On November 4-5, BIO and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing co-sponsored Biography Beyond Borders, a colloquium on American and European biography. The weekend in Oxford and London featured 29 distinguished biographers from across the United States and Europe examining their craft in lectures and panel discussions. Look for more news on the weekend next month.
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.”
Biography Beyond Borders, a colloquium on American and European biography,
will feature 29 distinguished biographers from across the United States and
Europe. In alphabetical order, they are: James Atlas, Betty Boyd-Caroli, Anne de
Courcy, Natalie Dykstra, Robert Douglas-Farihurst, Gayle Feldman, Rebecca
Fraser, Anne C. Heller, Carla Kaplan, Dennis Kersten, Robert Lacey, Zachary
Leader, Andrew Lownie, Jana Wohlmuth Markupova, Iwan Morgan, James
McGrath Morris, Joanny Moulin, Catherine Reef, Harriet Reisen, Jane Ridley,
Anne Boyd Rioux, Carl Rollyson, Max Saunders, Anne Sebba, Will Swift,
Maryam Thirriard, Amanda Vaill, Qunicy Whitney, and Sonja D. Williams. You
can read their biographies here.
Presented by BIO in collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at
Oxford, Biography Beyond Borders will take place on Saturday, November 5. The
lunchtime keynote speaker will be the 2014 BIO Plutarch Award Best Biography
winner and director of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Hermione Lee.
The $100 fee for the colloquium also includes a Friday afternoon lecture and
reception at the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College, London,
featuring Carla Kaplan as the speaker. Her lecture is titled, “‘Something to Offend Everyone’: The Muckraking Life of Jessica Mitford.” In addition, anyone who wants to go on the BIO November 3 group tour of the Jacobean home of Rudyard Kipling and romantic Scotney Castle with royal guide Harold Brown and Will Swift should email Swift. Learn more about the tours and the entire weekend and register here.
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.
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.”
Rosemary 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.