AUDIE CORNISH, host:
We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
This weekend, when you're browsing in the bookstore for holiday presents, you're almost certain to come across a stack of Kitty Kelley's latest: a biography of Oprah Winfrey. Kelley's books - about everyone from Jackie O. to Nancy Reagan and the British royal family - have spent weeks on the best-seller list. But they've never been without controversy.
Kelley's been called a poison pen writer; her books dismissed as kitty litter. And the most damaging label of all, she says, is unauthorized biography. That's how a moderator on Oprah Winfrey's message board dismissed "Oprah: A Biography." But Kitty Kelley is mounting a spirited defense of the unauthorized bio. She wrote about it in the current issue of American Scholar magazine. And she joins us now from Rancho Mirage, California.
Kitty Kelley, welcome to the program.
Ms. KITTY KELLEY (Author, "Oprah: A Biography"): Thank you.
CORNISH: One of the sentences in your essay that stood out right away, you wrote: The best way to tell a life story is from the outside looking in. Tell me about the thinking behind that.
Ms. KELLEY: I really think that the best books are unauthorized, but the word just carries such freight. I mean, it's almost like it's a pejorative. I believe, though, on the other hand, I don't want to live in a world where all my information is authorized, sanitized, homogenized. I read banned books, I applaud whistleblowers, and I want to know the real truth.
On the Oprah book, I just had it "Oprah: A Biography." Now, I didn't do it with Oprah's permission or her cooperation, although I did try several times to interview her. I do that on all the books I write. I write to the subjects as a matter of courtesy to tell them what I'm doing, but I'm not going to give up editorial control.
CORNISH: Why have you chosen to write exclusively about living people?
Ms. KELLEY: Because these people have left a real footprint on our landscape, and they have power - as they're alive - to cultivate their own public image. So I feel that these books take you kind of behind the public image, to the reality.
CORNISH: You caught a lot of flak for your biography of Nancy Reagan. At the time, people said that it portrayed her in a very unflattering light. I think a lot of us remember reading about the whole idea of her relying on an astrologer, and not getting along with her kids. Why do you think it's important for people to know those kinds of details about somebody?
Ms. KELLEY: Well, because it's a life story; it's not a news story. And in the case of Mrs. Reagan, she was one of the most powerful first ladies this country has ever known. And I think many of us feel real gratitude for the influence that she was able to exercise with her husband. So I think she deserves real historical scrutiny.
CORNISH: With political figures, I do very much understand your argument. With celebrities, I want to know from you, though, why you feel that same way that that argument applies. Because I don't think that, you know, a Sinatra or an Angelina Jolie - I don't think those people owe me their information.
Ms. KELLEY: I understand what you're saying. I've never written about Angelina Jolie, but I certainly wrote about Frank Sinatra. And while he was not a public servant, he was someone who really influenced our lives in many ways. And the book that I wrote about him really was not about his music as much as it was about him as a person politically. He was a huge fundraiser for presidents. He was connected to organized crime. He really influenced our lives in many, many ways.
CORNISH: But as a singer, I guess, I mean, he ended up suing you about that because he felt that only he had the right to authorize someone to tell his story.
Ms. KELLEY: That's right. He sued me before I had ever written a word. And I will tell you, I've been doing these books for 30 years, and I have never, ever lost a lawsuit. I have never been successfully sued. I want to tell you, though, that Frank Sinatra got my attention when he sued me before I had written a word.
Sinatra kept his lawsuit going for about a year, but by the time he dropped it my publisher was so nervous, they lawyered my book to a fare-thee-well.
CORNISH: What do you say to critics who look at some of the more salacious details that may come out of your books, and say that you're just being mean?
Ms. KELLEY: Well...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KELLEY: ...the critics that would say something like that are the very people who would go in for a spoon feeding and write an authorized biography.
CORNISH: So you consider getting permission a spoon feeding.
Ms. KELLEY: Not getting permission but giving up editorial control; giving up your independence to write only what this public figure would want you to write.
CORNISH: Would you ever consider doing an authorized biography?
Ms. KELLEY: Oh, my goodness. That would put me out of business.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CORNISH: Kitty Kelley's latest book is "Oprah: A Biography."
Kitty Kelley, thank you so much for talking with me.
Ms. KELLEY: Thank you.
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