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Mayborn/BIO Fellowship Winner Hones Her Work

Alison Owings knew she wanted to write about homelessness, but she wasn’t sure how to approach the topic. Then, on a walking tour of San Francisco’s notorious Tenderloin neighborhood, she met Del Seymour, an elderly African American man leading a group of curious whites through the streets he knew so well. After all, he had earned the unofficial title of “the mayor of the Tenderloin.”

As he recounted some of his experiences as a homeless man in the neighborhood, Seymour said, “I could have gotten a Ph.D. in sidewalks”—and Owings knew she had the focus for her book. She would make Seymour a “micro example of the macro American scourge of homelessness.”

Owings talked about her subject and the biography-in-progress of his life at a reading marking the end of her residency in Tesuque, New Mexico, where she had spent several weeks working on the book as the ninth winner of the Mayborn/BIO Fellowship in Biography. Her host and mentor for her time in New Mexico was BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris, who also hosted Owing’s reading in his home.

Owings had previously written four books, but her book on Seymour is her first biography. Its working title is The Book of Del: Scenes from a Life Before, During, and After Homelessness. Owing began interviewing Seymour, now 71, in late 2015, and she also talked to about 15 people who had crossed his path in the Tenderloin—including his former crack dealer.

Seymour, a Vietnam War veteran who served as a medic and later became a successful contractor and engineer, found himself on the streets during his 18-year addiction to crack cocaine. During that time, he was a self-described hustler—acting as a go-between for other homeless people in myriad situations, legal and otherwise, and always for a fee. For a time, he was also a pimp.

Now clean and living in his own place, Seymour helps run Code Tenderloin, an organization he founded in 2015 to help provide education and ultimately jobs for people in his neighborhood. He also speaks frequently about homelessness to church and civic groups, and he shared his views on the “scourge” at the White House with the Obama administration.

While Seymour has been a cooperative subject, he is often fuzzy on dates and jumps around in his chronology. Owings has decided to present her material in impressionistic scenes. Right now, she envisions somewhere between 50 and 100 of these vignettes that show Seymour’s background, his descent into addiction and life on the street, and the positive path his life has taken since kicking crack.

Owings said the Mayborn/BIO Fellowship has given her what every writer craves: “uninterrupted time.” She has also received Morris’s help in structuring and condensing her writing. That included printing out her interview transcripts, which totaled two reams of paper. At the reading, Morris noted that Seymour’s domination of the research material and non-chronological presentation posed a particular challenge for Owings: “Organizing that so she can write a narrative is very hard.”

Another challenge Owings might face is finding a publisher, since she presently does not have any kind of collaboration agreement with Seymour, though she has promised him a share in any profits. Owings said, “Del has told me, oh, he’ll sign anything, don’t worry about it,” but as one audience member pointed out, he is a self-confessed hustler.

Still, Owings believes Seymour is motivated mostly by a desire for some kind of redemption: “He’s still trying to exonerate himself from what he did before . . . make good for what he did bad.” And while Seymour’s life dominates the story, Owings has kept a focus on the larger issue of homelessness and how people on the streets—or, increasingly, those working full-time jobs and living in their cars—struggle to survive.

2018 Conference Goers Take Home Useful Insights from Top Biographers

Below are reports on two of the panels that were offered at the Ninth Annual BIO Conference in May, written with assistance from John Grady. Each article continues on the BIO website. BIO members can read about seven more sessions in the July issue of The Biographer’s Craft; an archived copy is available in the Member Area.

You can see a photo gallery from the conference here.

Writing Multiple Lives

Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know: Three Lives, said she discovered that through a group biography she could dramatize her initial subject and anchor her in a community, a social circle. What tied together her three subjects—Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland—was that they “were women who knew everybody” and their sexuality.

“I didn’t set out to write collective biography,” Carla Kaplan said when she started work on Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance. From her earlier biography on Zora Neale Hurston, Kaplan knew that many white women had connections to Hurston and others in the renaissance. As Kaplan delved deeper into the relationships those women had with Hurston and each other, she found “extraordinary dead ends” on how to approach writing about a single white woman in that time, in that place. Finally, Kaplan decided, “I am going to have to write that book to read that book” on the complexities of the relationships of the “Miss Annes”—a collective nickname—of being hostesses, philanthropists, snubbers of convention, and more.

Likewise, Justin Spring in The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy had to work through “any number of false starts” to settle on how to proceed to write about six very different writers, who “were very much like the Americans of the ‘Lost Generation,’” in another era of “enormous American cultural ferment:” Paris after World War II.

Interesting as the six were as individuals, Spring said, “these people were not coming together” as a possible group biography until he found a key in Alice B. Toklas’s second book on cooking, and their shared love of French cuisine. Among the subjects in The Gourmands’ Way is Julia Child, to many Americans the doyenne of the Gallic way with food.
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From left to right: Marc Leepson, Kai Bird, Max Boot, and
Heath Lee. Photo by Jane O’Connor

Writing About the Vietnam War

Moderator Marc Leepson, a Vietnam War veteran, began the session by providing some background. The Vietnam War was the longest U.S. war before the twenty-first century and the country’s most controversial overseas war. After the war, Leepson said, “Nobody really wanted to talk about it” because of its divisive nature. But as panelists Kai Bird, Max Boot, and Heath Lee showed, there is a market today for certain biographies relating to the Vietnam War era, even if there are challenges in writing them.

For Bird, one challenge was getting one of his subjects, McGeorge Bundy, to open up about his involvement in the war. Bird’s The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms looked at the role both Bundy brothers played in setting U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Bird, a former Vietnam War protester, wanted to explore how smart, liberal intellectuals came to get America into and then defend the war. He was able to meet with both Bundys. William, he said, “was much more of a gentleman and a scholar” and more generous with his time. On the other hand, Bird said, “I feared Mac Bundy”—a man Bird once considered a war criminal. McGeorge was sometimes dismissive of Bird’s questions. The Color of Truth came out in 1991, and Bird said he had no trouble getting it published, but he was still dealing with his own anger about the war as he wrote it.

Both Max Boot and Heath Lee are of a younger generation than Leepson and Bird; their experiences of the Vietnam War were not nearly as direct. Boot said that with younger writers of Vietnam books “you lose some of that sense of immediacy” that came from authors writing just after the war. “But,” he added, “I think what you gain is some more perspective.” Boot brought that perspective to his recent biography of Edward Lansdale, the first complete look at the life of a military officer and CIA agent who helped shape U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Lansdale often appeared as a character in other books about the war, and Boot said he was usually presented in a one-dimensional way, as a con artist or malevolent figure. Boot wanted to present Lansdale in a more balanced way, while still presenting his flaws.

Heath Lee’s Vietnam book, The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the President, the Pentagon and the Rest of the US Government to Bring Their Husbands Home, which will be published April 2, 2019, is a group biography of civilians who have been overlooked: the wives of American POWs/MIAs. While writing the book, she said, she came to “love the ladies,” but she knew a biographer should not fall in love with her subjects. She interviewed most of the women featured, and they were eager to share a story that had not been told before. Another major source was the diary of Sybil Stockdale, one of the key figures in the book.
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Caroline Fraser Wins Plutarch Award

Caroline Fraser won the 2018 Plutarch Award for Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book had previously won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, among other honors. Fraser received her award at the ninth annual BIO Conference on May 20.

The Plutarch is the world’s only literary award given to biography by biographers. Named after the famous Ancient Greek biographer, the Plutarch is determined by secret ballot from a formal list of nominees selected by a committee of distinguished members of the craft. The award comes with a $1,000 honorarium.

BIO’s Plutarch Award Committee for 2018 was:

Anne C. Heller, chair
Kate Buford
Nassir Ghaemi
Brian Jay Jones
Andrew Lownie
Julia Markus
J.W. (Hans) Renders
Ray Shepard
Will Swift, ex-officio

You can find out more information about the Plutarch Award here.

James Atlas Interviews 2018 BIO Award Winner Richard Holmes

Photo: Stuart Clarke

Acclaimed literary biographer Richard Holmes will receive the 2018 BIO Award at BIO’s upcoming conference in New York and give the keynote speech on May 19. As a preview of that, James Atlas interviewed Holmes; you can read the interview here.

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.