Biography

BIO Conference Preview: Writing Multiple Lives

By Linda Leavell

“All biographies are group biographies. All lives are surrounded by a constellation of other lives,” said Susan Hertog, at a previous BIO Conference. “Every biographer must choose how much space to devote to each person.”

So why foreground several lives at once instead of making most of them secondary in a conventional biography or else subsuming them all in a history? What draws writers and readers to group biography? What particular challenges does group biography entail?

These are some of the questions to be addressed by the “Writing Multiple Lives” session at the 2018 BIO Conference in New York. The three panelists—Lisa Cohen, Carla Kaplan, and Justin Spring—generously gave a preview of their remarks.

Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know: Three Lives (2012), first planned to write a biography of Madge Garland, an influential fashion editor of British Vogue. But Cohen realized that even though she had enough material to write a whole book about Garland, “such a book would—ironically—not quite do her justice. And that it would not hold my interest.”

“I realized,” said Cohen, “that I had to grapple with the idea of ephemeral achievement more broadly. And that challenge also meant a different approach to the form of biography.”

All We Know juxtaposes Garland with two other lesbian women, Esther Murphy and Mercedes de Acosta, whose lives were both “central and marginal to their time.” The structure of the group biography allowed Cohen “to keep asking: what is failure and what is accomplishment?” Cohen never draws connections among the three lives explicitly. Rather, as in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, she lets readers discover parallels on their own.

Carla Kaplan decided to write Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (2013), because no such book existed when she looked for one. While the involvement of white men in the Harlem Renaissance is well documented, the many white women who “volunteered for blackness were either obscured or dismissed.

Kaplan focused on the lives of six women, some with motives that were honorable and some not. But even if she did not like them, Kaplan “still wanted to treat them with respect.”

The magnitude of research surprised her. “It was like writing six biographies—more really, because a couple of the women who’d been slated for the book just didn’t pan out. I didn’t feel I could bring them to life or make them interesting enough.”

She chose to write a group biography to allow her six women to “speak for themselves” whenever possible. They each needed “some space of their own.”

Justin Spring, author of The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy (2017), compares writing a group biography to “composing an orchestral piece rather than a solo piece.”

Like Kaplan, he started with an idea—“the effect of French foodways and French culture on the American understanding of good food, wine, and fine dining”—and then chose six American writers who played a role in that phenomenon. The six contemporaries vary in their personalities, sexual orientations, backgrounds, and relationships to French cuisine, and “their lives were full of overlapping dramas (and a good deal of antagonism).”

“Each of the six lives has a specific dramatic arc,” Spring said, “and the period itself has a dramatic arc, and at the same time there is much that needed explaining both in the USA of that period and in France of that period—so getting it right took a lot of arranging, trimming, and rearranging.”

The session on “Writing Multiple Lives” at the 2018 BIO Conference will engage not only those writing or contemplating a group biography per se but also anyone whose work encompasses multiple lives.

Linda Leavell, the moderator of the panel, won the Plutarch Award for her biography of Marianne Moore. Her current project is a group biography of the Stieglitz Circle.

(Photos above, from left to right, by Vanessa Haney, Robin Hultgren, and Jason Puris)

Richard Holmes Wins 2018 BIO Award

Photo: Stuart Clarke

British author Richard Holmes, beloved for his biographies and memoirs about writing biography, is the winner of the ninth 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, Taylor Branch, Claire Tomalin, and Candice Millard. Holmes will receive the honor on May 19, at the 2018 BIO Conference at the Leon Levy Center, City University of New York, where he will deliver the keynote address.

Holmes’s The Age of Wonder was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, and won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. He has written many other books, including Falling Upwards, an uplifting account of the pioneering generation of balloon aeronauts, and the classicFootsteps. Its companion volumes, Sidetracks and This Long Pursuit, complete a trilogy that explores the Romantic movement biographer at work. Holmes’s first biography, Shelley: The Pursuit, won the Somerset Maugham Prize; Coleridge: Early Visions won the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Award; Coleridge: Darker Reflections won the Duff Cooper and Heinemann Awards; and Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage won the James Tait Black Prize.

Holmes holds honorary doctorates from the universities of East Anglia, East London, and Kingston, and was professor of biographical studies at the University of East Anglia from 2001 to 2007. He is an Honorary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, a Fellow of the British Academy, and was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1992. He lives in London and Norfolk, with the novelist Rose Tremain. TBC will have an interview with Holmes in an upcoming issue.

BIO Returns to Europe for International Conference

The conference will be held at the Doopsgezinde Kerk in Groningen.

On September 20 and 21, 2018, BIO will join the Biography Institute and the Biography Society in hosting the conference Different Lives: Global Perspectives on Biography in Public Cultures and Societies. This conference will take place in Groningen, the Netherlands, home of the Biography Institute, which is directed by BIO board member Hans Renders. The event will allow biographers to look beyond their own borders, explore how biography is practiced in other parts of the world, and discuss the cultural perspectives that guide biographers in their approach to the infinite complexity of the other.

With a mix of panel, roundtable, and public discussions, featuring speakers from many nations, this conference is designed to present the state of the art of biography from a wealth of different perspectives. Richard Holmes will deliver the keynote address, and BIO members participating include Carl Rollyson, John A. Farrell, and Nigel Hamilton. The latter will host a master class on Wednesday, September 19, for young biographers working on their first books.

Also on Wednesday, attendees can choose to explore two cultural sites in and around Groningen: Museum of Graphic Arts and Camp Westerbork, an exhibition depicting the Netherlands during World War II, focusing on the persecution of Jews.

Early-bird tickets for the conference are available until June 1, for 40 euros; after that, the price will rise to 60 euros. Attendees can also reserve a place at the conference dinner for 60 euros. If you require assistance in booking hotel or travel arrangements, email the conference board. Look for more information on the conference in future issues of TBC, and you can follow news of the event on Facebook at Different Lives Conference.

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.

Robert Weil to Receive BIO Editorial Excellence Award

Robert Weil follows Nan Talese, Jonathan Segal, and Robert Gottlieb as a winner of the Editorial Excellence Award.

Robert Weil, editor-in-chief and publishing director of Liveright, an imprint of W. W. Norton, will receive BIO’s fourth annual Editorial Excellence Award on Wednesday, November 8, at the Leon Levy Center for Biography in New York.

Weil’s celebrated publishing career began in 1978 at Times Books. He became senior editor at St. Martin’s Press in 1988; a decade later, he moved to W. W. Norton as executive editor. Named to his present positions in 2011, he is dedicated to editing books of consequence.

Weil will speak on “Biography as Reclamation.” He will be introduced by Annette Gordon-Reed, author of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

In addition, a panel of leading biographers, moderated by Linda Gordon (winner of the Bancroft Prize for Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits), will talk about their experience working with Weil. Here is the list of panelists:
  • Ruth Franklin, winner of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award and BIO’s Plutarch Award for Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
  • David Levering Lewis, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 and 2001 for both volumes of his biography of W. E. B. Dubois
  • Max Boot, author of the forthcoming The Road Not Taken: Edward Landsdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam
  • Yunte Huang, winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Book for Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
This event represents the first collaboration between BIO and the Levy Center for Biography. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be held in the Skylight Room at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue. Hors doeuvres and beverages will be served. Tickets are free, but seating is limited, so reservations are essential. Click here to reserve your seat.

Why and How Biographers Write: An Interview with James Atlas

James Atlas’s The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale was published to high praise by Pantheon Books on August 22. As Ron Chernow wrote about the book, “Anyone even remotely interested in the art of biography will be captivated.” In moving and hilarious stories from his own life and his lifelong study of biographers, Atlas—an active BIO member and the celebrated biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, as well as the founding editor and publisher of the acclaimed Penguin Lives and Eminent Lives series of short biographies—recasts the lives, works, and misadventures of fellow biographers from Plutarch and Thomas Carlyle to Michael Holroyd and Judith Thurman and explains how he came to be a biographer and what he has discovered about the “obsessive diggers drawn into this odd profession,” during 40 years of biographical sleuthing and adventures. Anne Heller interviewed him for TBC.

Why were you attracted to biography, James? In your book, you quote Leon Edel: “Biographers are invariably drawn to the writing of biography out of some deeply personal motive.” What was yours?
I didn’t realize until after I had been working as a biographer for a long time that one evenhas motives. I studied with Richard Ellmann at Oxford and decided I wanted to become a biographer myself. At first, I thought I was confronting a simple and basic calculation: Who’s interesting? I chose Delmore [Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, 1977], who had been dead ten years and whom no one had written a life of. After I finished, I was offered various projects, like Tennessee Williams and Cyril Connolly. And then, of course, there was Edmund Wilson, whose biography I agreed to write when I was in my early 30s. Unlike Delmore, Wilson was at that time near the peak of fame and influence. He had lived a fascinating, even ribald, life and had known everyone worth knowing at the time. He offered a large canvas on which a skilled biographer could draw a map of the intellectual life of twentieth-century America. And yet I procrastinated for five years. It got to the point where whenever I passed my shelf of Wilson’s books I averted my eyes. One problem was that there was a surfeit of published autobiographical material—letters and journals, autobiographical essays and books. To some degree Wilson had done the job himself; I felt that his biographer would mainly be a literary custodian. Then his catalogues of the many women he’d bedded got on my nerves. The detail! Finally, I realized that I didn’t want to write the book. I didn’t have a personal motive for writing it: a compelling connection to the subject.

I have discovered that there are both overt and covert motives for writing about a subject. My books are an example of “overt” motives, where there is a specific biographical and/or factual connection between the biographer and his subject. Delmore Schwartz was the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia, as were my grandparents, and he was a temperamental poet, as I was in my youth. I saw in him many of the experiences and conflicts that I myself had been working through. The same was true of Saul Bellow, my second subject [Bellow: A Biography, 2000], since I was from Chicago and he was part of the cultural context of my growing up. There’s a wonderful Yiddish word, mishpachah, meaning family that’s not your actual blood relatives but that forms your cultural and sociological circle of people. Both Delmore and Bellow were mishpachah. I learned that one of the reasons I picked my subjects was that I wanted answers to my own history.

Now with biographers such as Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann, to take two examples, the connections with their great subjects Henry James and James Joyce were not explicit. They were covert. In both cases the connection was subliminal, emotional, and powerful. For example, Edel and James both suffered from depression. So for me, this idea of finding your subject is in essence a means of finding yourself. When I realized this it opened up the practice of biography for me, both as a writer and as an editor. It helped me to understand what I was doing, what I was looking for.

Can you give me an example of how the idea of motives aided your work?
The most vivid example is about Bellow. I needed to try to understand what impelled him to marry so many times and have so many girlfriends and make such a mess. What need was he trying to address? I was looking for his motive. One night I was reading Heinz Kohut, the great psychiatrist and the founder of self-psychology, whom Bellow briefly saw for therapy. I came across his explanation of narcissism. He described the narcissist’s need almost to wake himself up, to try to fill a lurking sense of emptiness. I was electrified. I thought, “That’s it!” That was what Bellow was doing with his wives and lovers. Training oneself to think broadly about one’s subject and not just collect the historical data—you might say training oneself to intervene in the story—that’s where the energy is for me, that’s where biography comes alive.
Having made a stunning survey of biography past and present—reading about them is one of the great pleasures of your book—and having written two biographies of your own, how do you gauge the benefits and drawbacks of writing about the living—someone you know or get to know—versus the dead?
That’s a good question. In my case, I wish I had waited until Bellow died, so that the issues wouldn’t have been so incendiary—his sex life and so on. But ideally, if you have empathy, common sense, shrewdness, and good judgment, you can create a vivid biography of a person you come to know, the classic example being [James] Boswell and [Samuel] Johnson, although Boswell did wait until Johnson was dead to publish his book. In our own day, Patrick French, the biographer of V. S. Naipaul, managed to create a brilliant portrait of Naipaul while he was still alive. What’s amazing about this feat is that Naipaul is widely regarded as a terrible human being. How did French do it? He did it by disallowing judgment. Apart from the fact that he is a great biographer and writer, French’s most important quality was that he could write about Naipaul’s grotesque behavior—toward his dying wife, for example—and somehow make everything clear and understandable. His objectivity, tempered by empathy, made for a portrait that was riveting. The biographer, while being driven by a passion, still has to stand aside. James Joyce said that the artist stands apart, paring his fingernails. The biographer should stand apart and yet enter deeply into a subject’s life.

You discuss the compelling nature of research—one more letter to be found, one more detail to pin down. When is enough enough?
There is definitely an end point, but one doesn’t always know where it is. You have to sit down and write. You can keep researching while you write. But at some point you feel a sense of weariness: I’ve heard enough from you. Now we’re going to hear from me.

You quote Dr. Johnson as saying, “No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation. I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can use.” How is biography useful? 
Biography is useful because it shows us what a human being is, who we are, and why we do the things we do. A great biography illuminates character. Why is Ellmann’s [James] Joyce one of the preeminent modern biographies? Because it gives us the cultural context of Joyce’s life and elucidates the greatness of his writing.  It is itself masterfully written. But most of all, it evokes Joyce’s humanity in all the little details. There is a great scene in the book in which Joyce is having trouble with his landlord in Trieste. In that period, Joyce was insisting that he be called “the Bard.” Ellmann writes, “The Bard had no money.” So beautiful—the irony and the affection it expresses for its subject.

You write that like other art forms, biography is bound by the conventions of the moment. Are there any approaches to writing a life that you’re sorry have fallen from favor?
Yes: the writing itself. Some of the great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century biographies are beautifully written. And so are biographical works by Holroyd, Ellmann, E. M. Forster, George Painter’s [MarcelProust.  I sometimes think we’ve forgotten to pay enough attention to the craft of writing. Biographies should be as much written as poetry or fiction.

Are your going to write another biography?
No.

Here is James Atlas’s abbreviated reading list for practicing biographers:

  • Harold Nicolson, The Development of English Biography
  • André Maurois, Aspects of Biography
  • Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer
  • Vasari, The Lives of the Artists
  • Boccaccio, Life of Dante
  • Lord Macaulay, Essay on Boswell’s Life of Johnson
  • Richard Ellmann, James Joyce
  • Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self
 You can read an excerpt from The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Talepublished in The New Yorker. You can also read an interview with Atlas in the New York Times.

Current and Upcoming Biographies on Film Tackle a Wide Range of Subjects

Whether doing their own research, using the perspective of those close to their subjects, relying on existing print biographies, or combining elements of all three, biographical filmmakers can take a variety of tacks as they craft cinematic portraits of a person’s life. Their biggest decision, of course, is whether to go the documentary route or create a biopic, with the potential interest in the subject—and available funding—influencing the choice. While the Hollywood treatment of a subject’s life can mean huge box office sales and perhaps a trip down the red carpet at the Academy Awards—think last year’s Hidden Figures—the increasing number of streaming video outlets and their demand for content has opened up new outlets for biographical films.

TBC’s annual—but far from exhaustive—look at biography on film shows that both cable networks and the streaming giants have recently or will offer soon a number of documentaries. In addition, documentaries will appear on the big screen, along with the more high-profile biopics. Here are some of the biographical offerings of the past few months, ones slated for release soon, and films that are still being shot or are in the planning stages. Go here to learn more about these films.

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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