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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.

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.

BIO Announces Panelists for Biography Beyond Borders

unnamedBiography 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.

Nan A. Talese Wins Editorial Excellence Award

BIO president Will Swift looks on after presenting Nan A. Talese with the Editorial Excellence Award.

BIO president Will Swift looks on after presenting Nan A. Talese with the Editorial Excellence Award.

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.

BIO Honors Nan A. Talese

Biographers International Organization will present its third annual Editorial Excellence Award to the legendary editor Nan A. Talese, senior vice president of Doubleday and publisher and editorial director of her own imprint, Nan A. Talese Books at Doubleday, at an evening reception on October 5 in New York City.

talese2In the course of fifty years, Nan Talese has edited and published some of the most distinguished biographiess and nonfiction works of our time, including A. Alvarez’s enduring classic, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide; Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s List; Phyllis Rose’s Josephine Baker in Her Time; François Gilot’s Matisse and Picasso; Benita Eisler’s O’Keeffe and Stieglitz; Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette; many books by Peter Ackroyd, including The Life of Thomas More, Shakespeare, Chaucer, J. M. W. Turner, Newton, Poe, Chaplin, and London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets; and Deirdre Bair’s Saul Steinberg and the forthcoming Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, among many others. We spoke with Nan briefly about the experience of editing biography and what she looks for when considering the acquisition of a book.

TBC: Can you provide us with a telling example of how working actively with an author improved one of the biographies you published?
Talese: The best example may be the first biography I edited, A. E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway (1966). The author and I sat together with the manuscript. I pointed out scenes that seemed less interesting than other scenes or that did not contribute to the reader’s understanding of the character of Hemingway. I asked him questions: “What is going on there? What do you want to convey?” and he answered and I would say, “Put that in!” We ended by cutting one fifth of the manuscript and adding another one fifth in.
TBC: What do you look for in a proposal or a manuscript?
Talese: The first thing I consider is whether the subject is well known and well respected, and what the crucial scenes were in his or her life. What caused a subject to change his mind or direction? Then I look for whether the author has a gift for storytelling and whether the writer’s voice transfers his or her passion to the reader and the page. I look for the ability to tell a powerful story while being very careful to stay within the facts.
TBC: What are editors looking for today?
Talese: Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a great deal of interest in pop stars and in celebrities of all kinds. This is cyclical, and—if fifty years of editing is any guide—this interest will go and come again.

If you will be in or near New York on October 5, do consider joining Nan and a number of the biographers she has published for an evening of lively conversation. The event takes place at the New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street, at 6:30 p.m. and is open to the public.

Buy tickets here.

Fall Season Offers Many Notable New Biographies

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.