2017 Conference Program

On Friday, May 19, BIO will offer afternoon tours of two of Boston’s top archival sites, the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Boston Athenaeum. The roster of pre-conference events also features brief readings by biographers of new biographical works. The readings and Friday evening’s opening reception will be held at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

On Saturday,  May 20, the conference kicks off with a breakfast plenary session featuring Larry Tye and David Nasaw in conversation. Following the breakfast, conference attendees will be able to select from 16 panels devoted to topics relating to Core, Craft, Issues, Techniques, and Practicums. At lunch, 2017 BIO Award winner Candice Millard will deliver the keynote address.

Here is the full program for the weekend:


1 PM
Boston Athenaeum Tour
Founded in 1807, the Boston Athenæum is one of the oldest and most distinguished independent libraries and cultural institutions in the United States. Participants will learn about the history of the library and the nature of its special collections and circulating library. Selections from the special collections (rare books, paintings, and sculpture) will be a highlight.


3:30 PM 
Massachusetts Historical Society
An introduction to the remarkable MHS and its collections, including the personal papers of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincey Adams by Peter Drummey, Stephen T. Riley Librarian.

5:15 PM


6:00 PM
Opening Reception


8:15 AM

Breakfast Plenary Session
Title: Larry Tye and David Nasaw in conversation.

9:30 AM

The Organized Biographer
Veteran biographers and historians detail and compare research techniques, use of interviews and oral histories, managing your time in the archives, tracking notes, and other practical aspects of biography work.

Moderator: James McGrath Morris. Panelists: Brian Jay Jones, Marla Miller, and Richard Zacks

The Challenges of Writing About the Known
Writing about a well-known figure usually involves making one’s way through voluminous records, a large collection of secondary works, and battling with preconceived notions of your subject. This panel looks into what goes into a new examination of a much-written about or mythical figure.

Moderator: Linda Leavell. Panelists: Andrew Lownie, George Prochnik, and Tim Riley.

Women in Love
Three prize-winning biographers of formidable women explore how their subjects’ romantic attachments enabled and hindered their lives and work—and how and how much the biographer should focus on them.

Moderator: Anne Heller. Panelists: Ruth Franklin, Charlotte Gordon, and Megan Marshall.

Going Indie
Traditional publishing does not always offer an avenue to get your biography to readers. This panel explores the pros, cons, and practical challenges of becoming a DIY author/publisher.

Moderator: Ken Ackerman. Panelists: Jane Karker, Melinda Ponder, and R. Scott Williams.

10:45 AM

Keeping It in the Family: Writing about Family Matters
A discussion of how a biographer deals with family matters historically as compared to how a biographer deals with family matters connected to one’s own DNA. Methods of research, aesthetic distance, empathy—or lack of it—as well as concerns about publication of family-related biographies will be explored.

Moderator: Julia Markus. Panelists: Honor Moore, Carla L. Peterson, and Anne Boyd Rioux.

The Challenges of Writing About the Unknown
The records of lesser-known figures are often scarce and the interest in such persons among publishers is weak. Biographers with experience in exploring the lives of unknown subjects share the challenges—and opportunities—of bringing to light a story the world knows little about.

Moderator: Sonja Williams. Panelists: Pamela Newkirk, Marlene Trestman, and Quincy Whitney.

Boston or New England Lives
Each BIO Conference offers a panel focusing on the lives of subjects with ties to the region. Eminent biographers of New England figures will discuss their work.

Moderator: Louise Knight. Panelists: Eve LaPlante, Louisa Thomas, and Larry Tye.

Parallel Lives
Ever since Plutarch, some biographers have chosen to track the lives of several subjects in a single volume. Panelists will discuss both the narrative challenges and the unique opportunities for illumination that such biographical works offer.

Moderator: Josh Kendall. Panelists: Alex Beam, Katie Bolick, and James McGrath Morris.

12:00 PM

Lunch and Keynote Address by Candice Millard, winner of the 2017 BIO Award

1:45 PM

Round Table Discussions
Round tables offer a chance to network with biographers working in your field, share resources, and solve common problems. Conference participants are invited to register for one of the following topical round tables, with a leader present at each table to facilitate discussion.

  • First-time Biographers
  • First-person Narration
  • Biographies of Family Members
  • Group Biography
  • Women’s Lives
  • Sexuality in Biography
  • U.S. History before 1945
  • U.S. History after 1945
  • Literary Biography
  • Celebrities and Popular Culture
  • Visual and Performing Arts

3:00 PM

Slice of a Life
As the popularity of cradle-to-grave biographies has decreased, the demand for so-called “slice-of-life” biographies has grown. This kind of biographical work is tricky and requires particular writing skills. Biographers of highly successful slice-of-life books will talk about their strategies and share tips about how to shape the narrative.

Moderator: Will Swift. Panelists: Joseph Lelyveld, Candice Millard, Patty O’Toole.

Controversy: What Kind to Court, What to Avoid
“Banned in Boston” used to also mean a boost in book sales. Controversy generates media attention—but also foreseeable perils. Biographers whose books have either disclosed controversial information about their subjects or who were controversial themselves discuss their experiences.

Moderator: Deirdre David. Panelists: Debby Applegate, Kitty Kelley, and Ike Williams.

Beyond the Book Review
Experienced authors know well that researching, writing, and selling a book is only half the battle. Getting your book known to readers in this new digital world is a whole different challenge, and one that now (in all but a few cases) falls squarely on the shoulders of the writer.

Moderator: Lisa Napoli. Panelists: Andrew Albanese, Rachel Cass, Marjorie Kehe, and Taryn Roeder.

Off the Page and Onto the Stage, Screen, Broadcast, and Podcast
Biographers discuss the opportunities and challenges of producing an original biography in media other than the printed page and of adapting biography to film, theater, opera, and radio.

Moderator: Cathryn Keller. Panelists: Kate Clifford Larson, James Reston Jr., and Sonja Williams.

4:15 PM

The Birth of a Biography
An agent, an editor, and a publicity expert take us inside a publishing house, demystifying the process through which a biography is acquired, shaped, assembled, and sent out into the marketplace

Moderator: Beverly Gray. Panelists: Gayatri Patnaik, Wendy Strothman, and Lissa Warren.

Biography and Style
A dialogue between James Atlas and Patricia Bosworth about breaking all the rules of biography and making it work anyway.

Whose Lives Matter, and Who Should Be Writing Them
In biography, as in history and current affairs, the lives of people of color and disenfranchised figures are given short shrift. Biography offers a unique opportunity to correct this imbalance, but it also raises issues of what has come to be known as “cultural appropriation” – can a biographer write effectively and accurately about a race, a culture, an ethnicity not his own? Must such an effort ultimately end in misunderstanding, or can it lend a fresh perspective?

Moderator: Patricia Bell-Scott. Panelists: Kavita Das, Janice Nimura, and Ray Shepard.

Truth and Revelation: Lessons from Presidents’ Lives
In the year of a contentious new U.S. president in the White House, Pulitzer Prize winners Kai Bird and Frederik Logevall, together with prize-winning journalist and biographer John Farrell, explore the current trend toward looking at presidents as people whose power and individual agency can affect the course of history–for good and bad. Carter, Nixon and Kennedy under the critical microscope–with interesting lessons for all biographers!

Moderator: Nigel Hamilton. Panelists: Kai Bird, John Farrell, and Fredrik Logevall.

5:30 PM – 7:00 PM

Closing Reception and Announcement of the 2017 Plutarch Award Winner


Sunday morning will afford attendees a chance to participate in one of the following optional in-depth workshops, which run from 10 AM to noon:

Assembling Your Book – James McGrath Morris
Now that you have written the book, how do you deal with photos, illustrations, permissions, footnotes, and endnotes & copyright issues? This workshop is a complete guide to all aspects of preparing your manuscript for publication.

Making a Book Trailer – Carl Rollyson
Making trailers: How to begin, where to broadcast, how to follow up, deciding what to show. The workshop will show different kinds of trailers and generate ideas for your own biographies.

Writing Your First Biography – Julia Markus
How does one weave a narrative that keeps the reader interested while at the same time being faithful to the facts? This workshop will deal with how to introduce your subject in a way that will attract the reader (and hopefully the agent/ publisher). You are free to bring in the opening section of your work to read and discuss in the workshop. Or perhaps you have met an obstacle on the way and wish to bring in other pages to read and discuss. Then again, perhaps you are having some difficulties in relating the subject of your biography to another person of importance to his or her life. Bring in your pages—with some copies to be returned if possible—or just bring in your questions.

Book Proposals – Andrew Lownie
Biographer and literary agent Andrew Lownie will take participants through all the steps in creating a salable proposal.