Tuesday, May 24, 2011


When I decided to write a biography of Berta Hoerner and her husband Elmer Hader, I had no idea how to go about it. I wanted to find out how these two diverse California artists could not only fall in love (that’s relatively easy) but build a life together. Having had a long marriage myself, I know that blending two lives is not quite as easy as it seems in the fairy tales. The two people grew up in different places, had quite different artistic expectations, had different temperaments—and yet managed to build a fantastic house together (and I know divorces caused by remodels!), combine their artistic backgrounds into the field of children’s book illustration, entertain an amazing group of friends that were active in different careers, entertain them and their friends every single weekend while still publishing over a hundred books during their lifetimes. Elmer’s final words were “I had a darn good life” and he did. Their friend Rose Wilder Lane said they were the only people she knew that made a success in living. Mary Margaret McBride, the Oprah of 1930s radio, said her friends though the Haders must be “figments of her imagination” because they seemed like such a wonderful couple.

In these days of constant exposure to unfaithful partners in unhappy marriages, it seemed timely to have an account of a positive one. I wanted to find out what made this work.

There were 40 boxes of material at the University of Oregon. That’s a lot of correspondence, manuscripts, and letters! My friend Joy Rich, Berta and Elmer’s niece, also had inherited much of the letters and cards as books the Haders sent to the families over the years. So unlike some biographers, I had enough materials right at hand, and probably wouldn’t need to go to the many other places that also had saved Hader artwork and manuscripts. At least there was enough to work with in the beginning.

The problem with so much material is keeping track of it. I asked my historian son, Harold, who has written some very well-received historical biographies, how to go about it. I didn’t want to have to go back to find references and names. Hal gave me good advice for organization, though reminding me that “everything gets entangled with everything else.” He suggested 1) setting up a file drawer for the project with a) "various subfolders for the information you collect and b) another set of subfolders for the various drafts of the chapters you'll be working on. I think the main things to keep track of are first and foremost the bibliographical information, to which you can attach the notes you take."

It’s those bibliographic references that I’m always having to recheck. Information comes in many forms. Secondary information, from books and articles, are easy to handle. But someone says something pertinent, and I either forget who said it or how the quote was stated.

Hal suggested making sure that notes from the primary and secondary sources are in good order, and also make notes connecting things together. “Keep track of things like 2) the persons they worked with (so, little biog. sketches, and the sources for them), 3) a timeliine of events, 4) publications they were involved with, and 5) other themes such as early children's literature or environmentalism.

I must admit I haven’t always followed through—and I am now finding I have to recheck references. But that’s my fault. I’m still looking for the magic way to organize, just like I once looked for the magic way to raise kids. There isn’t any magic. It’s just work.

The other advice I have almost always followed is to have paper and pencil by every chair in every room, especially the bathroom and by the kitchen sink. (My muse must be a water baby—she prefers to visit me when my hands are wet and busy with something else.)

And I also keep a little notebook in my bag for jotting down ideas whenever they come. “In the middle of a project all kinds of ideas come at odd times. You'll hardly use any of them in the end, of course, but you won't want to lose the good ones.”

Again, if anyone has items to add to this, please let me know. I firmly believe in networking!