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When 'Biography' Calls

April 26, 1998|Noel Riley Fitch

Five years of archival digging, 400 interviews and more than a year of writing--that's what it took for me to write my biography of Julia Child, "Appetite for Life." No wonder I was worried when I was asked--and even encouraged by my publisher, Doubleday--to turn over my 500-page manuscript to a producer from A&E's "Biography" who wanted to use it as the basis for a one-hour program.

"We would also like to use all your photographs," the producer said seven months before "Appetite for Life" was to be published.

Gulp. Cooperate or be co-opted.

At first blush, this all might sound like a wonderful idea. After all, it would be great publicity for my book, and I was promised (although nothing was ever put in writing) that the biography would air two weeks after publication, thus giving a boost to sales. But the experience was nerve-racking and without remuneration. And I was left feeling used.

I gave the producer the names and telephone numbers of people to be interviewed ("talking heads"); a marked map of Pasadena, where Child had been born and reared; and a full day of my life for me to be interviewed. I was to be a talking head for a few colorful moments, but my writing would lie behind the full hour.

That unseen hand was certainly visible to me when the crew arrived for my interview: Dozens of yellow Post-its sprouted from three sides of my thick manuscript now in the producer's grasp. When they unfolded their lights and cameras, I envisioned my book on legs in a race with the television production crew.

When the one-hour rough cut of the documentary based on my book--the first ever written on Child--arrived for me to preview, there were some nice touches: They had found rare period clips of wagon trains and wartime China, where Child served in the OSS, America's first espionage organization. The filmed story skimmed the tops of the waves of Child's rich life, but the visuals were something I could never have offered the reader.

The bad surprise came as the film ended. While my publisher was thanked in the credits, neither my name nor the book title was mentioned (although the producer had appropriated a variation of my own title). It took the intervention of my tough but soft-spoken agent to get what I should not have had to fight for: a full-screen "special thanks" acknowledgment in the credits.

However, I was gratified to see that when the final cut was shown on television in mid-October--two weeks after the launch of the book, as promised--"Biography" host Peter Graves held up my book and called it (and me) by name as he signed off.

I only hope those 2 million homes that A&E said would be watching actually tuned in. (If not, they may have seen the replay on April 24.) To my relief, when all was said and done, it seemed worth all my anxiety, worry and frustration. And what the heck, it couldn't hurt sales.

Cooperation was indeed the better choice. *

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