2012 Annual Compleat Biographer Conference

The Third Annual Compleat Biographer Conference was held May 18-20, 2012 at the Davidson Conference Center at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles California..

Pre-Conference Events

Special events included pre-conference tours of the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and of the Los Angeles Central Library and the Huntington Charles Munger Research Center and gardens.

Another pre-conference event was a cocktail party to raise money for the Hazel Rowley Fund, named for a late founding member of BIO. The fund will eventually be used to award a prize to the writer with the best proposal for a first biography. Out-going president Nigel Hamilton welcomed attendees, and Kate Buford, Jim Thorpe biographer, presented a special award called the BIO Biblio Award to Edward “Ned” Comstock, senior library assistant at USC’s Cinematic Arts Library. For more than 30 years Comstock has been the go-to person for biographers and filmmakers looking for detailed information on Hollywood history.

I’m like a bank teller working at a popular-culture Fort Knox, and it is my privilege and pleasure to dispense this gold—information and facts—to researchers. — Edward “Ned” Comstock

Conference Events

The conference offered nineteen panels, on topics related to the Nuts & Bolts of Writing; Research, Organizing & Writing; and Marketing & Selling. The workshop sessions were tantalizing. Three looked at the connection between biography and filmmaking, while others explored legal and financial issues and using the Internet as a marketing tool. Below is a brief look at two of the sessions:

The Biographer and the Biopic

Panelists looked at the biopic from the screenwriter’s perspective. Today’s biopics often take “smaller slices” of a subjectcs life, said Stephen McFelly than the cradle-to-grave film biographies of the past. The concentrated focus leads to higher stakes and more depth of character. Even though biopic screenwriters heavily research their subjects, they also take liberties. My screenwriter noted “I’m a dramatist, not a journalist.”

Panel moderator Jack El-Hai recounted some of his experiences as he watched one of his books turned into a pilot for HBO. Even though some basic facts were changed, he thought that the scriptwriter remained true to the essence of the book. A final thought from this sessions was that selling an option to have a book turned into a film can provide extra income to biographers – though it won’t make them rich. For that, they would have to write screenplays.

Creating a Beautifully Written Biography

Biographers Will Swift, Kate Buford, Anne C. Heller, and editor and poet David Groff were the panelists that offered insights into what makes a beautifully written biography.

To Kate Buford, a beautiful biography is, among other things, truthful. She also advised to only quote what you can’t say better yourself. For Anne C. Heller, a beautiful biography gets readers to “think anew.” David Groff spoke on the need for a biographer to craft finely wrought sentences, as well as lay claim to the subject, the idea that “this person belongs to me. I have a right to be beautiful in this.”

But Heller warned that beautiful writing isn’t a substitute for a lack of information. Buford suggested that some of the “black holes” in a subject’s life can sometimes be filled by writing about the tenor of the times, that a passage such as this can serve as a transition to the next active part in the person’s life and can be beautiful in its own right.

A highlight of the conference was the presentation of the 2012 BIO Award to Arnold Rampersad for his contributions to the art and craft of biography.

Post-Conference Events

Several post-conference master classes were offered, ranging from adapting existing biographies for young adults to writing a literary biography. Another option included a guided tour of the Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles arranged by BIO member Heather Robinson Long.