Thank you to everyone who attended the 11th Annual BIO Conference! BIO was honored to again partner with the Leon Levy Center for Biography at The Graduate Center, CUNY, for this event.
Videos of all events are now available through BIO’s YouTube channel. Members can also see them in the video library on this website.
- BIO Honors Award Winners
As it does every year, BIO recognized the winners of several awards on the first day of its 2021 virtual conference. The presentations and winners’ remarks were prerecorded; winners of all but two of the awards had already been announced. You can see a video of the award presentations here.
Shepard Service Award
On the video, attendees learned that Sonja D. Williams was the winner of the Ray A. Shepard Service Award, given to honor BIO volunteers whose work goes above and beyond the call of duty. It comes with a statuette and a lifetime membership. The award is named for its initial winner, Ray A. Shepard, who almost single-handedly organized the first BIO Conference in 2010. The award was last given in 2018.
Williams has worked as a broadcast journalist and has won three consecutive George Foster Peabody Awards for Significant and Meritorious Achievement, for writing and producing program segments for groundbreaking documentary series distributed by National Public Radio, Public Radio International, and the Smithsonian Institution. Williams won the Shepard Service Award for her work, along with Lisa Napoli, in producing podcasts for BIO featuring interviews with biographers. Williams said she especially appreciated the award “since it’s named for a fellow biographer and longtime BIO member Ray Shepard.” Williams noted that she served on BIO’s board with Shepard and that he was an early supporter of the podcast.
The other award winner publicly announced for the first time was Jeff Flannery, who was honored with the Biblio Award. This award recognizes a librarian or archivist who has made an exceptional contribution to the craft of biography. Flannery was the head of the Reference and Reader Services Section in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress (LOC) until his retirement at the end of 2020.
Tim Duggan, a member of BIO’s Awards Committee, introduced biographer A. Scott Berg, whose subjects include Woodrow Wilson and Max Perkins, who recounted his experiences relying on Flannery’s expertise. Berg said that while researching at the LOC, Flannery was “more than an overseer, he became an integral part of my research process.” Flannery assisted several other honored biographers, including BIO Award-winners Candice Millard, James McGrath Morris, and Ron Chernow.
The previously announced winners were Humera Afridi and Iris Jamahl Dunkle for the Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowship; Tanya Paperny for the Hazel Rowley Prize; and Rachel L. Swarns for the Frances “Frank” Rollins Fellowship.
You can see a video of the award winners here.
- Member Readings
First-time biographers and biography veterans with many titles under their belts were among the 10 BIO members who read selections from their books. All the titles were published between June 1, 2020, and May 31, 2021. Here are the authors and their books, in the order in which they read. You can see a video of the readings here.
Ray Shepard, Runaway: The Daring Escape of Ona Judge
Katherine Manthorne, Restless Enterprise: The Art and Life of Eliza Pratt Greatorex
Andrea Friederici Ross, Edith: The Rogue Rockefeller McCormick
Carl Rollyson, The Life of William Faulkner: The Past Is Never Dead, 1897–1934
William Souder, Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck
Raquel Ramsey, Taking Flight: The Nadine Ramsey Story
Heather Clark, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath
Paige Bowers, Overnight Code: The Life of Raye Montague, the Woman Who Revolutionized Naval Engineering
Lisa Napoli, Susan, Linda, Nina, & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR
Patrick Parr, One Week in America: The 1968 Notre Dame Literary Festival and a Changing Nation
- Opening Plenary
David W. Blight and Annette Gordon-Reed opened the first of two days of panel sessions by discussing “Restoring Overlooked Lives.” Blight is the author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, which won several book awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in History and the 2019 Plutarch Award. Gordon-Reed’s books include The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and the Pulitzer Prize in History. Her most recent book is On Juneteenth. Their talk marked the inaugural James Atlas Plenary, named for the late James Atlas, literary biographer, essayist, and editor who was a dedicated friend to biographers and a committed champion of the genre of biography.
After an introduction by Program Committee co-chair Anne Heller, Blight dove into the topic at hand by asking “what would be an overlooked life in the craft of biography?” Gordon-Reed answered in part by turning to Frederick Douglass. One of the most famous people of his era, “he doesn’t live in people’s imaginations the way he did during that time,” so in that way he could be considered overlooked. Other overlooked subjects are ones that were never known to most people in their own time or after. Gordon-Reed noted that historical records didn’t even mention Sally Heming’s last name until the 1870s, and in her book about the Hemings family, she was conscious of introducing these figures to her readers for the first time.
Even when writing about Thomas Jefferson, Gordon-Reed realized she was talking about facets of the president’s life that might have been overlooked in previous books, such as the importance of music and family. (Later, she included President Andrew Johnson as another “famous” figure who is largely unknown to Americans today, given the magnitude of what he did to obstruct Reconstruction.) She also stressed the importance of getting the sense of a subject from what their contemporaries, such as friends and family, wrote about them. Blight added that rivals can be a good source as well—Douglass had rivalries with other Black leaders before and after the Civil War. And as with Gordon-Reed and Jefferson, Blight felt that he had uncovered facets of his subject’s life that most people didn’t know.
Blight noted the value of finding new materials about his famous subject, but said there were always new readers who didn’t know much about Douglass (or other subjects). “In that sense,” he wondered, “is every life overlooked to some degree and is that why we do biography, because we find new stuff or tell new stories, or a person is . . . vastly misunderstood . . . maybe all biography is rooted in this idea: ‘You don’t know this yet.’”
Gordon-Reed added that the interest of a new generation of readers might lead biographers to tackle a new subject or dig deeper into some lives. All the information about the Hemingses that she used in her book was available at Monticello, but previous Jefferson scholars had ignored parts of the president’s life, perhaps thinking: “who cares about somebody’s ‘slaves’—the enslaved people.” Overlooked in previous books, for instance, was Martha Jefferson’s relationship with her enslaved half-siblings, James and Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed said it was mind-blowing to consider “what do these people say to each other when nobody’s around.”
Blight later turned the topic to what he called a tradition in biography—the retelling of the life of someone completely unknown to the history books, until a biographer finds diaries or letters. His prime example was Eunice Connolly, the subject of Martha Hodes’s The Sea Captain’s Wife. Connolly married a Southerner and moved south with him. He died during the Civil War and Connolly later married a Black sea captain from the West Indies and moved there with him. Gordon-Reed called the book fascinating and said the value of books like that is “they tell you so much about the time.” To her, that’s one reason why many academic historians should reconsider their bias against biography, feeling the genre is not really history.
The two speakers spent some time talking about On Juneteenth and the appeal of writing a book that is partly memoir (and Blight’s interest in some day writing about his hometown of Flint, Michigan). Blight brought up how the publishing world looks at biography. His editor at Simon & Schuster said up to one-third of his books were biographies and, to him, an “overlooked subject” was someone most people don’t know about. And in the editor’s mind, Douglass qualified as an overlooked subject. Blight also talked about the series put out by Yale University Press—Jewish lives and a new series on Black lives—that often focus on overlooked lives.
The talk turned to getting young scholars interested in writing biography. Gordon-Reed commented on how hard that is, given the bias against biography in academia. She went back to the idea that a book about an overlooked life can be the springboard to a larger understanding of the person’s times. She said the lives of relatively unknown figures from the abolitionist and civil rights movements are ripe for study and offer those kinds of broader insights.
A key to biography, Blight said, for both authors and readers, is that it’s about people. Gordon-Reed agreed, saying it’s very hard for most people to relate to history without that human element. Blight said he stresses to his graduate students the importance of telling a story, along with being honest to the sources and offering some original insights about the subject.
That storytelling element is something readers crave, Gordon-Reed said. She meets many people who say they hated history in school, but they respond to her books. “Biography has always been a way to reach people,” she concluded.
- Keynote Address
After receiving the 2021 BIO Award from Pamela Newkirk, David Levering Lewis spoke on “Black Biography Matters: A Prophet and A President.” The prophet was W. E. B. Du Bois, the subject of Levering’s two-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. The president was Barack Obama.
Levering started his talk by giving a mini-bio of an unnamed figure: A biracial American who did not face the extreme discrimination other Blacks did, thanks in part to having one white parent and living in a relatively tolerant state. This figure, though, came to embrace his Black roots as well as the culture and aspirations of Black Americans.
Levering said that if his audience assumed he was talking about the first Black president of the United States, they were correct. But Levering pointed out that many of the details of Obama’s life as a biracial American applied to Du Bois as well, another man who embraced his Blackness and achieved greatness. The two, Levering said, shared “strikingly similar biographical profiles,” and his introduction featured the “interweaving of like-minded quotations” from Obama’s and Du Bois’s autobiographical writings.
Levering’s goal with this introduction was to illustrate “the significance of a largely unsuspected parallelism in the racial coming of age of two of the most influential American men of the last 100 years.” But as Levering went on to show, Obama’s career as president ultimately diverged from the path Du Bois took as a scholar and activist, though he also noted that there would have been “no Obama presidency without the Du Bois civil rights legacy.”
After adding a few more details to each man’s biography (noting that in Du Bois’s hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, “black families were rarer than Democrats”), Levering turned to Obama’s idea of the “audacity of hope,” the title of the book Obama wrote before announcing his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Levering called that expression an example of political optimism—an optimism reflected in candidate Obama’s belief that racism was an old problem that the country had transcended. Levering said he “had seemed to resolve those dilemmas of nationality and color unforgettably proposed by Du Bois in his foundational text The Souls of Black Folk.” And Americans seemed eager to embrace the idea of a “post-racial” future.
But then, in not so few words, Levering said, “Not so fast.” He explained Du Bois would not have accepted that the country had transcended race. “Rather, he could remind us that he predicted that race still would remain the predicate of our American experience long after the formal dismantling of segregation.”
Levering recounted how, as a presidential candidate, Obama tried to generate universal appeal by not being threatening to white voters, while winking reassuredly at Black ones. And he might have been “just progressive enough to intrigue old troublemaker Du Bois.” But Obama didn’t live up to the promise of the “audacity of hope” and become a transformational president. And Black scholars who pointed out that John McCain won the white vote in 2008 by 10 points over Obama had their op-eds dismissed as being out of sync with the supposed post-racial era the country had entered.
Levering said that Obama didn’t seize the opportunity the Great Recession presented when he took office in 2009. Obama was economically timid and pursued a “futile strategy” of conciliation with his Republican critics. Though there were critics on the left, too, who berated Obama’s timidity. Still, Levering said Obama had notable first-term successes, such as saving the auto industry and signing legislation that created the first federal consumer protection bureau. And Levering called passage of the Affordable Care Act the signature accomplishment of Obama’s presidency (while noting it was a bonanza for the insurance industry).
Turning back to Du Bois, Levering said he should avoid speculating on what his subject might have made of the Obama presidency. But he said he would any way, given that Du Bois had “spoken rather presciently to our times” in the 1950s about what he saw as a lingering American problem: too many people were willing to live in comfort “even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellow men.” Du Bois, Levering said, moved from seeing racism as the central American problem to a broader economic emphasis on class discrimination, while still recognizing that race was a “component of America’s DNA.” Obama, on the other hand, saw race “as of limited value in formulating an economics of redress.”
In the end, Levering suggested, Obama and DuBois stood at opposite poles. “For Du Bois, racism defined the American social contract.” For Obama, “the less said about race relations, the better.” Levering admitted that the Obama presidency ended “with much to its credit.” But the idea of a post-racial reset for the nation “had already been fatally belied by worsening disparities now become irrevocably color coded,” by a Supreme Court decision that hamstrung the voting rights of Black and Latinx voters, and by criminal justice misdeeds and police violence that fueled protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of these problems were only exacerbated during the Trump presidency.
Levering closed with words from Du Bois, which he believes are relevant for the 2022 elections. Du Bois wrote that the majority of voters had to challenge a political system run by a minority based on their wealth and power. Du Bois said some might call his ideas for change “socialism, communism, reformed capitalism or holy rolling. Call it anything—but get it done.”
- Reflections in a Funhouse Mirror
Amanda Vaill introduced the session by noting that traditional biographies often follow a linear narrative, with the narrator taking an omniscient distance from their subject. Vaill said that the three panelists—Craig Brown, Ash Carter, and Gilliam Gill—created “polyphonic, kaleidoscopic narratives, they just blow the roof off of biography.”
Vaill asked why each chose to take the approach they did. Brown, author of Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret and 150 Glimpses of the Beatles, said his first foray into non-traditional structure actually began with Hello, Goodbye, Hello, a “daisy chain” of encounters between famous people. “I’ve always liked this idea of having a pattern,” he said, rather than a strict chronological approach. That fueled the idea for offering short “glimpses” of Margaret and the Beatles. Each subject eventually turned up in the other’s book, with their paths crossing at the premiere of the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night. Brown said that encounter proved to be “a pivotal event for Margaret and the Beatles . . . [a] moment when celebrity became like royalty . . . where their arc was going up, hers was going down.”
In terms of the structure for his Beatles book, Brown said that the decision to begin and end the book with Brian Epstein came late in the writing process. In the first glimpse, he meets the Beatles for the first time. In the last, Brown tells Epstein’s life in reverse, from his death in 1967 to that initial meeting. “I hoped it had some kind of emotional resonance,” Brown said, because the group’s meeting Epstein “begins the Beatles’ lives as Beatles,” but it was also “the beginning of Epstein’s death in a way,” as the meeting took Epstein out of a dull life and eventually propelled him into a world of drugs.
Gill took a new angle to present the life of her subject in Virginia Woolf: And the Women Who Shaped Her World, by focusing on the author’s influential female relatives. Gill began by noting that her background is in literary criticism, and she was somewhat forced into becoming a biographer at the behest of her editor, after Gill had written a series of critical essays on Agatha Christie, while the editor wanted a biographical approach.
With Woolf, Gill knew that several stellar biographies already existed, so she decided to look at the author’s relationships, including with relatives she never knew, such as her great-great-great grandmother, who “had Bengali blood, was a woman of color, which, to me, is tremendously interesting.” Other influential relatives included her sisters, and some beyond the nuclear family, including her French-Anglo-Indian maternal grandmother, Therese de L’Etang, and an aunt, Anne Thackeray Richie. Gill also said she wanted to tell the story of Woolf as someone who “fought valiantly since the age of 13 to stay alive and working,” not a victim who committed suicide. Gill said Woolf used writing to cope with sexual trauma she experienced as a child, and in her work Woolf came back often to how events in childhood affect people’s lives.
Turning to Ash Carter, Vaill noted that with the book on Mike Nichols, Carter and coauthor Sam Kashner chose a subject who had never been profiled in a soup-to-nuts biography, and the authors opted to write a “fugue of 150 voices” rather than go the cradle-to-grave route. Carter said the project actually started “as oral reminiscences” from 40 people who knew the improv comedian and director for an extended magazine piece. Carter said Nichols “does lend himself to this format” of oral reminiscence. It helped that Nichols had many famous, articulate friends. But Carter added there is “some difficulty in this format” because “you’re limited to the living.” Nichols lived a long life, dying at 83, which means that many who knew him when he was younger were now dead.
As Carter and Kashner’s original project grew beyond the 11,000-word magazine article, Carter said they worked with a belief that there “was something a little bit unknowable about him” that they could tease out. In structuring the book, “we felt we could pick and choose” among his great successes and failures. Along with the interviews they conducted, Carter and Kashner drew on interviews done for two PBS American Masters documentaries and books on Chicago’s Compass Theater to flesh out the book.
Because of its mostly oral-history format, the Nichols book was written with less of a feeling of the authors’ omniscience and resembled more of a mosaic (a term Brown also used in describing his Beatles book). Though, as one critic pointed out, Carter said, the mosaic metaphor is a bit misleading, since an artist carefully plans out a mosaic in advance. Relying on oral histories, Carter and Kashner didn’t really know what they would get or where they would end up. But they did know certain films would be the subject of their own chapters. While choosing quotes, Carter said, “you want each quote to lead to the next one . . . and you want it to seem like” the people are talking in the same room. You also “have to be a little bit creative” in cleaning up grammatical lapses and repetitions “while preserving [the interviewees’] cadences.”
- One Subject, Three Ways: Agatha Christie
Moderator Laurie Gwen Shapiro kicked off the session with the question, “How does the form chosen to tell a subject’s life shape its content?” In this case, the subject was Agatha Christie. Exploring Shapiro’s question were three panelists Zooming in from England and France: Matt Cottingham (in London), who made the documentary Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie; Laura Thompson (just outside London), who is the author of Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life; and Anne Martinetti (in Paris), who wrote a cookbook based on Christie’s work, called Creams and Punishments, coauthored the graphic biography Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie, and wrote a documentary about Christie’s adaptations in movies, The Inheritance Crime.
For Cottingham, one challenge was remembering that he only had an hour to tell his story—in his first biographical film—and he would need to simplify some parts and keep in mind the film would have a broad audience. Another huge challenge at the outset: finding enough visual material for even just 60 minutes. His first search for video of Christie turned up just three clips, “which is nothing, and they were all about 20 seconds long.” He realized he would need the cooperation of the Christie family to make a film, and fortunately he received it from her grandson. That gave Cottingham access to photos, home videos, and audio recordings, including an autobiography Christie had recorded. In the latter, though, Cottingham found his subject to be “guarded” and there was not enough material to provide a structure for the film. But he did have access to Christie’s “secret notebooks” (as did Thompson), which provided a wealth of information. Cottingham found that certain “dark” parts of Christie’s life were turning points, such as serving as a nurse during World War I or her husband’s infidelity.
Of the three panelists, Thompson took the most traditional biographical approach. Though her subject was well known, Thompson thought there was much that most people didn’t know about her. She focused on the day-to-day of Christie’s life and explored the novels she wrote under another name, “where she could be so honest about herself.”
Thompson also wrote at length about Christie’s “disappearance” in 1926—an 11-day span she never talked about afterward. Thompson called that period a dividing line in Christie’s life and “the heart of her character,” and she treated it by imagining what Christie might have experienced and thought during that time, augmented with what was known from external sources. The newspapers of the time were particularly helpful in that regard, and Thompson also explored places important to Christie’s life. She said, “Going in someone’s footsteps . . . is almost more important than anything.”
Martinetti took the most unusual approaches when examining Christie’s life, with the cookbook and graphic novel. In the former, Martinetti combined her love of cooking with her love of her subject, trying to create something different. She noted that many of Christie’s characters die after eating “excellent meals,” so she tried to recreate the recipes “without poison, of course.” Martinetti found 300 meals in the books and chose to put 80 recipes in her book. She believed that Christie chose to include meals that she loved. Martinetti also saw the value of exploring “place” and had the chance to cook in the kitchen at Greenway, Christie’s home in Devon, England. “It was like she was just by my side,” said Martinetti.
With her graphic novel, Martinetti said the hardest part was choosing which scenes to depict. She tried to focus on scenes that would appeal to young readers, trying to dispel the image of Christie as an old woman. Martinetti also used Hercule Poirot as a character, explaining that he is “near Agatha all the time . . . it was very funny to us to imagine [him] near Agatha during all her life.”
The three biographers found it a privilege and inspiring to explore Christie’s life, each in their own way.
- Researching Under-Documented Lives
This panel continued the morning’s plenary discussion, delving deeper into the particular challenges and rewards of researching overlooked and marginalized lives, particularly people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ.
Moderator Kavita Das kicked off the discussion by asking what drew the panelists to their subjects. Pamela Newkirk said the idea to explore the subject of her book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga came from her agent. Benga was a young Congolese man who was captured in his homeland and taken to the United States, where he eventually became a human exhibit in the Bronx Zoo monkey house. Exploring his life intersected with Newkirk’s interest in race relations in New York City during the Progressive Era. She quickly learned that newspaper reports of the time did not square with what was in the archives. What she found shocked her, and she was “compelled to tell the story after I saw the way so many powerful people had for 100 years told this story through lies and deception”—especially officials at the Bronx Zoo.
For Channing Gerard Joseph, tracking down his family’s genealogy led him to his subject, William Dorsey Swann, a former slave who in the late 19th century became the world’s first self-described drag queen. His research led him to wonder “what would a Black, queer, ancestor look like” and to a larger hunt for Black homosexuals from the past who defied gender conventions of their era. Joseph found an article from 1888 about a raid at a drag ball that Swann hosted. When Joseph saw that other scholars didn’t know about this raid or Swann, he decided to tackle the subject. Newspaper reports from the era about other raids gave Joseph names and sometimes addresses, leads that brought him to census records, city directory records, and other sources of information about Swann and his activities. One challenge, though, was that newspapers often used variations of Swann’s name when reporting on the raids, so he had to spend time making sure a “William Dorsey” who was mentioned was actually William Dorsey Swann.
Gaiutra Bahadur’s desire to explore a forgotten or overlooked figure began with her great-grandmother, who at the beginning of the 20th century traveled from her native India to Guyana as an indentured servant. What Bahadur discovered fascinated her, but realizing there was not enough information for a book just on her relative, she expanded her scope to look at other Indian women who made the same journey. The finished product was Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. Bahadur said of the women she discovered, “They’re all forgotten figures,” and so telling her great-grandmother’s story reflected the experience of so many others.
For all the panelists, finding material about their subjects was a challenge. Newkirk offered a piece of advice for researching the lives of marginalized and overlooked subjects: “Look to the papers of the person who exploited them.” In the archives, she found the letters of those oppressors, “candid accounts of what was happening to [Benga] behind the scenes,” which even outlined the lies these people would tell to deceive the public about him. She was fortunate, she said, that the powerful people of the era communicated via letters and were the people whose papers were collected and saved in archives, leaving a trail she could follow.
Joseph also found that looking at the powerful people whose paths crossed those of the marginalized helped him find useful information. His research sometimes led him to the papers of movers and shakers in Washington, D.C., where Swann lived. Some of them employed the drag queens in Swann’s circle, so their writings offered more clues about Swann and his friends.
Bahadur knew from the start that women like her great-grandmother were not the type of people who had their lives recorded and written about. But what she did know about her great-grandmother’s life led her to sources that gave her a broader picture of the lives of indentured women. Bahadur looked at colonial records of other ships that made the journey from India to Guyana and was able to “excavate stories of particular women . . . to describe what happened to them but also imagine her [great-grandmother] into their lives” and experiences. Bahadur also saw the value of the “papers of the powerful,” but in her case, the depiction of women in them, written by men, did not leave an accurate picture. She relied on oral histories of the surviving indentured servants and family histories to help fill in the gaps.
On the practical matter of pitching the story of an overlooked person to a publisher, Joseph said biographers need to be able to answer the question “Why would the average person be interested?” in two sentences. Newkirk said it can help if the subject’s life taps into larger issues or gives readers a new way to see things through that life.
Why write about marginalized lives? Newkirk said there is a renewed interest in those stories, and looking at these lives gives insight into the true history of the United States: “You can’t tell the story of this country when you have excised these people from the record.” She added, “All these lives mattered,” which prompted Joseph to say, “It’s amazing we have to say it.”
- The Art and Technology of Interviewing
Moderator James McGrath Morris and panelists Claudia Dreifus, Brian Jay Jones, and John Brady presented similar views about successful interviewing in this panel. They agreed that a biographer should find out as much as they can about the interviewee and be equally prepared when something unexpected arises in the conversation and pursue that topic.
Dreifus, author of Scientific Conversations: Interviews on Science from The New York Times and Interview, said, “You’ve got to establish some kind of relationship” with the interviewee from researching them. Morris said that sharing details gleaned about the interviewee’s past can break the ice and flatter them. Dreifus illustrated this point by sharing her experience interviewing General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1990s. She discovered “Shali,” who was born in Poland, learned to speak English by watching John Wayne movies, a point that moved the interview forward.
In her career of interviewing for the Times, Playboy, and other publications, Dreifus said she always structured her questions in advance, but “my rule is to get people to tell their stories” and to move beyond clichés and sound bites.
Jones said he treats interviews as conversations. The author of biographies of Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Jim Henson, and George Lucas, Jones said he intentionally stays away from the police procedural process of going down a list of questions. He added that it’s good to “know when to shut up” and “be willing to let there be dead air” that may draw the subject out more. He also noted, “A lot of times, stories don’t go in the direction you expected” and that is not a bad thing.
Brady, whose books include The Craft of Interviewing and the biography Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater, said he discusses topics he intends to cover with the interviewee in a phone conversation, and he also gives the subject “a review at the finish line for accuracy” in the transcription, but not the manuscript. He treats the transcript the same way as a deposition is viewed—it can be corrected for accuracy, but not other reasons.
Dreifus, on the other hand, said she stays away from sharing transcripts with her subjects. The exception comes when interviewing Nobel laureates in physics or experts in fields where she lacks expertise.
Another challenge of interviewing is determining what’s accurate or what’s a bias an interviewee might bring to the session. With his Jim Henson book, Jones said he came to “understand that everyone has an agenda,” such as when he interviewed Henson’s wife and five children. With his Atwater book, Brady said he interviewed 200 people for the biography. In going back through those interviews, he “had to separate fact from fiction” in their accounts. Complicating matters was that some of these people believed “the fiction.” Dreifus pointed out that in some cases an interviewee might use the interview to settle scores.
Other areas of concern arise over interviews that are “off the record” or “background”—working definitions in journalism but not necessarily in writing biography. Morris noted that in this area he does make a distinction between subjects used to being interviewed and those who aren’t. On permissions, Morris said editors (reflecting their publishers) are increasingly asking for signed statements from interviewees, stating that they understand why the interview is being conducted and that it could be used in the future in print.
The panelists discussed a possible untapped resource for interviews: other biographers who wrote on the same subject. They might “have a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor” that could be of benefit in a new work, Jones said.
As for technology, Jones said he brings along two recorders to each interview, in case one fails. He also offered a reminder that if one of those recorders is a cellphone, turn off the phone function. All the panelists agreed that in-person interviews were best, but if technology has to be used, Zoom is far better than the telephone or sending prepared questions via email.
- How To Pay For It, or Funding Your Biography
Moderator Heath Lee started the session by noting that advances, even from major publishers, have been declining in recent years, and she hoped the panel would help biographers find other ways to finance their work.
Carla Kaplan then related some of her experience researching the life of Jessica Mitford, the subject of her forthcoming biography, who left behind “hundreds and hundreds of boxes of material” in a number of places for a biographer to explore. The only practical way to proceed, Kaplan said, was to digitize the material to work with later, which turned out to be a costly and time-consuming undertaking. Thankfully, she had received support from the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) Public Scholars Program.
Kaplan has been a recipient of many fellowships and grants and has also read the applications submitted for many of those programs. She focused on the audience for grant applications, readers like her, and how to craft an application with them in mind. “Who is reading it, that is the thing you should be thinking about constantly,” she said. The reader most likely is not familiar with the subject and is part of an interdisciplinary panel of academics and non-academics. And, most likely, the reader is reviewing the application at the last minute, “in kind of a panic.” Given all that, Kaplan said applicants should focus on the “why” of the project: “What matters . . . is making clear to that audience why your book matters” and why the applicant is the right person to write the book now. What doesn’t matter is the details of the argument the book will make. She also stressed the need to be interesting, not academic, in the writing style.
Following Kaplan was Mark Silver, team leader for the Public Scholars Program at the NEH. The program supports authors writing well-researched, nonfiction books in the humanities written to appeal to a broad audience—of which Kaplan’s Mitford book is a good example (as is biography as a genre).
Silver said the Public Scholars Program’s grants range from $30,000 to $60,000, and typically 300 applicants vie for 25 to 30 awards. In listing his top tips for applying, he echoed Kaplan’s main point: “Think hard about why your biography matters.” Does the subject’s life illustrate a larger theme or issue? If so, that “something else” should be a key selling point and something applicants should articulate carefully. Applicants also need to consider the program’s focus on intellectual significance and audience appeal and think about their own strengths and weaknesses in these areas. For example, a person with a background in journalism might want to get tips from an academic and vice versa. In answering a question, Silver suggested having other people read and provide feedback on the proposal before submitting it. He also noted that biographers should not present any kind of fictionalized details or descriptions in their applications. Finally, he directed potential applicants to the NEH website for more information, including samples of successful applications.
The last panelist to speak was Steve Hindle from the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where he oversees the conference, public lecture, and research fellowship programs. Hindle completed the trifecta in stressing the importance of making clear why a project matters. “You need to spell it out,” he said. Among his other tips was the need to do “due diligence” about the fellowship/grant program you are applying to and the institution offering it. Rules and requirements vary, even within different grant or fellowship opportunities at a single institution. The Huntington, he said, is residential and collection-based, so applicants should make clear the relevance of their project to its holdings. He noted that the Huntington’s collection is extensive in its specialties and has supported projects on subjects as diverse as Abraham Lincoln and the novelist Hilary Mantel.
Both Hindle and Silver talked about some of the criteria fellowship-application readers like to see. At the NEH, successful applications tend to have a chapter outline and a sample chapter. Silver added that applicants are on “strong footing” if they have already talked to a publisher or have a contract. Hindle said the review committee at the Huntington also likes to see a contract in hand. He also noted that since the 2020 murder of George Floyd, questions of diversity, equity, and inclusivity, for both authors and their subjects, are given added weight. Silver said the NEH program does not identify applicants by ethnicity or race, but a project giving voice to underrepresented communities can be a boost.
As Kaplan noted in answering a question, “biographies are expensive . . . most of us spend more money than we make.” That reality shows the importance of exploring the funding opportunities provided by organizations such as the NEH and the Huntington.
- Writing the First Biography of Your Subject
Panelists Justin Gifford, Abigail Santamaria, and Carol Sklenicka, along with moderator Debby Applegate, explored some of the challenges and rewards of writing the first biography of a subject.
Sklenicka started the discussion by noting both of her biographies—of writers Raymond Carver and Alice Adams—were the first about her subjects, and she’s never considered doing a second or third biography of a subject. She undertook the Carver book because her students wanted to know more about him, and she was ready to make the transition away from literary criticism “because biography is more fun, in my opinion.” She said that biographers considering writing the first biography of a subject should ask themselves why isn’t there one of that subject, and they should do research on whether someone else is working on a book about the subject. With Carver, Sklenicka heard there was a “big rift” between his two former wives, which may have put off potential biographers. Publishers like to know that you have the cooperation of a subject’s family or estate, but she said the lack of it is not necessarily a roadblock.
Gifford talked a bit about the proposal-writing process, saying one key is to have research no one has used before. “That can be in the form of archival research, or interviews with family members, or some other kinds of documents that you find.” The second thing you need, Gifford said, is something to hook the editor. “You need to convince [editors] that this
person . . . has some sort of impact on contemporary culture in some direct and significant way.” That was the case with Gifford’s biography of Iceberg Slim, whose writings influenced a generation of hip-hop musicians and helped shape contemporary Black culture.
Santamaria’s first “first” biography was of Joy Davidman, and while she had appeared in previous biographical works, it was usually in the context of her relationship with C. S. Lewis. Santamaria presented the first full biography of Davidman herself. The subject of her current work in progress, Madeleine L’Engle, similarly had been written about, but not in a full biography. Santamaria reiterated Gifford’s point about offering something new about a subject. She said a proposal also needs to show what makes the subject’s life interesting. With L’Engle, Santamaria was asked, was the author more than just her classic, A Wrinkle in Time—was her life interesting?
As all three panelists have written about authors, Applegate asked about the issue of getting permission to quote from their subjects’ works, which led to a discussion of fair use and the legalities that can go into writing a biography, especially when dealing with relatives or an estate. (Applegate noted that writing about long-dead subjects, as she has, is one way to avoid that hassle.) Sklenicka said biographers need to use fair use more than they do (and she plugged BIO member Carl Rollyson’s expertise on the subject). With her L’Engle book, Santamaria received permission up front from her subject’s estate to quote from her books. Gifford also had carte blanche from the beginning to quote from Iceberg Slim’s books, but for a biography of Eldridge Cleaver, he had to wait until the last minute to get permission. Gifford’s publisher was cautious about taking the fair-use route. The Cleaver experience convinced Gifford to not tackle another contemporary subject.
Applegate then asked how the biographers tackled the writing stage for a first biography, winnowing and shaping their material. Sklenicka said she needs to keep track of all her research material in one document, with cross references, while copies of letters go in a three-ring binder in chronological order. The key then, she said, is to find the shape of the story. “If you’re the first biographer, no one has pre-sorted it for you.”
Gifford talked about combining biographical information with vignettes that “give flavor or dimension to the subject of the biography.” He also said, “You have to decide what you believe before you write the biography.” For Gifford, his beliefs as a committed Marxist shaped what he had put in his books. Sklenicka agreed that biographers need to “know what [they] think” before getting too deep into a book and make that case in the writing.
- Swipe Right for Your Subject: How Do You Know It’s the Right One?
Moderator Gayle Feldman started this session by recounting a conversation she had with 2010 BIO Award-winner Jean Strouse, in which she asked for Strouse’s advice on beginning her career as a biographer. Strouse’s reply: “If you want to do biography the right way, and get it right, you’d better have chosen the right subject.” Feldman than asked panelists Mary Dearborn, Eric K. Washington, and Gerald Howard how they have chosen their subjects.
Washington said that he discovered his subject, James H. Williams, after he was asked in 2013 to lead tours of Grand Central Terminal, where Williams worked as the “boss of the Grips.” Washington had experience with New York’s hospitality and tourism industry and knowledge of the city’s history, and with Williams he “found a bond” that spurred an interest in learning more about how he integrated the Red Caps who worked in the terminal, not realizing that his research and writing about Williams would lead to full-length biography—and a five- or six-year “relationship.”
Dearborn, the author of several biographies, focused on how she came to choose Ernest Hemingway as a subject. Dearborn echoed Jean Strouse’s advice on the importance of choosing the right subject, adding that for her it can be a “fraught” process as well. After writing books about two figures who defined American masculinity in the 20th century—Henry Miller and Norman Mailer—Dearborn “knew it was coming” that she would have to tackle Hemingway, too. But she still had to struggle with her internal editor who asked, “Is there something new I should know about? Or aren’t there enough books about him?” Dearborn finally answered the latter question by saying, “Yes, except for mine.” She said, “You have to feel that you’re doing something new . . . you have to have that sort of passion that you’ll be saying something new”—or looking at material in new ways. Dearborn also became convinced that, as a woman, she brought new insights to Hemingway and could dispel the macho myth that surrounded him.
After a career as an editor, Howard is embarking on his first biography, about Malcolm Cowley. Howard had an interest in the writer that went back almost 50 years, saying that reading Cowley led Howard to realize “writers were actually people.” During his career, Howard met Cowley, an experience that awed him, and he was always on the lookout for someone to do a biography of the writer. He never found that person, so Howard finally decided he should do it. The process has convinced him that “writing a biography is really hard, folks . . . it’s a lot harder than editing one.”
Given his publishing background, Howard had some experience with how to choose the right subject. He offered some “considerations” for choosing a subject, but the bottom line is: “how badly you want to or need to do this.” A publisher wants to “feel the passion in the proposal.” Feldman noted that for all three panelists, the idea of passion or a “sense of mission” was a driving force in choosing the subjects they did.
Feldman next asked about practical considerations, balancing the passion with such concerns as time and money. Washington said that he was slightly naïve when he began writing about Williams, thinking, “this will be a breeze!” But he realized he needed to dig deeper to truly tell the story. Winning a Leon Levy Center for Biography Fellowship helped with that deep dive. Along with time and money, he said, some of the other practical issues biographers confront include: What sources are there and where are they? And will there be opposition from the family?
Dearborn said, given the state of advances today, there’s not much practical about writing a biography. “I think I make my decisions in spite of practicality.” But she agreed with Washington that assessing potential conflicts with a family or estate is one practical matter to consider.
Looking at the economic challenges of writing a biography, Howard said would-be biographers need other ways to finance their projects, such as by going into academia or tapping into grants and residencies.
Feldman asked if biographers should be in love with their subjects and can they fall out of love with them. Dearborn said she fell out of love with Norman Mailer, though usually feelings like that are less extreme. And with Hemingway, she wanted to address his faults and failings, but in a balanced way; she didn’t want to write a negative biography. At times, she even felt protective of him. “It’s real complicated, isn’t it,” she said. Washington explained he wasn’t in love with his subject, but he found “a sense of commonality” with him. With Cowley, Howard said, nothing he’s found has “dimmed his esteem” for his subject. But Howard has had to confront Cowley’s “political idiocy” as a Communist fellow traveler during the 1930s. “I don’t want to become Malcolm Cowley’s scold, but I do have to hold the political mistakes he made to the light of day.”
- What Biographers Can Learn from Obituary Writers
Opening the session on what biographers can learn from obituary writers, Margalit Fox joked that her sister once began a phone call to her by asking “how’s the flash biography business coming?” Fox, a former senior reporter at The New York Times, wrote more than 1,400 obits while at the paper. That “flash” aspect comes when obituary writers have just an afternoon, or perhaps only an hour, to produce copy. Fox acknowledged that there is only so much detail in an obituary, even on major figures. They are “not the whole life” but “the kernel is there,” making an obituary “a really good first stop” for a biographer.
Along with Fox, moderator Bruce Weber and panelists Adam Bernstein and William McDonald, have all written and/or edited obituaries. Weber called their field the “somewhat macabre realm of the journalistic mortuary.” Bernstein noted that obituary writers have to address a question that biographers also face: “Why should someone care” about the subject—especially people who may have never heard of the subject. McDonald said that’s where the lede comes in—the writer must hook the reader up front so they’ll keep reading. Weber pointed out that obituary writers “have to determine what is really interesting,” so the question then comes down to “what to leave out”—another issue biographers face after doing their research. The issue is especially acute for the obituary writers, given the limited space they have to hook the reader and then tell a narrative of the life.
A common practice at newspapers is writing advance obituaries of well-known figures; the panelists talked about the challenges they sometimes faced in preparing them. One issue is that perceptions about a subject can change after the advance obituary is first drafted. McDonald, obituary editor at The New York Times since 2006, gave the example of famed music producer Phil Spector. The paper had to re-do its obituary to take into account Spector’s murder conviction in 2009, while still positioning him as an important figure in contemporary American music.
As with writing a biography, interviewing is an important way to get information on a subject. Fox, though, noted that obituary writers conducting interviews for advance obits are in a delicate situation. She “didn’t want to seem like a circling vulture” when interviewing people about someone who was still alive. The interviewing process usually begins with families and friends of the subject. Fox said, “You learn a lot about dysfunction and family folklore,” with the folklore coming from family members believing the subject did something or was someplace when they were actually not involved in the event, or were only peripheral to it. The potential discrepancies with reality mean obit writers have to check the facts they gather from the interviews.
McDonald added, “families can want to manipulate the obit,” by leaving out the most sordid, embarrassing, or worst episodes in a person’s life. And it’s not just family members who manipulate. Weber, who is writing a biography of novelist E. L. Doctorow and prepared his advance obituary, said the writer placed contradictory tidbits about his life over the years with different friends. Now, as a biographer, Weber is trying to reconcile all these divergent stories with facts. “I would like him to be around, so I could get to the bottom of that.”
- Do I Know Enough? Navigating the Relationship Between Research and Writing
Working on her first biography, moderator Lindsey Whalen said she has had her own struggles with figuring out the relationship between research and writing, noting “they’re hand in hand, but sometimes they can compete with one another, sometimes it’s hard to answer the question, ‘Do I know enough?’” Both Kai Bird, author of a recent biography of Jimmy Carter, and 2017 BIO Award-winner Candice Millard, working on a book on the search for the headwaters of the Nile, agreed on the need for extensive amounts of research before beginning to write, but once they reached that point, the two writers couldn’t be farther apart on how they work.
Bird said in his first biography, The Chairman: John J. McCloy & the American Establishment, “I didn’t start to write for five years,” but gradually began to make a long chapter outline. When that didn’t work, he plunged into the work “without outline, without chronology, just sort of winging it.” It’s a process he has followed ever since.
Millard, on the other hand, said she was terrified, not knowing if she could actually write a book, as she began work on The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. For her, it’s the research—usually three years per book—which “really informs your understanding of how you’re going to tell [the story],” even though a lot of that research does not end up in the book. After the research, she focuses on organizing, including a year of outlining: “I need to really know how I’m going to tell the story before I start writing.” When she became bogged down in the details, she “went back to the outline” to get moving again.
Concerning research trips, Millard said she usually takes one big trip, although she made two for her current project. “I do read [research notes] pretty quickly when I get back.” She also annotates the notes—underlining or putting one, two, or three stars by material, meaning “don’t forget this.” As part of her research, Millard also takes pictures to remind her of what she saw, in terms of weather and terrain, which will add necessary detail to the narrative. As for the research material itself, she uses MS Word and arranges it in thematic files.
Millard said when writing Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill and her other books, she found herself looking for non-traditional sources. For the Churchill book, a self-published veteran’s book about the war provided details she needed for events where both Churchill and the soldier were present, ranging from what the weather was like to the smells from a mess tent. To write narrative nonfiction, she said, “you need a ton of detail, dialogue . . . [and] personal details in letters.”
For Bird, to move through archives where there is much material but he has little time, he uses Scanner Pro on his iPhone. The app allows him to send material to different folders. “At the time, I’m making snap decisions” on what’s important and how it’s organized. As an example, he mentioned the 20,000 Carter documents he gathered this way for the Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter.
Persistence proved a virtue for Bird in working on the Carter book. He came back to the former president as a subject after starting to research a book on Ronald Reagan and did not find the kind of archival material he wanted. Bird had been interested in Carter since doing a magazine profile of him in 1990. Interviewing Carter proved a disappointment: “I didn’t get much out of him . . . in an interview, he wasn’t much of a story teller.”
What turned into a bonanza for the Carter book was the discovery of five boxes of letters the president had exchanged with his personal lawyer and advisor, Charlie Kirbo. The letters were not at the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta. Carter said, “They should be someplace.” Eventually, they were discovered in the lawyer’s widow’s attic. Bird said Kirbo was “the one guy [Carter] trusted.” The contents of the boxes were a revelation on the whole of Carter’s life. No biographer before Bird had seen them.
- Group Biography
Moderator Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina began the panel by noting that she had gone from writing about a single subject to doing a group biography. She then proceeded to ask the panel about their experiences going from one type to the other, and in so doing “what the challenges, and joys, and problems were.”
Responding first was David Hajdu, whose books include a biography of songwriter Billy Strayhorn and the group biography Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña. He said that even though Strayhorn was a single subject, there was a group element to it, given Strayhorn’s collaborations with other musicians, most notably Duke Ellington. That made Hajdu “acutely aware of how collaborative creative lives are,” which led him to explore how relationships between people inform art in Positively 4th Street.
Daisy Hay echoed Hajdu’s observation of the importance of relationships for creative people. Hay, whose books include Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives, said “literary creativity is never a single person sitting in a room.” She also said that with a group biography, the biographer’s hand is very evident, based on what she chooses to include and who becomes part of the “group.” That control exists to a degree with a single subject as well, she said, but Hay thinks it’s stronger with a group work, because with a single subject “there is a kind of framework of a life to follow.”
For Andrew Meier, it was something of an arbitrary decision to focus on a single subject, Isaiah Oggins, in his first biography, The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service. He had done a lot of research on his subject’s wife, who was also a spy for the Soviets, and the book, he said, “is really a family biography.”
Gerzina asked the panelists to explore the difference between writing about living or recently living subjects and on those for whom biographers need to rely more on archival material. Meier thought dealing with a living subject (such as Robert Morgenthau and his family) would be easier than spending years in the archives—but “boy, was I wrong,” he said. Living sources and stakeholders contradict each other and know the biographer will be subjective in choosing what to include. Hajdu pointed out a different kind of problem: the written, historical record of Strayhorn’s life did not match the facts, so Hajdu had to rely on interviews with people who knew him.
One challenge of writing a group biography, Hay said, is not to let one strong character “suck the oxygen out of the story.” She found Shelley to be that kind of figure and felt a sense of relief when he died, so she could open up the story to the other subjects. She said biographers should also resist the urge to assign roles to the subjects, to paint one or more as villains, and instead get at “the complexity with which people live their lives, and no one lives their lives in a role like that.”
The panelists talked a bit about the difference between a group biography and a collective biography. For Hajdu, in Positively 4th Street, he definitely saw his subjects as a group—he was not simply taking four separate biographies and “shuffling them together like cards” or creating a collage. He ended up with the relation between the two sisters, Joan Baez and Mimi Baez Fariña, forming the spine of the story. Hay noted that her forthcoming Dinner With Joseph Johnson is a collective biography, as she documents the ties several dozen people had with her titular subject and with each other. She has tried to “look for moments . . . of magnetism between people” and what they said about changes in England during the late-18th century.
Gerzina asked about the challenges of bringing “lesser” figures into the group portrait, especially women who are sometimes left out of the historical records. Meier thought this was particularly relevant when researching his Morgenthau book, which he thought would be male-dominated, but he wanted to know up front: “What about the women?” He found little in the archives about the Morgenthau women, and he said that women are, at times, deliberately erased from the historical record (though the women he interviewed proved to be valuable sources). Hay noted a similar archival hole when researching Mary Anne Disraeli for her book Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance. Mary Anne kept everything her husband wrote (and bits of his hair from his haircuts), but no one did the same for her. Hay decided she needed to note the “silences” in the historical record “but not necessarily impose my own voice.”
- The Professors and the Journalists
Moderator Jonathan Alter explained that this panel would explore the relationship between being both a journalist and biographer and the relationship between professional scholars and journalists (a relationship Alter thinks is getting better).
In his introductory remarks, Paul Hendrickson called himself “an old shoe-leather reporter,” though he has experience teaching nonfiction at the college level. His books include Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost and Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright. Leo Damrosch painted himself as the outlier in the group, since he is a lifelong academic with no experience in journalism. His biographies include The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age and a study of Jonathan Swift. Susan Glasser, a staff reporter at The New Yorker, said she felt like something of an interloper, too, as she has written just one traditional biography, The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III, though her book on the Kremlin contained biographical details of Vladimir Putin. (Glasser coauthored both books with her journalist-husband, New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker.)
Damrosch said he turned away from literary criticism to biography “as a way of talking about human lives,” though he thinks the journalists working on biographies of contemporary figures have an advantage over a biographer like him who, so far, has focused on an 18th-century subject. “All I have is documents” to work from, he said, but from them his goal is to “tease out a plausible story from uneven evidence.” The latter can include authors of documents who have an axe to grind, so his challenge is to get behind that bias to determine what really happened.
Glasser explained that she and her husband were fortunate that Secretary Baker was “extremely generous with his time” when it came to interviews. But the interviews did not reveal the whole of the subject, so they also relied on a ready supply of archival information available at Princeton and Rice universities. Glasser said the book took seven years to research and write, as the project was “derailed by the Trump era”—a reference to her and Peter Baker’s need to continue with their journalistic day jobs while working on the Baker book. But in a way, she said, working on both things at once was a benefit, as their research on how Washington, D.C., operated in a different era informed their reporting on Washington today. Glasser said they pressed Baker “again and again about Trump” and his reaction to the president. “You have to listen to your subject. . . . He could find Donald Trump nuts and crazy and vote for him twice. That was very interesting to us.”
Hendrickson also uses a combination of interviews and archival research for his books. He said, “Your goal is to get into the archives, but your goal in a sense is to fight your way out of the archives.” He quoted longtime Washington Post sports editor Shirley Povich as saying “if you go, it will happen,” meaning there is “some mysterious combination” of both interviewing and exploring documents in the archives that is necessary for a successful biography.
Looking at the people the other panelists profiled, Damrosch noted that Alter and the other two panelists “are swimming in the same ocean as your subjects.” In his work, he explained, he is “not living in [his subject’s] culture,” so he has to recreate it for the reader.
Alter, the author most recently of His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life, said that as a biographer, he might do some things that he wouldn’t do as a journalist, such as let an interviewee review quotes or present questions in advance. He also questioned taking a tack that drifts too far from the standards of the genre. His example was Edmund Morris, best known for his three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt. Alter called Morris “a tragic figure” who “took two wrong turns.” The first was creating a fictional character named Morris and inserting him into his Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, complete with made-up endnotes. The second was writing a biography of Edison in reverse chronological order. Morris, he said, “messed with” one of the organizing structures that makes biography slightly easier to write than other nonfiction genres—the chronological order of the subject’s life.
Alter noted that Morris, who died in 2019, could not be there to defend himself, but he read a defense of him submitted by Kai Bird, who was attending the panel. Bird thought Morris’s book on Reagan is “the best thing we have on Reagan,” as the fictional character let Morris speculate about the former president. (Though Bird admitted later that creating a fictional “Morris” was a mistake.) Alter said that while the book does have deep insights, “all you ultimately have in a biographer is trust. If you can’t trust what he is writing happened . . . the whole edifice crumbles.”
- Writing About Writers
Literary biography is one of the more popular subsets of the biography genre. Moderator Karin Roffman (who wrote a biography of the poet John Ashbery) started this session by asking the panelists how they chose the authors they wrote about.
For Heather Clark, it was a progression from doing an academic study of Sylvia Plath (along with Ted Hughes) to writing Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, fueled in part by Clark’s awareness that new material was available on Plath. She also believed that some earlier biographers had taken a “sensationalistic” approach to Plath’s life “and it was time for a more literary, critical biography.”
Ruth Franklin had been writing book reviews when she decided she wanted to delve more deeply into writers’ lives and motivations, and Shirley Jackson was someone she had been thinking about. An earlier biography of the author hadn’t explored Jackson’s creative process in the way Franklin wanted to. Franklin was also intrigued by Jackson’s autobiographical writing about her life as a mother, and she wanted to balance that with looking at Jackson’s much darker fiction, and the challenges of being a creative woman at a time when American culture glorified the housewife.
Like Clark, D. T. Max had written about his subject, David Foster Wallace, before undertaking a biography. Max wrote about Wallace for The New Yorker shortly after the author’s death. That project made Max eager to read more of Wallace’s work and tell his story in greater depth.
Writing about writers, Roffman suggested, requires a strategy for how to balance the subject’s life with their work, and how the life shapes the creative output. Clark said she thought about those issues “every single day as I was writing.” Given her background as an English professor, Clark said she had to resist the temptation to go into the “literary critical weeds” and she had to remind herself she was writing a biography. Clark kept in mind the question: “How did Plath become the writer she was?” And she didn’t want to make the book a story of suicide and depression, as she saw Plath’s life as one of “ambition, and achievement, and triumph.” Clark wanted readers to see Plath as a writer, not a case study.
Franklin said she didn’t have an easy answer for finding the life/work balance, but after she was several years into her research, she developed an intuitive sense of what was important and where things should go. One of her goals was to show readers that Jackson was more than just the author of the famous short story “The Lottery.” Franklin also said that it’s easy to “develop blind spots either way” when considering the life/work mix. Max saw the process as a “three-part drama” between the life, the work, and the biographer. Max’s background as a journalist had previously made him focused on winnowing down source material. With the biography, he had more space to look at Wallace’s work in greater depth. Max wanted, in part, to help readers who might not know Wallace’s work to understand why he was worth caring about.
Roffman asked the panelists how they worked with letters as a source—gathering, choosing, deciding what to quote. Wallace does not have an archive, so Max simply asked the people he interviewed if they had any letters. He realized that letters Wallace wrote might not have been completely honest, but they offered a different perspective from his public writing and interviews. Clark said that she loves to quote from letters, but with the Plath book she didn’t have a set method for what to use. “If I have that ‘aha’ moment, my reader will, too,” she said. When weighing the honesty of a letter’s content, Clark said she had to consider Plath’s audience: she was more likely to write honestly to her psychiatrist than to her mother. Franklin said that Jackson’s archive didn’t have many letters, but she found more in the archive of her husband, Stanley Hyman. Some of the letters in Jackson’s archive focused more on family and domestic issues, not her literary work. In trying to find letters, Franklin searched through the archives of people she knew Jackson communicated with, “but a lot of times I turned up dead ends.” She thinks this is often the case with women subjects—their papers are not saved, or are under the name of the subject’s husband or under “the amorphous category of ‘family papers.’” Franklin considers it a tragedy that so much women’s literary history has been lost.