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ODU's Blake Bailey Discusses Role as Philip Roth Biographer

Old Dominion University's Blake Bailey, regarded among the finest literary biographers at work today, casts a bemused but proud eye toward that acclaim.

"It's kind of like being one of the best Eskimo ice fishermen," said Bailey, the University's Mina Hohenberg Darden chair of creative writing. "It's not an overwhelmingly sexy business. On the other hand, it's good to be considered among the best of anything."

Bailey's reputation preceded him into his present, internationally prominent role as the official biographer of author Philip Roth, considered by many the greatest living American novelist.

Bailey was a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist for "Cheever: A Life," his biography of John Cheever. That book won the National Book Critics Circle award and Francis Parkman Prize.

In 2003, his biography "A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates," was a National Book Critics Circle finalist.

After exhaustively vetting him, Roth in 2012 granted Bailey unfettered access to his life and archives and promised his complete cooperation.

"Ever since then I have been in the employ of Blake Bailey," Roth said in the recent BBC documentary, "Imagine: Philip Roth Unleashed."

"He's absolutely diligent and wonderful. He's interviewed over 100 people . . . and I think he has 100 to go. He just pursues people and he goes right for the jugular."

Roth's praise is a departure from the skepticism he brought to his initial meeting with Bailey. According to the New York Times, Roth challenged Bailey as to "why a gentile from Oklahoma" was qualified to be the biographer of a Jewish author from Newark, N.J.

Said Bailey to the Times: "I pointed out that I'm not an aging bisexual alcoholic with an ancient Puritan lineage and I still managed to write a biography of John Cheever."

Since their agreement, Bailey said he and Roth have logged about 100 hours of formal interviews in addition to "a lot of just sitting around chatting.

"(Roth) is one of the funniest people alive," Bailey continued, "and I'm a decent audience for funny people, so we get along fine."

Bailey also has written "Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson" (2013) as well as his memoir "The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait" published last year, which also was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

His bio-subjects, of course, were long deceased by the time Bailey turned loose his powers of research, intuition and interpretation on their professional and personal lives.

For his part, Roth is cooperating and has encouraged friends to do so, though Bailey said he will write with total independence. He is the only person privy to Roth's personal files until 2050, when the Library of Congress will make the material available to the public.

"'Authorized' means different things to different people, not all of them good," Bailey said. "Some people think it means that you're telling an expurgated-or at least restricted to some extent - version of the life.

"Philip Roth has read my other books, and he doesn't expect that. What he expects is accuracy, above all, and he's been nothing but helpful."

Beginning with "Goodbye, Columbus" in 1959, Roth has written 31 books; his 1997 novel "American Pastoral" won the Pulitzer Prize. He also is a multiple winner of the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Much of Roth's fiction is autobiographical and he has written two memoirs. But Bailey, in a 2013 interview with the Library of America blog Reader's Almanac, said it is wrong to consider his biography as "competing" with Roth's own work.

"What I try to do . . . is learn everything, or anyway as much as possible, and then determine what the main themes are and how they relate - if at all - to the work and vice-versa," Bailey said.

"The themes are multifarious, the contradictions are vast, and to what extent can they be resolved? That's the good biographer's task."

More information on Blake Bailey's work is available on his website. He can also be followed on Twitter: @BlakeBaileyOn.

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