Awards

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.”

Nan A. Talese Wins Editorial Excellence Award

BIO president Will Swift looks on after presenting Nan A. Talese with the Editorial Excellence Award.

BIO president Will Swift looks on after presenting Nan A. Talese with the Editorial Excellence Award.

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.

Sullivan Wins 2016 Plutarch Award

stalins daughterRosemary Sullivan won the 2016 Plutarch Award for Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva. Read more about the Plutarch, this year’s semi-finalists, and the winners of special awards for excellence here, and look for more on Sullivan and her honor in the July issue of The Biographer’s Craft.

 

 

 

Castaneda Biographer Wins BIO’s Rowley Prize

thatch16.1Robert Marshall is the winner of BIO’s Hazel Rowley Prize for 2016. The prize, awarded every two years, goes to the best proposal from a first-time biographer. Marshall is working on a biography of 1970s New Age guru Carlos Castenada, a project we featured in the March 2015 issue of TBC (you can read the article here). He will receive his prize at the BIO Conference luncheon on June 4 in Richmond, Virginia. The other finalists this year were Jessica Max Stein, who is working on a biography of puppeteer Richard Hunt, and Andrew Marble, who is writing a book on General John Shalikashvili.

Reacting to winning the prize, Marshall told TBC: “I’m so thrilled to receive the Hazel Rowley Prize. It could hardly have come at a better time. Working on this project has turned out to be a trek far longer than I ever imagined when I started. Although fascinating and deeply rewarding, telling the story of Castaneda has turned out to be a road strewn with seemingly endless obstacles. As I would guess is true in the writing of any biography, the journey has often felt exhausting and lonely. There are plenty of people who would prefer that this tale not be told. They haven’t hesitated to make this clear. Nothing could mean more to me at this juncture—as I begin to try to bring this book out into the world—than the interest, support, and encouragement of writers who have labored much longer than I have in this field.”

The first Rowley Prize winner, Holly Van Leuven, recently sold her biography on Ray Bolger to Oxford University Press. You can read her thoughts on winning the prize here.

The $2,000 Rowley Prize aims to help aspiring biographers by securing a careful reading of the winner’s book from at least one established agent; a year’s membership in BIO; and publicity through the BIO website, TBC, and other media. The prize is open to citizens or permanent residents of the United States and Canada, writing in English, 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. The prize is a way for BIO to advance its mission and extend its reach to talented new practitioners. The prize is named in memory of Hazel Rowley (1951–2011), born in London, educated in England and Australia, and a long-time resident of the United States. Hazel was a BIO enthusiast from its inception, understanding the need for biographers to help each other. You can read more about Rowley and the prize at the BIO website.

Finalists Announced for 2015 Plutarch Award

PlutarchHorizontal

BIO is proud to announce the four finalists for the 2015 Plutarch Award —  the world’s only literary award presented by biographers, to biography.

The four finalists for the 2015 Plutarch Award are (alphabetical by author):

  • The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961 by Irwin F. Gellman (Yale)
  • Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown)
  • Custer’s Trials:  A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles (Knopf)
  • Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper)

In February, BIO’s Plutarch Committee – an esteemed group of BIO members, chaired by biographer and historian Douglas Brinkley – kicked off this year’s Plutarch selection process by naming ten outstanding nominees.  (If you missed the announcement, you can see the list right here.)  And now, after further deliberation by the committee, that list has been winnowed down to the four finalists – one of which will be chosen as the Best Biography of 2015.

BIO members in good standing will now be asked to cast their vote for the Plutarch Award winner.  Voting will remain open until midnight on May 15, 2016, to give members plenty of time to read any of the four books before making a decision.

The winner will be announced on Saturday, June 4, at the Seventh Annual BIO Conference in Richmond, Virginia. (Still haven’t registered for the conference? You can do that right here.)

Tomalin Wins 2016 BIO Award

Claire-Tomalin- NEW 2011 - credit Angus Muir

Claire Tomalin (photo by Angus Muir)

Claire Tomalin, winner of multiple prizes for her literary biographies, is the winner of the seventh annual BIO Award. BIO bestows this honor on a colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Previous award winners are Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, and Taylor Branch.

Tomalin will receive the honor during the 2016 BIO Conference on June 4 at the Richmond Marriott Downtown in Richmond, Virginia, where she will deliver the keynote address. Tomalin first worked in publishing and journalism before turning to writing biography. In 1974, she published The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, which won the Whitbread First Book Prize. Her subjects have included Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jane Austen, and Thomas Hardy. Her 1991 book The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, won the NCR, Hawthornden, and James Tait Black prizes, and she also won several awards for her 2002 biography of Samuel Pepys, including the Whitbread Biography and Book of the Year prizes. Writing about her latest book,Charles Dickens: A Life (2011), the Guardian called it “flawless in its historical detail” and noted, “What is so valuable about this biography is the palpable sense of the man himself that emerges.”

Tomalin has honorary doctorates from Cambridge and many other universities, has served on the Committee of the London Library, is a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, and is a vice president of the Royal Literary Fund, the Royal Society of Literature, and English PEN.

 

Plutarch Award Nominees Announced

A distinguished panel of judges made up of members of Biographers International Organization (BIO) has selected ten nominees for the 2015 Plutarch Award. The Plutarch is the only international literary award presented to biography, by biographers.

Following the announcement of the ten nominees, BIO’s Plutarch Committee will next narrow the list to four finalists. BIO members around the world will vote for the winning biography from among these four distinguished books, honoring a writer who has achieved distinction in the art of biography.

This year’s ten nominees, in alphabetical order by title, are:

  • Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell (Viking)
  • Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles (Knopf)
  • Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal by Jay Parini (Doubleday)
  • Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times by Anne Heller (New Harvest)
  • Irrepressible: A Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage, by Betty Boyd Caroli (Simon & Schuster)
  • The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon 1952-1961,
       by Irwin F. Gellman (Yale)
  • Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, by Cathy Curtis (Oxford)
  • Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown)
  • Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva,
        by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper)

BIO first presented the Plutarch Award in 2013. Previous winners, in chronological order, are:

  • Robert Caro, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
  • Linda Leavell, Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore
  • Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.

You can find more information about the award and past nominees here.

The BIO Plutarch Award Committee members for 2016 are:

James Atlas
Douglas Brinkley, Chair
Catherine Clinton
Deirdre A. David
John Aloysius Farrell
Carla Kaplan
Eve LaPlante
J.W. Renders
Will Swift    

The winning biography will be announced at the 7th Annual BIO Conference on Saturday, June 4, in Richmond, Virginia.

Event Honors Segal, Explores the Biographer’s Craft

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.

Panel Discussion
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.

Segal’s Influence
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.