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  • Nelda Bedford Gaydou

POSTER PURGATORY: Writing a Biography


My father, now about to turn 97, has always had a most impressive memory. When he entered his 80s, I knew I couldn’t put off writing my parents’ biography any longer if I wanted to tap into it.

What possessed me to embark on such a project? History (the Great Depression; World War II, the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s). Geography (U.S. Southwest, Costa Rica, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile). Family stories. Inspiration. My parents’ experiences, from growing up, through their forty-plus-year career as missionaries in Argentina, to their active retirement, reflect those of their entire tough-as-a-boot generation. But their particular manner of living them is a deep source of inspiration.

My father suggested a book with five chapters, one for each member of our family. “That should be plenty,” he said. I rolled my eyes. So began the battle to get the information I wanted. He wanted me to transmit a series of dates, places and facts that he considered essential. I wanted his stories.

I have long been a fan of James Herriot, whose books consist of collections of loosely connected stories that nevertheless paint a vivid picture of the private and work life of a Yorkshire vet, particularly in the 1930s. I decided on a similar anecdotal approach. While Herriot’s stories are practically all set in the same place over a limited period, mine would have a very broad geographical range and span over a century.

The challenge was to record all those stories and fact check them. My parents were living in the U.S., while I was in Argentina and only saw them once a year. I returned from my visits with folders full of old letters and newspaper clippings. Fortunately for me, my mother had kept meticulous files that provided me with an abundance of original source material. My father and I set up Skype calls during which I would pick his brains to get the details of story after story. I had heard many of them, of course, but along the way many more popped up. He told me that his memories were like a video so that he was able to recall not only what happened, but also specific places and conversations as far back as his early childhood. I also relied on his memory of the stories his mother used to tell and of my mother’s recollections of her early years. He would often stop and say that no one would be interested in all of that, and I kept insisting that those stories were exactly what people would like. I assured him that they would bring out the facts he wanted to make known.

I worked one anecdote at a time, in roughly chronological order. First, I would take notes in a blue “cuaderno” (the exercise book shown in the photo) during our relentless Q&A Skype sessions. Next, I would research as much of the background as possible, in the documents I got from my parents, reference books and the Internet. The accuracy of my father’s recollections never ceased to amaze me. Then I would write the story in longhand before typing it into my computer.

This process was great fun. I continually allowed myself to get sidetracked into fascinating ramifications and learned a myriad of important and trivial facts about my family, general history and geography, many of which I could not resist incorporating into the narrative. Soon I realized that, at the rate that I was going, the book would be quite large, so I decided to divide it into two volumes, one through the mid-1960s and the other up to the present day.

Because I was working full time as a translator, it took me several years to finish the first volume. Then there was the little matter of actually getting the book published. I had no idea how to go about this, but my brother was ahead of me and introduced me to his publishing company. The manuscript was accepted, and the publisher suggested adding photos in the middle of the book, so I pored over hundreds of slides and snapshots to find a few that were representative of each period. I asked my niece, a talented artist, to design the front and back covers, which would make them even more meaningful for my parents.

Finally, To the Ends of the Earth was ready to print and came out in 2015. I submitted it to the contest organized by the International Book Awards and, to my surprise and delight, it won first place for biography.

Now that I had my system down, the second volume took much less time and From Sea to Sea was published in 2018. A YouTube trailer sums the two books up beautifully: https://www.amazon.com/Sea-Nelda-B-Gaydou/dp/194632941X

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