⏴ Back to Past Confernces List
Thank you to everyone who attended the 12th 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
Watch the recording here.
Ray A. Shepard Service Award
The Ray A. Shepard Award was presented at the 2022 BIO Conference to Anne Boyd Rioux, author of Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016) and Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters (W. W. Norton & Company, 2018).
The Shepard Award recognizes a BIO volunteer who has donated exceptionally of their time and talents for the benefit of the organization. It is named for Ray A. Shepard, a founding member of BIO who organized the first BIO Conference almost single-handedly. Rioux has served on BIO’s Board of Directors for five years. She has served as a co-chair for the BIO Conference Program Committee, and she is a member of the Membership Committee. She directs BIO’s Coaching Program and serves as a coach herself.
While presenting the Shepard Award to Rioux, BIO President Linda Leavell said, “I first heard of Zoom from Anne, when she suggested that we conduct our board meetings that way, even before the pandemic happened.” She continued, “After we had to cancel the 2020 conference because of the pandemic, Anne suggested that we give BIO members an opportunity to meet online.” From this, Rioux initiated a series of workshops that summer on a range of topics, from marketing one’s book during the pandemic to copyright and fair use. This series of workshops has grown into BIO’s Online Events Committee, which Rioux now chairs. This past winter and spring, the committee hosted the “Reading Biography Like a Writer” series. “These workshops . . . provided BIO members a lifeline to our community during the pandemic,” Leavell said.
Rioux also organized and supervised a series of online roundtables through BIO, which started in the summer of 2020. Leavell said, “In giving Anne the Ray Shepard Award, BIO recognizes her innovative ideas to keep BIO members connected with one another during the pandemic, and her extraordinary energy and talents in keeping those initiatives going.”
Despite winning many awards in her career as a professor and writer, including four NEH fellowships, she said in her remarks, “I have never gotten an award quite like this, and it’s very moving.” She spoke of how, in the aftermath of the 2020 BIO Conference being canceled due to the pandemic, she was driven by a desire to keep members connected to each other. “Zoom was something that I got used to like everybody else,” she said, “but it was so easy to use and so easy for us to get together that way. I’m just really glad we’ve been able to stay connected. I think we’re even more connected now because of these periodic events. And I hope that this is a new tradition that BIO will continue, even once we’re meeting in person again, to keep us connected throughout the year.”
Claudia Anderson, former supervisory archivist of the LBJ Presidential Library, received the 2022 Biblio Award, which is presented by BIO annually to recognize a librarian or archivist who has been especially helpful to biographers. Anderson was selected by BIO’s Awards Committee, which is chaired by Kai Bird and included Tim Duggan, Ruth Franklin, Peniel Joseph, Candice Millard, and Will Swift as members. “Library research is the core and the structure around which we create our narratives,” Swift said before introducing BIO Advisory Council member and longtime friend of the organization, Robert Caro, who presented the award as part of the 2022 BIO Conference proceedings.
In acknowledging Anderson, Caro said, “I don’t know of a single Lyndon Johnson biography—and there have been a lot of them—that does not thank Claudia in the acknowledgments.” He continued, “You have to understand . . . the scope, the significance, of what Claudia does. . . . When I started working there [at the LBJ Presidential Library], they had 32 million documents, they said. But right now, they’re up to 44 million documents.” Caro said that he has watched Anderson take “one biographer after another” through a thorough explanation of “what’s in those boxes,” just as Anderson once explained it all to Caro himself. “For 44 years, she’s been helping me,” he said. “She’s really, I feel, a historian in the highest sense of the word. She knows, she’s made it her business to know, the archival material in her charge . . . just as thoroughly as is possible for a single human being to know them.” Caro also praised Anderson for her “rare integrity and generosity of spirit.”
In accepting the award, Anderson said, “It has been a personal and professional delight to work with the many LBJ biographers and other scholars that I’ve had the opportunity to meet during my career.” She recalled that when Robert Caro first came to the LBJ Presidential Library almost 45 years ago, she was the “young archivist assigned to guide him through Lyndon Johnson’s pre-presidential papers.” She thanked the entire team working at the LBJ archive in her acceptance speech.
- Member Readings
Watch the recording here.
At the 2022 BIO Conference, fifteen members read from their books published since the prior conference. The members and their works are:
- Shelley Puhak, The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World (Bloomsbury)
- Kathleen Brady, Francis and Clare: The Struggles of the Saints of Assisi (Lodwin Press)
- Jason Cannon, Charlie Murphy: The Iconoclastic Showman Behind the Chicago Cubs (University of Nebraska Press)
- Kevin McGruder, Philip Payton: The Father of Black Harlem (Columbia University Press)
- Betsy Rohaly Smoot, Parker Hitt: The Father of American Military Cryptology (University Press of Kentucky)
- Lauren Arrington, The Poets of Rapallo: How Mussolini’s Italy shaped British, Irish, and U.S. Writers (Oxford University Press)
- Debby Applegate, Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age (Doubleday)
- Rebecca Donner, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler (Little, Brown and Company)
- Timothy Christian, Hemingway’s Widow: The Life and Legacy of Mary Welsh Hemingway (Pegasus Books)
- Cathy Curtis, A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick (W. W. Norton & Company)
- Kathleen Courtenay Stone, They Called Us Girls: Stories of Female Ambition from Suffrage to Mad Men (Cynren Press)
- Jennifer Cockburn, Writing for his Life: Stewart Cockburn, Crusading Journalist (Australian Scholarly Publishing)
- Steve Paul, Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell (University of Missouri Press)
- James McGrath Morris, Tony Hillerman: A Life (University of Oklahoma Press)
- Gabriella Kelly-Davies, Breaking Through the Pain Barrier: The Extraordinary Life of Dr. Michael J. Cousins (Hawkeye Publishing)
- James Atlas Plenary
Watch the recording here.
“Disrupting the Conventions of Biography, a Conversation Between Craig Brown and George Packer”
The first event of the 2022 BIO Conference was the James Atlas Plenary, which featured Craig Brown, author of 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018) and 150 Glimpses of the Beatles (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), among others, and George Packer, author most recently of Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (Knopf, 2019). Below is BIO member John Grady’s recap of the plenary.
A fact facing all biographers is that no matter the number of pages in their book, they are only writing about a “tiny fraction of the person’s life,” said Craig Brown, author of major works on the Beatles and Princess Margaret. They cannot confront the realities their subjects faced as they lived in their present with their personal pasts.
Speaking with George Packer at the James Atlas Plenary session, which opened the 2022 BIO Conference, Brown said in writing One, Two, Three, Four: The Beatles in Time (later published as 150 Glimpses of the Beatles in the United States), he realized “people feel they know” the group. By his estimate, there have already been 2,000 books written on them. “You don’t then have to tell the basic story,” he further explained, which the public already knows, when tackling a subject like the Beatles. “Obviously, the Beatles I find endlessly interesting themselves,” he said.
Packer’s subject, Richard Holbrooke, was a major figure in American diplomacy—from the Vietnam era until his death—and in the public’s mind. “I was so daunted by the [Robert] Caro example . . . of swallowing the universe whole,” said Parker, about when he was beginning Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.
He explained that to write the book he had to find his voice as a narrator. “I had no other first sentence . . . so I sort of rescued myself from the task I’d undertaken by starting out with that: ‘Holbrooke, yes I knew him,’” Packer said, adding that Holbrooke considered him a friend through his intense interest in journalism and how journalists work. And although he was a diplomat, said Packer, Holbrooke’s personality could leave another person “mysteriously exhausted” after being with him.
Packer said he realized from the start he was not taking on a biography of Winston Churchill or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Maybe his [Holbrooke] being a secondary character is a good thing,” he concluded, because it allows the author to widen the work’s scope.
Later in the discussion, Packer said several times that Holbrooke’s wife offered the diplomat’s papers for a book, but he kept putting her off. He noted he had other works in progress at the time. In the book he eventually wrote, he explored in depth Holbrooke’s role in the three wars of his diplomatic career and his longtime friendship with Anthony Lake, who became national security advisor in the Clinton administration. The men’s personalities were vastly different, and it was a relationship that ended bitterly in their later years.
Brown, author of a controversial essay on the “slippery art” of biography in the Times Literary Supplement, said with the Beatles he traced the group’s arc over a few short years— from unknown to peak of global popularity—and then into the rifts that led to their breakup. “You saw within their time as Beatles the kind of weight of fame on their shoulders,” he said.
In dealing with a subject like the Beatles, Brown added, there is a further complication that prose cannot overcome. The author is using words where the Beatles used music to express themselves. “There are things you can hint at,” he said, in how the creativity emerged. Brown said Peter Jackson’s recent documentary, Let It Be, overcomes that gap by showing in videotape and sound how a particular song emerged over time, starting with a few drumming riffs.
In writing, Packer said, “I have a bias toward vividness . . . bringing the strongest heartbeat I can to the account.” This requires, he explained, an immense amount of detail that can only be found in extensive and deep research. “You want the truth,” Brown added. “You go for the most probable” in the writing.
Packer said when a writer deviates from documented fact that can be sourced, using words like “perhaps” as he has done, “there’s a contract that is broken if you go that way without bringing the reader along” in understanding that difference.
Watch the recording here.
As part of the 2022 BIO Conference, Megan Marshall, winner of the annual BIO Award, delivered the Keynote Address. In a prerecorded video, BIO Board member Natalie Dykstra, author of Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), introduced Marshall and commended her as “a writer who has done so much to shape the world of biography for readers and writers, both now and into the future.”
The address was filmed at the Dowse Library of the Massachusetts Historical Society, where Marshall said she “worked at becoming a biographer through the 1980s and 90s, while researching The Peabody Sisters. . . . The staff welcomed me, a novice researcher, offered me a desk, where I sat with my nearly silent portable typewriter, transcribing letters and diaries from the Peabody and Horace Mann papers, making my way through a tsunami of documentary evidence.” She also said, “Thank you, MHS. This award is shared with you.”
In her speech, Marshall addressed her audience as the “lucky survivors” who had lived through a host of recent traumas. She said, “As I speak now, in late April, close to one million Americans have died from COVID-19 in a little more than two years. Tens of thousands have died in Ukraine since Putin’s invasion in late February. The count of Black lives lost to the civil war that never ends would rightly include all those martyred in the lynchings and massacres of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those killed slowly in poverty, those now sacrificed to police and vigilante justice. Waves of hate-inspired killings take the lives of too many from all vulnerable populations: ethnic, racial, religious, LGBTQ, schoolchildren, who may reasonably fear their vulnerability to violence will never be alleviated. We may not know what to do about this carnage, this pervasive assault on humanity, which is inseparable from humanity’s assault on our living Earth. But, as Sunita Puri, a palliative-care physician and author, wrote in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, we must learn to look at grief. We cannot turn away from death and the lessons death teaches us about living. Biographers especially cannot turn away from death. It is our work for those of us who write about past lives to revive, to immortalize, and even as we do so, to write the deaths of our subjects with compassion, accuracy, and grace.”
Marshall then shared a personal and poignant story of the last time she attended a BIO Conference, in May 2019. She spoke of leaving her partner, Scott Harney, at their home in Massachusetts, while she traveled by train to New York. Harney, who was experiencing the “end stage of cardiac disease, the result of chemo treatments a decade before,” had encouraged Marshall to take the trip, where she was serving as a moderator for a panel discussion of young biographers, and where she would present that year’s Plutarch Award, as she had been serving as the committee’s chair. Marshall said, “Some of you already know that I returned home to Massachusetts to find Scott had died in his sleep at about the same time I handed David Blight his award in the [CUNY] Grad Center’s auditorium.”
This massive loss changed the course of Marshall’s own life. Rather than spend a planned sabbatical year working on a new biography, she instead compiled a volume of Harney’s poetry and published it in May 2020. Marshall explained, “By then the pandemic had taken hold. I found myself writing essays, most of them elegiac in tone. When I received the surprising and wonderful news of the BIO Award in February, I was at work on an essay I called, ‘After the First Death, There Were 19 Others,’ an effort to commemorate my friends, family members, and colleagues whose lives were extinguished during the intervening two years, some due to COVID, but most not.”
Marshall then reflected on how the death of one of her high school classmates, Jonathan “John” Jackson, a Black youth who died while leading a failed armed invasion of a California courthouse while trying to win his brother’s freedom, planted the seeds of her becoming a biographer, a professional witness of life and death, and the repercussions of both. While the administration of Marshall’s high school tried to quash all references to Jackson and his death from the graduation ceremony that year, Marshall insisted on memorializing him in her salutatorian’s address. About the experience, she said, “I’m not saying my own act was heroic. It was insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But the sense of there being a grand scheme of things of which I was a tiny part, as a witness who might testify, changed me.”
Following the examples of her personal experiences of death, Marshall took her audience through a master class of the ways biographers have treated the deaths of their subjects, touching upon examples that included Carol Bundy’s The Nature of Sacrifice: A Biography of Charles Russell Lowell Jr., 1835–64 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) and Dykstra’s aforementioned Clover Adams. She also made in-depth comparisons of the ways different biographers have handled the deaths of the same subjects, focusing on accounts of Elizabeth Bishop’s death in Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It by Brett C. Millier (University of California Press, 1992) and Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography by Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau (University of Massachusetts Press, 1994). Marshall also spoke about her own approach to Bishop’s death scene for her 2014 biography, and made it clear that each biographer’s account hinged greatly on the sources, conventions, and even the societal norms present [at the time of writing]. Marshall also provided three examples of death scenes from biographies of Henry David Thoreau, and thoughts about how she herself would handle writing such a passage.
Marshall quoted an anonymous friend, who she said mostly read novels and once told her she did not like reading biographies because she knew how they were going to end. But Marshall contends that life “has its own mysteries” and pursuing the art and craft of biography prepared her “for the mysteries in my own life, such as the night I returned home to find my beloved Scott curled up in bed, no longer breathing.” She recalled wondering what his final hours had been like, and she spoke of how two days before his death she had texted him while on the train to New York that she would like a copy of a particular biography for her upcoming birthday. When she discovered Harney, “the book was on the bureau beside him,” she said.
In conclusion, Marshall explained, “Until I received the BIO Award, I had thought I might never come back to a BIO Conference; the experience in 2019 was too much. But in writing this speech, confronting in yet another way that death, I’m reminded that I’d been there in 2019 because Scott wanted me to go, he wanted me to continue my work despite his illness. And so, to honor his choice back then, I promise you that I will attend every future BIO Conference I can. I hope to see all of you there in 2023 and beyond.”
- Archives Unlimited
Watch the recording here.
The panel was moderated by Caleb Gayle, author of the forthcoming We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power (Riverhead Books, 2022). The panelists were Wall Street Journal writer Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season (Simon & Schuster, 2007); Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright/W. W. Norton, 2016); and Dr. Kevin McGruder, author of Philip Payton: The Father of Black Harlem(Columbia University Press, 2021). The panel set out to explore how researchers might discover the facts of their subjects’ lives outside of the major archives.
In the cases where the subject you’ve chosen to write a biography on didn’t leave organized, voluminous papers to a university, a museum, or a historical society, where do you start in gathering the material necessary to put that person in the context of their times?
You could start by building a “complete bibliography” as Ruth Franklin did for her Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright, 2016). She said Jackson was probably best known for her short story “The Lottery” and the novel The Haunting of Hill House.
Jackson is sometimes regarded as “a one-hit wonder” as a writer, explained Franklin, and “hasn’t been the focus of the kind of sustained literary criticism,” that Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald have been granted. Franklin said despite that reputation Jackson “published dozens of short stories during her lifetime” and her work is still being published after her death in 1965.
Franklin, a literary critic, counts herself “very fortunate” that Jackson’s husband, Stanley Hyman, sent her papers to the Library of Congress. But “the archive was not particularly well organized,” she said. There was also the complication of Jackson’s using different names and different forms in her work.
Through the cross-checking of saved letters, Franklin pieced together an important fact: the versions appearing on white paper were not the “finished” versions—those were written on yellow paper. “You have to learn how to read the archive,” she said, especially if “nobody has done this kind of work for you,” concerning the compiling of the bibliography and the dating of writings. Also, to make a Jackson biography gel, the biographer realized she “was going to need to incorporate a lot of literary criticism.”
Like Franklin’s use of her special skills, Kevin McGruder brought his Master of Business Administration in real estate and finance into play when undertaking his biography, Philip Payton: The Father of Black Harlem (Columbia University Press, 2021). Despite the fact that there weren’t volumes of notes, memos, and letters left behind by Payton in the early 20th century, a rewarding start to unraveling his story was found in county real estate and tax records, data kept in every local courthouse in the United States. “All the transactions that he did were a matter of public record,” said McGruder.
McGruder, who was intimate with a ten-block section of Harlem, began a records search there for sales of who bought from whom at what price, taxes owed and paid, and of city directories for names of residents and what they did for a living. Helping the research was Payton’s “marketing and boldness” in enticing African Americans to move to Harlem that regularly appeared in newspaper real estate advertising that was available to the biographer.
McGruder discovered through his work with the Abyssinian Baptist Church, on West 138th Street in Manhattan, another untapped resource in nailing down details of Payton’s life beyond business and the range of those activities. While church records can be extremely useful, McGruder explained they are not usually well organized and may not be known to exist by current congregants. Even large churches like Abyssinian do not usually have archivists and often rely on volunteers to handle requests.
As his research expanded, McGruder found that Payton was in Booker T. Washington’s circle of friends. And so, by delving into correspondence and records of events concerning Washington, he “was able to fill in some blanks” of Payton’s life.
For Jonathan Eig, in writing Ali: A Life (Simon & Schuster, 2017), it wasn’t that there weren’t plenty of records available on the boxing champion, who became an American icon. Rather, it was a case of finding new material. For example, he went back to the published record and contacted the writer of a major magazine piece on the young fighter. The writer turned over 20 hours of recordings that had not been used in the article.
Like Franklin, Eig built a bibliography of books on Ali with the idea of contacting the writers and asking them if they would be willing to share notes and recordings. Another trove of new information lay in unpublished memoirs of people who knew Ali, he said. This prompted Franklin to say, “If somebody wrote about your subject, where are their archives? [. . .] Are there family papers somewhere? Are their descendants who might know where things are kept that aren’t in public archives?” Eig agreed that these were serviceable avenues of research, adding, “Other people have left breadcrumbs for you to go back and find what they missed.”
The idea is to be expansive in research and think more broadly about what might be a fruitful repository. “They don’t stand alone,” McGruder said of a subject’s life and experiences.
In dealing with institutions that have archivists on staff, Franklin advised, “Be kind, but be persistent.” Concerning a small library he used, McGruder said, “They let me in . . . for a day” through the intercession of a “sympathetic librarian.” If possible, make contact face-to-face before; if hours are limited or distances too great, call and explain what you are looking for.
Of course, in the case of Ali, the biographer was able to interview men and women who knew him, like physician and cornerman Ferdie Pacheco. (Eig said Pacheco proved to be a very rough interview, constantly criticizing him over his questions—another challenge of interviewing.)
Eig broadened the research to seek new ways to describe the physical changes Muhammad Ali went through by remaining in the ring so long. “Can I count the number of times he was punched,” and contrast that to his speaking rate as he aged? Eig wondered. The answer was yes, and he found researchers willing to help in that quest.
The process of researching and writing continues until the book is completed. What changes, Franklin said, is the ratio of time devoted to each.
- Biography in the Age of #MeToo
Watch the recording here.
The panel was moderated by Debby Applegate, author of The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Doubleday, 2006), which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age (Doubleday, 2021). The panelists were Barbara Burkhardt, author of William Maxwell: A Literary Life (University of Illinois Press, 2008), who is currently working on a biography of Garrison Keillor; Amanda Vaill, author of Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy—A Lost Generation Love Story (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998), and Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins (Broadway, 2006); and David Garrow, the author of Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade (Macmillan, 1994) and Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Morrow, 1986).
Applegate acknowledged that the panel was convened during “cultural hotspot” in which “moral sensibilities are evolving at top speed, but [at] different speeds across the population and at a time when our access to formerly hidden information has exploded.” She set up the panel to discuss two considerations: first, how to “interpret and handle sensitive evidence,” particularly sexually sensitive evidence, and then how to consider “what level of candor is appropriate when you’re covering a subject” and “how we make judgments about power relations outside evolving sensibilities.”
Barbara Burkhardt spoke to her experience of having completed a majority of her research on radio personality Garrison Keillor when in 2017 allegations of workplace misconduct, including inappropriate sexual advances, lost Keillor his working relationship with Minnesota Public Radio and which led to his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, being pulled from airwaves. Burkhardt said, “I [already] had a really good sense of who my subject was and so now I’m trying to navigate where all this fits in. But I guess my guiding principle is to tell the whole story of the life…it’s still in the biographer’s hands to use the best possible judgment.”
“The truths that you tell need to be appropriate to the story you’re trying to tell, and to the subject. You can find out something about somebody and unless it is really germane to the story, don’t include it. There’s no reason to include it, no matter how sensational it might seem, unless it actually tells you something about the person,” Amanda Vaill said.
David Garrow spoke of how in the course of his research on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. he became aware of a number of King’s personal issues, such as alleged extramarital relationships and paternity disputes, that had not yet been published. Garrow said he chose not to publish them either due to the fact that private individuals were still alive who could be impacted by those revelations. Garrow also spoke of how other researchers of King arrived at the same conclusion. When Applegate queried Garrow with whether he must override an instinct as a biographer to want to be the first person to break a piece of important history, he said, “When the government documents come out on the web, that puts those issues in the public realm. Once the National Archives puts something up, you have to confront it.” However, he insisted his imperative is “to get it right, not to get it first.”
- A Secret Art: Building Suspense Into Your Narrative
Watch the recording here.
The panel was moderated by Andrew Meier, author of Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), and Morgenthau: Power, Privilege and The Rise of An American Dynasty (Random House, Sept. 2022). The panelists were Rebecca Donner, author of All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler (Back Bay Books, 2022) and T.J. Stiles He the author of Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America (Knopf), winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for history. He also wrote The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Vintage), which received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for biography and 2009 National Book Award for nonfiction, and Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (Knopf), winner of the Ambassador Book Award and the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship.
Rebecca Donner said in building suspense into her biography of the American-born Nazi resistance leader Mildred Harnack, she “wanted to build a relationship with the reader upfront.” To do that, she needed to conceal facts “artfully,” In a way that the audience could accept the breadcrumbing process in a spirit of “this is all you need to know” now.
Later in the session, she said she used the author’s note to explain “the unorthodox structure” of the work: two narrative lines, Mildred’s and that of an 11-year-old boy who acted as a courier for her espionage. Instead of past tense, she used present in the narrative. Finally, she played upon the ambiguity Harnack left in her translation of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that became the title of the book, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days.
The page-and-a-half note “accomplished a lot” in telling the reader what was to come about a woman who was an American scholar living and working in Germany.
T.J. Stiles said the idea is to build “authenticity and honesty with the reader” through the narrator’s voice. “It’s got to be seen as true”—through scholarship [research] and literary skill.
In writing Custer’s Trials, A Life on the Frontier of a New America, he said that he intentionally stayed away from recounting the Battle of the Little Big Horn. “The larger question is how did he get there” and not the decisions he made in late June 1876, he said. Stiles added this allows the telling of “the story in America after his death.”
To explore more fully larger topics a little more than a decade after the ending of the Civil War, he turned to secondary characters. They not only provided other points of view, “they can serve many purposes.” Stiles mentioned they allowed him to discuss issues of race and women’s experiences in a post-war America.
In short, “they can expand the story” that an intense focus on the subject doesn’t allow. Stiles added, “sometimes being a secondary character, who is more likeable [than the subject] can serve a number of purposes” in the narrative. They provide more than different points of view including conflicting agendas, dramatic conflicts, and complications for the subject of the biography.
Donner said knowing her great-great aunt was in prison for 3 ½ months before she was executed in 1943 as a spy for providing vital intelligence to the Allies became a question of “how do I describe that” from fact. In discovering notes that the prisoners passed among themselves, she unlocked a sense of “day-to-day events,” from what they ate, the guards’ attitudes toward them, the sounds of birds chirping, and marking time passing by watching shadows.
But important to Harnack’s story was the toll solitary confinement took on her mentally. The prisoners’ notes offered Donner insight into Harnack’s final days before she was guillotined in a Berlin prison in 1943.
The prisoners’ notes “were pieces of precious gold.”
As for using present tense throughout, Donner said it built suspense. She added it gave the reader a feeling that “events are happening right now”—the rise of the National Socialists to power in Germany, the spread of antisemitism, and the impact of the war.
Present tense “is a tool you can use.”
Stiles, in his opening remarks, recommended reading David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction to understand how to build suspense and mystery in biography.
- Black Women’s Biography
Watch the recording here.
This panel was moderated by Carla Kaplan, author of Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (Doubleday, 2002) and Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (Harper, 2013), among other books; the panelists were: A’Lelia Bundles, author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner, 2001) and the forthcoming The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance; Ashley D. Farmer, author of Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017) and the forthcoming Queen Mother Audley Moore: Mother of Black Nationalism (University of North Carolina Press); and Soyica Diggs Colbert, whose most recent book is Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry (Yale University Press, 2021).
Kaplan began by giving each speaker five minutes to introduce themselves and their work. Farmer explained that she is working on the first full-length biography of Queen Mother Moore, who lived from 1898 to 1997. She further explained: “If you study Marcus Garvey’s UNIA [Universal Negro Improvement Association], you’ll find her as a dues-paying member 50 years after the organization is done. If you look at the Communist Party, you’ll see her on street corners and at the ballot box as a member and a promoter of Black women’s issues there. If you study Black nationalism or the civil rights movement, you’ll find her writing telegrams [to] everybody from King to JFK, to mentoring Malcolm X, to talking to Louis Farrakhan, and if you study the global Black freedom struggle, you’ll find her meeting everybody from dictator Idi Amin to Julius Nyerere.” With the richness of the project, however, have come challenges said Farmer. She continued, “She had a third grade education. She often was a street-corner speaker. She has no [established] archive as it were—that doesn’t mean she wasn’t a prolific collector of things herself, but there’s questions of where this alleged [undiscovered] archive is. It’s kind of like a little bit of a national treasure hunt.”
A’Lelia Bundles, the great-great-granddaughter of Madame C. J. Walker and the great-granddaughter of A’Lelia Walker, explained that when she was growing up in Indianapolis, her mother was the vice president of the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and she would accompany her mother to work. Bundles said her family encouraged her to follow her own passion—journalism—rather than also step into the family business. When Bundles arrived at Columbia University to attend journalism school, the only Black woman on the faculty, Phyllis Garland, recognized the name “A’Lelia” and figured the student must have a connection to the Walker family. Bundles said, “Even after I gave her some very clichéd topics [that I wished to write about], she looked at me and she said, ‘No, you’re going to write about your family. That’s what you’re going to write about.’ And that really put me on a journey in the fall of 1975 that’s led to four books. . . . I had a detour to a 30-year network television news career, but always on the side I was doing research and writing.”
Concerning finding her way to her subject, Lorraine Hansberry, Soyica Diggs Colbert said, “My first book is on African American theater and any scholar of African American theater cannot avoid—nor should they want to avoid—Lorraine Hansberry.” While Hansberry is most associated with her play A Raisin in the Sun, Colbert wanted to broaden the lens and focus on Hansberry’s significant contributions during her short life to both the arts and society more broadly. She said, “One of the things that I try to establish in my biography is that Hansberry was multifaceted—that she was an activist, an artist, a spokeswoman, and an intellectual—and that all of those aspects of her are readily available, and so to ask the question as to why we just focus not only on her as a playwright but her as the author of this one play.”
While Kaplan began the session by acknowledging the “seeming explosion” of biographies about Black women, she added that it “feels more like a necessary correction, and indeed we’d like to see much more of an explosion . . . in Black women’s biography.” The archives available to base those stories on vary widely in terms of accessibility and organizational status, as evinced by the panelists’ reflections. For instance, Farmer said of her subject, “I like to kind of think of Moore’s archive as not necessarily one of absence but . . . what I call ‘disorderly distributed,’ meaning that it is scattered in all kinds of places literally all over the world and it kind of makes for a discordant story, because it’s not neatly categorized [and] put into a finding aid, and one cannot flip pages from one page to the other and make a decent accounting of her life.”
Farmer also told the story of how, when speaking about Moore at events, audience members “stand up and swear that they are wearing her old outfits, her old headdresses, her old bangles . . . so perhaps the archive is spread that way.” The problem with this, Farmer said, is that “this disorderly distribution of this archive may come to stand in for the idea of Moore herself. It’s kind of made her seem as though she is disorganized, that her ideas and ideologies are not coherent, and therefore she’s not been worthy of a biographical treatment.”
Bundles responded, “While Ashley is having to piece together really shards of things, I almost have too much information. We’re really fortunate that between my family and the employees of the Walker [Manufacturing] Company, we have tens of thousands of documents, many of which have now been digitized, and then of course there are other people’s papers and newspapers.” While Bundles has had the benefit of an abundant archive in the present day, she spoke of how the nature of research has changed over the 50 years she’s been pursuing her family’s history. She said of the pre-internet age, “If I wanted to see the Chicago Defender, I had to go to Chicago to go through microfilm. If I wanted to see The New York Age, I had to come to the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture] to go through the materials. But it’s so different now. . . . Now [these are available at] newspapers.com and ProQuest and Genealogy Bank, [where] I find so many tidbits.” The wealth of information presents Bundles with different kinds of challenges. For instance, because she is so well versed in the extensive materials available on her family, it often falls to her in her writing to set the record straight on harmful stereotypes or rumors that less-informed writers have perpetuated for years. She said, “It’s been important to me to think [about] either what information do people have when they were writing those things, or what was the lens [through] which they were evaluating her?”
Colbert had a still different experience. She was not a relative of her subject, but her subject did have an extensive archive—maintained by a stringent estate. She said, “One of the early challenges that I faced as a writer was really thinking about an archive that had been primarily cultivated by Hansberry’s then ex-husband. As I was writing the book, I really had to think about what it meant that, one, Hansberry left her papers to her ex-husband, and then, two, that he had been the primary curator of the archive, which was then passed to his second wife and now is being managed by his stepdaughter. So part of my work was figuring out how to navigate the . . . gaps in the archive, particularly as they pertain to Black women and . . . what was left out.” Colbert spoke of how many portions of the Hansberry archive are only viewable via special permission. “I was really curious about thinking about those restrictions and what was allowed and what was disallowed but . . . ultimately, they were very supportive of my work and they gave me access to, and allowed me to write about, all of the aspects of her archive that I requested, and so I’m grateful . . . that I had a chance to work with the Hansberry Trust. They were very, very generous in giving me access.”
Another challenge for the biographers of Black women is the dissembling of their lives many Black women felt compelled to engage in and how that might have impacted the quality or the number of interviews, curated materials, or holographic material left behind by the subjects. Colbert elaborated on this topic, saying that while it was common for women of previous generations to participate in such dissembling due to potentially controversial aspects of their personal lives, such as their sexuality, the women written about by all of the panelists present also had to maintain some semblance of privacy as a result of extensive government surveillance. “The FBI followed her [Queen Mother Moore] for the better part of 60 years. These FBI files of Hansberry and other folks are voluminous, and that offered a level of surveillance that didn’t allow for them to have private lives. So I also think there’s a little bit of . . . I don’t want to say dignity, but of secrecy allowed, in not assembling a life” in a traditional archive, Colbert said.
One of the questions Kaplan fielded from the audience was, “Do you think that the growing concern as to who has the right to tell someone else’s story, particularly biographies of someone of a different gender or race than the writer, has changed who gets to write biographies of Black women?” Farmer ceded her time to Bundles, who said, “Each case is different. People who really feel an affinity for the person they’re writing about, you know . . . I would not close that door, that just if you’re not the same race or gender or whatever that you can’t write about somebody. So that that would not be my personal position.” Colbert, closing out the discussion, said, “I would agree that . . . there shouldn’t be barriers to who could write about what subject matter . . . but I do think that we all need to have a rigorous investigation of the work and be cognizant of the context that the figures we’re writing about were living in and through, as we’re endeavoring to tell their stories. And so, having a sensitivity to those dynamics I think is important no matter where you’re positioned in relationship to the subject.”
- Slice of Life or Cradle to Grave?
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How to judge whether a life is best told in full or part?
Alexis Coe is a historian and the New York Times bestselling author of You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George of Washington, now out in paperback, and Alice+Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis. She has contributed to the New Yorker, the New York Times, the New Republic, and many others, and can often be seen discussing presidential history on MSNBC and the History Channel.
Phoebe Hoban’s books include biographies of the artists Jean Michel Basquiat (Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art) and Alice Neel (Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty). She also the author of Eyes Wide Open, a 195-page full biography of Lucian Freud.
Benjamin Moser was born in Houston. He is the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book of 2009. For his work bringing Clarice Lispector to international prominence, he received Brazil’s first State Prize for Cultural Diplomacy. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017, and his latest book, Sontag: Her Life and Work, won the Pulitzer Prize.
Ted Widmer is an American historian, writer, librarian, and musician who served as a speechwriter in the Clinton White House, as director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, and as director of the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. He is a faculty member at the Macaulay Honors College, and his most recent biography is Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.
- Visual and Aural Feasts: Biography in Different Forms
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The “Visual and Aural Feasts: Biography in Different Forms” panel was moderated by Sonja Williams, a three-time Peabody Award-winning radio producer whose documentary productions include episodes on the “Jazz Profiles,” “Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was,” and “Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions” shows. Williams is also a BIO Board member and the manager of BIO’s podcast. She introduced the panel by saying it was convened to offer “excellent examples of how poems, podcasts, and films can be compelling mediums for biography.”
Three panelists participated in the discussion. Marilyn Nelson, a poet, translator, and author, whose books include Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life, A Wreath for Emmett Till, and Carver: A Life in Poems (a National Book Award finalist, a Newbery Honor Book, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book), spoke to the art of writing biographies as collections of poetry. Julia Sweig, author of The New York Times bestseller Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight, spoke about adapting the research she conducted for the print biography into audio and film projects. And Barbara Allen, a documentary filmmaker with over a dozen Emmys to her name, shared her experiences telling life stories in film, in particular, her work creating DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis.
For the first half of the panel, each of the three panelists offered samples of their work, and then Williams, as moderator, asked them questions about their process. The second half of the panel was a question-and-answer session with the audience. Marilyn Nelson, the former Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut, was up first, explaining how she has used poetry to tell the life stories of Emmett Till, George Washington Carver, and more. Her most recent book is Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life, about a visual artist during the Harlem Renaissance. Nelson began by reading selections from her Carver and Savage biographies. “My book has a subtitle, The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life, because the first thing that occurred to me when the thought appeared to write about a sculptor was to try to write some poems that had the sense of being sculpted. . . . There were many challenges in that, but one of the challenges was finding enough recognizable figures to be drawn on the page.”
Williams asked her what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of writing someone’s life in poems. Nelson replied, “My poems in this case are like snapshots of one moment in a person’s life and I don’t have to write all of the filler that comes between two scenes that may be five or six years apart. I only give the two scenes that suggest the arc of movement from one scene to the other, so that’s the advantage. A disadvantage, I suppose, is if readers are wanting more and feel they need to have the intervening information. In this case, we added a detailed afterword that tells the more complete story of Augusta Savage’s life.”
Julia Sweig spoke of her experiences creating and hosting the podcast “In Plain Sight: Lady Bird Johnson” for ABC Audio, a deal she cultivated out of shopping the audio adaptation rights of her New York Times-bestselling biography of the former first lady. The podcast is eight episodes that feature selections from Lady Bird Johnson’s audio diaries, which she donated to the National Archives. In total, Sweig had over 100 hours of Lady Bird Johnson speaking in her own voice, about pivotal moments that were happening contemporaneously in her husband’s presidency, to draw from.
Just before the pandemic, Sweig sought the help of a longtime friend who had worked in film and television and had just created his own podcast startup to help her create a pitch for a Lady Bird Johnson podcast. He put together a pitch deck and trailer and shared it with his representation at William Morris Endeavor (WME). The agency’s “twentysomething podcast agent,” according to Sweig, took it around and secured five offers. The winning bidder was ABC Audio. Along with the podcast rights, ABC bought the rights to create a documentary film. Sweig explained, “We—to use a technical term—bifurcated the rights, meaning I kept the rights on scripted adaptations, but ABC has now—we’re going to see a rough cut soon—the documentary. A documentary film will come out next year directed by Dawn Porter.” Sweig emphasized that the process of selling rights to ABC taught her all about “the whole chain of command, food chain, of IP,” which starts with book rights and branches out into different media.
After introducing Barbara Allen, who goes by “B. A.,” Williams asked her why she chose the lives of both the explorer Jean Baptiste DuSable (1745–1818), founder of Chicago, and former president Barack Obama to frame her documentary on the city as a Black metropolis. Allen said, “The way people described him [DuSable] was the way people described Obama when he was coming out. He was quite a figure, and when you read about him, the way people described him was the way people described Obama when he was coming up: ‘He’s so intelligent. He speaks six languages. He’s everything.’ So explorers . . . and everyone would write about this guy DuSable.”
When selecting other figures who symbolized important aspects of the history of Black life in Chicago, Allen honed in on the rich Black aviation community that was founded there by Bessie Coleman in 1915, which evolved into the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen. While those aviation figures were familiar to Allen (she even admitted she found them “boring” when first considering them for inclusion, due to how familiar they were), she said she was inspired by an archivist who said, “‘It’s only boring if you think [Coleman] was alone and there was only one Black aviator by herself who did this.’” Allen said realizing there was an entire community involved in this pursuit “set me on this voyage,” and she described how she discovered the stories of Black aviators Cornelius R. Coffey (1902–1994) and Johnson C. Robinson (1903–1954), who used their passion for and commitment to flying airplanes as a means to “symbolically practice freedom” and triumph over adversities. For example, the two learned to build, fly, and maintain their own planes despite the segregation of Chicago’s Curtiss–Wright Aeronautical University.
Allen expressed how pleased she was to find that when the young production assistants, who worked for her on the film, would throw their own watch parties, their much older relatives would attend and enjoy the documentary. She said, “I’m most happy when very older people and very young people like the work, because that means you’re hitting it correctly.”
Williams asked the panelists, “If someone wants to follow in your footsteps to do what you’ve done and write a biography in poems or do a documentary film or a podcast, what would be the first thing that you think they should consider before they attempt a project like this?”
Nelson advised would-be poet-biographers to “look for predecessors. . . . You have to set your own personal likes and desires aside and serve the person you’re writing about and not serve yourself and that’s frankly not something poets do very easily.”
Sweig responded, “What I produced is more like an audio documentary, so I say that the threshold question is: ‘What kind of archival resources exist?’ You know, if you want to tell a historical—let alone biographical—story about ‘x’ topic or person, you really need to make sure that there’s audio to tell your story. And then the second attendant question is: ‘How much does it cost and is it in the public domain?’ Because the latter would be better.” She also added the helpful hint that investing in a music supervisor elevated the quality of the audio storytelling overall, because he “helped us . . . to punctuate the story with sound and music.”
Williams followed up by asking, “What would you recommend to anybody who wants to embark on doing a podcast based on their book?”
Sweig said, “If you’re like me and you haven’t done this before, you need to have partners that know what they’re doing and you have to be willing to stick your toe in the water of the world of representation . . . having not just literary agents, but agents who can help you translate your IP into other mediums requires entering into a world of rights [for] film and television and audio.”
Barbara Allen also shared her advice to would-be biographers working on film: “Decide what your subject is and how much material there is on that subject visually. . . . Really take a deep dive into that person’s life, because you’re gonna be living with them for a long time. But if you’ve never done it [and] you’re just starting out with the idea . . . I think that a good place to start is to do a bio[pic] on someone you know—your mother, your grandmother, somebody in your family, and learn how to take that deep dive in—and because it’s someone you care about, it’ll be easier for you.”
Sweig provided the parting shot: “I don’t think one has to start with a book and then go to podcast, you could easily start with podcasts and conceive of a story you want to tell as two or three prongs—print, audio, and film—and hatch it simultaneously. Or think of . . . your research process as pulling material that is both print and audio and visual simultaneously, so that as you’re going along, if you have your subject, you’re actually developing the resource material to have a multimedia project.”
- Scaling the Castle Walls: Dealing with Gatekeepers
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Scaling the Castle Walls: Dealing with Gatekeepers
Practical guidance for working around obstacles and gaining access to documents and interviews about subjects who may or may not want to have their life stories told.
Will Swift is a past president of BIO and the author of The Roosevelts and the Royals, The Kennedys Amidst the Gathering Storm, and Pat & Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage.
Kati Marton’s most recent book, The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel was a New York Times Notable Book of 2021. A former ABC News correspondent and Bureau Chief in Germany, Marton has written two memoirs and numerous other books, including Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History, The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World, and a biography of Raoul Wallenberg. She has combined her career as a journalist and biographer with work in human rights advocacy.
Susan Morrison is the editor of the anthology, Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers. She is currently at work on a biography of Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of Saturday Night Live, to be published by Random House. Morrison is the recipient of a Leon Levy Fellowship in Biography and is the Articles Editor of the New Yorker, where she has worked for the past 25 years. Prior to that, she was the editor in chief of The New York Observer and, in the ’80s, one of the founding editors of SPY Magazine.
Carl Rollyson is the author of fourteen biographies for adults, and four biographies for children. His biographies of Rebecca West and Amy Lowell, and his study, A Higher Form of Cannibalism? Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography, were supported by NEH Fellowships. Three of his biographies—of Marilyn Monroe, Dana Andrews, and Walter Brennan—are part of the Hollywood Legends series published by the University Press of Mississippi. His two-volume biography, The Life of William Faulkner, and The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, were both published in 2020. Website: carlrollyson.com; Podcast: https://anchor.fm/carl-rollyson.
- How is Biography Addressing Nature and Climate Change?
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The panel was moderated by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, a BIO Board member and author most recently of Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend (Amistad, 2008). The panelists were Andrea Barnet, author of Visionary Women: How Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall and Alice Waters Changed Our World (Ecco, 2018); Miriam Horn, author most recently of Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), who is currently at work for Penguin Press on the first-ever biography of George Schaller; and Laura Dassow Walls, author of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (University of Chicago Press, 2017), The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (University of Chicago Press, 2009), Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth (Cornell University Press, 2003), and Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).
The panel began with Gerzina inviting each speaker to describe what brought them to write biographies of subjects involved in the natural and scientific worlds. Andrea Barnet led off by explaining that the idea for Visionary Women came out of her realization that “there were four truly great women, each of whom, in interestingly similar and adjacent ways, had changed the way we think about the world”—Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, and Alice Waters. Barnet then said, “All four of them were un-credentialed outsiders: green thinkers who embarked on idealistic eco missions before ‘eco’ or ‘green’ was really part of our collective vocabulary. None was an academic theorist, in fact, two—Jane Jacobs and Jane Goodall—didn’t even have college degrees, which interested me. They were people who waded into their respective fields and got their hands literally and figuratively dirty. All spoke truth to power—which was, at that time, male power. And, against all odds, prevailed.”
Miriam Horn, who spent two decades working for the U.S. Forest Service and Environmental Defense Fund and is also a prolific writer and filmmaker, was drawn to write the biography of George Schaller because of his seminal status in the field of conservation to those inside it, and his relatively low profile outside it. She said, “For anyone who has worked in wildlife, he is, without dispute, the most important field biologist of the last half century. He did the first field study of gorillas in the Congo in 1959, the work that Dian Fossey picked up a decade later. He actually went and tutored Jane Goodall, when she first got set up in the Gombe, on how to study chimps. And then he did the first field study of tigers in India, lions in the Serengeti, snow leopards in Pakistan, jaguars in Brazil, pandas in China. By the 1980s he had won the trust of the Chinese, who had just come out of the cultural revolution, because he had spent five years living in these cold, wet, bamboo jungles with pandas. And so the Chinese gave him full run of the Tibetan plateau ever since. He’s made 65 trips to the Tibetan plateau and all together has worked in 35 countries and can claim credit for national parks around the world that add up to the size of France.” Horn also said that Schaller considered himself a biographer of the animals he studied.
Of her own arrival onto the biography scene, Laura Dassow Walls said, “I backed my way into biography. I started thinking of myself as an intellectual historian, but I realized over time that I am really trying to understand conditions that shaped my own life, but understanding it through people who somehow spoke to those conditions.” Walls also explained that, as a college student, she took up the study of biology in the hopes of becoming the Goodall or the Schaller of her native Pacific Northwest, but she faced massive discouragement from her university and shifted over to an English program. She explained, “I also felt very odd in the English department, because nature was also ridiculed [there]. It wasn’t a serious subject; nature writing was not serious writing. Annie Dillard started to break that open and, eventually, interestingly enough, my mentor became Bob Richardson, her husband. I eventually became a Thoreau scholar because I wanted to understand how language met the natural world. What was the magic that Thoreau brought to us through that fierce loyalty to understanding the nonhuman world, but also his intense devotion to making language both precise and fresh and beautiful? That became my first book, Seeing New Worlds.”
The panel confirmed that writing about figures from the natural world presents some of the same challenges as found in writing other types of biographies. Barnet said, “Like all books, they become other than what you begin with.” She elaborated, “History is usually told as a series of events, but what really moves the needle [on social progress] is a change in consciousness. Each of these four women had catalyzed a really fundamental change in consciousness. So I began to look for what the common ground [is] between them, the connections—all of them were seeing the world as a web and a place of connections, and I began looking for the connections between them, between their thinking and their lives.”
Horn said that many of the challenges she faces when writing are “present tense,” because she is only halfway through her biography of Schaller. But the first and perhaps biggest obstacle, she maintained, was met long ago: “The first great challenge with George was getting him to say yes. He had been approached by many biographers and he had said no to all of them for two reasons: He recognized that [in] a lot of the countries he worked in he was often more effective if he was less visible . . . [and] he’s also just averse to attention and the limelight. He is famously taciturn. He is the ‘G. S.’ who led Peter Matthiessen into Nepal in search of the snow leopard. And Matthiessen described him as difficult to know. Fortunately, there is an incredible trove of primary sources on him. He kept hundreds of field journals. I know every chapati he ate over a decade in South Asia, but also, he was much more willing to be introspective in his journals.”
A challenge that Horn is grappling with, as she works on her biography of Schaller, is how to integrate just the right amount of the larger histories that shaped his life and times. Horn’s editor has encouraged her to make sure the story of Schaller himself stays on every page. Because Horn has science training, she said, “writing the science is actually less challenging for me than writing some of the deep history. For instance, you know, wildlife conservation got its start in a very colonial mindset and with very close affinities with eugenics . . . [and] if I am going to tell that history, I have to tell it so economically” to ensure that the subject’s life story is not lost in the pages.
While nature writing and biography are two separate genres, Walls said she “never thought of them as apart.” Because, explains Walls, in many of her subjects she has found people who “deeply embodied, sensually engaged in a nonhuman world, but connect[ed] with it deeply, spiritually, aesthetically, intellectually, emotionally, through perception and language, and thinking of language as something that doesn’t separate us from that world, but joins.” She said her subjects did not see themselves as apart from nature, but rather they recognized their lives took shape in nature.
There are very particular challenges when writing about subjects from the natural world. Barnet said some readers reflexively avoid reading about nature, and figures from nature, because they feel such a sense of despair, coupled with political impotence, regarding the state of the natural world today. Horn also explained that another barrier for readers is when writing about nature is done poorly. She said it’s possible for nature writing to get too “purple,” and when people write in too exalted a way about nature, it can come across as “very self-involved.”
But each of the writers on the panel have found ways to invite readers into their works. Barnet said, “The way we remember ideas is if we attach them to stories” through good storytelling techniques. When picking the literary voice for her group biography of four women, Barnet said she “tried to internalize . . . as much as I could of journals, diaries, letters, and opinions, and then I tried to sort of embody the voice of that character who was moving through the world and making very careful observations about the world. . . . I try to get as close as I can, even to the point where there were times where I’d have to pull back and say, you can’t know she felt that, you have to say ‘she might have felt.’”
Walls also concurred that the format of biography enables readers to engage with complex ideas differently, and for writers of biography to approach concepts from different angles. She said, “Biography is a terrific frame for intellectual history, to explore ideas. . . .was freed in a way from the intellectual kind of academic voice and I just loved writing it.”
Barnet spoke of Jane Jacobs’s work as a writer focused on urban renewal, and how Jacobs found, for example, that the denizens rushing through Grand Central Station never run into each other, exhibiting a sort of hive mentality. “I think if people were more aware that these ideas of ecology are everywhere in their lives, and this whole web-way of thinking, of systems thinking, is really fundamental to our survival as a species in every habitat, not just the natural world . . . those fundamental principles run through all of the thinking that’s moved the needle forward.”
Horn added, “One thing that all our subjects have in common is a belief in direct experience as a way of knowing, and [for] a scientist and a writer, it’s the exact same strengths that make them stand apart: focused attention, dedicated attention, and then the ability to faithfully render what it is they’re seeing.”
- Biography in the Worst of Times
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Biography in the Worst of Times
Donald Trump continues to define the bestseller list, with books that extoll and decry him. This distinguished panel will explore how biographies have addressed major and disruptive events in our nation’s history, in politics and culture, from the Civil War and the McCarthy Era to the civil rights movement and the Watergate scandal. What are the lessons for authors who want to explore and illuminate tumultuous times?
Susan Page is the Washington Bureau chief of USA TODAY and the author of Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power and The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty, both New York Times bestsellers. She’s now working on a biography of Barbara Walters for Simon & Schuster. Her coverage of the presidency has been awarded the Merriman Smith Award for deadline writing, the Aldo Beckman Award for overall excellence, and the Gerald R. Ford Prize. She moderated the 2020 vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris.
John A. Farrell is the author of Richard Nixon: The Life, which in 2017 won the PEN America award for best biography and the New York Historical Society book prize for the best volume of American history. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2001, Farrell published Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century, which won the D.B. Hardeman Prize for the best book on Congress. His book Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best biography of 2012. He has also received a George Polk Award, a Gerald R. Ford Prize, and White House Correspondents honors for his coverage of the presidency.
David Nasaw is a historian and distinguished professor whose biographies include The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, which won the Bancroft Prize; Andrew Carnegie, which won the New York Historical Society’s American History book prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a New York Times Notable Book. His most recent publication is The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War. He recently retired as the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Tamara Payne is the co-author of The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, which won the National Book Award for best non-fiction in 2020 and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2021. It was also a New York Times Notable Book of 2020 and was named a best book of the year by Time magazine, The Washington Post, and other publications. She was the primary researcher and co-author with her father, Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former editor and columnist at Newsday, who had pursued this project for nearly 30 years. When he passed away in 2018, she completed their work.
- Must You Like Your Subject?
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Brian Jay Jones, author of Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination (Dutton, 2019), Washington Irving (Arcade, 2008), Jim Henson: The Biography (Ballantine, 2013), and George Lucas: A Life (Little, Brown, 2016), served as moderator. The panelists were Allen C. Guelzo, author of Robert E. Lee: A Life (Knopf, 2021); Mary Jordan, author of The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump (Simon & Schuster, 2020); and Larry Tye, author of Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy (Mariner Books, 2020). BIO member John Grady has provided this recap.
When a biographical subject is a caricatured demagogue of the 1950s, like Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, or as enigmatic as former First Lady Melania Trump, the biographer’s task is to approach the work like a journalist. As Mary Jordan said, “You have to have an open mind and want to be fair.”
Larry Tye said, when researching Joseph McCarthy, he was struck by a comment made by Ethel Kennedy, wife of New York senator Robert Kennedy, who became a liberal icon of the late 1960s. Of McCarthy, whom she and her husband had known for years, she said, “For Bobby and me, he was just plain good fun.” It was an insight Tye hadn’t expected to be said about McCarthy. As a young lawyer, Robert Kennedy had worked for McCarthy as an assistant counsel, when the senator chaired the Government Operations panel. Tye also discovered that “Tail Gunner Joe,” as McCarthy’s critics mockingly dubbed him, was in fact a war hero and “had told the truth” about his military service. He “had redeemable qualities,” said Tye, that needed to be included in a biography.
Likewise, Mary Jordan said of Melania Trump (and other subjects of biography), “People are more complicated. I have never yet found anybody that’s one of anything,” meaning no person is a monolith.
Jordan, writing under a deadline to produce The Art of Her Deal on Melania Trump’s life, went to fashion capitals like Paris and Milan, as well as to Melania’s hometown in Slovenia, as part of the research. Knowing that Melania Trump came to the United States at 26, as an already established model, Jordan realized there was a personal history of Melania that needed exploration. Jordan interviewed photographers, designers, and various other figures in the fashion and entertainment industries for her unauthorized biography. Among the things she learned was that Melania Trump had won a major contest seven years before immigrating to the United States; the prize included a movie role that was being shot in Rome. But the producer insisted that to appear in the film, Melania must have sexual relations with him. With her mother by her side, she refused him and left Rome, never appearing in the film. The reaction to this fact, by those who despised the Trumps, was: “that can’t be true,” said Jordan. “This was just research,” added Jordan, which some refused to accept because of their preconceived view of Melania Trump.
In writing Robert E. Lee: A Life, Allen Guelzo faced a different challenge. Until the late 1970s, Lee was often the subject of books that were more hagiography than serious appraisals of the man in his times. (Guelzo cited Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-volume R. E. Lee, the first volume of which appeared in 1934, as an exception.)
The first major change in analyzing the Confederate general, said Guelzo, came with the publication of Thomas Connelly’s Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image, in 1977. “I was building on questions that had been raised over the last 25 to 30 years and maybe even a little more,” he explained. When asking himself “How do you write the biography of someone who committed treason?” Guelzo said, “I’m interested in understanding as much as possible, over the span of a very long time, on the basis of fragmentary evidence, what this person did, why they did it, and why it’s important.” Guelzo made it clear that, in many instances, he did not believe biographers could rightfully claim omniscience or a definitive understanding of a person’s character or motives. He explained, “What we’re more often in the position of being is archaeologists. We’re trying to put together the shards of some long-lost amphora. We’re trying to make them look like the real thing. The problem is there [are] no guarantees that we’re getting the relationships right. Sometimes the most important things in someone’s life are exactly what you can’t get your hands on: love, grief. These are not elements that people express easily.”
With Robert Kennedy as his subject, Tye (who admitted he was an admirer of the senator) said he wanted to see how Kennedy morphed from a Cold War warrior working for McCarthy into a towering figure, even today, in liberal and progressive politics. By Tye’s estimation, he conducted between 400 and 450 interviews to follow the evolving political figure.
But the work, continued Tye, also needed to address questions of Kennedy’s personal life, especially allegations of womanizing. It was Ethel Kennedy who opened the door to let others discuss this aspect of her husband’s life. She told Tye she knew about the affairs but, she said, “at the end of the night he came home to me and he was a great husband and a good father” to their children. She gave Tye permission to say in the book that “Ethel forgave him.”
Whether a biographer goes into a project liking or disliking a subject is not the point when researching and writing on a particular person. Guelzo said a biographer has to avoid being dragged into a “Stockholm syndrome” when it comes to the writing. The biographer is not to assume “the role of advocate or the role of condemner in chief,” he said. As a biographer, “you have to keep your subject just a little bit at a bit of arm’s length.”
- Biography of Families and a Family Members
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Have a grandmother or great-uncle whose life would make a compelling biography? Have a multi-generational story itching to dance from your keyboard to the printed page? But how? Learn from a panel of experienced biographers about their strategies for researching and interviewing, remaining objective, handling family secrets, and telling a story that crosses generations—the essential building blocks for writing a captivating individual or group biography of a family or family member.
Edward Ball is the author of six books of history and biography that tell stories about enslavement, white and Black family history, genetics, and other subjects. His first book, Slaves in the Family (1998), an account of his family’s history as slaveholders in Charleston, South Carolina, received the National Book Award for Nonfiction. His most recent, Life of a Klansman (2020), is a biography of a marauder in the Ku Klux Klan, Edward’s great-grandfather, a carpenter in New Orleans who fought to restore white supremacy to Louisiana during Reconstruction. Edward Ball has taught at Yale University and the State University of New York, and has been awarded fellowships by the Radcliffe Institute, at Harvard, and at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center.
Jennet Conant is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II, and the critically acclaimed 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos, which won the “Spirit of the West” Literary Achievement Award. Her other books include the bestsellers The Irregulars and A Covert Affair. Her biography of her grandfather, Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist, was hailed by the Wall Street Journal as “an outstanding portrait of a technocrat, at work and at home.”
Bernice Lerner is the author of All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, a British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, a race-against-time rescue story that traces the journeys of Rachel Genuth (her mother), a teenager from the Hungarian provinces, and Glyn Hughes, a high-ranking British medical officer, over the last year of WWII. Other of Bernice’s works include The Triumph of Wounded Souls: Seven Holocaust Survivors’ Lives, and book chapters and articles on virtue ethics. Bernice formerly served as dean of adult learning at Hebrew College and as director of Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility. Her work in progress pertains to her father, a survivor of Hungarian forced labor, and President Harry Truman, who argued for the resettlement of European refugees in the United States.
Rachel L. Swarns is a journalist, author and professor and a contributing writer for the New York Times. She is the author of American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, a multigenerational biography published by Amistad/HarperCollins, and a co-author of Unseen: Unpublished Black History from The New York Times Photo Archives, published by Black Dog & Leventhal. Her forthcoming book, to be published by Random House, is a multigenerational biography of an enslaved family torn apart by the 1838 slave sale that saved Georgetown University from financial ruin. She is an associate professor of journalism at New York University and her work has been recognized and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the MacDowell artist residency program and others.
- Bertelsmann and the Future of Publishing
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Bertelsmann and the Future of Publishing
What are the implications of the pending Bertelsmann/Random House acquisition of Simon & Schuster for authors and readers? Is total consolidation inevitable?
As an independent journalist, Christopher Kenneally has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, and many other publications. He also reported for WBUR-FM (Boston), National Public Radio, and WGBH-TV (PBS-Boston). He is author of Massachusetts 101 and The Massachusetts Legacy. He is also the host of “Velocity of Content,” a twice-weekly podcast from Copyright Clearance Center (CCC). He is senior director of content marketing at CCC, where he develops content and programming covering publishing and research.
Mary Rasenberger is the CEO of the Authors Guild and Authors Guild Foundation. Prior to joining the Guild in November 2014, Mary practiced law for over 25 years in roles that spanned private practice, the government and corporate sector, as a recognized expert in copyright and media law. From 2002 to 2008 Mary worked for the U.S. Copyright Office and Library of Congress as senior policy advisor and program director for the National Digital Preservation Program. Immediately prior to coming to the Guild in late 2014, Mary was a partner at Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard, and previously Counsel at Skadden Arps, where she counseled and litigated on behalf of publishing, media, entertainment, and internet companies, as well as authors and other creators, in all areas of copyright and related rights. Earlier in her career, Mary worked at other major New York law firms and for a major record company. Mary is a frequent speaker, lecturer and writer on copyright law and authors’ rights. She is on the Council of the American Bar Association’s Intellectual Property Section; an Advisor to the Executive Committee of the Copyright Society of the USA; a founder of Copyright Awareness Week, and an Adviser to the American Law Institute’s Restatement of Law, Copyright. Mary received her J.D. from Harvard Law School, an M.A. in Philosophy from Boston College, and her B.A. from Barnard College.
Christopher L. Sagers is the James A. Thomas Professor of Law at Cleveland State University, specializing in antitrust law. He is the author of United States v. Apple: Competition in America (Harvard University Press, 2019).
- Bio Hacks: Tips and Tricks of the Trade
Watch the recording here.
Bio Hacks: Tips and Tricks of the Trade
Eminently successful biographers share personal tips and tactics for smart researching, lively writing, and gracefully bringing it all together in the end.
Nicholas Boggs, a 2021-2022 NEH Long-Term Fellow at the New York Public Library, is also the recipient of a Leon Levy Center for Biography Fellowship, a Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowship from Biographer’s International Organization, and a Visiting U.S. Fellowship at the Eccles Centre for American Studies, British Library. Co-editor of James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood (2018), he is currently at work on a Baldwin biography, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Douglas Brinkley is the Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and Professor of History at Rice University, CNN Presidential Historian, and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. The New-York Historical Society has chosen Brinkley as their official U.S. Presidential Historian. His recent book Cronkite won the Sperber Prize while The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast received the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He has received a Grammy Award for Presidential Suite and seven honorary doctorates in American Studies. His two-volume annotated The Nixon Tapes recently won the Arthur S. Link–Warren F. Kuehl Prize. He is a member of the Century Association, Council of Foreign Relations and the James Madison Council of the Library of Congress.
David Maraniss is the author of Barack Obama and When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. He is an associate editor at the Washington Post and the author of a dozen critically acclaimed bestselling books about history, politics, and sports. Among the most honored writers and journalists of his generation, Maraniss won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his reportage on Bill Clinton, was part of a Post team that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy, and has been a Pulitzer finalist twice more for his journalism and once in history for They Marched into Sunlight. A fellow of the Society of American Historians and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt University, Maraniss lives in Washington, D.C. and Madison, WI, with his wife, Linda.
Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer
Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer finalist; and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize. Her Cleopatra: A Life and The Witches, have both been #1 bestsellers. Schiff has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2019, she has been named a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French government.
- Law and the Biographer
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The panel was moderated by David O. Stewart, author of George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father (Dutton, 2021). Panelists were Patricia Aufderheide, author of Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright (University of Chicago, second edition, 2018), with Peter Jaszi; Blake Gopnik, author of Warhol: A Life (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2020); and Christopher Jon Sprigman, he Murray and Kathleen Bring Professor of Law at New York University, where he teaches intellectual property law, antitrust law, torts, and comparative constitutional law.
“Fair use isn’t a set of rules” that covers the number of words used or using a particular image that a writer or filmmaker could follow in steering their work away from legal headaches and pitfalls, a New York University law professor and a scholar specializing in using copyrighted material, Christopher Jon Sprigman, who specializes in intellectual property law and law applying to innovation in new technologies, said. Despite the leeway that courts have provided in interpreting the constitution’s creation of copyright and patent protection, book publishers say “clear everything” or else.
Agreeing with that, art critic Blake Gopnik, author of Warhol, said where fair use of images “seems straightforward” in writing for a newspaper in order to review an artist’s work. “Book publishers act as if something is different” in reproducing images and publishing copyrighted music lyrics. Even though publishers “have the legal departments” to either review usage or take on a challenge, he said their attitude “we won’t publish if you don’t pay” the copyright holder. Some relief from this can come from agents. “They can add a clear sentence on fair use” in the author’s contract that establishes what the publisher will do,” Gopnik said.
A possible workaround is to use a reproduction of the image that is not subject to the copyright.
Patricia Aufderheide, co-author of Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright, said courts have usually come down on the side of “fair use” in copyright cases if the work is found to be transformative rather than simply re-use.
Her advice, though, is “just pretend that everything is copyrighted” and work with that in mind. There is assistance available online that can be valuable to writers, like the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University in Washington.
Aufderheide also suggested that biographers look to the Authors Alliance’s “Fair Use for Nonfiction Writers” guide.
In broad terms, Sprigman, co-author of Copyright Law: Cases and Materials, added the idea behind including copyright in the Constitution was “to create new culture,” and transformative uses of existing materials fit that definition.
Sprigman and Aufderheide, said the definition of “transformative” use has a variety of definitions, but usually broadly favors advancing creative culture.
While fair use “is a case-by-case analysis,” he added copyright does not cover ideas, methods, or facts. As biographers, “a lot of what you do is facts and ideas.”
- What Do Publishers Really Want?
Watch the recording here.
The panel was moderated by Max Boot, author of The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam (Norton/Liveright, 2018). Panelists were Mary Conley, associate acquisitions editor at University of Missouri Press; and Emily Cunningham, a senior editor at Penguin Press.
Mary Conley said Missouri and other publishers are looking at the proposal that is “finding something new” about a well-known figure, like Gen. George S. Patton Jr., or an unknown figure now who was important to an era. She said that “something new” can come from “discovery of new archives, letters … and [when found] definitely put this in the proposal.”
Emily Cunningham said at Penguin they also are looking to see “how this figure fits into the era” and what is the work correcting or updating. In answer to a question, she added that for a trade press audience, readers are not necessarily seeking “bombshell revelations,” but a book that can reach a general audience. “What’s new…can take many forms,” she said.
On sales, Conley said, “a lot of our books sell between 500 and a thousand [copies’.” Cunningham added there is no critical number of projected sales that determines publication at Penguin, but the work has to be a “good fit” to make their catalogue of 45 to 50 new titles per year.
Conley said publishers are searching proposals for “the kernel that makes the work different” as a biography and social history. Later both said there is more opportunity to have a book on a “hidden figure” in an era published than even in the recent past.
Where trade and academic presses greatly differ come down to peer review and need for agents. Conley said she encourages authors to “feel free to ask some questions early” about the peer review process and how a work moves toward publication at Missouri. The final green light necessary for publication comes from the editorial board that has access to the reviewers’ comments.
At Penguin, Cunningham said the first step comes in the acquisition process and it helps to have “endorsements from peers” in the submitted proposal.
In some cases, the work is sent to Penguin’s legal department for review before publication.
When it comes to agents, Conley said it was very rare for Missouri’s press to work with one and there are no author advances. A way around that for prospective authors to cover expenses is to look for grants and fellowships in the field of interest to cover research and other expenses.
By contrast, Cunningham said it would be very rare for Penguin to “take on a project without an agent.” She added “agents really know their way around a good proposal” that will sell to a publisher and reach an audience.
As for how long it takes to have a book published from the time it was accepted, Conley said a year to a year and a half at Missouri. Cunningham said it takes longer than that at Penguin, possibly several years. When asked what happens if a writer misses a deadline, Cunningham added, “we try to work with the author and not be punitive.”
“I would encourage you [as authors]: If it doesn’t work with the trades, come to us,” Conley said.
- Celebrity Biography
Watch the recording here.
How is writing about celebrities any different from other biography subjects? How do you evaluate what someone is famous for? How do you find the human being behind the fame? How do you approach the part of the life that comes when the subject is no longer in fame’s limelight?
Kate Buford is the author of Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe (Knopf, 2010), the award-winning New York Times Editors’ Choice biography of the greatest multi-sport athlete at the dawn of American organized sports. She also wrote the New York Times Editors’ Choice best-seller Burt Lancaster: An American Life (Knopf, 2000), the story of one of Hollywood’s great stars and the indie producer who changed the way movies were made. A Californian come east, Kate earned an MS in information/library science at Columbia, worked as a law librarian on Wall Street (Cravath; Davis Polk; Willkie Farr), a vice president at the NYC global corporate communications firm of Finsbury, a commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition and APM’s Marketplace, and contributor to many publications, television shows, and documentaries.
Kitty Kelley, an internationally acclaimed writer, has written ten books, including seven biographies, all #1 New York Times bestsellers. As a biographer, Kelley has been honored with several awards: the American Society of Journalists and Authors for Outstanding Author Award for “courageous writing on popular culture”; the Phillip M. Stern Award for “outstanding service to writers and the writing profession”; the 2005 PEN Oakland Censorship Award for The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, and the 2011 International Book Award for Oprah: A Biography. Currently, Kelley reviews books online for Washington Independent Review of Books, which appear later in print The Georgetowner. Her website is www.kittykelleywriter.com.
Alan K. Rode (pronounced Roe-Dee) is a noted film scholar. He produces and hosts cinema events while producing classic film commentaries and documentaries. His biography Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, recently published in paperback, received rave reviews from the New York Review of Books, among other outlets. He also wrote Charles McGraw: Film Noir Tough Guy and is the producer and host of the annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival. Alan is a charter director and treasurer of the Film Noir Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring lost films from the classic film noir era. His website: www.alankrode.com
Steven C. Smith is an Emmy-nominated documentary producer, author, and speaker who specializes in Hollywood history and profiles of contemporary filmmakers. He is the author of two acclaimed biographies: Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer (Oxford University Press), and A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (University of California Press). The latter received the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award, and was the main research source for the Academy Award-nominated documentary Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann. A four-time Emmy nominee and sixteen-time Telly Award winner, Steven has produced and written over 200 documentaries. They include The Sound of a City: Julie Andrews Returns to Salzburg; The Lure of the Desert: Martin Scorsese on Lawrence of Arabia; A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy; and Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood.