Author Bios: What’s Missing from the Back Inside Flap?

I promise this next sentence is an honest intro to today’s post, not just BSP: This weekend I officially joined the board of directors of Mystery Writers of America and became President of the New York chapter. (Pause for applause.)

In preparation for the annual MWA board funfest (aka orientation day), the unparalleled Margery Flax requested a biography to distribute to fellow board members. I sent her the usual jacket copy:

A formal deputy district attorney in Portland, Oregon, Alafair Burke now teaches criminal law at Hofstra Law School and lives in New York City. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she is the author of the Samantha Kincaid series, which includes the novels Judgment Calls, Missing Justice, and Close Case. Most recently, she published Angel’s Tip, her second thriller featuring Ellie Hatcher.

Her response was polite, quick, and resoundingly clear, something like, “Are you sure that’s all you want to include? This is usually a longer fun one, only for internal board distribution.”

In other words, Yawn, Snore, Zzzz….

I can take a hint, so I gave it another try. Borrowing in part from my website, I allowed myself thirty minutes to hammer out something that would give those who hadn’t met me yet some sense of who I am and where I’ve been. Margery’s assurance that this was purely internal was freeing.

After I submitted my specially-designated “MWA board bio,” I couldn’t stop thinking about the sterileness of those book jacket author bios, scrubbed clean of all personality. As writers, we’re committed to exploring the human stories that lurk beneath the superficial, but when asked to describe ourselves: Yawn, snore, zzzz…..

I’ve spoken a few times during author appearances about a hypothetical world in which books (like the law school exams I grade as a professor) would be published anonymously, their authors known only by a randomly assigned number that readers could use to “identify” the authors they consistently enjoyed. After all, what separates reading from television and film is the active role of our mind’s eye. To read books without knowing an author’s age, gender, race, religion, region, education, attractiveness, or work experience might truly unleash our imaginations.

Despite my musings about a utopia of anonymous publishing, I’ve come to realize why publishers emphasize (and readers desire) personal information about authors. The most delightful unexpected benefit of writing has been meeting some of my favorite authors. I already read these folks religiously before I met them, but I’ll admit that I read them differently — and more richly — now. I recognize the wry winks in Laura Lippman’s most leisurely paragraphs. I hear Michael Connelly’s quiet voice in Bosch. I think I really know what Lisa Unger means when she writes on Ridley Jones’s behalf that she’s a “dork.” And those short, little, maddeningly frustrating sentences from Lee Child are now sexy as hell.

But I didn’t get any of that from the book jackets.

As the traditional print media and personal appearance opportunities for authors to introduce themselves to readers continue to dry up, many of us have taken to the Web. We do that not only to get our names out there, but also because we recognize that readers are more likely to experience our written work as intended if they come to it with a sense of who we are. (For example, an online reviewer once dissed a line of Ellie Hatcher’s, something like “kicking it old school.” The fact that it’s corny to talk that way is of course precisely why she’d say such a thing. And if the reader “got” Ellie or anything about my work, he’d know that’s — ahem — just how we roll.)

So as we’re knocking ourselves out to convey our souls to readers, maybe we should take another look at book jacket bios. The publishers are going to type something beneath that favorite photo: It may as well be interesting. And so, even though Margery promised to keep this unsanitized bio a secret, I’ve decided to blast it out to the world:

Alafair Burke is the author of six novels in two series, one featuring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher, the other with Portland prosecutor Samantha Kincaid. Although reviewers have described both characters as “feisty,” Alafair might accidentally spill a drink on anyone who invokes that word to describe her or anyone she cares about.

Alafair grew up in Wichita, Kansas, whose greatest contribution to her childhood was a serial killer called BTK. Nothing warps a young mind quite like daily reports involving the word, bind, torture, and kill.

From Kansas, Alafair dreamed of fleeing west. Fearing their daughter might fall prey to a 1980’s version of the Manson Family (um, Nelson?), her parents prohibited her from attending school in California. Ironically, she ended up at Reed College, where the bookstore sold shirts that read “Atheism, Communism, Free Love,” and Alafair found herself (lovingly) nicknamed Nancy Reagan and The Cheerleader.

From Reed, Alafair went to the decidedly less hippy-ish Stanford Law School. Although she went with dreams of becoming an entertainment lawyer so she could make deals at the Palm and score seats at the Oscars, she eventually realized she had watched “The Player” one too many times, and instead decided to pursue criminal law because she was obsessed with the Unabomber.

Most of Alafair’s legal practice was as a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, where she infamously managed to tally up a net loss on prison time imposed during her prosecutorial career. (Help spring two exonerated people from prison to put a guy called the Happy Face Killer behind bars, and it really ruins your numbers.) As hard as it is for her to believe, she is now a professor at Hofstra Law School.

When Alafair is not teaching classes or writing, she enjoys rotting her brain. She runs to an iPod playlist with three continuous hours of spaz music (think “It Takes Two” by DJ Rob Bass, “Smooth Criminal” by Alien Art Farm, and “Planet Claire” by the B-52’s). She insists that Duran Duran, the Psychedelic Furs, and the Cure hold up just as well as the so-called classics. She watches way too much television, usually on cable. She wants Tina Fey to be her BFF. She likes to drink wine and cook.

She discloses TMI on the Interwebs, blogging regularly at Murderati and logging teenage-territory hours on Facebook. She will golf at the drop of a hat even though she’s bad at it.

Most importantly, Alafair loves her husband, Sean, and their French bulldog, The Duffer. She also loves her parents, but if you ask her about them, she’ll ask you about yours.


What do you think? Should all authors let loose on their jacket flaps? Would it affect that crucial decision of whether to purchase? Would it change how we read? If you’re a writer, what should your author bio REALLY say? And if you’re a reader, what would you like to know about some of your favorite writers?