2014 Compleat Conference Panels

Saturday May 17, 2014

Listed by subject area, the schedule may be seen here.



Getting It Right: From the Proposal to the Last Word
A discussion of the basics for those who are thinking about writing a first biography—or even a second or third one! How do you choose a subject who is compelling to you and commercially promising? Is there sufficient conflict in the life? Can you document chief episodes? Does the subject lend herself to a full or partial life? What’s involved in writing about a living person? We will also discuss writing a proposal, including tracking down and listing archival and other research resources you will want to consult.

Moderator: Anne Heller

Panelists: Kai Bird, Neil Gabler, John Matteson


Diary of a Biographer: How Authors Led Their Lives While Writing Someone Else’s
How many years does it take to research and write a biography? What are the most effective strategies for establishing and sticking to a research/writing schedule? How does one juggle working on the biography and coping with impediments to keeping on track (family emergencies, teaching-full time, writer’s block, health emergencies, earning a living, etc.)? Our panel of seasoned writers will share their experiences of managing their own lives while writing the biography.

Moderator: Deirdre David
Panelists: Betty Caroli, Irv Gellman, Diane Jacobs



Archive to Endnotes
How should you prepare before visiting an archive to maximize your time? How do authors keep track of their sources and decide which facts require a citation? When is it appropriate to use endnotes as a place to speculate on or explore something in your own voice? We’ll also look at what your archivist can do for you and what you can do for your archivist. Finally, we’ll peer into the digital future of the archive: Is primary source material headed for the cloud?

Moderator: William Souder
Panelists: Catherine Clinton, Heather Cole, Dean King


Getting the Family on Board
“First kill the widow” is neither a practical nor a humane approach to dealing with the family that your subject has left behind. But the subject’s family members are often important gatekeepers, as well as valuable sources of information. Whether your biography is authorized or unauthorized, how do you negotiate the tricky but potentially fruitful relationship with next of kin?

Moderator: Beverly Gray
Panelists: Brian Jay Jones, Will Swift, Evan Thomas 



 ‘And Then What?’: Creating Suspense in Biography
There are different kinds of biographies—cradle-to-grave, slice-of-life, group, literary, celebrity, cultural—but  every biographer wants to keep readers engaged and turning pages. What techniques can a biographer use to that end? What devices from novels and films, like foreshadowing and cliffhangers, work in biography, and how are they best used? Biographers of different eras and kinds will explore how to pique and maintain interest, and create suspense.

Moderator: Gayle Feldman

Panelists: John Aloysius Farrell, Carla Kaplan, John Matteson


Finding the Balance: the Life, the Context, the Work
Finding the right balance between narrating the life, providing the context, and discussing the work is a challenge for all biographers. Whether we write about politicians, historical figures, celebrities, or novelists, readers and critics have been known to complain about a lack of balance: too many facts, not enough about the social context, too much about the work, not enough psychological insight (or any other combination of criticisms). How do we achieve a satisfactory integration of all the different aspects of our subjects’ lives? Our panelists will suggest different ways to find a satisfactory balance.

Moderator: Marc Leepson
Panelists: Ellen Brown, Daniel Mark Epstein, Michael Gorra


The Challenges of Group Biography
A single life comes with a handy built-in narrative structure, but what about two lives or ten? What strategies are available to create thematic coherence? Moreover, how much room should biographers devote to covering familiar turf as opposed to highlighting new insights and interpretations? And how about the research process? What kind of digging can be done to shed new light on subjects whose major biographers have spent years in the archives?

Moderator: Joshua Kendall
Panelists: David Hajdu, Susan Hertog, Justin Martin


The Dark Side: Addressing the Unsavory Elements of a Subject’s Character
Many of us are attracted to a subject because we admire the person, but in the course of research we often discover negative, sometimes shocking, information. How have biographers handled this, particularly in the case of celebrated and/or much-loved figures? Must we always try to balance the bad with the good? To what extent may biographers address thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and motivations?

Moderator: Cathy Curtis
Panelists: Evelyn Barish, Joshua Kendall, Barbara E. Will


Location, Location, Location: Writing About Place
Robert Caro said, “The greatest of books are books with places you can see in your mind’s eye.” And he’s right. If you give the reader a sense of place in biography, you give them an understanding of character and story “more vivid, deeper than any lecture could.” Biographers of famous New Englanders including Sylvia Plath and Amy Lowell (Carl Rollyson); John Singer Sargent and Henry, William, and Alice James (Paul Fisher); and Anne Hutchinson and the Alcotts (Eve LaPlante) will discuss the importance of place and how place shaped both their subjects’ lives and the writing of those lives.

Moderator: Natalie Dykstra
Panelists: Paul Fisher, Eve La Plante, Carl Rollyson


Making Modernism: A Conversation Between Biographers
A century apart, Margaret Fuller and Marianne Moore edited America’s most influential literary magazine, The Dial. Now, their biographers, Megan Marshall (Margaret Fuller: A New American Life) and Linda Leavell (Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore), will discuss how these two brilliant women writers—who between them edited Thoreau, Emerson, Joyce, Yeats, and Pound— gained influence and exerted it, establishing in 1840s Boston and 1930s New York the leading aesthetic of their day.


Twice Marginalized: The Challenges of Writing about Little-Known Gay and Lesbian Subjects. What happens when an author must make the case to agents and publishers that a book’s subject is not just obscure and gay or lesbian (a doubly daunting combination), but also someone who can be presented as a rediscovery.

Moderator: Brian Halley
Panelists: Jim Elledge, Cassandra Langer, Barry Werth


 Writing for Young Adults

The YA category is one of the hottest in publishing today, and the biography genre is a natural for this readership. Panelists will discuss the elements that make for a compelling YA biography, including approach to subject matter, style, voice, and readability.

Moderator: Catherine Reef
Panelists: Mary Morton Cowan, Dorothy Dahm, Kem Knapp Sawyer



 The University Press and Biography
In an age of declining print sales and increasing cannibalization of once independent trade publishers, university presses provide an increasingly important platform for biographers. What can biographers expect from university presses? And how do university presses see the importance—and sales potential—of biography? Among the topics the panel will address are standards of scholarship that must be met and the presses’ approach to marketing.

Moderator: Nigel Hamilton
Panelists: Laura Davulis, Brian Halley, Steve Hull


 What Happens After You Turn in Your Manuscript?
Authors are often surprised at all the work they have to do at this stage. We will talk about permissions (including quotation and reproduction rights), compiling the bibliography and acknowledgements, finding an indexer, and requesting a budget for illustrations.

Moderator: Brian Jay Jones
Panelists:  Lois Banner, Kate Buford, Marc Leepson


Dealing with Your Agent . . . or Choosing Not to Have One
You finally landed an agent, but now what? What should you expect, and what can you do if your expectations are not being met? How much should your agent be involved in dealings with your editor? And what is it like to forego having an agent and deal with publishers on your own?

Moderator: Marc Leepson
Panelists: Katherine Flynn, Dean King, Lauren Smythe


What Editors Actually Do (and Don’t Do)
The author-editor relationship is crucial to producing a successful biography. This panel will demystify the process, by explaining what prospective biographers should expect from an editor (which can range greatly from house to house) and what you might have to do for yourself or pay someone else do. It will also explain what the various types of editors (acquiring editors, copy editors, etc.) do and how to work with them most effectively.

Moderator: Greg Daugherty
Panelists: Peter Joseph, Wendy Strothman, Keith Wallman



 Cultivating Readers & Blurb Writers
Getting blurbs is a question of relationships, reaching out to people interested in and knowledgeable about your subject. This panel will begin with how to cultivate blurb writers as you are finishing your proposal, followed by a discussion about whether to help people write blurbs and how to know when you can edit what they send in. We will examine how much influence blurbs have on early reviewers such as Kirkus, as well as on traditional reviewers, bloggers and social media. Specific examples will be provided. In addition, two panelists—an author whose recent biography had 15 blurbs (a self-confessed “blurbaholic”) and a highly experienced agent—will give advice to the third panelist, a new biographer getting ready to launch her first book.

Moderator: Kate Buford
Panelists: Susan Rabiner, Abigail Santamaria. Will Swift                                                                                                                  


Market Trends for Biography
A panel of industry insiders will discuss current publishing trends that relate to biography.

Moderator: Carl Rollyson
Panelists: Katherine Flynn, Colleen Mohyde 


The Book Tour: Real and Virtual
Readers assume that all authors go on lengthy, cross-country tours to read from and promote their books. That’s the myth. The reality for most authors is different. They tour on their own—crashing on friends’ sofas, driving hundreds of miles a day—all for that desperately wanted interaction with readers and in the hope that it will sell more books. But does it work? Explore the ins-and-outs of touring, as well as alternatives such as radio and online touring. Finally, we’ll look at paid speaking engagements, which have become an important source of income for many writers. Hear from this panel on how to land paid gigs and what to charge when you do.

Moderator: William Souder
Panelists: Brian Jay Jones, John Rosengren, John Taylor (“Ike”) Williams