Biographers International Organization gave Nan A. Talese its Editorial Excellence Award at the New York Society Library on October 5. Almost 100 people turned out to honor Talese, including several of the authors she has worked with over the years, such as Judy Collins, Anne Heller, and A. E. Hotchner. Other guests from the publishing world included Sonny Mehta, Louis Begley, Robert MacNeill, and Robert Caro, who called the event one of the great literary evenings in New York. Talese joins Robert Gottlieb and Jonathan Segal as winners of the Editorial Excellence Award.
Biographers International Organization will present its third annual Editorial Excellence Award to the legendary editor Nan A. Talese, senior vice president of Doubleday and publisher and editorial director of her own imprint, Nan A. Talese Books at Doubleday, at an evening reception on October 5 in New York City.
In the course of fifty years, Nan Talese has edited and published some of the most distinguished biographiess and nonfiction works of our time, including A. Alvarez’s enduring classic, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide; Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s List; Phyllis Rose’s Josephine Baker in Her Time; François Gilot’s Matisse and Picasso; Benita Eisler’s O’Keeffe and Stieglitz; Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette; many books by Peter Ackroyd, including The Life of Thomas More, Shakespeare, Chaucer, J. M. W. Turner, Newton, Poe, Chaplin, and London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets; and Deirdre Bair’s Saul Steinberg and the forthcoming Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, among many others. We spoke with Nan briefly about the experience of editing biography and what she looks for when considering the acquisition of a book.
TBC: Can you provide us with a telling example of how working actively with an author improved one of the biographies you published?
Talese: The best example may be the first biography I edited, A. E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway (1966). The author and I sat together with the manuscript. I pointed out scenes that seemed less interesting than other scenes or that did not contribute to the reader’s understanding of the character of Hemingway. I asked him questions: “What is going on there? What do you want to convey?” and he answered and I would say, “Put that in!” We ended by cutting one fifth of the manuscript and adding another one fifth in.
TBC: What do you look for in a proposal or a manuscript?
Talese: The first thing I consider is whether the subject is well known and well respected, and what the crucial scenes were in his or her life. What caused a subject to change his mind or direction? Then I look for whether the author has a gift for storytelling and whether the writer’s voice transfers his or her passion to the reader and the page. I look for the ability to tell a powerful story while being very careful to stay within the facts.
TBC: What are editors looking for today?
Talese: Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a great deal of interest in pop stars and in celebrities of all kinds. This is cyclical, and—if fifty years of editing is any guide—this interest will go and come again.
If you will be in or near New York on October 5, do consider joining Nan and a number of the biographers she has published for an evening of lively conversation. The event takes place at the New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street, at 6:30 p.m. and is open to the public.
Buy tickets here.
As is often the case, biographies of literary figures and political leaders fill the list of titles most likely to receive media attention in the coming months, and several BIO members have books coming out that critics have already reviewed positively or are awaiting with anticipation.
We’re highlighting here some of the biographies already generating a buzz—because of their subject, their author, or both—as featured in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and Amazon. You can see a longer list of upcoming biographies here.
TBC does its best to learn about new books, and our monthly In Stores feature will include even more fall and winter titles. Should we have missed any members’ upcoming releases, please let us know so we can add them to the list on the website. And keep in mind that publishing dates change, so some books may come out earlier or later than indicated here.
The list of eagerly waited literary biographies is bookended with works from two members: Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life in September and Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, out in February. During the rest of the fall season, other notable literary biographies include Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited by Philip Eade, an October release; Alex Beam’s The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship, due out in December; and two January titles, In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary and Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel by John Stubbs. Also out in February will be Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character.
Turning to subjects known for other artistic endeavors, BIO member Brian Jay Jones tops the list with his George Lucas: A Life, which will be released in December. The other biographies of musicians, filmmakers, and artists drawing attention include Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War by Nigel Cliff, and Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap by Ben Westhoff, both out this month; Peter Ackroyd’s Alfred Hitchcock and Franny Moyle’s Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner, both October releases; Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White by Michael Tisserand in December; and Molly Haskell’s Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films, which is slated for January.
Political and military figures featured in upcoming biographies include several U.S. presidents, British leaders, and at least one spy. The Roosevelts once again seem to dominate the political listings, with these titles among the many coming out over the next few months: His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt by Joseph Lelyveld and Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady, both out in September; Blanche Wiesen Cook’s third volume of her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, The War Years and After, 1939–1962, out in October; and The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family by William J. Mann, scheduled for January.
Addressing British politics and government, Julia Baird has Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire out in November, while the next month Penguin’s Monarch series will release William I: England’s Conqueror by Marc Morris.
Other notable biographies in the politics and military category include Indelible Ink: The Trials of John Peter Zenger and the Birth of America’s Free Press by Richard Kluger and the first volume of a new biography of Adolf Hitler by Volker Ullrich, both out in September. Also coming this month is Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton by Joe Conason, and former vice president and Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Charles Gates Dawes gets his first major biography, courtesy of member Annette B. Dunlap. In October, the struggles of a president and a general fill H.W. Brands’s new book, The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War. That month, two members have releases with military or espionage themes: Andrew Lownie with the U.S. publication of Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and the Cambridge Spy Ring; and William C. Davis with Inventing Loreta Velasquez, the story of a woman who claimed to have fought as a male Confederate soldier but was actually a con artist.
Biographical subjects from the worlds of business and academia appear in several of the season’s books. The September titles include A Truck Full of Money: One Man’s Quest to Recover from Great Success by Tracy Kidder, and BIO member Robert Kanigel’s Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacob. Lisa Napoli, another member, will publish Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away in November.
Finally, turning away from the tumult of politics, war, and business, several subjects with a more spiritual bent will also be part of the coming season. In February comes Albert Schweitzer: A Biography by Nils Ole Oermann, and Yale University Press adds to its Jewish Lives series in November with Moses: A Human Life by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg.
Long-time BIO board member and former Plutarch Award judge Chip Bishop died on August 5. His lifetime of achievements includes time as a campaign and administration aide to President Jimmy Carter, Capitol Hill lobbyist, entrepreneur, local elected official, and 1960s-era disc-jockey. Chip was on the Advisory Board of the Theodore Roosevelt Association and the executive committee of its New England chapter. A Tortured Soul, his long-anticipated biography of Elliott Roosevelt, T.R.’s brother and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s father, will be published by ForeEdge in 2017.
The September issue of The Biographer’s Craft will include tributes from the BIO members who knew him best.
If BIO gave an award to the member who ventured the farthest for its annual conference, Radha Chadha would have taken it for 2016. Originally from India, Chadha traveled from her current home in Dubai to Richmond for this year’s event, after being introduced to BIO by TBCNew York correspondent Dona Munker. The path to meeting Munker intersected with Chadha’s effort to write a biography of her father, the documentary filmmaker and producer Jagat Murari.
As Chadha told TBC via email, she was going through her late father’s papers in Pune, a city near Mumbai, when she discovered diaries going back to his days as a film student at USC shortly after World War II. The diaries mentioned a Persian princess named Sattareh Farman Farmaian, whom Murari had met at the school. Farmaian, Chadha learned, had written an autobiography with Dona Munker’s assistance, so Chadha contacted the BIO member, starting a relationship that has been very fruitful for the rookie biographer. Chadha said that Munker “has been amazing—very generous and full of helpful advice that a first-time biographer like me thirsts for. I found the same generous spirit at the BIO conference in Richmond. I am simply delighted to be part of this group.”
What led Chadha to tackle the challenge of writing about her father’s life? Part of it was wanting to tell the story of a key figure in postwar India filmmaking. “He has a fascinating story of achievements that even I didn’t know properly,” Chadha said. “He is a pioneer in the Indian cinema world, both as a documentary filmmaker and a film educator.
Murari directed nearly 50 films, and many of them won national and international awards and were screened at some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. As an educator, Chadha said, her father was “in a sense…the man who changed Bollywood, who injected a steady stream of professionally trained directors, technicians, and actors into India’s prolific but chaotic film industry from the 1960s onwards.” Murari did that work as the head of the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), which he created. “Think about it,” Chadha said. “Just a dozen years after India’s independence, in a desperately underdeveloped country, he builds the finest film school in India; it becomes the largest in Asia. His students become the who’s who of Bollywood, as well as the instigators and key players in the New Wave cinema movement that picked up steam in the late 1960s in India.”
Chadha was also drawn to her father’s story because his work in cinema is a part of modern India’s history that has largely gone untold. His documentaries, she said, “tell the story of India’s attempts to develop and unite a fragile nation, they capture a certain innocence or idealism of the times as India tried to ingrain the spirit of democracy in a vast, far-flung, diverse, poor, largely illiterate country.”
Adding some spice to the story, it doesn’t hurt that Murari did an internship with Orson Welles while the director was making Macbeth¸ and that he later met world-famous directors as they passed through India. And for a time, Indira Gandhi’s role as the country’s Minister of Information and Broadcasting effectively made her Murari’s boss.
Asked how to balance the desire to be objective while writing about a parent, Chadha called that “the heart of the dilemma I face—how to do your duty as a biographer (by being as objective as possible) while doing your duty as a daughter (by presenting him in the best light possible).” Chadha is turning to her father’s filmmaking as a guide of sorts. Above all, she said, her father was a dramatic storyteller, “and every good story is ultimately a tussle between the forces of good and bad… the forces that propel your character forward and the forces that prevent him from getting where he wants to…. Fortunately, my material has plenty of drama built in—he was strong-willed, he was a visionary, he was in a tearing hurry, he made things happen against formidable odds…. He made enemies along the way, he made mistakes, there were ups, yes, but there were some pretty awful downs. Much as I love him, it would be totally counterproductive to write an I-love-my-daddy puff piece. I just have to get out of the way and tell the story.”
Chadha has some advice and caveats for other biographers thinking of writing about a close relative: “Of course, talking to other people is a great help. But people are not forthcoming about the negative stuff—in fact, one of my surprising learnings is that many elderly people haven’t told me the truth. I had naively imagined that “age equals honesty”—it doesn’t. But if you talk to enough people, you will get to the truth, a few will spill the beans. And every interview, even the sketchy ones, gives you a sense of what might have happened. Soon you begin to notice contradictions, and that leads to many ‘aha’ moments. It is detective work, but so much fun when you figure out someone’s motives. More importantly, it helps you develop a considered viewpoint, and ultimately, that’s what matters. I think the only way to write convincingly is to be convinced.”
Many of the people Chadha hoped to interview had passed away, but even talking to their surviving spouses or children helped. “It has led me to books/articles/speeches (often in languages that have needed translation) that I would not have found without the family’s help. Even better, it has led me to colleagues who are alive. For example, I stumbled upon a 94-year-old man who had studied with my father at USC—they had even shared a room for a short period.”
Chadha also benefited from her father’s being something of a celebrity for most of his career, so newspapers covered his activities. “But again,” she added, “I have learned that they don’t necessarily tell the truth—there are vested interests, there is careless reporting—you have to test the information with your other sources.” Her father was a controversial figure, Chadha said, as some critics accused him of being too enamored of a commercial, Hollywood style of filmmaking when other countries were moving toward the French New Wave approach. As Murari got caught up in the debates, the reporting on him was a “mixed bag.” Overall, Chadha said, trying to remain objective while writing about a famous parent put her on high alert: “You simply try harder. You try to get multiple viewpoints from multiple sources.”
The sources included, of course, Murari’s films, which Chadha said helped her learn who he was as both a filmmaker and a human being. She also studied the films of his students. In the Bollywood vs. New Wave debate, she thinks her father saw value in both approaches. “His aim was to make ‘better cinema’—through professionally trained filmmakers—never mind which side of the fence that cinema came from.”
Today, India has the largest film industry in the world, producing up to 2,000 full-length movies each year. Both splashy Bollywood spectacles and more serious art-house films are shown around the globe. Radha Chadha is still uncovering the role her father played in creating that industry. “It is,” she said, “a story that needs to be told.”
Biographers International Organization is currently in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status with the IRS so it can solicit tax-deductible contributions from individuals and institutions, and apply for grants. In the meantime, the BIO board has entered into an agreement with Virginia Organizing, a tax-exempt organization that partners with a wide range of non-profit organizations. BIO members can make out checks to Virginia Organizing or donate at its website and designate contributions to BIO that will be tax deductible. BIO members will receive an email after Labor Day with instructions on how to donate this way.
The Leon Levy Center for Biography, part of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY), is seeking an executive director who will also have the title of distinguished lecturer. In announcing the job opening, CUNY said the preferred candidate “will be a renowned biographer who can serve as an articulate spokesperson for the Leon Levy Center for Biography and for the genre of biography and can solidify The Graduate Center’s reputation as the pre-eminent institution devoted to the study and promotion of biography. The director will be a practitioner who has thoughtfully considered issues in biographical writing and the place of biography in the academy and in contemporary literary culture.” The search committee for the position, led by David Nasaw, will begin reviewing resumes on August 10 and plans to conduct interview during September. For more information and to apply, go here.
Read highlights of the Seventh Annual BIO Conference, held in Richmond, Virginia, on June 3-5, here.