Awards

BIO Announces the Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowship

In honor of the work of Robert and Ina Caro, Biographers International Organization has set up an annual research and travel fellowship. BIO members with a work in progress can apply to receive funding for research trips to archives or to important settings in their subject’s lives. This fellowship is a reflection of BIO’s ongoing commitment to support authors in writing beautifully contextualized and tenaciously researched biographies.

The Caro Research/Travel Fellowship is restricted to support of works of biography, e.g., not of history, autobiography, or memoir. The application deadline is February 1, 2018. In the spring of 2018, BIO will award either one $5,000 or two $2,500 fellowships, based on the judgment of the following panel: Kate Buford, Deirdre David, and Marc Leepson.

To apply, go here.

First-time Biographers, Apply Now for the Rowley Prize!

BIO is now accepting applications for the 2018 Hazel Rowley Prize. The aim of this prize is to help a first-time biographer of real promise in four ways: through funding (the $2,000 prize); by securing a careful reading from at least one established agent; a year’s membership in Biographers International Organization (BIO); and publicity through the BIO website and The Biographer’s Craft newsletter, among other outlets.

The prize is named in memory of Hazel Rowley (1951–2011), who was born in London, educated in England and Australia, and was a longtime resident of the United States. A BIO enthusiast from its inception, Hazel understood the need for biographers to help each other. The prize named for her will be given for the fourth time at the next BIO conference, in late spring 2018. Judges for the 2018 prize are the distinguished biographers Stacy Schiff and James Atlas.

The prize is open to citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. and Canada who write in English, are working on a biography that has not been commissioned, contracted, or self-published, and who have never published a biography, history, or work of narrative nonfiction. Biography, as defined for this prize, is a narrative of an individual’s life. Although, group biographies and innovative ways of treating lives will be considered. To apply, click here. The deadline for entries is March 1, 2018.

BIO Calls on Pulitzer Board to Create Separate Category for Biography

Responding to the recent trend of awarding the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography to authors of memoirs, Biography International Organization has written to Pulitzer Prize administrator, Mike Pride, asking that the board overseeing the Pulitzer Prizes to create a separate category for biography and a new category for autobiography and memoir. Pride recently left his position but turned over the letter to Dana Canedy, his replacement as administrator.

In a letter signed by BIO Board president Will Swift and Advisory Committee chair Debby Applegate, BIO specifically asked the Pulitzer Prize Board to do the following: 
(1) review the recent history of the prize for “Biography or Autobiography
;
(2) consider biographies on their own merits and thus as their own unique prize category;
(3) consolidate autobiography and memoir into a new and distinct category.

TBC first addressed this issue in June, when James McGrath Morris interviewed David Nasaw on the topic. Nasaw, chair of the Pulitzer Prize Biography/Autobiography Committee in 2015, and a two-time finalist for the Biography Pulitzer prize, said, “It was our understanding that a memoir is a piece of a life, a moment of a life, a part of a life, and it is not documented. There is no corroborating material, there are no additional interviews, there are no newspaper articles, and there is no context provided. A memoir is a work—as the title makes clear—of memory. Autobiography and biographies are not works of memory.”

Commenting on BIO’s effort, Swift said, I am grateful to Cathy Curtis, Steve Weinberg, Jamie Morris, Brian Jones and most of all Debby Applegate for helping me think through the complex issues we present to new Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy. I look forward to hearing from her and we would be delighted to meet with her and other representatives of the Pulitzer board.

The entire letter is reprinted here.

Ruth Franklin Wins 2017 Plutarch Award

Ruth Franklin received the 2017 Plutarch Award from Plutarch Award Committee chair John A. Farrell.

Ruth Franklin won the 2017 Plutarch Award for Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Members of Biographers International Organization selected the winning book, which was announced at the Eighth Annual BIO Conference on May 20 at Emerson College in Boston. The Shirley Jackson bio had previously won several other honors, most notably the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.

Offering her thanks for the award, Franklin said, “It’s really humbling to receive an award named after Plutarch.” She said that before this year’s event in Boston, she looked back at her notes from past conferences and realized how much she had learned from so many of the people with her in the room. Being part of BIO and a women’s biographers group in New York has shown her, “We aren’t in any way alone in what we do.”

At her first BIO Conference in 2014, Franklin said, she was too shy and intimidated to introduce herself to the big-name biographers she found herself surrounded by; she just “gazed adoringly” at Stacy Schiff, that year’s BIO Award winner, which Franklin joked might have led Schiff to believe she was a stalker. Now, Franklin is preparing an interview with Schiff for the Paris Review. She said she and Schiff discussed how there’s no instruction manual for biographers, everyone approaches the craft a little differently, and that biographers “all have to learn from each other.”

The Plutarch Award Committee originally chose ten semi-finalists before selecting four finalists for the 2017 prize. The other finalists were:

  • Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Frances Wilson
  • Hitler: Ascent, 1889–1939 by Volker Ullrich, translated by Jefferson Chase
  • Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas

You can see the complete list of this year’s semi-finalists and past winners here

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Pulitzer Stirs Controversy by Awarding the Biography/ Autobiography Prize to Memoirs

By James McGrath Morris

This year the Pulitzer Prize for “a distinguished and appropriately documented biography or autobiography by an American author” was awarded to an author who wrote neither a biography nor an autobiography. In fact, neither did the two finalists in this category. The prizewinner and the finalists all wrote memoirs.

The prize was awarded to The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar. The two finalists were In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi and When Breath Becomes Air by the late Paul Kalanithi.

Further muddying the water was that in 2016 the prize for Biography/Autobiography went to William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, and one of the two finalists was also a memoir. The other finalist, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles, was moved by the board to the History category and given that prize.

The Pulitzer Prize board’s selection of memoirs two years running for the Biography/Autobiography category has sparked a debate among biographers. Most believe that memoir is a fundamentally different form of writing about a life in that it does not require any form of documentation, especially the kind of research that often distinguishes biographies.

BIO’s board is requesting to meet with the Pulitzer Prize administrator to discuss the continued commingling of biography, autobiography, and memoir. Currently, the Pulitzer Prize organization is seeking a new administrator, since Mike Pride announced his retirement.

To help sort out this this issue, TBC turned to David Nasaw, the distinguished historian, accomplished biographer, and chairman of the advisory board of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at City University of New York. Nasaw is the author of three biographies: The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst; Andrew Carnegie; and The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy. The latter two were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the Biography/Autobiography category.

James McGrath Morris: You were invited to chair the Biography/Autobiography Committee in 2015 for the prize awarded in April 2016, isn’t that right?
David Nasaw: I was sort of surprised that they gave it to me, if only because I had been a finalist twice but never a winner. Of my three biographies, The Chief was never submitted to the Pulitzer committee, which was a bit of a scandal with Houghton Mifflin. The New York Times wrote about it. Houghton Mifflin just forgot to give them the book. My next two books were finalists. So, everything I say about the Pulitzers should be taken with a grain of salt, because I have a particular history with the prizes.
JMM: Nonetheless, you were chosen as the chairperson for the 2015 awards and you began work by studying the guidelines.
DN: We, the three of us who were on the committee, read the guidelines that we were given very, very, very carefully. And, we interpreted the guidelines as ruling out of competition any memoirs that were not documented. The guidelines that we were given said that for the nonfiction awards it was very important that the materials in these books be appropriately documented. And, they said that there should be some references, footnotes, endnotes, or in the text itself, which gave the reader the confidence that what was being said, or what was being reported, had actually taken place. The Pulitzer guidelines made that abundantly clear.
JMM: Did you have other things by which to guide your deliberations?
DN: In addition to those guidelines, I did a little bit of research, and we all did, on what was an autobiography. How is this defined? And, it was the opinion of the three of us that an autobiography was distinct from a memoir. An autobiography is the writing of a life by the person who lived that life. It does not necessarily have to be cradle-to-grave, but it is written to show how influences of place and time, childhood, adolescence, parenthood, affect the coming-to-age, and the activities, character, personality, and achievements of the adult. It is, in other words, a biography written by the person who is the subject of that biography.

It was our understanding that a memoir is a piece of a life, a moment of a life, a part of a life, and it is not documented. There is no corroborating material, there are no additional interviews, there are no newspaper articles, and there is no context provided. A memoir is a work—as the title makes clear—of memory. Autobiography and biographies are not works of memory.
JMM: What did you do then?
DN: So, we made our determinations clear to the administrator, who was in contact with us. And, we let it be known that after studying and applying the guidelines, we were not considering 30 percent or 40 percent of the books (I don’t know the exact number) that had been submitted under this category. When we finished our deliberations, we were asked to write a report. In it, we explained how we had made our decisions.

Twice afterwards I wrote to the administrator of the prize and I said, “We consider this very important, that the Pulitzer board has to make a decision as to what it’s going to do.”
JMM: What can it do?
DN: We recommended a number of changes to the Pulitzer board to remedy the situation we had encountered. It could establish memoir as a separate category; it could add memoir to the Biography/Autobiography category, so it’s Autobiography/Memoir/Biography; or, it could let publishers know that memoirs should be submitted in the general Nonfiction category. Whatever it decided to do, we argued against it continuing to accept “memoir” nominations in the Autobiography/Biography category because we thought that other jurors would do as we had done, would read the guidelines as we had read them, and not consider the memoir submissions for the prize.
JMM: Then the subsequent selections in 2016 and 2017 must have been a shock?
DN: You can imagine my surprise when, the following year, a book that we would not even have considered for the award, given our reading of Finnegan’s book, was given the prize. And the Stiles book, which was a biography, was moved out of the category, into History. And the second runner-up was a memoir. The following year, this year, there were no autobiographies or biographies. The prize was given to another memoir, and again the runners-up were memoirs.

So, I, having been a judge, I’m not saying the jurors were wrong to do this, I would never say that. But I will say that the guidelines are so written that one committee could read them in a way that appears to be almost diametrically opposed to the way the other committees read them. There’s got to be something wrong there.
JMM: If you were made emperor of the Pulitzer Prize, what would you do to fix this?
DN: I’d simply make a category for memoir. When these categories were first designed, there were very few memoirs. The committee has adjusted all the other awards, certainly all the journalism awards.
JMM: Very often they have.
DN: On a regular basis. Why can’t it pay the same attention to the arts and letters awards?
JMM: And you would be okay with keeping autobiography and biography together as one?
DN: Sure. Sure. And, if the Pulitzer board doesn’t want to do that, then it should add memoir to that list. The fact that Amazon puts memoir into the same category as autobiography and biography doesn’t mean that we should do the same. There has historically been a difference between autobiography and memoir. And a memoir, as we know, is not in the same genre, I don’t think, as biography.
JMM: I was a judge recently on the Western Writers of American prize for best biography. I took out a memoir from the pile of books I was to judge because I didn’t see how you could compare it to biography.
DN: That’s exactly what we did for the 2015 awards. And, I assume from looking at the judging, that’s what had happened earlier.
JMM: When you think of presidential autobiographies, they have a staff who uses all these memoirs and calendars to get the dates right. Their autobiographies may be self-serving, but still, they are biographies of their lives.
DN: Yeah. So, I don’t know what’s going on. I think it is an extraordinary disservice to memoir and to biography. Because these are separate literary genres. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. And again, memoirs are important enough as a genre in the twenty-first century, that they should have their own award.

Diana Parsell Wins Rowley Prize

Diana Parsell is the winner of BIO’s 2017 Hazel Rowley Prize, given for the best proposal for a first biography. Parsell’s book is titled A Great Blooming and is a biography of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who had the idea to plant Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and made it happen. Parsell will receive a $2,000 prize, a careful reading from at least one established agent, one year’s membership in BIO, and publicity through the BIO website, The Biographers Craft, and other outlets. She will receive her honor on May 20 at the BIO Conference in Boston.
Parsell previously was a winner of the Mayborn/BIO Biography Fellowship, which provided her with a creative residency in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Parsell told TBC that the prize “offers a shot in the arm. Now several years into this project, I’d been suffering a heavy dose of book fatigue. The sense of validation that comes from this will help energize me for the final spurt.”

The project, she said, has been rewarding, as she tries to reconstruct Scidmore’s life from many pieces. “Published information about her has been sketchy, and in many cases inaccurate, with factual errors perpetuated over the years. I like the satisfaction that comes from getting at the truth through records and other evidence.” Most of Scidmore’s personal papers were burned after she died, but Parsell said she was “an extraordinarily prolific writer,” leaving seven books and about 900 articles. This formed a “great ‘paper trail’ for chronicling her travels in the U.S. and across Asia. On top of that, she lived from the Civil War to post-WWI, so that’s a lot of historical context to grasp. Handling it all has felt overwhelming at times.”

Parsell noted that she started this project around the time BIO was founded, and she called BIO “a terrific resource . . . for a novice biographer like me. The newsletter is a gem of useful information, and I always learn good stuff at the conferences. What I like best is how BIO provides, in a democratic spirit, a supportive environment for members ranging from beginners to pros.”

Finalists Announced for Hazel Rowley Prize

The 2017 Hazel Rowley Prize Committee has chosen three finalists for BIO’s award for the best proposal for a first biography. They are, in alphabetical order:

  • Eric M. Nishimoto, for Arthur’s War, the story of his uncle, Arthur Nishimoto, a volunteer in the segregated, all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team that fought in Europe during WWII, becoming the most decorated unit in U.S. history.
  • Diana Parsell, for A Great Blooming, the biography of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, an intrepid late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century American traveler to Asia, who had the idea to plant Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and made it happen.
  • Jeffrey Lawrence Yastine, for Battle the Wind: Elmer and Lawrence Sperry, father and son inventors and aircraft pioneers from the first half of the twentieth century, whose legacy lives on in the technology we take for granted today.
     The final judging is being done by distinguished biographers Blake Bailey and Amanda Vaill. The winner will be announced prior to the BIO conference in May and will receive the prize there. The winner receives a $2,000 prize, a careful reading from at least one established agent, a year’s membership in BIO, and publicity through the BIO website, The Biographers Craft, and other outlets.
The members of the Hazel Rowley Prize Committee are Susan Butler, Jennifer Cockburn, Cathy Curtis, Kavita Das, Deirdre David, Gayle Feldman, Dean King, and Roy Schreiber.

Talese Reflects on a Long, Passionate Publishing Career

Nan A. Talese is flanked by A. E. Hotchner to her right and Anne C. Heller and BIO President Will Swift to her left.

Nan A. Talese is flanked by A. E. Hotchner to her right and Anne C. Heller and BIO President Will Swift to her left.

We learn by stories,” Nan A. Talese said, and when it comes to biography, “the story of the person’s life should be interesting and carry the reader along.” That was just one of the insights Talese imparted from a 50-year career in publishing, many of those years spent helping dozens of biographers bring their subjects’ stories to life.

Talese spoke just before accepting BIO’s third annual Editorial Excellence Award, which recognizes the contributions of outstanding editors—as nominated by BIO members—to the publishing of biographies.

The October 5 event at the New York Society Library began with an introduction by BIO member Anne C. Heller (who played the key role in organizing the evening and ensuring its success, in collaboration with members Kate Buford, Deirdre David, Gayle Feldman, and Will Swift). Talese worked with Heller on her biography Ayn Rand and the World She Made, and Heller noted that Talese’s books “are known both for their literary excellence and for their physical beauty.” She praised Talese for “the extraordinary judgment, taste, skill, dedication, and, in my case, patience, Nan has brought to her literary calling.”

A. E. Hotchner followed Heller and recounted working with Talese on Papa Hemingway, Hotchner’s account of the novelist’s life and Talese’s first major biography after coming to Random House from Vogue as a young editor. Hotchner described going into her tiny basement office—a broom closet that included a desk and two chairs—and her first words: “I think we should change the title.” She also advised him to put more of himself in the book, as Hotchner and Hemingway had been friends. As Talese later explained, she suggested edits while also drawing more out of Hotchner, and they ended up cutting 20 percent of the original manuscript and adding a new 20 percent. Papa Hemingway went on to become a perennial best seller.

Hotchner and Talese worked together on several other books, and Hotchner noted her eye for detail, sometimes questioning a single word choice, and her swift and careful attention to the manuscripts she receives. Most gratifying, he said, was hearing Talese describe a manuscript as “wonderful.” He said, “She says wonderful better than anybody else.”

Talese spoke next, offering her recollections of some of her experiences with Hotchner. At their first meeting, which included several other editors, she admitted, “He thought that I was going to bring them coffee or something; he certainly didn’t think that I was going to be his editor.”

Talese also discussed some of the other noteworthy books she has worked on, including Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List and the challenges she faced negotiating the finances of the book with Keneally’s lawyer. Talese wanted the book badly, and she said she became a “pest” as she worked to close the deal. Talese also recalled the difficulties she and Deirdre Bair had in securing rights to Saul Steinberg’s art for Bair’s biography of the cartoonist.

Talese and Bair worked together again on Bair’s new biography, Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, published last month, and Bair joined Talese to address what Bair called the “nuts and bolts” of editing and publishing biographies. Asked what she looks for in a book she publishes, Talese said she focuses on three questions: Does the writer use language well, is the writer a storyteller, and does the writer tell the subject’s story with such passion that people will want to read it.

When Bair brought up the popularity of celebrity biographies and wondered if there is still a place for deeply researched books on serious subjects, Talese said people do still want those “big” biographies. At times, though, such books are reviewed so well, “people think they’ve already read the book” after reading the reviews.

Reflecting on her career, Talese said she was not truly qualified to be an editor when she first came to Random House, and her first job was looking for typos. But she was grateful to be there, saying, “I couldn’t believe I was being paid to read….To this day I love it just as much.” With her job, “you live in another world, you learn of another world.”

Following the Q&A, BIO president Will Swift presented Talese with her award, noting the importance to biographers of skilled—and passionate—editors like herself, as they “help us become more than we dreamed we could be.”