Conference

BIO Members Explore the Role of Biography in Teaching the Humanities

Thanks to the efforts of Billy Tooma (rear), deputy executive director of the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA), four BIO board members took part in a panel at the CCHA’s annual conference. Next year, members of CCHA will participate in BIO’s annual conference. Shown here with Tooma are Kate Buford, Dean King, Heath Lee, and Brian Jay Jones.

Four BIO board members helped kick off an affiliation between BIO and the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA) on November 10, when they took part in a panel discussion at the CCHA’s national conference in Baltimore, Maryland. In front of an assembled group of two-year-college faculty and students, moderator Kate Buford introduced panelists Brian Jay Jones, Dean King, and Heath Lee. What followed was a lively discussion on the merits of biography as a focus of academic study and why such a field of study should be incorporated into higher-education course syllabi.

After the session, Jones said, “I thought it was an incredibly worthwhile ‘tech transfer,’ and so useful for us to learn and appreciate how biography is actively used (not just in concept) in teaching.” King’s assessment of the panel session reaffirmed this when he said that it “was a great opportunity to have a fruitful interaction with educators who have a deep interest in biography and are on the frontline of making biography relevant and motivational to a new generation of readers. I felt we had as much to learn from them as they did from us.” Buford noted that being able to present “the importance of biography to such a receptive group of academic professionals was a rare pleasure.”

Feedback on the panel from conference attendees was overwhelmingly positive. Jack J. Cooney, Associate Professor of History at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, made sure to spread the word to both fellow CCHA members and his own colleagues: “I was greatly heartened to hear how each biographer spoke so thoughtfully, and with candid humility, about their craft. The grace and good humor of their eloquent comments gave those of us in the audience a chance to reimagine biography. The panelists offered us ample evidence so we might better see how biography can break boundaries for humanities teaching.”

CCHA members will continue the dialogue between biographers and educators in May 2018 at BIO’s annual conference. This “cross paneling” affiliation is the brainchild of BIO president Will Swift and CCHA deputy director Billy Tooma (a biographer and a BIO member). By bringing the two organizations together, the two hope to see biography rise in prominence within the college classroom. “I think biography can go beyond the liberal arts,” Tooma said. “Educators are constantly trying to figure out ways in which we can turn STEM into STEAM, with the ‘A’ representing the arts, and I think biography is the answer. How do you humanize the study of physics? One way is to have your students read Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe.” Lee agreed with Tooma’s view when she said the “idea that biography is being woven intentionally into the humanities curricula as well as into STEM courses is revolutionary and exciting for biographers. The idea that our stories could help draw students into a larger narrative across the disciplines is thrilling!”

Thanks to Billy Tooma for his contributions to this report.

Bringing the Ghosts to Life: An Interview with Candice Millard

BIO Board member Cathy Curtis asked Candice Millard, winner of the 2017 BIO Award, to respond to a list of questions about her experiences as a biographer. Her thoughtful emailed replies appear below. You won’t want to miss Millard’s keynote speech at this year’s BIO Conference, on May 20 in Boston.

Cathy Curtis: What prompted you to start writing biographies?
Candice Millard:
I have always been interested in biography. In fact, one of the best parts of my job at National Geographic was looking for story ideas that focused on human history rather than natural history. So, when I thought of writing my first book, I immediately knew that I wanted it to be about someone, not something. But I also wanted a story, not a subject. I didn’t want to begin at the beginning and end at the end. I was looking for a story within a life.
CC: Are there biographers who have helped shape your own style or approach?
CM: The list of biographers I admire is extremely long, so I’ll start with those who have perhaps had the greatest impact on my own work: Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Martin Gilbert, Robert Caro, William Manchester, Laura Hillenbrand, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Antony Beevor, Andrew Roberts. I could keep going. . . .
CC: Do you tend to sift through numerous potential subjects before you find “the one”?
CM: I spend a great deal of time looking for the right subject. In fact, I think it’s the most important part of writing a book. I’m looking for not only a great story, but one that comes with enormous amounts of primary resources, so much that I despair of ever getting through it all.
Without mountains of letters, journals, newspaper articles, it’s difficult to have dialogue; all the little details that, I hope, make readers feel as if they’re there; and a deep understanding of the story and the people within it. I’ve fallen in love with book ideas in the past and spent months, even years researching them, only to realize that there just wasn’t enough primary source material. As difficult as it was, I had to walk away.
CC: You have written, “What interests me more than moments of public triumph or infamy are instances of private trial and struggle, when no one can hide their weaknesses—or indeed their strengths.” Is this the thinking that led you to “slice of life” biographies, as opposed to the traditional cradle-to-grave format?
CM: Like any thinking person, I highly value biographies that take in the full expanse of a person’s life, and I read a lot of them. But when I’m looking for a subject for myself, I’m interested in stories that are intimate, focused, and, I hope, illuminating. To me, the most illuminating moments in a life are when a person is at his or her most vulnerable, when they’re searching for a foothold, unsure of the path forward, frightened, grieving, even desperate. These are emotions we’ve all experienced, and they help us understand each other, help us find that thread of common humanity.
CC: Are there key research or writing tips you gleaned from working on The River of Doubt that you were able to use in writing your next two books?
CM: The greatest lesson The River of Doubt taught me is the importance of outlining. I don’t know if this is true for other writers, but I am lost without an outline, and not just a basic sketch of how the book will unfold but a long, incredibly detailed outline that helps me think through every step of the story.
CC: How have events in your own life contributed to your understanding of your subjects?
CM: As I get older, I feel like I understand my subjects a little better because I’ve had more of those shared experiences. I’ve seen more of the world, experienced more joy, more sorrow, even tragedy, and because of that when I peer into someone else’s life I can see a little of myself. Maybe because of that I have more compassion, I hope, and am not as quick to judge. I don’t know anyone who’s perfect. I’m certainly not. And that’s what interests me—not the perfect person, but the person who struggles, as we all do.
CC: I’ve read that you align work on your books with your children’s school schedules—an inspiration to all of us who have other demands on our time. Was it difficult at first to use your limited time wisely?
CM: While I love my work, and feel incredibly lucky to be able to do it, it comes in a very distant second place to my children. Surprisingly, however, what I’ve realized over the past 15 years is that being forced to work around my kids’ schedules is actually not a bad thing. I don’t know that I would have the discipline to get right to work every morning if I knew that I had all day to get it done. Knowing that I only have between drop off and pick up is incredibly helpful. I get up, get dressed, take the kids to school, and then go to work.
My office is in my husband’s company, so I’m not home, thinking about the laundry waiting to be done or the Legos that are scattered all over the floor. As soon as I step into my office and close the door, I’m in another place and time. To be honest, it’s a little disorienting when I have to go pick up the kids, but I leave myself notes so that I can pretty easily jump back in the next morning.
CC: What has been your biggest challenge as a biographer?
CM: Wrapping up the research. There’s always another lead to follow, another archive to visit, another storyline to investigate and that, to me, is the best part of the job. I love doing research, and I would be very happy to keep doing it for years on end, but eventually I have to start writing or I will never finish the book.
CC: Tell us about a memorable moment on one of your book tours.
CM: I have been very fortunate to be able to meet many of the descendants of the people I’ve written about, not just the central characters but the people surrounding them, from Candido Rondon’s grandchildren to Winston Churchill’s granddaughter. I’ve really enjoyed meeting them all, but no one has made a stronger impression on me than Bob Garfield, James Garfield’s great-grandson.
I spent some time with Bob, who is now the patriarch of the Garfield family, while I was doing research, and I remember thinking that he was one of the finest people I had ever met—kind, smart, a skilled pianist, and the consummate gentleman. When Destiny of the Republic was released, Bob attended a talk that I gave at Garfield’s farmhouse in Ohio, where Bob had spent much of his childhood. After I spoke, he stood up and said that the book had meant a great deal to him and his family and that it had “brought a ghost to life.” I will never forget that moment. It made me very proud.
CC: What are you working on now?
CM: I just started work on a book about the discovery of the source of the Nile. It’s a story that I fell in love with many years ago, when I was still working at National Geographic, so I’m thrilled to finally have the chance to really dig in and understand it.

Conference Preview: James Atlas in Conversation with Patricia Bosworth

By James Atlas

and Patricia Bosworth will discuss breaking the rules of biography and making it work anyway.

In a panel called “Biography and Style,” James Atlas . . .

Patricia Bosworth (“Patti,” as she is known to her wide circle of friends) has been a vivid presence on the New York literary scene for as long as I can remember—which is beginning to be a very long time. Her parties, held in a book- and art-filled apartment in Hell’s Kitchen that looks as if it had time-traveled from the West Village of the 1920s, are the kind where you walk in and want to talk to everyone in the room at once. Some of them are high-profile—I have spotted Dick Cavett and Judy Collins, among other “notables,” as we call them in Chicago; others were mere “writers,” but some of the most interesting ones in town. They are the kind of parties where the host has to flick the lights on and off in order to remind guests to leave.

What’s the draw? I once moderated a panel on biography in some gilded Pittsburgh auditorium with Patti, who had written a fine biography of Brando for the Penguin Lives series, and two other Penguin alums, Wayne Koestenbaum (Warhol) and Bobbie Ann Mason (Elvis). The auditorium was packed (if you want to get an audience, leave New York), and though it was some years ago now, I remember her making the culture-hungry crowd laugh and laugh at her descriptions of Brando’s outlandish behavior.

She is as fun to be with one-on-one as in front of 600 people, at once brassy and vulnerable, warm and entertainingly direct. So it is with her books: the biographies of Jane Fonda and Montgomery Clift radiate insight and empathy; the memoirs are tragic but also manage to capture the vanity of the Actors Studio where she apprenticed for a stage career in the 1950s.

Patti’s most admirable trait is her candor. At the party for her latest book, The Men in My Life, she stood up at the podium and spoke of the suicides of her brother and father with a matter-of-factness that took her well-wishers by surprise: You can’t just talk about these things in public. But she did, and I’m sure she will—about that and much, much more—when I interview her at the BIO conference in Boston this spring. Don’t miss it.   

Candice Millard Wins 2017 BIO Award

Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire was named Amazon’s number one history book of 2016.

BIO is thrilled to announce that Candice Millard has won the 2017 BIO Award for her slice-of-life biographies of Winston Churchill and presidents James Garfield and Theodore Roosevelt. In her bestselling books—Hero of the EmpireDestiny of the Republic, and The River of Doubt—the breadth and depth of her research are matched by her gift for creating fast-paced narratives that bring events in distant eras to vivid life.

BIO bestows its annual award on a colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Millard joins previous award winners Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Taylor Branch, and Claire Tomalin.

Millard will receive the honor during the 2017 BIO Conference on May 20 at Emerson College in Boston, where she will deliver the keynote address.

Millard’s first book, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2005), was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a Book Sense Pick, won the William Rockhill Nelson Award, and was a finalist for the Quill Awards. Her second book, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President (2011), won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, the PEN Center USA award for Research Nonfiction, and the One Book – One Lincoln Award, among other honors. Millard’s most recent book, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill (2016), was chosen as a top ten critics pick by the New York Times. Millard’s work has also appeared in the New York Times Book Review,Washington Post Book World, National Geographic, and Time magazine. 

Registration for BIO Conference Opens

Registration is now open for the Eighth Annual BIO Conference, taking place
May 19-21 at Emerson College in Boston. For more information, go here.

BIO Conference Set for May in Boston, Offers a Wide Variety of Programming and Networking Opportunities

On May 19–21, the annual BIO Conference returns to Boston, where the organization held its first gathering in 2010. The conference will offer research workshops, a full day of panels, numerous networking opportunities, a conversation between two highly respected biographers, and a keynote address by the 2017 BIO Award winner, whose name will be revealed in February.

“This year’s program is bound to please the membership,” said James McGrath Morris, co-chair of the Program Planning Committee. “The wide variety of topics, terrific panelists, and workshop leaders is both a testimony to the hard work of the program committee and to the excitement generated by our annual conference. If you are a biographer, or aspire to be one, you’ll want to be in Boston.”

Registration for the conference is scheduled to begin on February 1. Current BIO members will receive an email with a link to the registration site to take advantage of the early-bird discount, which runs through February 20. For more information on the agenda and panelists, go here.

Biography Beyond Borders Panelists Shine Light on Different Aspects of Biography and History

unnamedMore than two dozen distinguished biographers from the United States and Europe met to talk about their work on  November 4-5 at a conference co-sponsored by BIO and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. The weekend-long conference, called Biography Beyond Borders, a colloquium on American and European biography, took place in Oxford and London and included a pre-conference lecture by Carla Kaplan and a keynote address by Hermione Lee. Her Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life won BIO’s Plutarch Award for best biography of 2014.

Last month, TBC featured photos from the weekend sent by consulting editor, past president, and BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris. He called the colloquium “a remarkable moment in our organization’s history. Biographers from around Europe broke intellectual and literary bread with their American colleagues in the storied setting of Oxford.” Morris added, “Almost all the credit for putting together this remarkable gathering goes to BIO’s vice president, Deirdre David.” Plans are now underway for another such meeting in 2018.

To read recaps of the panel discussions and some comments from some of the BIO members who toured two historic homes before the colloquium, go here.

Biography Beyond Borders Brings Together US and European Biographers

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.

 Carla Kaplan opened the weekend on November 4 with a talk on the life of Jessica Mitford, the famous American muckraking journalist who grew up in a British aristocratic family.

Carla Kaplan opened the weekend on November 4 with a talk on the life of Jessica Mitford, the famous American muckraking journalist who grew up in a British aristocratic family.

Hermione Lee spoke during lunch on November 5. Lee, who is president of Wolfson College, University of Oxford, where the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing is located, won BIO’s Plutarch Award in 2015.

Hermione Lee spoke during lunch on November 5. Lee, who is president of Wolfson College, University of Oxford, where the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing is located, won BIO’s Plutarch Award in 2015.

Left to right are British professor and biographer Iwan Morgan, French doctoral student Maryam Thirriard, American professor and biographer Sonja Williams, Dutch professor Dennis Kersten, and American biographer Gayle Feldman, who moderated the panel discussing history and biography. The panel was one of four looking at American and European biography during the day-long conference.

Left to right are British professor and biographer Iwan Morgan, French doctoral student Maryam Thirriard, American professor and biographer Sonja Williams, Dutch professor Dennis Kersten, and American biographer Gayle Feldman, who moderated the panel discussing history and biography. The panel was one of four looking at American and European biography during the day-long conference.