Sign up to the newsletter

Interview with Sonia Purnell

We spoke with historian and author Sonia Purnell about 'First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill', and picked up some useful writing tips on things to consider when working on a biography.

On finding the balance between research and writing

'Research is so important with the biography. Afterwards it is a story and, in a way, it's a story like a novel except it's true, so you should let it unfold in the way a novel would.'

Were the more well-documented movements of Winston Churchill a help or hindrance?

'There is a great deal about Churchill and very little about Clementine. But because we know a lot about Churchill, about where he was and what he was doing, it gave me clues as to where she might be and then I could start looking into documents in those places. On the other hand, there are all these books written about him that barely mention her, but that was a challenge in a way.'

On presenting history as objectively as possible

'I think you have to talk to as many people as possible who are still alive. I was very fortunate to find 5 or 6 of her PA's who are still alive. They gave a great intimate, personal view of her. You have to look at as many sources as you can.'

The importance of interviews

'You need to try to think of how they might have seen the story or what their vantage point was. Ask questions that they feel they can answer. Obviously towards the end you can ask them to speculate, but most people are most comfortable if they're talking about what they know and therefore they're most likely to be forthcoming.You have to put yourself in their shoes as much as you can.'

Sonia’s advice to authors working on a biography

'I think that choosing the right person, that's the most important, the most difficult because it's always a gamble. Follow your hunch. If this is someone who is really going to interest you and someone you think you can tell your world about, things that the world didn't know before, then just stick with it and throw everything you have at it.'

Watch the full interview with Sonia below.