A Jersey Girl, hailing from Glen Rock, Lisa Rogak is a New York Times best selling author, and as stated in The Vail Daily News the author who has “written the most absurd selection of books known to man”. And they’re not kidding. Lisa has published books and newsletters, written about food, travel and wine, started a greeting card company for cats and dogs, bought and sold funeral equipment, and is an avid hearse driver, monkey spoon collector, and classically trained pianist in her free time. It’s little wonder then, that Lisa has written on everything from dogs to death, including ‘Stones and Bones of New England’ (2004) and ‘Death Warmed Over’ (2004), and a string of biographies on everyone from Shel Silverstein to Stephen King, Dan Brown to The Obamas, and now Charleston’s favourite son Stephen Colbert.
In a 2009 interview with the Charleston ‘Post and Courier’ you stated that “I have no desire to write any more bios because now I know how to do it. It’s no longer a challenge.” What was it about this biography that changed your mind?
Well, i say that after i finish every biography. It’s so intense, first the research phase, and then the writing phase, which is the exact opposite of research and stresses an entirely different part of my brain.
That said, it felt like i hit my stride with this biography, strictly because I’ve done it before. Plus, his life was truly interesting. It was intriguing to see how he continually faced very long odds and kept going despite them.
Were you a fan of Stephen Colbert before writing this book? How has this process changed your view of him as a persona and performer? What is your favourite Colbert moment?
I was a fan of Colbert’s previously, but I didn’t watch the show on a regular basis. Once I began to dig into the research, I really got it about him and why his fans are so completely bonkers about him. I don’t have a favorite Colbert moment, but I loved researching his childhood, mostly because of his large entertaining family, but also because of his tragedy.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Stephen Colbert while researching for the book? Was there one thing you found about Stephen that totally surprised you?
Nothing surprises me when it comes to researching my subjects. I was heartened to discover the real reason why he’s afraid of bears … no, I’m not gonna tell you, you have to read the book.
With 40 pages of references, your research into Stephen Colbert’s life is astounding thorough. After going through so many interviews, articles and performances, was there a quote or piece of wisdom that you found particularly inspiring?
Again, there wasn’t one specific instance or quote, but throughout I was continually amazed to see that he’s so consistently open and friendly and genuine, in terms of Colbert the person.
You have now written biographies on Dan Brown, Barak Obama, Shel Silverstein, Stephen King, Michelle Obama and now Stephen Colbert. How does the research and writing process differ between each subject?
The Obama books were not biographies per se, but quote books, in which I combed through past archival material and organized the quotes into categories. The others were straightforward biographies. The process doesn’t differ much; I dive into everything I can find on that person, and then start making lists of people to interview and contact them, read books that are peripherally related to their lives, i.e., on Second City, and then just keep going.
What do you find to be most interesting part of the book-writing process?
The research, because I have to play detective and genealogist and I never know what I’m going to uncover. The WayBack Machine (archive.org) is invaluable in finding old websites and details about a person.
How much input did Stephen and/or his family and friends have in writing the book, and how much did you have to rely on research?
I didn’t meet Colbert, nor have I met any of the other subjects of my 4 other biographies; 2 were already dead. My biographies are unauthorized, but I hate the term unauthorized because it implies that I’m playing Kitty Kelley and out to slam my subjects. But a wise old editor told me long ago to write for the fans; I’ll sell more books that way… plus going negative is not my style.
I did interview a number of people who have known him throughout his life, from a fourth-grade teacher to a drama coach.
I do contact each of my subjects when I start my research, but aside from King, who gave his friend’s permission to talk to me, I don’t hear anything back. with Colbert, it dawned on me that while he has nothing to gain from me having access to him, he’d probably be curious to see what I turned up on my own and what I missed. Then it struck me that i’d probably be the same way …
While reading the book, I was struck by several examples of Stephen’s feminist tendencies–perhaps thanks to his father’s belief that “A smart woman is a sexy woman.” He even chose to maintain a female persona in “Dungeons and Dragons.” Did you see more of this in your research? Were there other examples that people gave?
A Ben Karlin quote you used said that Stephen “knows his way around a kitchen.” Have you ever found anyone to back that up? Amy Sedaris has been quoted as saying no!
Amy’s definition of that phrase is probably quite different than Ben’s. There was one phrase in a women’s magazine where Colbert was quoted about serving his kids toaster waffles, so maybe that’s the criteria that Karlin uses …
Reading about Stephen’s father, I was struck by the remarkable similarity between the two men: His father was a good dancer, so was Stephen; his father was brilliant, but didn’t flaunt it, which also seems to hold true of Stephen; and both began their studies in the philosophy department. They were even both deaf in one ear! Has Stephen, or anyone from his family, ever addressed their similarities?
Not as far as I know. But I was also quite amazed by the deafness.
In your October, 2011 interview with the Charleston ‘Post and Courier’ you stated that you often find out that you have something in common with your subjects, in this case you both lost your fathers in 1974. Do you feel that researching and learning how Stephen dealt with this deep personal tragedy, that you are now able to view your own tragedy in a different light?
Not really. But I was able to see how it shaped him as well as the commonality in which we dealt with it.
As a Charlestonian yourself, do you think the city had a hand in shaping Stephen as a person? Do you think he would be the same kind and genuine person regardless of where he grew up?
Maybe. I lived in Charleston for 2-1/2 years before leaving about a year ago, and there is a certain gentleness among the people who grew up there, as well as elsewhere in the south, that is not as palpable in other places I’ve lived. Stephen definitely inherited that trait from living in Charleston.
What’s in a name? ‘Truthiness’ was one of the first milestones of ‘The Colbert Report’. Did you ever worry that Stephen might wont to incorporate that word in his own autobiography, should he someday decide to write one? Or was he happy for you to use it?
Actually, this wasn’t my original title; the publisher coined it.
You asked whether the real Stephen Colbert would please stand up. Do you think you found him, or something close?
I think I did. But a biography is always just a small microcosm of that person’s life. Plus, given my timeframe, I’m not able to delve into a subject as deeply as I want to.
After writing a string of biographies, what’s next on the horizon for Lisa Rogak?
I have another book coming out next week — when it rains, it pours! — called ‘Dogs of War: The Courage, Love and Loyalty of Military Working Dogs’. I also have another biography to write, but I’m not at liberty to say who it is at this point…
A big thank you to Lisa Rogak for taking the time out to talk to us, and to the Hub Staff for helping me put the interview together!!