Two Writers Share the Inaugural Caro Fellowship

Natalie Dykstra and Marina Harss will each receive $2,500 as the winners of the first Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowship. BIO introduced the fellowship in 2017 to honor the Caros’ work and help biographers establish a sense of place to delineate their subject’s character. You can read more about Dykstra, Harss, and the fellowship in the March Letter from the Vice President by Deirdre David.

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.

BIO Announces Finalists for the 2018 Plutarch Award

BIO’s Plutarch Award Committee has chosen the four books highlighted below as the finalists for this year’s Plutarch Award, the only international literary award for a biography that is chosen by fellow biographers. BIO members will have three months to read the finalists and vote for the winner.  The Plutarch Award will be presented on Saturday, May 19, at the Ninth Annual BIO Conference in New York.

To see a list of the nominees for 2018 and learn more about the Plutarch Award, go here.

Annual BIO Conference to Be Held in New York in May

Biographers International Organization will convene on the weekend of May 18–20, in Manhattan, for three days of discussion, camaraderie, and exploration. “BIO is especially pleased that this year’s conference will be hosted by CUNY and the Leon Levy Center for Biography,” said program co-chairs Heath Lee and John Farrell. “The scope of expertise that these two organizations, devoted to biography, bring to the table is stunning.”

Registration for the conference will begin in late January. Current BIO members will receive an email with a link to the registration site to take advantage of an early-bird discount.

The conference starts on Friday, May 18, with guided tours of New York City research libraries, readings by authors, and a welcoming cocktail party at the Fabbri Mansion on East 95th Street.

The Saturday, May 19, sessions at the Leon Levy Center will begin with a plenary breakfast at which Edmund Morris (biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Beethoven, and Thomas Edison) and his wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris (biographer of Clare Boothe Luce and Edith Kermit Roosevelt), will share their views about the craft of biography as it pertains to writing about the living and the dead. They have titled their plenary talk: “Dead Is Easier.”

Other featured speakers include Griffin Dunne, the actor and filmmaker, in conversation with Stacy Schiff regarding Dunne’s film biography of his aunt, Joan Didion. James Atlas will be talking about “The Soul of a Biographer” with our 2018 BIO Award winner, who will give the luncheon address. We are particularly excited about this year’s winner, whom we will announce in February.

Joe Hagen, the biographer of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, will discuss the perils of difficult subjects with biographer Kitty Kelley, who has pierced the walls around Frank Sinatra, Jackie O, and other celebrities.

In the Saturday sessions, conference attendees will be able to select from 16 panels devoted to topics such as “Issues in Biography,” “The Craft,” “Basics,” and The Biz,” and a number of roundtable discussions. The conference will also feature a panel about the interdisciplinary use of biography, a product of a new collaboration with the Community College Humanities Association.

Saturday ends with a reception at which BIO will convey the Plutarch Award for the Best Biography of 2017, as chosen by BIO members, with remarks from the winner.

For those interested in more intensive study of the craft, on Sunday morning, May 20, a series of workshops will be held on writing and the art and business of biography.

Look for more information on the conference in upcoming issues of TBC.

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.

Deirdre Bair on Writing a Memoir of Beckett, Beauvoir, and Bair

By Dona Munker, TBC New York Correspondent 

Deirdre Bair, who has written six biographies, is currently writing about her experiences while researching and writing Beckett (1978) and Simone de Beauvoir (1990). At the fall 2017 Dorothy O. Helly Work-in-Progress Lecture, presented by New York’s Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, she talked about her reasons for doing so and the challenges for a seasoned biographer who decides to become part of the story.

Bair originally planned “a short book” about all her biographies but was unable to find a framework that would encompass them all and Beckett and Beauvoir generated more interest than any others. In addition, in the decades when they appeared, Bair had felt obligated to withhold some information her research uncovered, not only because people still living would have been hurt by it but because certain kinds of revelations were then considered “unseemly” for respectable biographies, especially of women. However, at this point, she explained, the passage of time and the shattering of cultural taboos have removed these constraints, and she now feels free to add to the public’s understanding of two major writers.

Much of the as-yet-untitled memoir will be about working with Beckett and Beauvoir in Paris, where they inhabited the same neighborhood and where Bair met and interviewed them regularly, either at home (Beauvoir) or in cafes, restaurants, and hotel lobbies (Beckett). The interview process with each, however, differed radically. Beckett, secretive and interview-averse, told Bair that he would “neither help nor hinder her,” but also forbade her to take notes. By contrast, at their first meeting Beauvoir “cheerfully” told her how they would work: Bair would take down everything she said and the result would be Beauvoir’s version of her life. “I remember how my head sank into my hands as I said, ‘Oh, dear, I think we’re finished before we even get started.’” 

Bair eventually succeeded in securing the book’s independence. Knowing that Beauvoir and Beckett detested one another, she told Beauvoir of Beckett’s promise to “neither help nor hinder.” After a long pause, Beauvoir reluctantly replied that “she supposed she would have to work that way as well.” Nevertheless, over the years Beauvoir persisted in trying to control what went into the book, at one point becoming so angry at Bair’s questions that she pushed her bodily out the door.

An important reason for casting the story of her first two biographies as a memoir, Bair said, is that when Beckett: A Biography was published in 1978, it drew ferocious attacks from male Beckett scholars infuriated that a young woman had beaten them to the draw. (“So you are the little girl,” one of them told her, “who stuck her hand in the cookie jar and ran off with all the goodies.”) Second-wave feminism was only starting to have an impact, and at first Bair was dismayed and confused by the attacks. Before long, however, she decided that having written “the best, most honest book I could” entitled her to hold her head high, ignore the unfair criticism, and get on with her life. She credits the warm encouragement of feminist friends with helping her move past the experience. Four decades after the fact, her intention is not to settle scores but to tell the story of her evolution as a feminist in those years, so that younger women, she explains, can understand “what some of us went through as our generation fought for the opportunities in life and work that we made possible for them to enjoy today.”

On the other hand, recounting that story in memoir form sets up a dilemma for a scholarly biographer and a former print journalist. As a biographer-storyteller, Bair has always maintained a balanced detachment, and inserting herself into the narrative raises the thorny question of how to write about herself without violating professional standards that she has hewed to all her life. How and when should she become part of the story? How should she write about her younger self? And how can she insure that the text “will be as factual and objective” as she can make it, even as it is based on her own memories? Above all, can she—or, indeed, should she—“bring the scrupulous objectivity and authorial distance” that she aimed for in her biographies “into a memoir of the fourteen most emotional years” of her life? 

To try and reconcile these competing claims, she told her listeners, she is consulting innovative literary memoirs like Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and reading countless biographies, autobiographies, and cultural essays in the hope of finding “points of light” to guide her in the creation of a satisfactory hybrid. She hasn’t found all the answers yet. Nevertheless, she said, in her new role as biographer-memoirist, she has taken comfort from the opening words of Rousseau’s Confessions: “I have resolved on an enterprise which has no imitator. My purpose is to display a portrait in every way true to nature, and the person I portray will be myself. Simply myself.”

Dona Munker is the writer and co-author (with Sattareh Farman Farmaian) of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution. She is currently working on a book about the affair of Sara Bard Field and C. E. S. Wood. Her blog,“Stalking the Elephant,” is about how biographers imagine and tell other people’s lives.

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.