Antarctica and research vessel | Shutterstock © Armin Rose
Author Margot Morrell joins Biographile for an in-depth Q&A about the process behind the research and writing of her inspirational biographies of President Ronald Reagan and the legendary explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led every member of his shipwrecked team from Antarctica back home alive. All that she learned along the way has informed the most recent evolution in her career -- the founding of Leadership Lives, a consulting firm focused on coaching and career development.
Margot Morrell: In Shackleton’s case, the central message is, if he can do that -- lead a team successfully through a harrowing two-year ordeal -- then what can’t we do? With his lesson in mind, I’ve coached myself to the top of a sales organization, co-authored an international bestseller, dealt with a tough cancer diagnosis, and overcome a serious bout with depression in my thirties. Thank you, Sir Ernest!
Ronald Reagan was a poor kid from nowhere who coached himself to the top of five separate professions -- radio, acting, public speaker, union leader, statesman. It wasn’t easy. Four times his life slammed into a brick wall. Every single time he picked himself up and kept moving forward. "Reagan’s Journey" is about how he did that and what we can learn from him.
For me, Shackleton is about high-level, big-picture, course-setting strategies. Reagan is about boots-on-the-ground, what-am-I-going-to-do-tomorrow tactics.
CC: How did you come to these two subjects?
MM: In the case of Shackleton, it was a fluke. In 1984 I was going out with a guy who was seriously into sailing. One day that spring, I picked up a copy of "Shackleton’s Boat Journey" at the Boston Public Library because it had a sailboat on the dust jacket. From the beginning, I was so intrigued by Shackleton’s against-all-odds story of getting through an incredibly tough time that I just kept pursuing it. First I read everything I could get my hands on and started to buy my own copies so I could make notes in the margins. Then I began collecting hard-to-find books. In 1991, I started going to the UK to seek out primary source documents. In 1995, I went to the Antarctic for the first time. On my way, I stopped by the New Zealand state library in Wellington. A conversation with a librarian there led me to transcribe a number of diaries from Shackleton’s Endurance expedition. At the time I just thought these were important historical documents that were being under-valued. My transcriptions of the diaries became the basis of "Shackleton’s Way."
In the case of Reagan, the backstory is that I had a front-row seat for the earliest days of the Reagan administration. At the time I was a researcher in the Boston office of a large executive search firm. I was loaned to the Reagan administration to work on staffing the administration’s top jobs. Working with Reagan’s key staffers, I headed home with a very different impression of Reagan from the usual caricature.
CC: How does your writing relate to your career as a motivational speaker?
MM: After the research I had done on Shackleton’s people-centered leadership style was mentioned in an April 1998 Wall Street Journal article -- long before the publication of "Shackleton’s Way" -- I was invited to speak at a conference of business executives. Months later someone who had been in the audience told me, “You changed my life.” That was pretty powerful.
CC: What other biographies or biographers have influenced you, and how?
MM: I remember in fourth grade lighting up with joy when I spotted “biographies” of little girls in the school library. I suppose they were precursors to the American Girl stories.
When I lived in Boston’s Back Bay in the 1980s, I used to go to a lot of author lectures at libraries and bookstores. Among others, I remember seeing David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Massie, and Barbara Tuchman. I loved those events.
Before coming across Shackleton’s story, I had been reading a lot about the British naval officer Admiral [Horatio] Nelson, but I’m pretty undiscriminating. Give me a book, I’m happy!
CC: Can you describe your process and craft a bit? How do you organize the chronology, anecdotes, and characters involved in your subjects' lives? How do you transition between research and writing?
MM: The outline is all-important. It serves as both your roadmap and the scaffolding for your book. The outline for "Shackleton’s Way" was 36 pages. For "Reagan’s Journey," I spent eighteen months creating an incredibly detailed timeline of his life to be able to see the twists and turns, themes and influences.
You hear about authors who lock themselves up in cabins to write their books, like Peter Benchley writing "Jaws." Being alone wouldn’t work for me. I’d just go into a funk. So I booked myself on a Caribbean cruise with a very clear goal of beginning to write the book. I never got off the ship, and it worked!
I always joke that the first thing to do if you’re serious about writing a book is to schedule an appointment with a professional photographer to get a headshot done. You’re never going to look so good again. Writing a book is really hard work!
Read on for more tips from Margot on researching and writing biography.