The Biographer’s Craft August 2022

August 2022 | Volume 17 | Number 6


I couldn’t be more thrilled this month to carry on Michael Burgan’s tradition of using the August issue of The Biographer’s Craft as the “Biography into Film” edition. I remember more than a year ago, after he first told me of this observance, thinking, “What on Earth am I going to write about for that?!” The truth of the matter is, there is far more to say than can fit into a single issue! Film is too important a medium for biography for this to be the last word on the subject, and our talented members have too much going on for that to be the case. So expect more to come . . . but in the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy this homage.

If you’re a bit at sea regarding how exactly life stories end up as movies, the first segment of this newsletter points you to information on some of the most typical contractual arrangements that either biographers, or the subjects of biopics, enter into to allow films to be made. Once you’ve learned a bit about the shoptalk, you’ll hear the fascinating story of how one of Kai Bird’s biographies is on the way to becoming Christopher Nolan’s next summer blockbuster. From there, you’ll find the final conference recap of the year: the “Visual and Aural Feasts” panel moderated by Sonja Williams, which provided conference goers with spades of useful information on exploring biographies in different media.

There’s also a couple of great (non-film) updates from members enjoying summer research trips and gearing up for fall biography releases. I hope you’ll enjoy this happy issue, which is full of reminders of what is possible for biographers and their work.

Be sure to keep in touch and send along your news! The inbox is open!



PS: The videos of all panels and sessions from the 2022 BIO Conference are now available to members and the general public! You can find the videos in the Members Area of the BIO website (under “Video Library”), or on our public YouTube page.

Biographies into Biopics: How Does it All Work?

As we dive into an exploration of new and forthcoming biopics, including one being released by a major director and based on the work of a BIO member, you may be wondering: “How do life stories—especially those sourced from biographies—make it onto the screen?”

If you’re interested in the mechanics of the process, here are two explainers for your perusal on three important topics: life rights agreements, option agreements, and shopping agreements. If you hope your biographies will one day become films, or if you find a subject you dream of creating a biopic around, understanding these fundamentals will help you set your sights appropriately.

Life Story Rights: What’s Possible and What’s Not,” by entertainment attorney Stephen Rodner.

Books to Film: The Option Versus The Shopping Agreement,” by Matt Knight, intellectual property lawyer.

Prometheus Unbound: How Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus, the Biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Became Christopher Nolan’s Next Big Film

Kai Bird “inside the fence” at Los Alamos Laboratory with a truck from circa 1945. Photo courtesy of Kai Bird.

Speaking at a UNESCO Colloquium in 1965, on the 10th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s death, J. Robert Oppenheimer spoke of how the collected works of Einstein had not yet been published because of errors that still needed to be teased out of his “paralyzingly beautiful” early papers, saying, “A man whose errors can take that long to correct is quite a man.” On July 21, 2023, a biopic of Oppenheimer will be released after 18 years in development, three failed scripts, a small gaggle of producers’ ministrations, and two major Hollywood directors’ involvement. A man whose biopic takes that long to get to the screen is quite a man, indeed.

The process began in 2005, shortly after the publication of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Before the book earned the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, it was optioned for film by British director Sam Mendes, who had a script written and was shopping it around Hollywood. At the time, Mendes had a strong partnership with Steven Spielberg and his DreamWorks Studios. A major movie seemed imminent. But then the rolling momentum came to a standstill. Bird, who is a member of BIO’s Board of Directors and the executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY, explained, “DreamWorks was sort of falling apart and our understanding is that they passed on it. Then we saw the script and we could understand why they passed on it.” Bird explained that the script encompassed Oppenheimer’s whole life, and its breadth left little space for depth due to the confines of film. It failed to capture someone as complex as Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb” and head of the Manhattan Project, who infamously recalled that a quote from the Bhagavad Gita ran through his mind as he watched the first successful nuclear weapons test in the desert of New Mexico: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” After four years, director Mendes had no serious bites on the script, and he let the option lapse.

Bird described another party that came along and optioned the Oppenheimer biography for four more years, but they too failed to attract a big star or studio to the project. By now it was 2014. After a third party picked up the rights for four additional years and failed to get traction in Hollywood, Sherwin and Bird gave up hopes of a successful Hollywood adaptation. “It was thought to be too historically complicated” to get picked up for a major motion picture, Bird said.

But when the pandemic hit in 2020, the film industry’s priorities changed rapidly. With film sets shut down all around the world due to the coronavirus, executives and producers working from home focused on acquiring projects, writing scripts, and cutting deals until the cameras could get rolling again. It was in this period, Bird said, that two businessmen picked up the option for the book. They got a new screenwriter to write the third script adapted from American Prometheus. But optimism again was short-lived, as Bird recalled: “We were appalled. It was just awful. . . . Marty [Sherwin] and I wrote a memo listing the 108 historical falsehoods in this script, a long detailed memo. We gave it to the two businessmen, and we had some phone conversations, and they agreed to kill that script.” At this juncture, one of the two businessmen bowed out. The one who remained, though, J. David Wargo, had a compelling reason to want to see the project through. He had a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT, as well as a master’s degree in nuclear engineering. Bird recalled, “In 2020, he announced to us he was determined to make this happen and he was flying out to Hollywood in the midst of the pandemic and he had a lot of meetings and he hoped to get this going. Then we didn’t hear anything for a long time.”

The biopic blip fell off Sherwin and Bird’s radar until September 2021, when Bird said a friend sent them both a clipping from Variety magazine, which mentioned director Christopher Nolan was working on a film about Oppenheimer. Bird said, “We thought, ‘Well, oh dear. You know, he obviously hasn’t been in touch with us, so maybe he’s doing his own film not based on our book.’ Oppenheimer is a public figure, an icon, he wouldn’t have to have the option based on our book—he could say he was doing it on public records.”

That seemed to be the end of it until one day, while driving around Washington, D.C., Bird received a cell phone call from a stranger, Charles Roven. “He called and said, ‘I just want to reassure you that Christopher Nolan is working on Oppenheimer and it is based on the film option you guys sold to Dave Wargo and Nolan would like to talk to you,’” Bird explained. He admits he had heard the name Christopher Nolan before, but his wife had to clue him in as to just how big of a deal the director was before the two spoke on the phone: “Christopher explained that he had read the book and loved it and decided that he was going to spend the summer on spec to write a script. So he wrote the script, the whole script, by himself . . . it was heavily based on the book. In September [2021] he says, ‘I work confidentially, so I am not prepared to share the script with you, but I am going to be in New York in the next week and I’d like to meet with you in New York if you could come up.’”

By then, however, Sherwin had been suffering with small-cell lung cancer for two years and was doing poorly. He was too sick to travel, but he understood that the book at last had a real chance to be made into a film. Bird went to New York: “We had a meeting for two-and-a-half or three hours. . . . Nolan is very charming. He was clear he was not sharing the script, but he was happy to answer questions about what was in the script and what was not. He had done some original research. He had found some transcripts I had never seen and added to the script a bit. It was a very reassuring conversation.”

Afterward, Nolan traveled to his Hollywood home, where he invited the heads of four major studios to sit and read the script he had written based on American Prometheus, making it clear they could not remove the document from the premises. Bird explained, “Then there was a bidding war for the script. He got a $100 million budget. He got another $100 million budget for publicity. He is a real big believer in screen, in the theater, not streaming, so he insisted on a studio that would not stream it immediately. And Universal was the studio that he ended up with.” Nolan then secured actor Cillian Murphy, whom he had directed in Batman Begins, Inception, and Dunkirk, to play Oppenheimer. But the long-sought happy ending to the deal was marred by loss. As Bird put it, “Martin Sherwin died on October 6, and two days later they [Universal and Nolan] released the official press release announcing the film.”

“Marty was a very lovable guy, and funny, and kind of a skeptic about Hollywood and everything,” Bird said. He recalled that the story of American Prometheus began in 1980, when Sherwin signed a contract for the book with Knopf, and described how his association with the project came to be: “Marty also did 95 percent of the research for the book. When I came aboard in 2000, there were 50,000 pages of documents he had collected from archives all over the world. He’d done over 200 interviews and neatly transcribed them. It was just an amazing amount of research. But he hadn’t started to write—he’d kind of gotten biographer’s disease. He told me quite seriously he had done a lot of research but there were enormous holes. Every few months he’d find one more cardboard box of documents in his closet or his attic. It was overwhelming. There were really no gaps in the research. I focused on the writing. Marty also started to write and we went back and forth with the chapters, but it still took five years.” He said that Sherwin knew “how hard it was to translate a complicated biography like this into a film,” and it remained to be seen if Nolan could do so successfully.

Bird had been told that filming would begin in late February 2022. Early that month, he got another call from Christopher Nolan with some surprise news: The director had had a change of heart, and he would let Bird read the script before shooting got underway, provided he travel again to New York and read from start to finish in Nolan’s hotel. Concerning the experience, Bird said, “I sit in the hotel room drinking coffee and reading the script. It takes me three to three-and-a-half hours to read it. I’m blown away by it. I think it’s a good script. It’s heavily based on the book and a lot of the dialogue comes from the book and it captures Oppenheimer’s complexity and personal character. I find it quite moving and historically accurate.”

Nolan and his wife, the producer Emma Thomas, even invited Bird and his wife to observe a couple hours of filming in Los Alamos. Bird said, “Nolan assured us we were welcome to come for a couple of hours, but we would see how boring it was. We saw 15 takes of the same exact scene of like two-and-a-half minutes. The actors spoke the same words again and again and again. They were taking different camera angles. But it was interesting and fun.” Filming is now complete, but editing will take another eight to 10 months.

In advance of the July 2023 movie premiere date, Knopf, the publisher of American Prometheus, will release a special commemorative paperback edition as a tie-in to the movie, which Bird hopes will sell well. He is pleased to see the biography he and Sherwin worked so hard on evolve into a new form where new viewers will discover it, even as he is saddened that Sherwin won’t experience the film adaptation for himself.

And though the film industry proved vexing to the co-authors over the years, Bird still appreciates the challenges filmmakers navigate. He said, “Marty and I, in our frustrations, had debated maybe we should try our hands at the script. I look at these scripts, and it’s a very different form of writing. I just don’t think Marty or I could do it. [For the American Prometheus adaptation], you can see three previous attempts were made, three previous scripts. I’ve read all three now and Nolan’s is the fourth and clearly the best. It’s a miracle.”

But, Bird insisted, “I’m not moving to Hollywood.”

BIO Conference Panel Recap: “Visual and Aural Feasts”

Clockwise from top left: Sonja Williams, Marilyn Nelson, Barbara Allen, Julia Sweig.

The “Visual and Aural Feasts: Biography in Different Forms” panel took place on Saturday, May 14, at 11:00 a.m. It 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.”

Coming Soon to Screens Near You: Recent and Forthcoming Biopics and Documentaries

We have heard about several fascinating multimedia biography projects close to home. What else is cooking in the genre? Here’s a brief highlights reel.

Biopics from Books

Elvis, a biopic of the “King of Rock and Roll” starring Austin Butler and directed by Baz Luhrmann, was released in the United States on June 24, to great critical and audience acclaim. Interestingly, this film was not based on a biography that was optioned, although there have been many written on Elvis. Instead, Luhrmann said he conducted his own research to write the script, and read Alanna Nash’s biography The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley (Simon & Schuster, 2003). While it seems that Nash did not have a formal contract with Luhrmann or the film, his book on Presley has become a bestseller on Amazon, suggesting the film has been financially beneficial to the biographer in another way.

She Said, a film about The New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, as they conducted the reporting that helped bring down Harvey Weinstein, will have its premiere on November 18. It’s based on the book of the same name by Kantor and Twohey, which was published by Penguin Press in 2019. The film will star Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan, respectively, as Twohey and Kantor.

Additionally, Blonde, a biopic of Marilyn Monroe starring Ana de Armas, will be released on September 23. The movie is not based on a biography, but on Joyce Carol Oates’s novel about Monroe, also called Blonde.

A scripted series called Franklin, based on Stacy Schiff’s biography A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, has begun filming this summer, with Michael Douglas playing Benjamin Franklin. The series will air on Apple TV+. A release date has not yet been announced.

Biopics Not Based on Books

A number of other big biopics are coming soon, but these are reportedly not based on optioned source material. Instead, their creators likely conducted at least some of their own research on publicly available material to come up with the framework for the films without having to pay to use source material. This may represent a disadvantage to biographers, who would likely prefer to benefit financially by the optioning of their work.

The big films in production that don’t appear to be based on books are:

  • Maestro, a biopic of Leonard Bernstein, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper (Netflix)
  • An untitled biopic of Fred Astaire, starring Tom Holland (Sony)
  • Kitbag, a biopic of Napoléon, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Joaquin Phoenix (20th Century Studios)


In weekly installments in January and February, Billy Tooma released his documentary of Ken Forsse, the creator of the animatronic children’s toy Teddy Ruxpin, called Come Dream with Me Tonight. All nine parts of the documentary are available for viewing on YouTube.

On March 9, Netflix released The Andy Warhol Diaries, a six-episode documentary series based on the writings of Warhol.

On April 4–5, the two-part Ken Burns documentary Benjamin Franklin aired on PBS. It featured Stacy Schiff, author of A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, and Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (among others) sharing their expertise.

On December 30, Turn Every Page, the Sony Pictures Classics documentary about the 50-year friendship and working relationship between biographer Robert Caro and his editor Robert Gottlieb, will debut in New York and Los Angeles.

And while details are scarce, reports have circulated showing that Apple is planning either a documentary or a biopic of Louis Armstrong entitled Black and Blues: The Colorful Ballad of Louis Armstrong. Comedian Tracy Morgan has been mentioned as a producer and a potential actor to play Armstrong.


Six Questions with Allison Gilbert

Photo courtesy of Elena Seibert

What is your current project and at what stage is it?

Listen, World!: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman is coming out September 27, 2022. It’s the first biography of Robinson (1883–1956). Her career took off in 1919, when she launched a wildly successful children’s column as “Aunt Elsie” for the Oakland Tribune. Dozens of Aunt Elsie clubs were established throughout California, and the Tribune created membership cards and pins for her young and passionate fans. The paper also hosted variety shows at local theaters. As many as 3,000 children would attend these live shows, with lines snaking for blocks and police on hand to handle the crowds.

Then, in 1924, media powerhouse William Randolph Hearst hired Robinson and made her the highest-paid woman writer in his empire. For more than 30 years, Robinson shared her blistering and unapologetic opinions in support of women’s rights and immigrants; deriding capital punishment, racism, and anti-Semitism; and urging women to realize bigger, more fulfilling lives. Her nationally syndicated column was called “Listen, World!,” and Robinson made history by being one of the first columnists in the country, male or female, to also draw her own accompanying editorial cartoons.

What have been your most satisfying moments as a biographer?

My co-author Julia Scheeres and I had no idea that the access we were given to an abandoned post office in Hornitos, California, would be so valuable. It is here that we discovered the typewriter Robinson likely used to learn how to type and kick-start her career. Matching the precise vintage and description of the typewriter a friend loaned her (the friend helped run the post office in what is now, essentially, a ghost town), we found it in a back room, alongside other artifacts and detritus, covered in thick, undisturbed dust. The building has not been used since 1956, one year following her friend’s death. We took photos, of course, and these images are featured in our biography. (The story of why Robinson moved to Hornitos, and the shocking work she did while living there, is one of the highlights of the biography.)

What have been your most frustrating moments?

Writing biographies of women tends to be more challenging, at times, than biographies of men. Essential details of Robinson’s career and correspondence were buried within the archival papers of the men who employed her—William Randolph Hearst, Fremont Older, and Arthur Brisbane.

Additionally, our research needed to explore multiple iterations of her name, a path to publication that’s not often traveled when biographers write about men. When Robinson began writing in 1911, she did so under a pseudonym. By 1916, she was writing under her married name, Crowell. It wasn’t until later in her career that she changed her byline so that it appeared only under her maiden name, Robinson.

And last, because this is the first biography of Robinson, the path to [the] final manuscript was challenging because so much of Robinson’s writing hasn’t been digitized. Much of her work is accessible only in hard copy, on specialized databases, or on microfilm. My co-author and I have since created the first searchable database of Robinson’s “Listen, World!” columns and we’re hoping to partner with a research archive to give it a permanent home for the benefit of future historians and scholars.

Who is your favorite biographer or what is your favorite biography?

I’ve been obsessed lately with Jean Stein’s 1982 biography of Edie Sedgwick, Edie: An American Biography—and I have to thank George Saunders for that! The structure of Listen, World! is atypical: Julia and I weave together Robinson’s voice from her 1934 memoir, her 35 plus years of newspaper columns, her poetry, her interviews—all to shape a cohesive narrative. We were influenced by Saunders’s book, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Saunders recently told me the structure of Lincoln in the Bardo was inspired by Stein’s masterful work. It’s been fun for me to trace this literary family tree.

One research/marketing/attitudinal tip to share?

If you’re unsure who to write about, be open to subjects revealing themselves at the most unexpected times. I discovered Robinson after my mother died. I found a poem, attributed to Robinson, tucked inside one of my mother’s books. It was a life-changing find for me, and now for readers and historians everywhere.  

If you weren’t a biographer, what dream profession would you be in, and why?

I’d be “Annie” on Broadway!!!!


Visit Allison Gilbert’s website here


Susan Demasi

The “Writers At Work” section was borne out of the writerly condition—exacerbated by the pandemic—of being very much at home. As many BIO members are now reporting embarking on trips for the first time in two years. This month, Susan Demasi shows and tells us about her research trip to the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York.

Demasi said, “I visited the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, to research my next subject, John G. Winant, who was (among other things) the first chairman of the Social Security Board and the ambassador to England (post Kennedy) during World War II. It was my first time in an archive since 2015, when I was finishing up research for my biography on Henry Alsberg, director of the Federal Writers’ Project.

The FDR Library—the first presidential library—was such [a] nice place to work, with really helpful and laid-back staff, and nice places on the grounds when I needed a walk to clear my head.”


Synopsis of Turn Every Page – The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb

by Sony Pictures Classics

Turn Every Page explores the remarkable 50-year relationship between two literary legends, writer Robert Caro and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb. Now 86, Caro is working to complete the final volume of his masterwork, The Years of Lyndon Johnson; Gottlieb, 91, waits to edit it. The task of finishing their life’s work looms before them. With humor and insight, this unique double portrait reveals the work habits, peculiarities, and professional joys of these two ferocious intellects at the culmination of a journey that has consumed both their lives and impacted generations of politicians, activists, writers, and readers. LEARN MORE HERE

Amanuensis: A person whose employment is to write what another dictates, or to copy what another has written. Source: Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913).


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