Bringing the Ghosts to Life: An Interview with Candice Millard

BIO Board member Cathy Curtis asked Candice Millard, winner of the 2017 BIO Award, to respond to a list of questions about her experiences as a biographer. Her thoughtful emailed replies appear below. You won’t want to miss Millard’s keynote speech at this year’s BIO Conference, on May 20 in Boston.

Cathy Curtis: What prompted you to start writing biographies?
Candice Millard:
I have always been interested in biography. In fact, one of the best parts of my job at National Geographic was looking for story ideas that focused on human history rather than natural history. So, when I thought of writing my first book, I immediately knew that I wanted it to be about someone, not something. But I also wanted a story, not a subject. I didn’t want to begin at the beginning and end at the end. I was looking for a story within a life.
CC: Are there biographers who have helped shape your own style or approach?
CM: The list of biographers I admire is extremely long, so I’ll start with those who have perhaps had the greatest impact on my own work: Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Martin Gilbert, Robert Caro, William Manchester, Laura Hillenbrand, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Antony Beevor, Andrew Roberts. I could keep going. . . .
CC: Do you tend to sift through numerous potential subjects before you find “the one”?
CM: I spend a great deal of time looking for the right subject. In fact, I think it’s the most important part of writing a book. I’m looking for not only a great story, but one that comes with enormous amounts of primary resources, so much that I despair of ever getting through it all.
Without mountains of letters, journals, newspaper articles, it’s difficult to have dialogue; all the little details that, I hope, make readers feel as if they’re there; and a deep understanding of the story and the people within it. I’ve fallen in love with book ideas in the past and spent months, even years researching them, only to realize that there just wasn’t enough primary source material. As difficult as it was, I had to walk away.
CC: You have written, “What interests me more than moments of public triumph or infamy are instances of private trial and struggle, when no one can hide their weaknesses—or indeed their strengths.” Is this the thinking that led you to “slice of life” biographies, as opposed to the traditional cradle-to-grave format?
CM: Like any thinking person, I highly value biographies that take in the full expanse of a person’s life, and I read a lot of them. But when I’m looking for a subject for myself, I’m interested in stories that are intimate, focused, and, I hope, illuminating. To me, the most illuminating moments in a life are when a person is at his or her most vulnerable, when they’re searching for a foothold, unsure of the path forward, frightened, grieving, even desperate. These are emotions we’ve all experienced, and they help us understand each other, help us find that thread of common humanity.
CC: Are there key research or writing tips you gleaned from working on The River of Doubt that you were able to use in writing your next two books?
CM: The greatest lesson The River of Doubt taught me is the importance of outlining. I don’t know if this is true for other writers, but I am lost without an outline, and not just a basic sketch of how the book will unfold but a long, incredibly detailed outline that helps me think through every step of the story.
CC: How have events in your own life contributed to your understanding of your subjects?
CM: As I get older, I feel like I understand my subjects a little better because I’ve had more of those shared experiences. I’ve seen more of the world, experienced more joy, more sorrow, even tragedy, and because of that when I peer into someone else’s life I can see a little of myself. Maybe because of that I have more compassion, I hope, and am not as quick to judge. I don’t know anyone who’s perfect. I’m certainly not. And that’s what interests me—not the perfect person, but the person who struggles, as we all do.
CC: I’ve read that you align work on your books with your children’s school schedules—an inspiration to all of us who have other demands on our time. Was it difficult at first to use your limited time wisely?
CM: While I love my work, and feel incredibly lucky to be able to do it, it comes in a very distant second place to my children. Surprisingly, however, what I’ve realized over the past 15 years is that being forced to work around my kids’ schedules is actually not a bad thing. I don’t know that I would have the discipline to get right to work every morning if I knew that I had all day to get it done. Knowing that I only have between drop off and pick up is incredibly helpful. I get up, get dressed, take the kids to school, and then go to work.
My office is in my husband’s company, so I’m not home, thinking about the laundry waiting to be done or the Legos that are scattered all over the floor. As soon as I step into my office and close the door, I’m in another place and time. To be honest, it’s a little disorienting when I have to go pick up the kids, but I leave myself notes so that I can pretty easily jump back in the next morning.
CC: What has been your biggest challenge as a biographer?
CM: Wrapping up the research. There’s always another lead to follow, another archive to visit, another storyline to investigate and that, to me, is the best part of the job. I love doing research, and I would be very happy to keep doing it for years on end, but eventually I have to start writing or I will never finish the book.
CC: Tell us about a memorable moment on one of your book tours.
CM: I have been very fortunate to be able to meet many of the descendants of the people I’ve written about, not just the central characters but the people surrounding them, from Candido Rondon’s grandchildren to Winston Churchill’s granddaughter. I’ve really enjoyed meeting them all, but no one has made a stronger impression on me than Bob Garfield, James Garfield’s great-grandson.
I spent some time with Bob, who is now the patriarch of the Garfield family, while I was doing research, and I remember thinking that he was one of the finest people I had ever met—kind, smart, a skilled pianist, and the consummate gentleman. When Destiny of the Republic was released, Bob attended a talk that I gave at Garfield’s farmhouse in Ohio, where Bob had spent much of his childhood. After I spoke, he stood up and said that the book had meant a great deal to him and his family and that it had “brought a ghost to life.” I will never forget that moment. It made me very proud.
CC: What are you working on now?
CM: I just started work on a book about the discovery of the source of the Nile. It’s a story that I fell in love with many years ago, when I was still working at National Geographic, so I’m thrilled to finally have the chance to really dig in and understand it.

Diana Parsell Wins Rowley Prize

Diana Parsell is the winner of BIO’s 2017 Hazel Rowley Prize, given for the best proposal for a first biography. Parsell’s book is titled A Great Blooming and is a biography of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who had the idea to plant Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and made it happen. Parsell will receive a $2,000 prize, a careful reading from at least one established agent, one year’s membership in BIO, and publicity through the BIO website, The Biographers Craft, and other outlets. She will receive her honor on May 20 at the BIO Conference in Boston.
Parsell previously was a winner of the Mayborn/BIO Biography Fellowship, which provided her with a creative residency in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Parsell told TBC that the prize “offers a shot in the arm. Now several years into this project, I’d been suffering a heavy dose of book fatigue. The sense of validation that comes from this will help energize me for the final spurt.”

The project, she said, has been rewarding, as she tries to reconstruct Scidmore’s life from many pieces. “Published information about her has been sketchy, and in many cases inaccurate, with factual errors perpetuated over the years. I like the satisfaction that comes from getting at the truth through records and other evidence.” Most of Scidmore’s personal papers were burned after she died, but Parsell said she was “an extraordinarily prolific writer,” leaving seven books and about 900 articles. This formed a “great ‘paper trail’ for chronicling her travels in the U.S. and across Asia. On top of that, she lived from the Civil War to post-WWI, so that’s a lot of historical context to grasp. Handling it all has felt overwhelming at times.”

Parsell noted that she started this project around the time BIO was founded, and she called BIO “a terrific resource . . . for a novice biographer like me. The newsletter is a gem of useful information, and I always learn good stuff at the conferences. What I like best is how BIO provides, in a democratic spirit, a supportive environment for members ranging from beginners to pros.”

Conference Preview: James Atlas in Conversation with Patricia Bosworth

By James Atlas

and Patricia Bosworth will discuss breaking the rules of biography and making it work anyway.

In a panel called “Biography and Style,” James Atlas . . .

Patricia Bosworth (“Patti,” as she is known to her wide circle of friends) has been a vivid presence on the New York literary scene for as long as I can remember—which is beginning to be a very long time. Her parties, held in a book- and art-filled apartment in Hell’s Kitchen that looks as if it had time-traveled from the West Village of the 1920s, are the kind where you walk in and want to talk to everyone in the room at once. Some of them are high-profile—I have spotted Dick Cavett and Judy Collins, among other “notables,” as we call them in Chicago; others were mere “writers,” but some of the most interesting ones in town. They are the kind of parties where the host has to flick the lights on and off in order to remind guests to leave.

What’s the draw? I once moderated a panel on biography in some gilded Pittsburgh auditorium with Patti, who had written a fine biography of Brando for the Penguin Lives series, and two other Penguin alums, Wayne Koestenbaum (Warhol) and Bobbie Ann Mason (Elvis). The auditorium was packed (if you want to get an audience, leave New York), and though it was some years ago now, I remember her making the culture-hungry crowd laugh and laugh at her descriptions of Brando’s outlandish behavior.

She is as fun to be with one-on-one as in front of 600 people, at once brassy and vulnerable, warm and entertainingly direct. So it is with her books: the biographies of Jane Fonda and Montgomery Clift radiate insight and empathy; the memoirs are tragic but also manage to capture the vanity of the Actors Studio where she apprenticed for a stage career in the 1950s.

Patti’s most admirable trait is her candor. At the party for her latest book, The Men in My Life, she stood up at the podium and spoke of the suicides of her brother and father with a matter-of-factness that took her well-wishers by surprise: You can’t just talk about these things in public. But she did, and I’m sure she will—about that and much, much more—when I interview her at the BIO conference in Boston this spring. Don’t miss it.   

Finalists Announced for Hazel Rowley Prize

The 2017 Hazel Rowley Prize Committee has chosen three finalists for BIO’s award for the best proposal for a first biography. They are, in alphabetical order:

  • Eric M. Nishimoto, for Arthur’s War, the story of his uncle, Arthur Nishimoto, a volunteer in the segregated, all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team that fought in Europe during WWII, becoming the most decorated unit in U.S. history.
  • Diana Parsell, for A Great Blooming, the biography of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, an intrepid late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century American traveler to Asia, who had the idea to plant Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and made it happen.
  • Jeffrey Lawrence Yastine, for Battle the Wind: Elmer and Lawrence Sperry, father and son inventors and aircraft pioneers from the first half of the twentieth century, whose legacy lives on in the technology we take for granted today.
     The final judging is being done by distinguished biographers Blake Bailey and Amanda Vaill. The winner will be announced prior to the BIO conference in May and will receive the prize there. The winner receives a $2,000 prize, a careful reading from at least one established agent, a year’s membership in BIO, and publicity through the BIO website, The Biographers Craft, and other outlets.
The members of the Hazel Rowley Prize Committee are Susan Butler, Jennifer Cockburn, Cathy Curtis, Kavita Das, Deirdre David, Gayle Feldman, Dean King, and Roy Schreiber.

Upcoming Biographies Offer Great Variety

From slices of famous lives to cradle-to-grave studies and explorations of linked lives, the spring and summer biographies already generating interest in the publishing world run the gamut. As is often the case, political and literary figures dominate these books and contemporary musicians are also well represented. To see our preview of upcoming biographies, go here.

Candice Millard Wins 2017 BIO Award

Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire was named Amazon’s number one history book of 2016.

BIO is thrilled to announce that Candice Millard has won the 2017 BIO Award for her slice-of-life biographies of Winston Churchill and presidents James Garfield and Theodore Roosevelt. In her bestselling books—Hero of the EmpireDestiny of the Republic, and The River of Doubt—the breadth and depth of her research are matched by her gift for creating fast-paced narratives that bring events in distant eras to vivid life.

BIO bestows its annual award on a colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Millard joins previous award winners Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Taylor Branch, and Claire Tomalin.

Millard will receive the honor during the 2017 BIO Conference on May 20 at Emerson College in Boston, where she will deliver the keynote address.

Millard’s first book, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2005), was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a Book Sense Pick, won the William Rockhill Nelson Award, and was a finalist for the Quill Awards. Her second book, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President (2011), won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, the PEN Center USA award for Research Nonfiction, and the One Book – One Lincoln Award, among other honors. Millard’s most recent book, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill (2016), was chosen as a top ten critics pick by the New York Times. Millard’s work has also appeared in the New York Times Book Review,Washington Post Book World, National Geographic, and Time magazine. 

Registration for BIO Conference Opens

Registration is now open for the Eighth Annual BIO Conference, taking place
May 19-21 at Emerson College in Boston. For more information, go here.

Plutarch Award Finalists Announced

A distinguished panel of judges made up of members of Biographers International Organization (BIO) has selected the four finalists for the 2017 Plutarch Award. The Plutarch is the only international literary award presented to a biography by biographers. BIO members around the world will now vote for the winning biography from among those four distinguished books, honoring a writer who has achieved distinction in the craft. The winner will be announced on May 20 at the Eighth Annual BIO Conference at Emerson College in Boston.

To see the four finalists, go here.