LJ Talks with Journalist and Biographer Jonathan Eig

Journalist and biographer Jonathan Eig works to get personal with his subjects to convey their humanity in a fresh perspective. He talks with LJ about being drawn into writing a biography of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his approach to the project, the relevance of King, his warnings, and his true legacy.

Photo by Doug McGoldrick

Q&A: Jonathan Eig

Journalist and biographer Jonathan Eig works to get personal with his subjects to convey their humanity in a fresh perspective. That’s what he did in 2017’s Ali: A Life, his award-winning epic biography of Muhammad Ali (1942–2016). His latest book, King: A Life is about another famous man: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68). Eig talks with LJ about being drawn into writing a biography of King, his approach to the project, the relevance of King, his warnings, and his true legacy.

How did you decide on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a subject for your biography?

Ali led me to King. There’s this great TV news footage of Ali and King together in Louisville, and Ali is just cracking up King. And interrupting him! Who interrupts MLK, right? So I began asking people about that meeting. I talked to Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young and Dick Gregory and Harry Belafonte…and that’s when it hit me like an Ali punch to the head. All these people knew King and knew him well. I could ask them about King, about what he was really like, about what it was like to be around him. What brand of cigarettes did he smoke? What was his dog’s name? How did he cope with the pressure?

I’d read the great big books on King by Taylor Branch and David Garrow, as well as the essays of Michael Eric Dyson and James Baldwin, but I thought there might be room for a more intimate kind of biography…. Once I started, I found a ton of new archival material—not just the thousands of new FBI documents but also material that was personal to Martin and Coretta.

What would you say makes the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life most relevant for readers today?

I can’t think of another major American figure of the 20th century whose life is more relevant. King warned us. He told us that if we didn’t address our racism, our materialism, and our militarism, America would never fulfill the promise of its founding documents. And we killed him for it. Not only did we kill him, but we’ve also distorted his legacy. We’ve focused so heavily on his dream of racial harmony that we’ve lost sight of his radical anti-poverty and anti-war vision. We’ve forgotten that his “I Have a Dream” speech included an attack on police brutality, that he called for economic reparations. America is a country born of rebellion, and King is one of our boldest and most patriotic rebels. His faith and his patriotism called him to lead, and he was willing to give his life for the cause of justice, for love. He did it without money. Without political power. Without violence. It’s hard to imagine such a person ever coming along again. That’s why we need to keep telling his story. Because we still need him.

What draws and commits you to the subject of a biography project, considering the investment of emotion, energy, resources, and time such a project demands?

Writing a biography is a ridiculous job. It takes forever. It’s incredibly inefficient work. You disappear for five or six years. Your kids tell their friends that you don’t have a job. You drive your friends nuts with your obsession. There’s only one good reason to do it: you’ve got to love it. And that means you’ve got to believe your subject is worthy of your devotion. You’ve got to believe that a person you’ve never met is worth the commitment of a serious chunk of your life and attention. King would call it “agape”—a quest for love and understanding. Or so I like to tell myself, anyway.

Family appears key in your developing Martin Luther King Jr.’s persona, and within that several themes appear: mothers and sons; strong women—mothers, wives, lovers—fathers and sons; siblings?

I’m glad you noticed that. With King, I knew I could write the Selma march and the Birmingham protest. But could I make the reader understand what made this man so brave? Could I explain why he became depressed and anxious at times? Could I show you how he loved and feared his father? Also, could I correct some of the biases of earlier writers and give women their due? King grew up surrounded by smart, strong women, and he married another smart, strong woman in Coretta Scott King. That tells us a lot about him. When we make men like King into myths, we do them a disservice. We need to remember King’s humanity, including his flaws. King loved strong women, but he was not a faithful husband. He was deeply attracted to Coretta in large part because of her credentials as an activist and her passion for participating in the struggle for progressive causes. At the same time, he expected her to be a homemaker first. We can’t attempt to understand the man or the leader without understanding the complications behind his most intimate human connections.

What is your working strategy when approaching a biography project with massive archival materials and multiple earlier biographies? Where do interviews fit into that strategy—as finishing touches, starting points, follow-ups, or what?

I like to dive into the deep end—reading and interviewing as fast as I can, gasping for air, struggling, flailing, nearly drowning. Even though I’m not well prepared, I interview as quickly as I can, because no one lives forever, and the oldest people are often the wisest and best witnesses. That means I ask a lot of stupid questions in the early going, because I’m not yet an expert. I hope that my charm and curiosity buy me time so that I can follow up later, but it doesn’t always work that way. Ferdie Pacheco, my first Ali interview, tossed me out of his house because my questions were so stupid. Andy Young didn’t give me the boot, but he checked his watch a lot.

As I go along, I get a little smarter. And as I get into the interviews, I’m also exploring new archival materials. That helps a lot. I make it a point to share my archival finds with other writers and with my interview subjects. That way they can see how hard I’m working, and they can help me better understand the new materials.

What two or three biographers or biographies have you most enjoyed reading?

Only two or three? That’s rough. I’ll omit books by friends and name three books that have really stuck with me: Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand; Thelonious Monk by Robin D.G. Kelley; and Woody Guthrie by Joe Klein.


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