For this biographer, a mantra: ‘Every life is a gift’

As an avid people watcher, I try to imagine the lives of those whose paths cross mine. I devour biographies with a similar desire to know the details of someone’s life: what shaped their thinking, how they became who they are, and especially how they overcame obstacles. I relish nonfiction books that take an unexpected tack on a well-known figure (see “Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet,” reviewed here).

Earlier this spring, I had an opportunity to chat with Megan Marshall, this year’s winner of the Biography International Organization Award for her body of work, which includes three biographies, all of extraordinary women. Her 2013 book, “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life,” won the Pulitzer Prize. She spoke about the role of a biographer as “helping readers bridge the gap between their experience and a life from the past.”

Good biographies can serve as inspiration, giving readers a front-row seat on another person’s struggles. In the case of Fuller, a 19th-century journalist, feminist, and colleague of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “she had a vision for herself that really didn’t exist” [in society],” Ms. Marshall says. “She speaks to readers today because she … developed this theory of ‘no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.’ They’re all sliding into each other. Nobody else was writing like that.”

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