.

I had been worried that I would be unable to write enough words for a conventional book but it was soon apparent the problem would be to keep the word-count down. In fact I was enjoying the experience of writing and was helped by occasionally feeling that Harry was leaning over my shoulder and admonishing me for some outrageous piece of grammar or other inaccuracy. Not that he himself had not broken many of the rules, particularly in the early books like Death and the Visiting Firemen where much of the narration was deliberately written without verbs but that was a conscious decision, my mistakes were just that, mistakes.

It was not until much later when I was asked to write an article about Harry’s non-fiction books – there are ten of them - that I realised that I had in the biography devoted too little space to them. Especially as they reveal as much, if not more, about his beliefs on writing in general but particularly about what makes crime fiction, at its best, superior to what is loosely called main-stream or literary fiction. I had covered this point but perhaps with insufficient quotation from the actual books.

There can be no doubt about the fact that it was very therapeutic for me to go back over the eighty-four years of Harry’s life and the fifty-eight years of our marriage, recalling all the ups and downs, but I hope I have also managed to convey to others in H.R.F. Keating:A Life of Crime the achievements and personality of this most remarkable man.

The British actor Sheila Mitchell has just made her literary debut at the respectable age of 94, with a biography of her late husband, the acclaimed crime writer H.R.F. Keating. As executor of his literary estate she discovered a wealth of material in his study, where the majority of his books had been writing: diaries, notebooks of research into each book, unpublished manuscripts and the thorough plotting of an unwritten novel. This year also sees the reissue of all 21 available Inspector Ghote novels, HRF Keating's beloved detective. 

1 comment:

Laura Solis said...

I will be teaching biographies later in the school year. I love that your pack includes interviewing and biography writing about a friend or classmate. Thanks for sharing amazing expertise.