Holly Van Leuven
Reacting to winning the prize, Marshall told TBC: “I’m so thrilled to receive the Hazel Rowley Prize. It could hardly have come at a better time. Working on this project has turned out to be a trek far longer than I ever imagined when I started. Although fascinating and deeply rewarding, telling the story of Castaneda has turned out to be a road strewn with seemingly endless obstacles. As I would guess is true in the writing of any biography, the journey has often felt exhausting and lonely. There are plenty of people who would prefer that this tale not be told. They haven’t hesitated to make this clear. Nothing could mean more to me at this juncture—as I begin to try to bring this book out into the world—than the interest, support, and encouragement of writers who have labored much longer than I have in this field.”
The first Rowley Prize winner, Holly Van Leuven, recently sold her biography on Ray Bolger to Oxford University Press. You can read her thoughts on winning the prize here.
The $2,000 Rowley Prize aims to help aspiring biographers by securing a careful reading of the winner’s book from at least one established agent; a year’s membership in BIO; and publicity through the BIO website, TBC, and other media. The prize is open to citizens or permanent residents of the United States and Canada, writing in English, working on a biography that has not been commissioned, contracted, or self-published, and who have never published a biography, history, or work of narrative nonfiction. The prize is a way for BIO to advance its mission and extend its reach to talented new practitioners. The prize is named in memory of Hazel Rowley (1951–2011), born in London, educated in England and Australia, and a long-time resident of the United States. Hazel was a BIO enthusiast from its inception, understanding the need for biographers to help each other. You can read more about Rowley and the prize at the BIO website.
More than 200 biographers, including ones from Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, attended the fifth annual Compleat Biographer Conference, held May 17 at the University of Massachusetts Boston. As at past conferences, one of the day’s highlights was the presentation of the BIO Award at the afternoon luncheon, which this year went to Stacy Schiff, author of Saint-Exupéry: A Life,A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, Cleopatra: A Life and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage.
At the day’s luncheon, outgoing BIO President James McGrath Morris presented Schiff with the award, noting that her dedication to the craft of biography went far beyond the written page to her longstanding and ongoing support of BIO.
In her keynote speech, Schiff addressed the two major problems biographers face: a paucity of information or an overabundance of it. She termed the latter “the haystack in the haystack” and said “nothing could be worse,” because “documentation is not revelation.” Writing about Franklin’s years as a diplomat in France, Schiff found voluminous material on him in various archives, though the information did not always reveal the essence of the man at the time.
Schiff recounted enduring the other extreme, the needle in the haystack, while researching Vera Nabokov and Cleopatra. Yet at times, she said, a lack of information, or what a subject leaves out of his or her own writings, can be telling. She believes that “the story lurks in the excisions, the elisions, the denials,” in information distorted or destroyed. The biographers’ challenge, Schiff said, is to find their subject’s voice, or rather, to “help their subject to find his voice, to coax him to speak, when he opts not to do so himself.”