Megan Marshall's third biographical work, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, was published in February 2017. A student of Elizabeth Bishop in her last Advanced Verse Writing class at Harvard, Marshall has written an innovative book in which biography alternates with memoir. She is the author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Biography and Memoir and the 2014 Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction, and two other nonfiction books. A member of the American Heritage Dictionary's Usage Panel, Marshall has published numerous essays and reviews in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate Online, The New York Times Book Review, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, The Boston Review, and elsewhere. Her biography The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism (Houghton Mifflin, 2005; Mariner Books, 2006) won the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians; the Mark Lynton History Prize, awarded by the Anthony Lukas Prize Project jointly sponsored by the Columbia School of Journalism and Harvard's Nieman Foundation; the Massachusetts Book Award in nonfiction; and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography and Memoir in 2006. She is the recipient of the first Outstanding Teacher Award presented by Emerson's Graduate Student Association in 2012.
What do you do best?
Mine texts for the telling phrase, the potent image, the apt quotation—just what I learned to do in lit classes in high school and college, and then as a journalist doing interviews. My biographies sing with the words of my subjects, carefully chosen and worked into a narrative.
What makes you the best?
I’m both patient and restless. I’m patient enough to spend twenty years writing a biography (and then seven for the next one, three for the latest), but I can’t just lay out the facts or do the expected. My first book wove three life stories together, and dared to stop at the halfway point—asserting that “the rise of” plot, normally employed only with presidents or eminently famous men, could be used in writing about lesser known women. My second biography took the novel as its narrative model, while sticking absolutely to the facts. My third alternated biography and memoir as I told the life story of a poet who had also been my professor. I can’t let well enough alone.
What are your aspirations?
Writing and teaching are my chosen occupations, and I hope to continue to do both with close attention and in a spirit of generosity. I will push the limits of biographical convention again in some way—whether in choice of subject or form, I don’t know yet. And . . . I’d like to brush up my French, learn new pieces on the piano, take a vacation that has no underlying research agenda (though those trips have been the best!).
I spent twenty years researching and writing my first biography, The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. The year after it was published, my 25-year marriage was falling apart, and the favorable reviews of the book, which had scarcely penetrated my consciousness at that difficult time, were in the past. What I’d do next, I couldn’t imagine. Then startling good news began to arrive: the book had won the Frances Parkman Prize for the best-written book of American history (I was the 4th woman to win in 50 years), the Mark Lynton History Prize, the Massachusetts Book Award, a finalist for the Pulitzer. Later life success is the best kind—you know you’ve worked hard and persistently for it (and so must deserve it), and the luster is bound to last long enough to warm you in old age.
Most Challenging Moment?
One day, halfway through first grade, I arrived at school and was told to go to the second grade classroom. I was reading better than anyone in my class, and they decided to move me up a grade. But I wasn’t prepared in any other subject, and I spent years struggling to keep up. The feeling never left me, though quite often now I choose the challenge and enjoy the chase.
Every problem has a solution.
Favorite People/Role Models?
The women I’ve written about—Margaret Fuller as a pioneering feminist intellectual, Elizabeth Bishop as a genius with words and survivor by force of will. The Peabody sisters—Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia—whose shining lives inspired me to become a biographer.
I love mountain lakes—a little hotel in Varenna on Lake Como, a small family cabin on Echo Lake in the Sierras.
Elizabeth Bishop’s rhyming dictionary, one of two she worked with—signed!
Opera—not old, but new. John Adams’s Nixon in China, Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin, Scott Wheeler’s Naga—fantastic immersive performances in Los Angeles, New York, and Boston during the past twelve months. I’m learning, I love it.