A True Story, Well Told…

GCRIProfessor Graeme Clark is one of Australia’s leading scientists, and the man behind one of the truly great inventions of the late 20th century: the cochlear implant (more commonly known as the ‘bionic ear’). Inspired by such great scientists as Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie, Professor Clark pursued a career in medical science. Having watched his father struggle with hearing problems, he decided early on that he wanted to find a solution to deafness. Sure enough, by his faithful persistence and methodical approach, Graeme ultimately fulfilled that dream, transforming the lives of thousands.

In this new biography (published by Allen & Unwin), Mark Worthing tells the inspiring story of Professor Clark’s life and work. James Cooper (Creative Writing Coordinator at Tabor Adelaide) recently sat down with Mark to find out more about what goes into writing a successful biography…

Can you briefly explain how you came to be the one working on GC’s biography?

I met Graeme initially through his support of the GCRI at Tabor Adelaide and felt there was a very important story to be told about his life. I did a bit of research and put together a brief proposal of how I would go about telling his story and Graeme agreed to allow me to write his biography.

A lot’s been written already about GC and the invention of the bionic ear – what’s distinctive about this biography?

The story of the bionic ear has been told from a technical standpoint, and Graeme himself has written about this and included much of his life story as well, but what was missing was readable third person account that focused on Graeme’s life (and not just the bionic ear) and which brought his story up-to-date.

GC’s Christian faith is an important facet of his story – was this ever an issue, working with a mainstream publisher?

One of the things that Graeme and I both agreed on from the beginning is that his Christian faith must come through clearly in the story. When the manuscript was taken up by a mainstream publisher I thought they may want this aspect curtailed somewhat. In fact, they wanted me to highlight it so that the book would also appeal to the specifically Christian market. Christians, apparently, are known to buy and read books and are seen as an important market. The publisher felt the way his faith was integrated into his life story would attract Christian readers and would not put off non-Christian readers. This was a very good result as it meant the story of Graeme’s faith would also be read by a general audience.

Lee Gutkind (the ‘godfather of creative nonfiction’) suggests that ‘storytelling’ lies at the heart of all good creative nonfiction. Would you agree, and did this affect your approach to the project?

Yes. This is true. Just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it cannot be a good story or that it should not be told well. One of the biggest challenges in writing the biography was in telling the story in a way that was interesting and would keep the reader wanting to go on to the next chapter. When everyone already knows how the story of the bionic ear ends, this is difficult. So I chose to start with that decisive, historic surgery and then tell the tale of Graeme and how he came to that point and what obstacles he had to overcome. So while the ultimate success of the project is well known, how Graeme overcame numerous obstacles and what motivated him were not well known, and these elements were used to add some narrative suspense to the story. So a non-fiction story, like a fiction story, still needs character development, a plot line and suspense, or else it is reduced simply to a list of facts.

I’m assuming the fact that GC is alive made the project easier. What were some of the challenges you met in gathering and collating material for the biography?

Writing about the life of someone who is still alive does have some advantages. It meant I could visit him and his family in his home, interview him, and call him up if some part of the story perplexed me. I had the well documented pieces of the puzzle from the public records, but also the added advantage of being able to fill in the gaps in the story with first-hand information, as well as being able to ask what Graeme was actually feeling at certain key moments. The downside to writing about a living person, if there is one, is that they will read your final work and you are always afraid they may not recognise their life from your account! Fortunately, and to my great relief, Graeme was very pleased with the portrayal of his life in the book.

How important was it to explain the scientific and technical aspects of the bionic ear, and was this ever in tension with the more personal side of the story?

It was important to the extent that his whole life story revolved around this one major scientific and technological breakthrough. It couldn’t be left out and the reader needed at least a basic understanding of what he was developing and why it was considered impossible my many, in order to understand the story. At the same time, I tried to keep the technical and scientific details to a minimum so that the average non-specialist reader could enjoy the story and not feel that they were missing out on anything or that they had taken a long technological detour from the story of Graeme as a person.

What surprised you most about GC the man in the course of working on this project?

Well, I suppose the biggest surprise was Graeme’s humility and how down to earth he is. To accomplish what he did requires a great deal of self-belief, and such people often seem impatient with those who do not understand what they are doing or who do not agree with them. Graeme is certainly extraordinarily tenacious, but also one of the most patient and humble people I have met.

What advice might you offer to someone interested in writing memoir/biography?

  1. Choose your subject well. Make sure that you actually find things deep down that you like and admire about the person, because you will be spending many months (and probably years) with their story and there is nothing harder that having to write the story of someone that you find uninteresting or unlikeable. It will also be hard to convince your readers that they are someone who they want to read about and like.
  2. Gather as much material as you can before you commit to the project to make sure that there is enough there to tell the story well.
  3. Get approval from the person or their family (if they are no longer living) if it is someone who is from our own time. It will be hard to write and to market a biography that is seen as being ‘unauthorised’.
  4. Find the key storyline, including obstacles the person had to overcome. Make sure you have a vision of how the story will be written or you will spend a long time collection material without being sure what to do with it.
  5. Don’t get bogged down in details that do not help tell the main story. In many case you will find far more material than you can fit into the story. Don’t be afraid to leave out some very interesting facts and anecdotes if they do not move the story along.
  6. Develop your main character just like you would a fictional character. This doesn’t mean making things up, but it means highlighting aspects of a person’s character, motivation, traits, history, etc that help the reader engage with that character. Sometime biographers fear doing this or think they do not have to as their main character is a real person, and the end result is a very flat character who seems less real than many fictional characters.  
  7. At the end of each chapter ask what is going to make the reader want to go on to the next chapter. Keep the tension alive.
  8. Just like with fiction writing, show as much as you can rather than simply telling. I could simply say Graeme is very tenacious but also very humble and leave it at that. But who wants to read that? Alternatively, I could tell a couple of stories that show his tenacity, and relate some accounts or include some dialogue that shows his humility.

If writing fiction helped with telling the GC story in an interesting way, how might writing biography help with your fiction writing?

This is an interesting question. As someone who had been writing a great deal of fiction before I took on the GC biography, I found myself in the early stages sometimes wishing I could just make up an event or character that would fit so well into the story, but of course, I couldn’t. In the end, I discovered that the real story was much better than anything I could have made up. While I have begun writing another biography and am hoping the process will be easier this time around, I did take a little break in between to work on a fiction project. It felt freeing at first to make up whatever I wanted, but I found that I missed not having a ready-made plot outline to follow. So I think I learned how important it is to have a basic story line in mind and to follow it. I also learned that seemingly uninteresting events and conversations could be made interesting if told well. So for good fiction writing we cannot simply rely on inventing a really spectacular event or character to make our story interesting. I think biographical writing can help to hone our skills of telling a story well and in an interesting way, even if at first aspects of it seem pretty ordinary.

Where to from here? Have you acquired a passion for biography or creative nonfiction now?

About midway through the project I couldn’t wait to be finished and get back to writing fiction. But by the time I finished I found I actually had come to enjoy biography writing. As it happened I had been approached by the family of a theologian who had opposed Hitler during the second world war and had worked closely with people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Someone had been working on his biography in the US and collecting data for several decades, but then he died without having actually written anything. They asked if I knew anyone who might like to take on the challenge. I did some basic research and found the story was a very interesting one and one I felt should be told. On the back of the GC biography I was able to find a publisher before I even started writing (which is a new experience for me). Knowing that what you are working on will be published is a huge motivating factor! So I find myself writing another biography. It is a very different story in many ways and this makes it feel like a whole new adventure as there will be entirely new challenges to face in working how to tell the story well. I am finding there is a lot more room for creativity and storytelling in biographies than I had imagined.

To order a copy of Graeme Clark: The Man Who Invented the Bionic Ear, please click here.

worthingAbout the author: Mark Worthing is an ordained Lutheran pastor and holds a PhD from the University of Regensburg in the history and philosophy of science, and a DTh from the University of Munich in ecumenical theology. His long-standing interest in the interface between science, faith and culture has led to his writing such books as Creation and Contemporary Physics (1997); When Choice Matters: An Introduction to Christian Ethics (2004); The Matrix Revealed: The Theology of the Matrix Trilogy (2004); God, Life, Intelligence and the Universe (2002); and God and Science in Classroom and Pulpit (2011). Mark was instrumental in establishing the Creative Writing Program at Tabor Adelaide, and he continues to write poetry and fiction as coordinator of the Adelaide-based writing group Literati. Mark lives on a small farm outside of Hahndorf with his wife Kathy and their children and is an avid runner and gardener.

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