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

By New York Correspondent Dona Munker

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.

BIO Calls on Pulitzer Board to Create Separate Category for Biography

Responding to the recent trend of awarding the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography to authors of memoirs, Biography International Organization has written to Pulitzer Prize administrator, Mike Pride, asking that the board overseeing the Pulitzer Prizes to create a separate category for biography and a new category for autobiography and memoir. Pride recently left his position but turned over the letter to Dana Canedy, his replacement as administrator.

In a letter signed by BIO Board president Will Swift and Advisory Committee chair Debby Applegate, BIO specifically asked the Pulitzer Prize Board to do the following: 
(1) review the recent history of the prize for “Biography or Autobiography
;
(2) consider biographies on their own merits and thus as their own unique prize category;
(3) consolidate autobiography and memoir into a new and distinct category.

TBC first addressed this issue in June, when James McGrath Morris interviewed David Nasaw on the topic. Nasaw, chair of the Pulitzer Prize Biography/Autobiography Committee in 2015, and a two-time finalist for the Biography Pulitzer prize, said, “It was our understanding that a memoir is a piece of a life, a moment of a life, a part of a life, and it is not documented. There is no corroborating material, there are no additional interviews, there are no newspaper articles, and there is no context provided. A memoir is a work—as the title makes clear—of memory. Autobiography and biographies are not works of memory.”

Commenting on BIO’s effort, Swift said, I am grateful to Cathy Curtis, Steve Weinberg, Jamie Morris, Brian Jones and most of all Debby Applegate for helping me think through the complex issues we present to new Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy. I look forward to hearing from her and we would be delighted to meet with her and other representatives of the Pulitzer board.

The entire letter is reprinted here.

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.

Pulitzer Stirs Controversy by Awarding the Biography/ Autobiography Prize to Memoirs

By James McGrath Morris

This year the Pulitzer Prize for “a distinguished and appropriately documented biography or autobiography by an American author” was awarded to an author who wrote neither a biography nor an autobiography. In fact, neither did the two finalists in this category. The prizewinner and the finalists all wrote memoirs.

The prize was awarded to The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar. The two finalists were In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi and When Breath Becomes Air by the late Paul Kalanithi.

Further muddying the water was that in 2016 the prize for Biography/Autobiography went to William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, and one of the two finalists was also a memoir. The other finalist, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles, was moved by the board to the History category and given that prize.

The Pulitzer Prize board’s selection of memoirs two years running for the Biography/Autobiography category has sparked a debate among biographers. Most believe that memoir is a fundamentally different form of writing about a life in that it does not require any form of documentation, especially the kind of research that often distinguishes biographies.

BIO’s board is requesting to meet with the Pulitzer Prize administrator to discuss the continued commingling of biography, autobiography, and memoir. Currently, the Pulitzer Prize organization is seeking a new administrator, since Mike Pride announced his retirement.

To help sort out this this issue, TBC turned to David Nasaw, the distinguished historian, accomplished biographer, and chairman of the advisory board of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at City University of New York. Nasaw is the author of three biographies: The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst; Andrew Carnegie; and The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy. The latter two were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the Biography/Autobiography category.

James McGrath Morris: You were invited to chair the Biography/Autobiography Committee in 2015 for the prize awarded in April 2016, isn’t that right?
David Nasaw: I was sort of surprised that they gave it to me, if only because I had been a finalist twice but never a winner. Of my three biographies, The Chief was never submitted to the Pulitzer committee, which was a bit of a scandal with Houghton Mifflin. The New York Times wrote about it. Houghton Mifflin just forgot to give them the book. My next two books were finalists. So, everything I say about the Pulitzers should be taken with a grain of salt, because I have a particular history with the prizes.
JMM: Nonetheless, you were chosen as the chairperson for the 2015 awards and you began work by studying the guidelines.
DN: We, the three of us who were on the committee, read the guidelines that we were given very, very, very carefully. And, we interpreted the guidelines as ruling out of competition any memoirs that were not documented. The guidelines that we were given said that for the nonfiction awards it was very important that the materials in these books be appropriately documented. And, they said that there should be some references, footnotes, endnotes, or in the text itself, which gave the reader the confidence that what was being said, or what was being reported, had actually taken place. The Pulitzer guidelines made that abundantly clear.
JMM: Did you have other things by which to guide your deliberations?
DN: In addition to those guidelines, I did a little bit of research, and we all did, on what was an autobiography. How is this defined? And, it was the opinion of the three of us that an autobiography was distinct from a memoir. An autobiography is the writing of a life by the person who lived that life. It does not necessarily have to be cradle-to-grave, but it is written to show how influences of place and time, childhood, adolescence, parenthood, affect the coming-to-age, and the activities, character, personality, and achievements of the adult. It is, in other words, a biography written by the person who is the subject of that biography.

It was our understanding that a memoir is a piece of a life, a moment of a life, a part of a life, and it is not documented. There is no corroborating material, there are no additional interviews, there are no newspaper articles, and there is no context provided. A memoir is a work—as the title makes clear—of memory. Autobiography and biographies are not works of memory.
JMM: What did you do then?
DN: So, we made our determinations clear to the administrator, who was in contact with us. And, we let it be known that after studying and applying the guidelines, we were not considering 30 percent or 40 percent of the books (I don’t know the exact number) that had been submitted under this category. When we finished our deliberations, we were asked to write a report. In it, we explained how we had made our decisions.

Twice afterwards I wrote to the administrator of the prize and I said, “We consider this very important, that the Pulitzer board has to make a decision as to what it’s going to do.”
JMM: What can it do?
DN: We recommended a number of changes to the Pulitzer board to remedy the situation we had encountered. It could establish memoir as a separate category; it could add memoir to the Biography/Autobiography category, so it’s Autobiography/Memoir/Biography; or, it could let publishers know that memoirs should be submitted in the general Nonfiction category. Whatever it decided to do, we argued against it continuing to accept “memoir” nominations in the Autobiography/Biography category because we thought that other jurors would do as we had done, would read the guidelines as we had read them, and not consider the memoir submissions for the prize.
JMM: Then the subsequent selections in 2016 and 2017 must have been a shock?
DN: You can imagine my surprise when, the following year, a book that we would not even have considered for the award, given our reading of Finnegan’s book, was given the prize. And the Stiles book, which was a biography, was moved out of the category, into History. And the second runner-up was a memoir. The following year, this year, there were no autobiographies or biographies. The prize was given to another memoir, and again the runners-up were memoirs.

So, I, having been a judge, I’m not saying the jurors were wrong to do this, I would never say that. But I will say that the guidelines are so written that one committee could read them in a way that appears to be almost diametrically opposed to the way the other committees read them. There’s got to be something wrong there.
JMM: If you were made emperor of the Pulitzer Prize, what would you do to fix this?
DN: I’d simply make a category for memoir. When these categories were first designed, there were very few memoirs. The committee has adjusted all the other awards, certainly all the journalism awards.
JMM: Very often they have.
DN: On a regular basis. Why can’t it pay the same attention to the arts and letters awards?
JMM: And you would be okay with keeping autobiography and biography together as one?
DN: Sure. Sure. And, if the Pulitzer board doesn’t want to do that, then it should add memoir to that list. The fact that Amazon puts memoir into the same category as autobiography and biography doesn’t mean that we should do the same. There has historically been a difference between autobiography and memoir. And a memoir, as we know, is not in the same genre, I don’t think, as biography.
JMM: I was a judge recently on the Western Writers of American prize for best biography. I took out a memoir from the pile of books I was to judge because I didn’t see how you could compare it to biography.
DN: That’s exactly what we did for the 2015 awards. And, I assume from looking at the judging, that’s what had happened earlier.
JMM: When you think of presidential autobiographies, they have a staff who uses all these memoirs and calendars to get the dates right. Their autobiographies may be self-serving, but still, they are biographies of their lives.
DN: Yeah. So, I don’t know what’s going on. I think it is an extraordinary disservice to memoir and to biography. Because these are separate literary genres. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. And again, memoirs are important enough as a genre in the twenty-first century, that they should have their own award.

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.   

Finalists Announced for Hazel Rowley Prize

The 2017 Hazel Rowley Prize Committee has chosen three finalists for BIO’s award for the best proposal for a first biography. They are, in alphabetical order:

  • Eric M. Nishimoto, for Arthur’s War, the story of his uncle, Arthur Nishimoto, a volunteer in the segregated, all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team that fought in Europe during WWII, becoming the most decorated unit in U.S. history.
  • Diana Parsell, for A Great Blooming, the biography of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, an intrepid late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century American traveler to Asia, who had the idea to plant Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and made it happen.
  • Jeffrey Lawrence Yastine, for Battle the Wind: Elmer and Lawrence Sperry, father and son inventors and aircraft pioneers from the first half of the twentieth century, whose legacy lives on in the technology we take for granted today.
     The final judging is being done by distinguished biographers Blake Bailey and Amanda Vaill. The winner will be announced prior to the BIO conference in May and will receive the prize there. The winner receives a $2,000 prize, a careful reading from at least one established agent, a year’s membership in BIO, and publicity through the BIO website, The Biographers Craft, and other outlets.
The members of the Hazel Rowley Prize Committee are Susan Butler, Jennifer Cockburn, Cathy Curtis, Kavita Das, Deirdre David, Gayle Feldman, Dean King, and Roy Schreiber.

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.