Departing BIO President Will Swift Reflects on His Accomplishments

TBC: What was it like being president?
Will Swift: Haven’t I always been the president of BIO? We shift our identities more easily than we think—I can barely remember not being in the role. Have two years actually passed since I took over the presidency at the Richmond conference? Time flows swiftly when you are fully engaged in a passionate endeavor. I love supporting writers and writing.

At the age of seventy, I heed psychologist Eric Erickson’s advice about the next-to-last stage in life: Engage in generativity (passing on wisdom and knowledge to future generations) or risk falling into self-absorption. I have experienced deep satisfaction co-creating BIO as a healthy and synergistic family that offers stimulation and inspiration to both aspiring and accomplished biographers.

I have done my best to model perseverance and grit to help you face down the obstacles that are strewn across the paths of writing, researching, and selling books in this increasingly picky and parsimonious publishing world. As an obsessive personality who sends out emails at 4:30 a.m., I have needed to stretch myself to work with a multitude of personalities who have radically different styles and rhythms. It has been big fun creating new programs that honor the accomplishments of writers and editors.

Most of all, I have enjoyed the remarkable collegiality and teamwork that has made the last two years so gratifying. I was lucky to inherit Marc Leepson—an affable, calm, and super rational guiding hand—as my treasurer. It was my good fortune that Deirdre David—a truly loyal, creative, and competent administrator—agreed to be my vice president, and that Dean King, a strategically gifted leader, signed on as treasurer and as part of my executive committee. I treasure the friendship and wisdom of Debby Applegate, James Atlas, Kai Bird, Kate Buford, Robert and Ina Caro, Cathy Curtis, John Farrell, Irv Gellman, Anne Heller, Brian Jay Jones, Kitty Kelley, Sarah Kilborne, Linda Leavell, Heath Lee, Megan Marshall, James McGrath Morris, Stacy Schiff, and so many others who helped me in BIO, which is, at its best, a truly generative organization. What more could I want as I entered my seventieth decade: a creative home where I felt a strong sense of belonging, cultivated lifelong friendships, expressed myself fully, and helped others build their skills and their confidence.

TBC: What goals did you set and accomplish?
WS: In my first speech as BIO president at the 2015 conference in Richmond, I pledged to be the “captain of the BIO ship as it steers into calmer financial waters,” and I explained that we needed to change our financial direction one small step at a time. Our first move was to align ourselves under the 501(c)(3) wing of the tax exempt charity Virginia Organizing. Last year, for the first time, we raised corporate funds to support our Boston conference. We hope to do so in New York as well. Our board now contributes financially and BIO members support us through our year-end appeal. We no longer have to ask board members for loans to afford the down payments on our conferences, and we have the luxury of starting new programs and finding ways to fund them.

Another of my goals was to expand our services to international conferences.  Our November 2016 “Biography Beyond Borders” conference, held in conjunction with Dame Hermione Lee’s Center for Life-Writing at Oxford, was a smashing success—mostly due to the efforts of Deirdre David, who spearheaded it. This fall our second foreign conference—“Different Lives: Global Perspectives on Biography in Public Cultures and Societies”—will be held in Groningen in the Netherlands. The September 20 and 21, 2018, event will be co-hosted by BIO, the Biography Institute, and the Biography Society. It will delve deeper into the question of how the art of biography is practiced in other parts of the world.

I envisioned and created a revamped Advisory Council, under the leadership of Debby Applegate, filled with top biographers and editors and agents, whom we actively consult.

We expanded our efforts to advocate for the place of biography in the larger world. We carefully constructed several letters to the Pulitzer Prize administrator requesting that they move biography out of its joint category with memoir and into a category of its own. With over a thousand biographies published each year, it does not make sense to us to see biography lumped in with autobiography, and especially last year, when a memoir won the Pulitzer and two memoirs were finalists. There was no recognition for biography.

Creating a vibrant and diverse board and leaving our new president with powerful and committed new board members. Done!

Forming an alliance with the Leon Levy Center for Biography.

Working with Brian Jay Jones and James McGrath Morris to expand our membership to over 400 members.

Expanding learning opportunities and services for our members (see below).

TBC: What are you most proud of?
WS: * Putting BIO on a financially sound footing so we can develop programs and recruit members with less worry about our bottom line.
* Creating the Robert and Ina Caro Fellowship to award travel funds. The two writers who were selected for 2018 will be traveling to Italy and Russia in order to convey a vibrant and revelatory sense of place in their biographies.
* Developing the mentorship program, which encourages biographers to share their work and their concerns with more experienced authors.
* Creating an inclusive atmosphere, so new members can feel welcome at our annual conferences.
* Forging a solid connection between BIO and the Leon Levy Center for Biography.
* Co-creating with three terrific program committees the outstanding annual conferences in Richmond, Boston, and New York.

TBC: How would you like to see BIO develop?
WS: * Forming our own 501(c)(3).
* Finding several major funders to make substantial yearly donations.
* Developing more legacy videos and regional training programs in between the annual conferences.
* Offering more writing programs in the schools.
* Developing a speaker’s bureau.

TBC: What do you plan to do with your time now?
WS: According to our bylaws, a former president cannot serve as a BIO board member for one year after leaving office. I will work actively behind the scenes advising the president and vice president, when they want assistance. My last important presidential act was to ask Megan Marshall to chair the 2019 Plutarch Committee. She agreed, and I will do whatever I can to assist her. Cathy Curtis has asked me to chair the Awards Committee. I held this position for many years and loved doing it. Beyond that, I feel a vague anxiety about not knowing what other tasks outside of BIO might come my way. I am open to ideas.

TBC: Why did you ask Cathy Curtis to run for president?
 Cathy, a former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, is an extremely smart, detail-oriented, and strategic leader. As our former vice president, she has a remarkable memory for BIO’s history and procedures. She has served on the Plutarch Committee and as chair of the Awards Committee. At the 2017 Boston conference, I called her BIO’s secret MVP. I have always been able to count on her judgment and her organizational advice. She embodies full commitment to BIO.