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.
About 150 people from the publishing and cultural worlds of New York City turned out on November 4 to honor Jonathan Segal, winner of BIO’s second annual Editorial Excellence Award, and to hear some of the many biographers he’s worked with extol his dedication to his writers and the books they create.
BIO board member Will Swift acted as MC for the evening, and he began by noting the “extraordinary loyalty” Segal engenders in his writers. That loyalty is reflected in part by how long writers choose to stay with him. Panelists Paul Hendrickson, Eric Lax, and T. J. Stiles, along with moderator Kate Buford, have almost a century of combined experience working with Segal.
Before the panelists sung Segal’s praises, they addressed the issue, “How Do Great Biographies Get Made, and Why Do They Matter?” Buford began by asking the writers how they get their ideas. Stiles said he looks for strong stories that address some moral question of right and wrong. His subjects tend to be morally compromised in some way. Lax is drawn to people whose lives pose questions—questions he’s compelled to find answers to. He said the subject has to be someone “you’re willing to live with for the time it takes to do that.” Lax, whose subjects have included Woody Allen, also talked about the difference of writing about living and dead subjects. Since the former’s life is still unfolding, “You can be much more surprised by the living person than the dead person.”
For the process of writing, Hendrickson saw it as an act of discovery: “Where a book starts out is not where a book is going to end up.” Biographers need to be willing to follow where the story they uncover takes them, he said.
Of course, that process depends on what kinds of sources the biographer uncovers. While writing about Jesse James, Stiles had no diaries, no internal sources, to work with. For that kind of book, putting the subject in a historical context provided some of the plot. Writing about Cornelius Vanderbilt, many of Stiles’s sources stressed the subject’s business dealings, so that shaped the book. Stiles said, “Make a virtue out of what your material is.”
The panelists also examined the role of morality in capturing a persona. “Part of what moves me forward is trying to understand the underlying morality [of a subject],” Hendrickson said. Lax said one of his goals is to try to understand the person underneath the persona, their values and what drove them to live the life they did—“the intangible things that make a person a person.” The writer’s own sense of morality factors in, too. Stiles said writers should treat their subjects with “simple decency” and “honor the three dimensional humanity” even with subjects who commit bad acts.
The panelists spent time discussing their lengthy relationships with Segal and what makes him such a great editor. Buford recounted Segal’s exhortation to “think harder” and to control tangents—bring the story back to the subject. Hendrickson described Segal’s role in helping him find the focus for his book on the civil rights era, Sons of Mississippi. Hendrickson also praised Segal for his patience and letting the author work at his own deliberate pace.
Segal doesn’t want to just help produce a book that will sell; he wants his authors to be better writers. Segal relies on an intuition that tells him something is wrong. To solve it, Stiles said, “He doesn’t tell me what I had to do, but where I had to do it.” Lax had a similar view: Segal wants to help authors produce the best book they can write.
The Editorial Excellence Award
As he introduced Carl Bernstein, who gave Segal his award, Swift condensed the thrust of the panelists’ comments into a simple observation: Segal “loves all authors.” Bernstein then described his relationship with Segal as the two of them worked on Bernstein’s biography of Hillary Clinton. Segal, with a background in journalism, knew the story was still unfolding, and he didn’t hector his author to speed up the writing process. Bernstein came to see that “Jon is interested, above all, in the truth. And the book isn’t there until he thinks you’ve reached the truth.”
Bernstein commented on the collaborative nature of working with Segal. He encourages authors to dig deeper, and then helps shapes the writing, but in the end, “it’s still your work, but you know it is your work that has come from a place you couldn’t have reached on your own.”
Accepting his award, Segal said he was deeply touched and humbled. He traced his career in publishing, starting as a journalist at the New York Times. He recounted reviewing a children’s book for his first assignment, and for another story, approving the headline “Man Kills Self, Then Wife.” An editor at the paper suggested, “The quality of your writing is such that you might want to try editing.” That comment set Segal off on the path that led him to touch the careers and lives of many biographers. The writers, he added, have enriched his life as well.
The evening’s event was coordinated by BIO board members Kate Buford, Gayle Feldman, Anne Heller, and Will Swift, and co-sponsored by the New York Society Library. A video of the complete ceremony is available on the library’s website.
Jonathan Segal received the second annual BIO Editorial Excellence Award on November 4 at an event titled “How Great Biographies Get Made and Why They Matter.” Carl Bernstein presented Segal with the award, and the evening featured a panel discussion with several biographers who have worked with Segal. TBC will present highlights of that discussion and Segal and Bernstein’s remarks in the December issue. The event was co-sponsored by the New York Society Library.
A video of the evening is available here.
Jonathan Segal, editor of six Pulitzer-Prize winning books, will receive BIO’s second annual Editorial Excellence Award on Wednesday, November 4, at a special event, “How Great Biographies Get Made and Why They Matter.” Segal and five esteemed biographers who have worked with him will explore how major biographical works are conceived and crafted, and how a gifted editor can make the difference between a good biography and a great work that has a significant impact.
Presenting the award to Segal, a vice president and senior editor at Knopf, will be Carl Bernstein, journalist and author of the best-selling biography of Hillary Clinton, A Woman in Charge.
The evening also includes a panel discussion with:
- Paul Hendrickson, author of Hemingway’s Boat and a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and two Heartland Awards
- Eric Lax, former president of PEN USA, a BIO Advisory Council member, and the author of Woody Allen
- T.J. Stiles, another BIO Advisory Council member and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and the author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt and the new Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America
- Panel moderator Kate Buford, BIO Board member and the author of Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe and Burt Lancaster: An American Life, both edited by Mr. Segal.
Light refreshments will be served, and the books listed here are available for purchase prior to the event at the Corner Bookstore, 1313 Madison Avenue at 93rd Street. Books will not be sold at the event.
The event is at Temple Israel, 112 East 75th Street (Park/Lexington), New York, and begins at 6:30 pm. It is open to the public and tickets are $35. They can be purchased here.
This celebration of Mr. Segal’s editorial career was planned by Kate Buford, Gayle Feldman, Anne Heller, and Will Swift and is co-sponsored by the New York Society Library.
Almost 200 established and aspiring biographers immersed themselves in their craft at the Sixth Annual Biographers International Organization Conference, held June 6 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Amidst the various panel sessions, attendees also saw Taylor Branch receive the 2015 BIO Award. Branch is best known for his trilogy about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, known collectively as America in the King Years.
The Accidental Biographer
In his keynote address, Branch called himself an accidental and partial biographer, as he used the life of King and others to tell the story of the civil rights movement, which he called “the last great uprising of citizens’ idealism that really changed the direction of history.” Branch wanted to better understand the movement and address what he saw as problems with the existing books on it: They were “analytical and abstract” with an emphasis on interpretation. Branch wanted to “feel its power, which for me was personal and quite deep.”
But before and while immersing himself in what would become a 24-year endeavor to better understand and then write about the movement and its makers, Branch worked as journalist, ghost wrote the memoirs of Watergate figure John Dean and basketball star Bill Russell, and spent hours recording the thoughts of an old friend who just happened to become US president: Bill Clinton. Branch recounted some of the recording sessions that would form the basis of Branch’s The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President. Clinton wanted to document the history of his presidency as it unfolded, and his sessions with Branch remained secret through the president’s two terms. For Branch, the sessions gave him the chance “to get the fullest record that historians will one day have” of what daily life was like for Clinton in the White House.
Clinton and Branch had worked together in Texas during George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, and they often discussed political idealism. Branch thought he “had a better chance to influence [US politics] toward integrity as a writer than in politics.” With his King books, he explored the citizens’ idealism he saw in the civil rights movement, the reaction to it, and its lasting effects. He said, “The civil rights movement set things in motion that are still benefiting our country today, including same-sex marriage…. The civil rights movement forced people to break down their emotional barriers against dealing with what equal citizenship really means in everyday life.”
Branch chose to depict the movement in as personal a way as possible, to fight the urge in the United States to “reinterpret history wherever race relations are involved.” As an example, he cited the textbooks he read growing up in Atlanta, which taught that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. Many history books, Branch believes, deal with what a culture is comfortable talking about. Telling the personal stories of the people of the civil rights movement in a narrative history, Branch hoped, would preserve some of the uncomfortable facets of race relations in the United States, thus providing a more accurate history.
Thomas and Brinkley in Conversation
The conference events kicked off in the morning with a plenary breakfast session called “The Art and Craft of Biography: Evan Thomas and Douglas Brinkley in Conversation.” Between them, the two have authored biographies on a wide range of figures who helped shaped the twentieth century, from presidents to Walter Cronkite. They engaged in an easy dialogue as they explored some of the challenges they’ve faced during their careers.
For Brinkley, one challenge came when writing about Rosa Parks. When she made her historic refusal to leave her bus seat, about a dozen or so people rode with her. But when Brinkley did his research, he interviewed 55 people who claimed to be on the bus that day. “Everybody in Montgomery was on Rosa Parks’s bus,” he joked. “I had no idea who to trust.” Brinkley also had personal access to his subject and saw firsthand her willingness to help others, something that made writing the Parks book “probably the most moving personal biography” he’s done.
Following that observation, Evan Thomas said he had just finished a biography of Richard Nixon, and the president “was not a Rosa Parks.” But Thomas did come to appreciate how hard it was to be Richard Nixon, who was socially awkward and “a powerfully lonely guy.” Nixon’s experiences intersected with the life of another of Brinkley’s subjects, Walter Cronkite. CBS News played a big part in bringing Watergate to the public’s attention, and Nixon wanted to “get” Cronkite, who personally liked Nixon. Cronkite also interacted with another of Thomas’s subjects, Robert F. Kennedy. The newsman, Brinkley said, crossed the line of journalistic ethics when he urged Kennedy to run for president in 1968 because of the morass in Vietnam.
Another topic Brinkley and Thomas covered was how to get the biography subject’s family on board, which can be hard when relatives, especially children, want to preserve their loved one’s image, and their truthfulness might be suspect. Thomas also mentioned the difficulty at times of sorting out key details from extraneous facts—“I wish I had a magic formula to help you figure out what’s important and what isn’t.” Another concern for biographers today: plagiarism, or the accusation of it. One strategy, Thomas said, is to footnote extensively and acknowledge the work of experts in the foreword. Brinkley cited a slightly different problem, of anecdotes that get passed along as truth but without sources to back them up. He relies on double sources when possible to verify information.
After discussing some of the nuts and bolts of the craft, Brinkley ended the session on a loftier and inspiring note. He called biography “the most indispensable art form because in America, we live by individuals… that’s how we process history, through people.”
While Saturday, June 6, saw most of the conference’s events and festivities, on Friday some attendees explored the Library of Congress on private tours. In the evening, BIO members gathered at the Georgetown home of board member Kitty Kelley, where Thomas Mann, formerly of the Library of Congress, received BIO’s Biblio Award. Established in 2012, the award recognizes a librarian or archivist who has made an exceptional contribution to the craft of biography. Mann retired from the Library in January 2015 after 33 years of service.
Also at the reception, board member Will Swift announced that Jonathan Segal will receive BIO’s Editorial Excellence Award this November. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Carl Bernstein will present the award and the evening’s events will also include a panel discussion. Look for more details on this event in upcoming issues of TBC.