BIO Conference Preview: Writing Multiple Lives

By Linda Leavell

“All biographies are group biographies. All lives are surrounded by a constellation of other lives,” said Susan Hertog, at a previous BIO Conference. “Every biographer must choose how much space to devote to each person.”

So why foreground several lives at once instead of making most of them secondary in a conventional biography or else subsuming them all in a history? What draws writers and readers to group biography? What particular challenges does group biography entail?

These are some of the questions to be addressed by the “Writing Multiple Lives” session at the 2018 BIO Conference in New York. The three panelists—Lisa Cohen, Carla Kaplan, and Justin Spring—generously gave a preview of their remarks.

Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know: Three Lives (2012), first planned to write a biography of Madge Garland, an influential fashion editor of British Vogue. But Cohen realized that even though she had enough material to write a whole book about Garland, “such a book would—ironically—not quite do her justice. And that it would not hold my interest.”

“I realized,” said Cohen, “that I had to grapple with the idea of ephemeral achievement more broadly. And that challenge also meant a different approach to the form of biography.”

All We Know juxtaposes Garland with two other lesbian women, Esther Murphy and Mercedes de Acosta, whose lives were both “central and marginal to their time.” The structure of the group biography allowed Cohen “to keep asking: what is failure and what is accomplishment?” Cohen never draws connections among the three lives explicitly. Rather, as in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, she lets readers discover parallels on their own.

Carla Kaplan decided to write Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (2013), because no such book existed when she looked for one. While the involvement of white men in the Harlem Renaissance is well documented, the many white women who “volunteered for blackness were either obscured or dismissed.

Kaplan focused on the lives of six women, some with motives that were honorable and some not. But even if she did not like them, Kaplan “still wanted to treat them with respect.”

The magnitude of research surprised her. “It was like writing six biographies—more really, because a couple of the women who’d been slated for the book just didn’t pan out. I didn’t feel I could bring them to life or make them interesting enough.”

She chose to write a group biography to allow her six women to “speak for themselves” whenever possible. They each needed “some space of their own.”

Justin Spring, author of The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy (2017), compares writing a group biography to “composing an orchestral piece rather than a solo piece.”

Like Kaplan, he started with an idea—“the effect of French foodways and French culture on the American understanding of good food, wine, and fine dining”—and then chose six American writers who played a role in that phenomenon. The six contemporaries vary in their personalities, sexual orientations, backgrounds, and relationships to French cuisine, and “their lives were full of overlapping dramas (and a good deal of antagonism).”

“Each of the six lives has a specific dramatic arc,” Spring said, “and the period itself has a dramatic arc, and at the same time there is much that needed explaining both in the USA of that period and in France of that period—so getting it right took a lot of arranging, trimming, and rearranging.”

The session on “Writing Multiple Lives” at the 2018 BIO Conference will engage not only those writing or contemplating a group biography per se but also anyone whose work encompasses multiple lives.

Linda Leavell, the moderator of the panel, won the Plutarch Award for her biography of Marianne Moore. Her current project is a group biography of the Stieglitz Circle.

(Photos above, from left to right, by Vanessa Haney, Robin Hultgren, and Jason Puris)

Two Writers Share the Inaugural Caro Fellowship

Natalie Dykstra and Marina Harss will each receive $2,500 as the winners of the first Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowship. BIO introduced the fellowship in 2017 to honor the Caros’ work and help biographers establish a sense of place to delineate their subject’s character. You can read more about Dykstra, Harss, and the fellowship in the March Letter from the Vice President by Deirdre David.

Richard Holmes Wins 2018 BIO Award

Photo: Stuart Clarke

British author Richard Holmes, beloved for his biographies and memoirs about writing biography, is the winner of the ninth annual BIO Award. BIO bestows this honor on a colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Previous award winners are Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Taylor Branch, Claire Tomalin, and Candice Millard. Holmes will receive the honor on May 19, at the 2018 BIO Conference at the Leon Levy Center, City University of New York, where he will deliver the keynote address.

Holmes’s The Age of Wonder was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, and won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. He has written many other books, including Falling Upwards, an uplifting account of the pioneering generation of balloon aeronauts, and the classicFootsteps. Its companion volumes, Sidetracks and This Long Pursuit, complete a trilogy that explores the Romantic movement biographer at work. Holmes’s first biography, Shelley: The Pursuit, won the Somerset Maugham Prize; Coleridge: Early Visions won the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Award; Coleridge: Darker Reflections won the Duff Cooper and Heinemann Awards; and Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage won the James Tait Black Prize.

Holmes holds honorary doctorates from the universities of East Anglia, East London, and Kingston, and was professor of biographical studies at the University of East Anglia from 2001 to 2007. He is an Honorary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, a Fellow of the British Academy, and was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1992. He lives in London and Norfolk, with the novelist Rose Tremain. TBC will have an interview with Holmes in an upcoming issue.

BIO Returns to Europe for International Conference

The conference will be held at the Doopsgezinde Kerk in Groningen.

On September 20 and 21, 2018, BIO will join the Biography Institute and the Biography Society in hosting the conference Different Lives: Global Perspectives on Biography in Public Cultures and Societies. This conference will take place in Groningen, the Netherlands, home of the Biography Institute, which is directed by BIO board member Hans Renders. The event will allow biographers to look beyond their own borders, explore how biography is practiced in other parts of the world, and discuss the cultural perspectives that guide biographers in their approach to the infinite complexity of the other.

With a mix of panel, roundtable, and public discussions, featuring speakers from many nations, this conference is designed to present the state of the art of biography from a wealth of different perspectives. Richard Holmes will deliver the keynote address, and BIO members participating include Carl Rollyson, John A. Farrell, and Nigel Hamilton. The latter will host a master class on Wednesday, September 19, for young biographers working on their first books.

Also on Wednesday, attendees can choose to explore two cultural sites in and around Groningen: Museum of Graphic Arts and Camp Westerbork, an exhibition depicting the Netherlands during World War II, focusing on the persecution of Jews.

Early-bird tickets for the conference are available until June 1, for 40 euros; after that, the price will rise to 60 euros. Attendees can also reserve a place at the conference dinner for 60 euros. If you require assistance in booking hotel or travel arrangements, email the conference board. Look for more information on the conference in future issues of TBC, and you can follow news of the event on Facebook at Different Lives Conference.

BIO Announces Finalists for the 2018 Plutarch Award

BIO’s Plutarch Award Committee has chosen the four books highlighted below as the finalists for this year’s Plutarch Award, the only international literary award for a biography that is chosen by fellow biographers. BIO members will have three months to read the finalists and vote for the winner.  The Plutarch Award will be presented on Saturday, May 19, at the Ninth Annual BIO Conference in New York.

To see a list of the nominees for 2018 and learn more about the Plutarch Award, go here.

Annual BIO Conference to Be Held in New York in May

Biographers International Organization will convene on the weekend of May 18–20, in Manhattan, for three days of discussion, camaraderie, and exploration. “BIO is especially pleased that this year’s conference will be hosted by CUNY and the Leon Levy Center for Biography,” said program co-chairs Heath Lee and John Farrell. “The scope of expertise that these two organizations, devoted to biography, bring to the table is stunning.”

Registration for the conference will begin in late January. Current BIO members will receive an email with a link to the registration site to take advantage of an early-bird discount.

The conference starts on Friday, May 18, with guided tours of New York City research libraries, readings by authors, and a welcoming cocktail party at the Fabbri Mansion on East 95th Street.

The Saturday, May 19, sessions at the Leon Levy Center will begin with a plenary breakfast at which Edmund Morris (biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Beethoven, and Thomas Edison) and his wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris (biographer of Clare Boothe Luce and Edith Kermit Roosevelt), will share their views about the craft of biography as it pertains to writing about the living and the dead. They have titled their plenary talk: “Dead Is Easier.”

Other featured speakers include Griffin Dunne, the actor and filmmaker, in conversation with Stacy Schiff regarding Dunne’s film biography of his aunt, Joan Didion. James Atlas will be talking about “The Soul of a Biographer” with our 2018 BIO Award winner, who will give the luncheon address. We are particularly excited about this year’s winner, whom we will announce in February.

Joe Hagen, the biographer of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, will discuss the perils of difficult subjects with biographer Kitty Kelley, who has pierced the walls around Frank Sinatra, Jackie O, and other celebrities.

In the Saturday sessions, conference attendees will be able to select from 16 panels devoted to topics such as “Issues in Biography,” “The Craft,” “Basics,” and The Biz,” and a number of roundtable discussions. The conference will also feature a panel about the interdisciplinary use of biography, a product of a new collaboration with the Community College Humanities Association.

Saturday ends with a reception at which BIO will convey the Plutarch Award for the Best Biography of 2017, as chosen by BIO members, with remarks from the winner.

For those interested in more intensive study of the craft, on Sunday morning, May 20, a series of workshops will be held on writing and the art and business of biography.

Look for more information on the conference in upcoming issues of TBC.

BIO Members Explore the Role of Biography in Teaching the Humanities

Thanks to the efforts of Billy Tooma (rear), deputy executive director of the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA), four BIO board members took part in a panel at the CCHA’s annual conference. Next year, members of CCHA will participate in BIO’s annual conference. Shown here with Tooma are Kate Buford, Dean King, Heath Lee, and Brian Jay Jones.

Four BIO board members helped kick off an affiliation between BIO and the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA) on November 10, when they took part in a panel discussion at the CCHA’s national conference in Baltimore, Maryland. In front of an assembled group of two-year-college faculty and students, moderator Kate Buford introduced panelists Brian Jay Jones, Dean King, and Heath Lee. What followed was a lively discussion on the merits of biography as a focus of academic study and why such a field of study should be incorporated into higher-education course syllabi.

After the session, Jones said, “I thought it was an incredibly worthwhile ‘tech transfer,’ and so useful for us to learn and appreciate how biography is actively used (not just in concept) in teaching.” King’s assessment of the panel session reaffirmed this when he said that it “was a great opportunity to have a fruitful interaction with educators who have a deep interest in biography and are on the frontline of making biography relevant and motivational to a new generation of readers. I felt we had as much to learn from them as they did from us.” Buford noted that being able to present “the importance of biography to such a receptive group of academic professionals was a rare pleasure.”

Feedback on the panel from conference attendees was overwhelmingly positive. Jack J. Cooney, Associate Professor of History at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, made sure to spread the word to both fellow CCHA members and his own colleagues: “I was greatly heartened to hear how each biographer spoke so thoughtfully, and with candid humility, about their craft. The grace and good humor of their eloquent comments gave those of us in the audience a chance to reimagine biography. The panelists offered us ample evidence so we might better see how biography can break boundaries for humanities teaching.”

CCHA members will continue the dialogue between biographers and educators in May 2018 at BIO’s annual conference. This “cross paneling” affiliation is the brainchild of BIO president Will Swift and CCHA deputy director Billy Tooma (a biographer and a BIO member). By bringing the two organizations together, the two hope to see biography rise in prominence within the college classroom. “I think biography can go beyond the liberal arts,” Tooma said. “Educators are constantly trying to figure out ways in which we can turn STEM into STEAM, with the ‘A’ representing the arts, and I think biography is the answer. How do you humanize the study of physics? One way is to have your students read Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe.” Lee agreed with Tooma’s view when she said the “idea that biography is being woven intentionally into the humanities curricula as well as into STEM courses is revolutionary and exciting for biographers. The idea that our stories could help draw students into a larger narrative across the disciplines is thrilling!”

Thanks to Billy Tooma for his contributions to this report.

Weil Receives BIO’s Editorial Excellence Award

By Dona Munker, TBC New York Correspondent

Cathy Curtis presents the Editorial Excellence Award to Robert Weil.

On November 8, Robert Weil, editor-in-chief and publishing director of Liveright, an imprint of W. W. Norton, received BIO’s fourth annual Editorial Excellence Award. He joins Nan A. Talese, Jonathan Segal, and Robert Gottlieb, as winners of this honor. Introduced by one of his authors, Thomas Jefferson biographer Annette Gordon-Reed, Weil said that he thinks he may have become an editor because editing fulfills “a yearning to rescue and nurture.” The evening, which also included a panel discussion, was cosponsored by the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Follow this link to view his speech and hear Gordon-Reed and five other biographers Weil nurtured share what makes an editor legendary.

Attendees at the event included, from left to right: Kai Bird, Will Swift, Julia Reidhead, Linda Gordon, Ruth Franklin, Annette Gordon-Reed, David Levering Lewis, Robert Weil, Yunte Huang, and Max Boot.