David I. Kertzer on Biography and Writing

By Joseph A. Esposito

The recent selection of his dual biography of Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Biography caught David I. Kertzer of Brown University by surprise. According to a statement released by the university, Kertzer said, “I had no idea the Pulitzer Prizes were about to be announced nor any hint they were considering The Pope and Mussolini, so this is quite a shock.”

David Kertzer, 2015 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

David Kertzer, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

But the award is an appropriate testament to the meticulous research that Kertzer had undertaken for nearly a decade. Crisply written, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe reports on a symbiotic relationship which unfolded in the 1920s and 1930s.

The book chronicles how the dictator played on the fears of modernism of the aging pope and the mindset of the Vatican, and crafted a partnership which helped him to maintain his power. The Catholic Church benefited from the support of the fascist regime by strengthening its position in Italy. Anti-Semitism figures prominently in the story.

Kertzer, who is an anthropologist and former provost at Brown, has written extensively on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian history and politics, including the relationship between Jews and the Catholic Church. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, about a Jewish boy seized by papal officials and who later joined the priesthood, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1997. Continue Reading…

BIO Conference Preview: A Conversation between Kitty Kelley and Barbara Burkhardt

Bestselling biographer Kitty Kelley—a founding BIO member who serves on the board— will appear with biographers James McGrath Morris and Linda Lear at the conference in Washington, DC. Their panel, moderated by Abigail Santamaria, will address the question, Does gender matter in biography? Kitty talks to BIO Secretary and site co-chair Barbara Burkhardt about biography and gender—and her dedication to BIO.

Kitty Kelley

Kitty Kelley

Barbara Burkhardt

Barbara Burkhardt

Barbara Burkhardt: What generated the idea for the panel “Does Gender Matter”?
Kitty Kelley
: Linda Lear was talking to me about how she decided not to do a biography of Harold Ickes, Sr. She said that, as a woman, she just didn’t feel she could empathize with this male subject. And, on the other hand, Jamie Morris said that he leaped to do his biography of Ethel Payne. It really is interesting that empathy is the deciding factor.

BB: What is your own take on how gender affects writing biography?
KK
: A Harvard study showed that gender does make a difference. In relation to writing a life story, the study showed that women are better at getting to the hows and the whys of a life. Women are more concerned with relationships. They pay more attention to relationships.

I can’t say that women are better biographers than men. I don’t mean that at all. It’s just that male brains work differently than female brains. Men go from A to B, women go from A to R—and then back to F. As a result, women might be better at getting certain kinds of information. Men love data. Only 10 percent of the men who read, read fiction. They read history, politics, current affairs, business, and sports. Women read fiction.

And in biography, you have to give more than info and data and facts—you have to provide a human dimension: Why did they do it? How did they do it? You have to get people talking about their feelings and fears. The study showed that it is easier for women to handle ambiguity than it is for men. In essence, men want to solve the problem. Women want to understand the problem. They have been trained to take care. Men seem to take charge. Continue Reading…

Best Biography of the Year: Nominations Announced for 2015 BIO Plutarch Award

Fellow biographers to choose winner for the “Oscar” of biographies–to be presented next month at national conference in Washington, D.C.

Plutarch2014Biographers International Organization (BIO) will name the best biography published in 2014 when they present the 2015 Plutarch Award during the Sixth Annual BIO Conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, June 6.

Named after the famous Ancient Greek biographer, the Plutarch Award aims to be the genre’s equivalent of the Oscar. The winner will be determined by secret ballot from a list of nominees selected by a committee of distinguished members of the craft.

The ten books nominated for the 2015 Plutarch are:

  • Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Jeff Hobbs, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Scribner)
  • John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh ( W. Norton & Company)
  • Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (Knopf)
  • Helen Rappaport, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra (St. Martin’s)
  • Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life (Viking Adult)
  • Richard Norton Smith, On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller (Random House)
  • Will Swift, Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage (Threshold Editions)
  • Edward White, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • N. Wilson, Victoria: A Life (Penguin Press)

“The Plutarch Award honors the very best in biography, and this year’s nominees are a truly remarkable group, representing a broad swath of subjects, from playwrights to politicians,” said BIO President Brian Jay Jones. “It’s this kind of variety that makes biography so compelling — and in the hands of these 10 outstanding biographers, these works are also stories told remarkably well.  BIO congratulates the nominees, and we look forward to announcing the recipient of the Plutarch on June 6.”

For a list of previous nominees and award winners, click here.

Kertzer Wins 2015 Pulitzer for Biography

popeDavid I. Kertzer is the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for his book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe.
We will have an interview with Kertzer, conducted by BIO member Joseph Esposito, in the May issue of The Biographer’s Craft.

BIO Conference Preview: A Conversation between Sonja Williams and Valerie Boyd

Too many of the compelling, varied and inspiring life stories of people of color have been invisible to a broader audience. Therefore, this BIO conference will feature the panel, “The Rewards and Challenges of Writing Lives of Color.” Moderated by Sonja Williams, author of a forthcoming biography Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom, this panel features authors Valerie Boyd, Alfred J. López and Donald Spivey. Williams spoke to Valerie Boyd about the complexities of researching, and in her case, rescuing black women from the shadows.

Sonja_Williams

Sonja Williams

Sonja Williams: All of your book projects have focused on the lives of black women, including your award-winning biography of writer Zora Neale Hurston, your curating of writer Alice Walker’s personal journals, and your plans to examine the lives of black women in Hollywood. Why have your pursued this particular focus and what have you gotten out of this writing path? 

boyd

Valerie Boyd

Valerie Boyd: It’s a natural draw for me as a black woman. It might have started out as a model for the kind of life I’d like to live by exploring some of my own “sheroes,” as scholar and former Spelman College President Johnnetta Cole would say, black women whose lives have influenced not just me but America itself. Black women are often undervalued as intellectuals, artists and thinkers, and I think it’s important to articulate their lives, making sure that those women—and I—have a voice in national and international conversations. We need to give black women the same kind of respectful, fully realized biographical treatment as we give the dead white men.

I’m especially interested in black women who’ve changed the world. As a black woman myself, I bring a kind of empathy and shared experience to my research and writing. Ideally, this allows me to write about these women in ways that I hope will help readers to occupy their lives for a bit, to experience what it was like to live inside these women’s skin, to get to know them from the inside out.

SW: What unexpected gems did you come across while conducting the research for Hurston’s biography, Wrapped in Rainbows, and how did those gems pay off during the writing process?

VB: Unexpected gems are what you hope for as a biographer. I remember little details I found while working on the Hurston biography. Howard University has some good Hurston [archival] papers and a small, black leather, three-ring-bound notebook where Hurston made small notes to herself, including her grocery lists—evidence of what she ate and what she spent her money on. This was during the early 1930s, the Depression era, and she had limited funds. So she was always buying fish and vegetables, and she’d always, always allow herself 25 cents to buy a book. Now that told me something about who Hurston was and what her priorities were. These kinds of glimpses into her internal life were invaluable. Continue Reading…

A Conversation with Conference Panelist Heath Lee

The Civil War remains a topic of unquenchable interest to readers. In this, the final year of the conflict’s sesquicentennial, the BIO conference will feature a panel “Civil War Women.” Many biographers are discovering that the female figures of this time are a source of vital yet sorely under-explored stories. Justin Martin’s latest book is Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, the story of a group of notable Civil War-era artists including Adah Isaacs Menken and Ada Clare. Martin spoke to author Heath Lee, who will co-moderate the panel.

Justin Martin: Please explain the need for and value of a panel devoted specifically to Civil War women.
Heath Lee:
The majority of the scholarship and press attention on the war has focused on traditional themes of the conflict’s military, political, and economic dimensions and the male figures who were Union and Confederate leaders. However, information regarding the lives and fates of women during this period is still scarce and their portraits are often incomplete. The women we will talk about in this panel were shaped tremendously by their experiences and memories of the war, whether they were Northern or Southern, black or white. Women were more than just incidental bystanders during this tragic period in American history.

JM: Who are some of the notable women who will be discussed? And what are some of the unique issues confronting a biographer whose subject is a Civil War woman?
HL:
It would be hard to find a more fascinating list of characters. Among the figures we’re sure to discuss are Harriet Tubman, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Kate Chase Sprague, Elizabeth Van Lew, Varina Davis, Winnie Davis, Julia Dent Grant, Angelina Grimke Weld, Emma Edmonds, and Belle Boyd.

One of the unique challenges for a biographer researching a woman from this period is the lack of primary source materials. In the nineteenth century, it was common for women’s letters and papers to be destroyed—often even by her own family. It was considered unseemly for information about women to appear in published form. For instance, it is likely that Varina Davis burned Winnie Davis’s private diaries and love letters to her ex-fiancé. Continue Reading…

Biographer Turns Detective in Quest for Complete Picture

In 2007, Robert Marshall, seeking to promote his debut novel A Separate Reality, wrote a lengthy piece about the New Age guru Carlos Castaneda for Salon. Among Castaneda’s books that claimed to impart the teachings of a Yaqui Indian shaman called don Juan was one also titled A Separate Reality. Marshall’s book tells the story of a ’70s teen who falls under don Juan and Castaneda’s sway—just as many real teens, and considerably older people, did during the height of Castaneda’s popularity, when he sold millions of copies of his books.

Researching and writing that Salon article, Marshall didn’t know that his quest to understand Castaneda’s life would lead to his writing the first biography of a person Marshall called “the twentieth century’s most successful literary trickster.” And Marshall certainly couldn’t have known that he would move beyond being a literary detective and become something of a real one, as he tried to find clues about the disappearance of five women who had been part of Castaneda’s inner circle.

Uncovering a Manufactured Past
Marshall began expanding on his original research and preparing to turn it into a book after everything he had collected didn’t make it into his 2007 article. He said, “I thought it would take two or three years.” Now, eight years later, Marshall thinks it may take several more years to complete the biography of a man who won praise from a wide range of admirers, from John Lennon to Federico Fellini. But even when Castaneda’s books were riding high on the best-seller lists, people began to publicly doubt Castaneda’s claim that his work reflected factual anthropological research. Continue Reading…

Taylor Branch Wins 2015 BIO Award

Branch’s most recent book The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (2013) presents eighteen key episodes across the full span of the Civil Rights era.

Branch’s most recent book The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (2013) presents eighteen key episodes across the full span of the Civil Rights era.

Taylor Branch is the recipient of the 2015 BIO Award, given each year by BIO members to a colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of the genre.

Branch is best known for his best-selling, magisterial trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights movement and America in the 1950s and 1960s. In these three volumes, Branch showed, as he wrote in his introduction, that “King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years.” His vivid portrait of King’s rise to greatness humanizes the man and allows the reader to understand his era by portraying what it was like to live through it. His three-volume work has been compared to Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln and Robert Caro’s multivolume life of Lyndon Johnson.

For his first volume, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (1988), Taylor Branch won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was also a finalist for the National Book Award. The volumes Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965(1998) and Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968 (2006)winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist—completed his monumental fusion of biography and history. Branch is also the author of a novel, The Empire Blues (1981), and was the ghostwriter of John Dean’s memoir Blind Ambition (1976). He also is well known for his innovative eight-year oral history project with a sitting president—The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (2009).

Branch will receive the honor during the 2015 Biographer International Organization Conference on June 6 at the National Press Club, where he will deliver the keynote address. The BIO Award was established in 2010 and its first five recipients were Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow and Stacy Schiff.