When you feel stuck at work, at home, or in love, sometimes it helps to take inspiration from the avant-garde artists that have walked among us. But if you’re a die-hard fiction lover and wouldn’t read a biography with a ten-foot pair of reading glasses, there’s still a perfect bio genre for you: the Fic-y Bio. You can read about everything from what it was like to become Marie Antoinette to how the wives of America’s top scientists survived living at Los Alamos when the atomic bomb was being built. My favorites are the fic-y bios of the writers, artists, and dancers who created the art that continues to inspire us today. Here are some of the best of the bunch:
The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone
This story of Michelangelo is one of the earliest books in the genre, but it’s as juicy as any of today’s tell-alls. There are all the flourishes of the Renaissance. The infamous Medicis. Unpopular popes. Art made of gold, for goodness’ sake. You will be transported.
Eight Girls Taking Pictures, by Whitney Otto
Tina Modetti and Imogen Cunningham were two of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. Otto focuses on them and six other female photographers in her imaginative novel that examines what it meant to be an artist and a woman at a time when women were barely allowed to drive, let alone pick up a camera and show the world what they saw.
Dancer, by Colum McCann
Perfectionists will see themselves in this brutal book about Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev. Covering Nureyev’s life from peasanthood to celebrity, the novel examines the dangerous obsession that professional dancers must embrace to pursue their passion. Read. Sigh. Pick up your pen. Grab your brush. Put on your shoes. Start again. Whatever our craft is, we are never done.
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler
The glamorous bits of The Great Gatsby are all here: decadent parties, celebrity, and scandal. But this time the story is told not by the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, but by his wife, Zelda. Sensual and glamorous, this novel will draw you in.
The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo, by F.G. Haghenbeck
There are lots of books told from the perspective of a wife, mistress, or other idle woman living with a Big Bad Powerful Artist Man. This isn’t one of them. This is the story of the great painter Frida Kahlo as imagined by Mexican novelist Haghenbeck. He imagines the writer’s favorite recipes, love letters, and musings as though he has uncovered a diary. The result is unforgettable.
Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier
This book about Vermeer’s famous painting may have started the modern craze of fic-y bios. It does what the best of them do: pulls the reader into the chaos and beauty of life as an artist; creates a rich world with real and imagined historical and personal details; and inspires the reader to see the world differently. And it does all three absolutely beautifully.
What’s the best fictionalized biography you’ve read?