Local Stephen King, Barack Obama biographer needs a break 

Word Weary

Lisa Rogak's career track may not be conventional, but she certainly knows her way around the publishing business.

She published her first book, The Quotable Cat, in 1992. Since then, "[I] have pretty much made a living from writing."

In addition to her well-received biographies of carb-cutting guru Dr. Robert Atkins and whimsical children's poet Shel Silverstein, Rogak has also turned out cookbooks, business handbooks, travel guides, even books on pet-care tips and baby names.

click to enlarge Prolific biographer and writer Lisa Rogak now lives in Charleston
  • Prolific biographer and writer Lisa Rogak now lives in Charleston

"Writing suits my personality perfectly," she says. "I can jump around from one subject to another and get paid while learning about something that I would have studied anyway. As a kid, I was supposed to go to Juilliard to study piano and actually spent one year in conservatory, but I pretty quickly figured out it was not in my nature to focus in one area."

As an adult, her voracious curiosity and peripatetic approach to learning continue unabated. In her most recent publication, Haunted Heart (St. Martin's Press), Rogak investigates the life of horror master — and fellow ultra-prolific writer — Stephen King. With fluid, unadorned prose, she smoothly, thoroughly limns the life and work of the author, peppering the text with engaging quotes from King and those close to him.

"I spend a number of months digging deep into existing research and archives, finding people to interview, hiring genealogists, wandering around the Wayback Machine online — a treasure trove! — finding commonalities and discrepancies," she says. "Once I feel I've pretty much exhausted everything, I start arranging the quotes and facts into the appropriate chapters — organized by date — and then the hard part begins: editing raw data and quotes into prose, writing transitions, playing amateur shrink, and reading between the lines in some cases, generally turning it into a book."

It's a style she has carefully honed over the years, specifically while writing the similarly structured Dr. Robert Atkins and A Boy Named Shel. Though none of the three subjects participated directly in the process, Rogak is quick to dispatch the stigma that occasionally accompanies "unauthorized" biographies.

click to enlarge _haunted-heart.jpg

"They're always unauthorized," she says. "This question always irks me ... 95 percent of biographies out there are unauthorized — which doesn't necessarily mean they're below par, just that the subject doesn't want to participate, or the estate assumes I'm just out to sling dirt — which is not my aim, more books sell to fans than critics — or, in the case of King, he honestly doesn't know why people are so fascinated with him, and he feels they should just read his work instead. Or, the old biographer's joke is that if it was authorized, the book would make for a good cure for insomnia."

There's no danger of falling asleep during Haunted Heart, and the same can be said of one of her books that has assumed greater resonance since November: Barack Obama in His Own Words. A slim, straightforward collection of quotes from the president-elect — modeled on the author's Howard Dean in His Own Words and In His Own Words: Colin Powell — the book has been a pleasant surprise for Rogak.

"I was living in New Hampshire when I wrote the first edition, published in February 2007," she says. "It was the fourth or fifth primary cycle I'd experienced in that first-in-the-nation primary state, and at that stage of the game I knew it's a total crapshoot who makes it all the way through. You just can't predict that early on. I met him a few months after the book came out and saw the effect he had on people when he spoke. The guy was real compared to the others, and that came through loud and clear early on."

That sentiment should sit well with Democrats now that Obama has taken office. In the meantime, Rogak is hard at work on numerous other projects, and looks forward to a new direction.

"I may do another book on Barack in a totally different area, [but] I need a break from biographies ... after writing four, there's no challenge in it. Been there done that.

"I want to switch to writing comic fiction. I have two adult novels and two kids' novels in the works, and once things calm down here, I intend to settle down into my imaginary worlds."


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