University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Life Stories

Biographer William Souder embeds his subjects firmly in their places and times. Next up, John Steinbeck.

Photograph by Steve Niedorf

You could prop open a castle door with a copy of The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, by Jackson Benson, a cradle-to-grave biography that clocks in at over 1,100 pages. Jay Parini’s 535-page John Steinbeck: A Biography, published a decade later, in 1995, doesn’t miss many details either.

So why has William Souder spent the last couple of years crafting his own take on the famous author of The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men—an opus currently titled Mad at the World, John Steinbeck and the American Century and due out sometime in 2019?

“The question is always, ‘Well, what do you bring to the table,’” says Souder (B.A. ’77), sitting in his living room surrounded by meadow and prairie in Grant, Minnesota, about 30 miles east of Minneapolis. “And the answer to that is, my perspective. My way of telling a story.”

That quiet confidence is not misplaced. Back in 2003, Souder, who had never before written a biography and was 54 years old, decided to tackle the life of the famous artist and ornithologist, John James Audubon. Not only had there been previous books about Audubon, but Souder discovered just a few months into the process that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes was scheduled to put out an Audubon bio at the same time his was due. 

Learning on the fly, Souder stuck to “his perspective,” which he defines as “bringing the person to life. Giving the reader an actual sense of the human being by exploring the time in which they lived.”

“For me, it is always about the story—always about the story.”
William Souder

There are entire chapters of Under a Wild Sky, John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America, where Audubon is rarely if ever mentioned. But the freedom afforded by the wildness of America in the early 19th century—where Europeans like Audubon encountered a vast trove of never-before-seen plants and animals, and Audubon could reinvent his shady past into something more noble—brims from Souder’s prose. Under a Wild Sky beat Rhodes to the bookshelves and became a Pulitzer finalist. 

Souder’s second biography, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, published in 2012, again enlivened his subject, the groundbreaking ecologist and author of Silent Spring, via Souder’s acute sense of contextualization. “Without overstating his point, Souder draws a portrait of cultural and political life in the middle of the 20th century and places Carson squarely at the center of it,” gushed the Washington Post. Added the Wall Street Journal, “This is the book to read about Carson’s short life and work.”

Souder was born in Minneapolis in 1949, moved to Florida in the second grade, and didn’t return to Minnesota until enrolling at the U in his mid-20s after four years in the Navy. He was interested in film and photography, but the closest he could get to that in the ’70s was the journalism program. That’s where he was mentored by legendary U professor George Hage, who encouraged him to become a writer.

Covering the science beat at the Minnesota Daily served him well when nearly a quarter century later, schoolchildren discovered a cluster of deformed frogs in the small town of Henderson, Minnesota. Souder’s story about the frogs and their possible damage from chemicals landed on the front page of the Washington Post, led Dan Rather’s newscast, and drew a call from a literary agent in rapid order. The result was his first book, A Plague of Frogs, published in 2000. 

By then, Souder was married with four children and building the spacious red colonial-style house out in Grant. His career had been spent writing and editing weekly newspapers and magazines in Boston and the Twin Cities. A Plague of Frogs made him realize that his knack for broad, contextual writing was best displayed on a book-length canvas.

Now that the house is an empty nest, Souder eats a leisurely breakfast and catches cable news before heading up to his office at about 8 o’clock. He line edits what he wrote the previous day and launches into the next book segment—to generate momentum he always quits for the day with the next morning’s assignment in mind. A typical day gets him close to 2,000 words by midafternoon.

“Probably the biggest challenge in writing biographies is organizing the research materials,” Souder says. When writing the Carson book, he bought his own refrigerator-sized microfilm reader. Researching Steinbeck required reading everything he could find by the prolific author of novels, nonfiction, screenplays, television scripts, plays, political speeches, and correspondence—not to mention those two weighty Steinbeck biographies.

Souder spent months in California, at the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State and the Steinbeck Collection at Stanford. At the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, he transcribed a large box of previously undocumented tapes of interviews with everyone in town who had known Steinbeck. He had to throw up temporary shelves in his office to accommodate dozens of binders filled with keys and codes to where he’d cataloged his research.

It’s a fundamental part of a biographer’s process, but for Souder, not the most vital part. “For me, it is always about the story—always about the story,” he says. “When I spoke to magazine-writing classes, I told the students that I used to gather up all my notes and transcriptions and interviews and reporting and then close the folder and write as much of the story as I could without looking at my materials. Because some of your most important decisions are going to be what you leave out.”

As we talk in late September, Souder estimates he is two weeks from finishing his Steinbeck book. He spends an hour regaling me with Steinbeck details, but the first two minutes define his frame. Steinbeck was born in 1902, when no one was driving cars or flying planes. He died a few months before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. During that time, America changed from a rough-and-tumble frontier to a world power.

By now, the book is in the publishing process. If Souder is true to his word, on the day he finished it, he took a long walk alongside nearby Birch Lake, as he had for the completion of his three previous books. The estimated length of this one: a mere 350 pages. 

Britt Robson writes about the Timberwolves and music for a variety of local and national publications.

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