2020 BIO Conference Program

All events are included in the registration fee, unless otherwise indicated.

May 15, 2020

3:00 PM-5:00 PM

Film Presentation

Proshansky Auditorium, The Graduate Center

Join award-winning producer/writer/director Karen Thorsen as she introduces her classic American Masters film biography James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, recently restored and remastered, followed by a Q & A session. See the film before Saturday’s panel “James Baldwin: One Subject, Three Ways: James Baldwin.
$10.00 Fee


5:15 PM-6:00 PM


Proshansky Auditorium, The Graduate Center

Authors who have published a new biographical work between June 1, 2019, and June 1, 2020, can choose to read a three-minute selection from their work. Participation will be limited to 15 people. To apply for a reading slot,  after completing your registration, please email your name, the full title of your book, the publisher, and month of publication date to president@biographersinternational.org. Readers will be selected on a first-registered first-served basis.


6:00 PM-6:30 PM

Presentation of Awards

Proshansky Auditorium, The Graduate Center

Presentation of the Hazel Rowley Prize, the Ina and Robert Caro Research/Travel Fellowships, and the Biblio Award.


6:30 PM-7:30 PM

Opening Reception

Concourse, The Graduate Center

Enjoy hors d’oeuvres and drinks with your fellow biographers. This is a fund-raising event for BIO. $30 of the $70 fee is a charitable donation and is tax-deductible.
$70.00 Fee


May 16, 2020

7:15 AM-8:15 AM

Registration and Breakfast

Concourse, The Graduate Center


7:45 AM-1:30 PM

Coaching Sessions

Each 30-minute session costs $30 and is held during either the breakfast or lunch break. There are a limited number of spots. After you register, please email Anne Boyd Rioux at anneboydrioux@gmail.com and include the following information: Your name, the subject of your biography, and- 2-3 sentences about your specific problem (please choose an issue that can be fruitfully discussed in a half-hour). After you are paired with a coach, you can submit up to 4 double-spaced pages of material to your coach–an introduction, an outline, or notes that explain the problem for which you would like guidance.

For BIO members interested in coaching year-round, beyond the conference, please see our Coaching Program.


Kate Buford
Cathy Curtis
Carla Kaplan
Dean King
Justin Martin
Anne Boyd Rioux
$30.00 Fee


8:30 AM-9:30 AM

The James Atlas Plenary

Proshansky Auditorium, The Graduate Center

Overlooked No More: How Biography Is Bringing Neglected Subjects to Life
Biographies are a critical component of our collective historical record, so one consequence of overlooked lives is incomplete history. It is a critical moment for biographers to have a broad conversation about why certain lives have been overlooked when it comes to biographies and what can be done to remedy this. Author Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge; She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman) will be in conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning author David W. Blight (Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom).


9:45 AM

Panel Session I

BASICS – Swipe Right for Your Subject: How Do You Know It’s the Right One?

Finding the right subject is like looking for a new relationship—it is looking for a new relationship, with someone you’ll be living with for years to come. Unfortunately, no one has launched the biographers’ equivalent of Tinder (as yet, but who knows…)—so what to do?  Three biographers—Eric Washington, a first-timer with a never-written-about subject; Mary Dearborn, author of a half-dozen biographies, whose most recent grappled with a cultural icon; and Gerald Howard, editor of numerous biographies now writing his first—discuss where to look, what to ask, in the search for a fulfilling relationship.

Moderator: Gayle Feldman

Panelists: Mary Dearborn, Gerald Howard, and Eric Washington

CRAFT – Group Biography

How do you write a biography that involves multiple subjects? Learn from a panel of distinguished biographers their strategies for researching, organizing, and writing a compelling story of intertwining personalities, and how those relationships put each other into a lively context. The panelists have won, or been finalists for, prestigious awards, including the Plutarch Award, the PEN award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Moderator: Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

Panelists: David Hajdu, Daisy Hay, and Carla Kaplan

ISSUES IN BIOGRAPHY – The Professors and the Journalists

This panel of distinguished biographers represent both traditions. They will explore their different priorities and have a conversation about they can learn from each other. Does the academy cultivate the biography profession? And what skills do journalists bring to the art and craft of biography?

Moderator: Jonathan Alter

Panelists: Richard Aldous, Deirdre Bair, and Paul Hendrickson

NEW FRONTIERS – Writing the First Biography of Your Subject

Join “first” biographers Abigail Santamaria, Carol Sklenicka, and David Yaffe for a discussion of how best to navigate when you are blazing the trail. Topics to include researching and interviewing (how to read and organize an archive when you might be the first to do so; how to approach sources for the first time), public perception (how to contend with pervasive myths, or, how to position the legacy of someone previously little-known), and how to fact-check when you are establishing the record for the first time.

Moderator: Debby Applegate

Panelists: Abigail Santamaria, Carol Sklenicka, and David Yaffe


11:00 AM

Panel Session 2

BASICS – How to Pay for It, or Funding Your Biography

Biography is expensive. Advances are small. Biographical writers, filmmakers, and graphic artists frequently find themselves subsidizing their own work. We explore alternative sources of financing: federal, state, and foundation grants, fellowship opportunities, and new forms of crowdsourcing. Our panelists share their experience, strategies, and expertise in pursuit of both solvency and excellence.

Moderator: Billy Tooma

Panelists: Heath Hardage Lee and Philip Shane

CRAFT – Messing With the Form

Begin at the beginning, says the King in Alice In Wonderland, go on until you come to the end, then stop. That’s been the general practice in biography since Plutarch: a linear narrative in third-person objective. When is it valuable to mess with that form? What are the challenges, and the rewards? We consider one life told backwards, from the end to the beginning (Edison); one told kaleidoscopically, with different perspectives on some of the same events (Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World); and one refracted through the testimony of witnesses (Life Isn’t Everything).

Moderator: Amanda Vaill

Panelists: Ash Carter, Leonard DeGraaf, Gillian Gill, and Sam Kashner

ISSUES IN BIOGRAPHY – Writing About Living Political Figures

What are the journalistic challenges and narrative perils involved in writing about the lives of politically powerful figures? We ask three distinguished practitioners about their sense of mission, their setbacks and conquests, and what they’ve learned in a harrowing process.

Moderator: Kitty Kelley 

Panelists: Molly Ball, Eleanor Randolph, and Corey Robin

NEW FRONTIERS – Overlooked and Under-Researched: Researching Overlooked Lives

This panel continues the discussion from our opening plenary and delves more deeply into the particular challenges and rewards of researching overlooked and marginalized lives. We’ll explore obstacles, including the lack of archives or problematic archives created by biased or hostile sources, as well as the rewards of finding new types of sources of information and methods for telling these stories. Our award-winning panelists will also discuss the resourcefulness, creativity, and motivation they employed on their journey to research and write about overlooked and marginalized figures.

Moderator: Kavita Das

Panelists: Gaiutra Bahadur, Channing Gerard Joseph, and Pamela Newkirk


12:15 PM-1:15 PM

Agent Sessions

Agents will be available during lunch on Saturday to meet with a few authors for 20 minutes each. There is no charge for this meeting, but you must register for it here. The limited slots fill up quickly. Once you are registered to meet with an agent, please send your name and a one-page book proposal to Christine Cipriani christine_cipriani@yahoo.com no later than May 1. You will be assigned a meeting place and appointment time. If no slots are available when you register, your name will be added to a waiting list.


12:15 PM

Lunch and Roundtables

Round tables are groups of up to eight people who will eat lunch together and discuss matters of common interest, led by a facilitator knowledgeable about the subject. Choose carefully, as space is limited. You may not change to a different round table at the conference. There will be space, however, for those who wish to eat lunch without participating in a round table conversation.

American History and Politics 1 – Table 1

American History and Politics 2 – Table 2

American History and Politics 3 – Table 3

Biography for Magazines and Websites – Table 4

Bogged Down? Strategies for Overcoming Writer’s Anxiety – Table 5

First Biography of Your Subject – Table 6

First-time Biographers – Table 7

Group Biography – Table 8

Hollywood – Table 9

Literary Biography 1 – Table 10

Literary Biography 2 – Table 11

Literary Biography 3 – Table 12

Making Use of Fair Use – Table 13

Narrative Structural Approaches in Biography, or Messing With the Form – Table 14

Organizing Research – Table 15

Political Biography – Table 16

Self-publishing Your Biography – Table 17

Using Oral History Archives – Table 18

Women’s Biography 1 – Table 19

Women’s Biography 2 – Table 20

Writing and Researching Overlooked Lives – Table 21

Writing About International Figures – Table 22

Writing About Local, Regional, or Family Figures – Table 23

Writing Biography in the #MeToo Era – Table 24


1:30 PM-2:45 PM

Presentation of Awards and Keynote Address

Presentation of the Hazel Rowley Prize and Plutarch Award, followed by the keynote address by 2020 BIO Award winner Hermione Lee.


3:00 PM

Panel Session 3

BASICS – The Art and Technology of Interviewing

How to woo interview subjects, how to set ground rules, how to secure permissions, how to get them to think and remember afresh, and how to record, transcribe, and store your interviews.

Moderator: James McGrath Morris

Panelists: John Brady, Claudia Dreifus, Brian Jay Jones, and David Stenn

CRAFT – Writing About Writers

Three award-winning biographers share insights into the challenges and joys of writing about writers. A particular subset of artist biographies, the genre of “literary biography” goes far beyond and is far more open than the potentially narrow definition that the title might suggest. These three biographers will discuss, among other things, how they navigated the relationship between their subjects’ life and work and created such indelible portraits of writers at and in their work.

Moderator: Karin Roffman

Panelists: Heather Clark, Ruth Franklin, and D. T. Max

ISSUES IN BIOGRAPHY – Making Use of Fair Use

Fair use—our right, under certain conditions, to quote, paraphrase, summarize, and reproduce the copyrighted words and images of our subjects and others in biography, without paying fees—is imbedded in the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976. Our distinguished panel of experts cuts through widely shared confusion and unwarranted timidity to illuminate this necessary and vital tool of our core work.

Moderator: Lawrence Weschler

Panelists: Brandon Butler, John A. Glusman, Blake Gopnik, and Peter Jasz

NEW FRONTIERS – One Subject, Three Ways: James Baldwin

What can biographers who work in different media and biographical genres learn from one another? Join a documentary filmmaker and three print biographers as they explore how they’ve addressed the same fascinating subject, the late writer and activist James Baldwin.

Moderator:  Steven G. Fullwood

Panelists: Rich Blint, Nicholas Boggs, and Karen Thorsen


4:15 PM

Panel Session 4

BASICS – Do I Know Enough?: Navigating the Relationship Between Research and Writing

When is it time to stop researching and start writing? Do outlines help or hinder? How do you maintain narrative momentum when questions remain? Join prize-winning biographers Blake Bailey and Kai Bird for a lively, instructive discussion of their respective approaches to research and writing, with special attention to how the dynamics between the two pursuits might shift over the course of a project’s long life.

Moderator: Lindsay Whalen

Panelists: Blake Bailey and Kai Bird


CRAFT – What Biographers Can Learn From Obituary Writers

A news obituary arguably creates the mold for any biography. Obit writing is a highly skilled form of journalism—succinct, anecdotally rich and comprehensive. This panel of distinguished writer/reporters will talk about what working biographers can learn from the obits.

Moderator: Bruce Weber

Panelists: Adam Bernstein, Margalit Fox, Gerri Hirshey, and William McDonald


ISSUES IN BIOGRAPHY – Living Archives: The Challenges and Delights of Oral History in Biography

Oral history is a practice unique in its approach to collecting and telling life stories. Panelists discuss their own experiences and challenges working as oral historians and translating interviews into narrative, and offer perspective on what it means to work, and form relationships, with “living archives.” They speak to what the practice of oral history has to contribute to the field of biography, how life stories based in oral histories differ from those based upon archival materials, and how biographers might blend the two.

Moderator: Carlin Zia

Panelists: Mary Marshall Clark, Nyssa Chow, Sara B. Franklin, Gillian McCain, and Carvell Wallace


NEW FRONTIERS – The Telling Detail: Looking Closely at Women’s Lives

Overlooked details can mirror the ways in which women’s lives have been ignored or oversimplified. Sometimes the most telling detail –whether archival, biographical, or material — is something secret or hidden, something that complicates and contradicts. Paying close attention offers a vital way into crucial and untold stories. Four recent NEH Public Scholars will discuss their new and forthcoming biographies of women.

Moderator: Anne Boyd Rioux

Panelists: Natalie Dykstra, Kimberly A. Hamlin, and Janice P. Nimura


5:30 PM-7:00 PM

Closing Reception


May 17, 2020

10:00 AM

$50 Fee

Making the Most of Research Interviews

How do you prepare for and conduct a productive research interview, and then use that material? Presented by biographer and experienced radio host Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, this workshop offers practical suggestions and skills for successful interviews helpful to both experienced and beginning biographers. From preparing questions, recording and transcribing, to recognizing and handling legal and ethical issues around permissions and quoting, you’ll get practical suggestions for effective interviews.

Leader: Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

Podcasts/Video Promotions: Using the Ear & the Eye to Draw Readers In

If you’re looking for different ways to attract potential readers to your biography, this is the workshop for you. During this session, we’ll explore what it takes to create compelling podcasts or video promos. We’ll even create a very short podcast as an example during our time together.

In the first half of the workshop we’ll discuss:

  • Podcast formats: Including interviews, monologues, highly produced pieces
  • Frequency: How often your podcast should be available to the public
  • Production techniques: Editing/mixing your podcast
  • Platform:  How to send your podcast out into the world

We’ll also talk about how to create and distribute video promos for your book.

What to bring: your podcasting/video promotional ideas and plenty of questions.

Leader: Sonja D. Williams

Writing a Winning Book Proposal

Writing an effective book proposal is an art in itself. In this workshop, a prominent literary agent will walk you through all the elements of a successful biography proposal—and reveal which parts of the proposal agents and publishers are most likely to focus their attention on in today’s market. She’ll also answer such common questions as: What makes for a powerful sample chapter? At what point in your research will you be ready to write your proposal? And what else can you do to be sure your proposal stands out from the pack? Plus, bring any questions of your own!

Leader: Neeti Madan