Reflections on the 2017 BIO Conference

By Natascha Scott-Stokes

The egalitarian attitude to granting access to priceless resources never ceases to amaze me, when I visit the U.S. Where else could you find a historic library like the [Boston] Athenaeum, where it is not only acceptable to enter reading rooms with food and drink, but anyone who can afford the fee can become a member? Unless things have changed dramatically in the decade since I left England, many of its finest libraries are almost as hard to enter as Fort Knox, requiring not only references and/or a certain academic pedigree, but also specific attire (such as gloved hands) and specific tools (such as pencils rather than pens). As for talking—out of the question. But an athenaeum, as our guide explained, is specifically intended as a place of discourse, as well as research.

“Why don’t we get coffees next door and take them up to the private roof terrace?” suggested the delightful Melinda Ponder after our tour. And soon I was whiling away the afternoon in the company of three extraordinary authors, each with a unique project to share; and the view over Boston Common wasn’t bad either.

A shared passion for feisty women quickly emerged: Marian Janssen from Nijmegen, Holland, was deep into her research for a biography of the American feminist poet Carolyn Kizer; Melinda is on the verge of publishing her life of the author of the lyrics for “America the Beautiful” (Katherine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea); and one day, I hope someone will want to publish my proposed biography of Flora Tristan, the noisy outcast and social reformer who paved the way for Marx and Engels, and died of typhoid fever at just 41, in 1844. Our round was completed by the professional harpist and writer Nancy Hurrell, who provided the necessary balance by having a male protagonist for her forthcoming book on the harp-maker John Egan, and electrified us with her passion for the music of Ireland. See her exquisite playing on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTSJN12EIiI.

A quick dash in a taxi got us to the [Massachusetts] Historical Society just in time to hear a dozen biographers give three-minute readings from their latest book, and I can honestly say each one was brilliant. In fact, it set the tone for the entire conference, for each discussion panel the next day was an inspiration, starting with the fascinating plenary session, where David Nasaw led a conversation with Larry Tye about his Bobby Kennedy biography. My favorite part was when it was pointed out that it is not so much whether or not Bobby or his father was an anti-Semite, but what kind of an anti-Semite was he, given that he was a product of his times.

The lunch and keynote address by Candice Millard, winner of the 2017 BIO Award, was only slightly marred by malfunctioning microphones because, once more, the acceptance speech was not only an inspiration, but also very moving. You could have heard a pin drop when she shared the agony of her young motherhood to a mortally ill child and the unique insight it gave her into Roosevelt’s desperation to save his son during their hellish journey, which she wrote about in her first book, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.

By the end of the afternoon everyone was exhausted by the wealth of experience and information to digest, and yet many attendees seemed to get a second wind after the wine was served, and a most jovial BIO Conference dissolved into several groups heading off to sociable dinners and bars downtown. Business cards and laughter were exchanged along with the promises to make connections or provide support, and that alone was worth the conference fee, reminding each and every one of us that we are not alone on our writing journeys—solitary yes, but not isolated.

Natascha Scott-Stokes is the author of Wild & Fearless: The Life of Margaret Fountaine. You can visit her website here.