Here are some highlights from the 2019 BIO Conference, held in New York City on May 17-19. You can see the morning plenary with David Remnick, Stacy Schiff, and Judith Thurman, and Nigel Hamilton introducing 2019 BIO Award winner James McGrath Morris, who gave the keynote speech.
A Writer’s Walk Spurred the Creation of BIO: An Interview with 2019 BIO Award-Winner James McGrath Morris
By Kitty Kelley
From the beginning of BIO, the organization and one person have been inextricably linked: this year’s BIO Award winner, James McGrath Morris. Even before he helped launch BIO, Morris was linking biographers through the newsletter he created, The Biographer’s Craft. He will receive his award on May 18, during the 10th Annual BIO Conference. When it came time to interview Morris, Kitty Kelley was an obvious choice. She took part in the first BIO Conference in 2010 and has known Morris since they met during a writers’ event supporting the players during the 1982 NFL strike (at least that’s Morris’s recollection). Kelley called him “my hero and beloved friend,” and let TBC know that she would have kicked and screamed if she hadn’t gotten the assignment.
Kitty Kelley: How did you come to start BIO?
James McGrath Morris: People often call me the founder of BIO, but I don’t think that’s really an accurate term because it was actually 50 of us who gathered in New York City in 2009 to found BIO. It’s more accurate to describe me as the progenitor of the idea.
KK: Where did the idea come from?
JMM: A walk. I was taking a walk on the dirt roads of my then-neighborhood, in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo mountains above Santa Fe. Walks provide time for contemplation and I was giving thought to the success of The Biographer’s Craft, a newsletter I launched in 2006. It had 1,700 subscribers who seemed to enjoy the connection to other fellow biographers that the newsletter provided.
I got to thinking that we biographers work alone but we could benefit from getting together as mystery, science fiction, romance, and thriller writers do. In fact, my friend David Morrel helped launch International Thriller Writers. So, I thought biographers needed their own organization. I wrote an open letter about this idea at the top of an issue The Biographer’s Craft that essentially said, if folks were interested in doing this, we should have a meeting. David Nasaw, who had just created the Leon Levy Center for Biography, offered space at CUNY. And 50 people showed up for the meeting.
KK: What happened then?
JMM: We decided to create an organization and, as you might imagine, we had animated discussions, especially about whether or not we would include memoirists. No, we decided.
I said that I would help facilitate the creation of this organization and stay with it until it was established, but that I did not want to stay with it forever. And there was a very important reason for that thinking. I’ve seen a lot of organizations come and go, and usually the ones that fail are the ones that are too centered on the person who helped create the organization. I felt that it would only succeed if other folks took on the responsibility of running the organization. So, I served as the executive director and then as president and then as a member of the board. Since these various tours of duty, my role has been limited to being a contributing editor to TBC and occasionally serving on a committee, like the Hazel Rowley Prize committee.
I’ve been thrilled to see that the original plan worked. If you look at the program for the conference or go to its website, you see that BIO is really a grassroots organization staffed and sustained by volunteers from all around the world. And that’s what makes BIO a healthy organization.
KK: What do you think BIO’s most important role is?
JMM: When we started BIO, we decided to hold an annual conference, and I will tell stories about this when I give my talk. I think the conference, the newsletter, the grants and prizes, and the networking BIO provides are the critically important components of its work. We have remained true to BIO’s original mission of being an organization where anyone can find help, assistance, collegiality, and support in pursuing the craft of writing a biography.
KK: What drove you to create BIO?
JMM: A bad habit. In high school, I organized Students for a Better Environment—with the catchy initials SBE—and when I worked as a freelance writer, I recruited writers for the National Writers Union. I have a drive, a tendency, or a bad habit to be a mother hen organizing folks collectively. Heck, I was even a member of the Teamsters once.
KK: How’d you first get interested in biography?
JMM: I first got interested in biography because of obituaries. I developed what some people might think is a lugubrious habit when I was very young. By that I mean, 11 or 12 years old. I loved to read obituaries in the newspaper. Not the paid announcements, although I do read those, especially in small-town newspapers, but obituaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Economist are
An obituary is a biography. It tells you the life story of somebody who is worthy of attention, but it also has to provide the context. So, it gives you a history lesson. For instance, a recent obituary for Charles Sanna, the man who invented Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa, explained how the U.S. Army ordered powdered milk during the Korean war, and how a surplus of this milk led to his invention.
From obituaries, I went to reading biographers like W. A. Swanberg and Catherine Drinker Bowen. And, of course, The Power Broker, published in 1974, made me see the incredible potential of the modern biography.
KK: Of the books you’ve written, which are you most proud of?
JMM: That question is asked to me sometimes at a bookstore event. It’s a tough question because it’s sort of like asking which of your children you like best. Each book has represented something very different in my life. I most like to write about someone that nobody else has written about. Second, I like illuminating the life of someone who is less well known, who might slip through the cracks of history. I accomplished that best with Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press.
KK: What are the challenges facing biographers today?
JMM: I will elaborate on the three problems I see facing our craft when I give my talk at the conference. First, the prevalence of easily accessible biographical information about almost any figure—think Wikipedia here—has diminished the imperative of including biographies in one’s library. Because of this, the quality of the writing has become paramount. Second, it is increasingly hard to find commercial support for doing books about lesser-known subjects. Third, and conversely, it’s become a hostile world for unauthorized biographies of powerful figures. Hagiographical accounts of their lives thrive while independent and unauthorized biographies diminish. The current attacks on the press has compounded this.
KK: How do you feel about winning the BIO Award?
JMM: Obviously, I’m thrilled, touched, and honored at the same time. But it’s sort of an awkward moment. If you look at the list of previous BIO winners, which includes the likes of Claire Tomalin, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Jean Strouse, and Arnold Rampersad, these are some of the most eminent biographers of our times. I’m certainly not among the rank, so it’s clear that part of the reason I was chosen is not because of some turn of phrase or some remarkably good research I did, but for my contribution in creating and launching BIO. (That’s one long sentence.) Because the prize is for somebody who’s helped advance the art and craft of biography, I can see the rationale. But, at the same time, I’m in very lofty company now, and if there’s ever a plaque made with all the winners, I’m sure somebody, when they dust it off, will say, “Oh, Robert Caro, I know him. Stacy Schiff, sure. James McGrath Morris? Who the heck was he?”
Kitty Kelley is an internationally acclaimed writer, having written seven New York Times bestselling biographies, five of which debuted at number one. Her many awards include one from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for “courageous writing on popular culture.” She serves on the BIO Board.
BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris, a writer, a teacher, and a mentor to other biographers, is the winner of the 10th annual BIO Award. BIO bestows this honor on a colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Previous award winners are Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Taylor Branch, Claire Tomalin, Candice Millard, and Richard Holmes. Morris will receive the honor on May 18, at the 2019 BIO Conference at the Graduate City University of New York, where he will deliver the keynote address.
Morris told The Biographer’s Craft that he first fell in love with biography as a child reading newspaper obituaries. In fact, he said, his steady diet of them became an important part of his education in history. In 2005, after a career as a journalist, editor, book publisher, and school teacher, Morris began writing books full time.
Among his works are Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars; The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism; Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power;Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press (awarded the 2015 Benjamin Hooks National Book Prize for the best work in civil rights history); and The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War. He is also the author of two Amazon Kindle Singles: The Radio Operator and Murder by Revolution.
He taught literary journalism at Texas A&M in 2016, and has also conducted writing workshops at various colleges, universities, and conferences. Morris is currently working on a biography of Tony Hillerman, the late author of ground-breaking mysteries set in the Navajo Nation. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Highlights of the 2018 BIO Conference: Holmes Keynote Address and Husband-and-Wife Team in Conversation
More than 225 established and aspiring biographers from three continents immersed themselves in their craft at the Ninth Annual Biographers International Organization Conference, held May 18 and 19, at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Along with the announcement of the Plutarch Award for 2018, conference highlights included a keynote address by Richard Holmes, winner of the 2018 BIO Award, and a discussion between Edmund Morris and Sylvia Jukes Morris, who shared their experiences writing about both living and dead subjects. [more]
Scenes from the 2018 BIO Conference:
Acclaimed literary biographer Richard Holmes will receive the 2018 BIO Award at BIO’s upcoming conference in New York and give the keynote speech on May 19. As a preview of that, James Atlas interviewed Holmes; you can read the interview here.
British author Richard Holmes, beloved for his biographies and memoirs about writing biography, is the winner of the ninth annual BIO Award. BIO bestows this honor on a colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Previous award winners are Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Taylor Branch, Claire Tomalin, and Candice Millard. Holmes will receive the honor on May 19, at the 2018 BIO Conference at the Leon Levy Center, City University of New York, where he will deliver the keynote address.
Holmes’s The Age of Wonder was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, and won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. He has written many other books, including Falling Upwards, an uplifting account of the pioneering generation of balloon aeronauts, and the classicFootsteps. Its companion volumes, Sidetracks and This Long Pursuit, complete a trilogy that explores the Romantic movement biographer at work. Holmes’s first biography, Shelley: The Pursuit, won the Somerset Maugham Prize; Coleridge: Early Visions won the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Award; Coleridge: Darker Reflections won the Duff Cooper and Heinemann Awards; and Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage won the James Tait Black Prize.
Holmes holds honorary doctorates from the universities of East Anglia, East London, and Kingston, and was professor of biographical studies at the University of East Anglia from 2001 to 2007. He is an Honorary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, a Fellow of the British Academy, and was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1992. He lives in London and Norfolk, with the novelist Rose Tremain. TBC will have an interview with Holmes in an upcoming issue.
Biographers International Organization will convene on the weekend of May 18–20, in Manhattan, for three days of discussion, camaraderie, and exploration. “BIO is especially pleased that this year’s conference will be hosted by CUNY and the Leon Levy Center for Biography,” said program co-chairs Heath Lee and John Farrell. “The scope of expertise that these two organizations, devoted to biography, bring to the table is stunning.”
Registration for the conference will begin in late January. Current BIO members will receive an email with a link to the registration site to take advantage of an early-bird discount.
The conference starts on Friday, May 18, with guided tours of New York City research libraries, readings by authors, and a welcoming cocktail party at the Fabbri Mansion on East 95th Street.
The Saturday, May 19, sessions at the Leon Levy Center will begin with a plenary breakfast at which Edmund Morris (biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Beethoven, and Thomas Edison) and his wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris (biographer of Clare Boothe Luce and Edith Kermit Roosevelt), will share their views about the craft of biography as it pertains to writing about the living and the dead. They have titled their plenary talk: “Dead Is Easier.”
Other featured speakers include Griffin Dunne, the actor and filmmaker, in conversation with Stacy Schiff regarding Dunne’s film biography of his aunt, Joan Didion. James Atlas will be talking about “The Soul of a Biographer” with our 2018 BIO Award winner, who will give the luncheon address. We are particularly excited about this year’s winner, whom we will announce in February.
Joe Hagen, the biographer of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, will discuss the perils of difficult subjects with biographer Kitty Kelley, who has pierced the walls around Frank Sinatra, Jackie O, and other celebrities.
In the Saturday sessions, conference attendees will be able to select from 16 panels devoted to topics such as “Issues in Biography,” “The Craft,” “Basics,” and “The Biz,” and a number of roundtable discussions. The conference will also feature a panel about the interdisciplinary use of biography, a product of a new collaboration with the Community College Humanities Association.
Saturday ends with a reception at which BIO will convey the Plutarch Award for the Best Biography of 2017, as chosen by BIO members, with remarks from the winner.
For those interested in more intensive study of the craft, on Sunday morning, May 20, a series of workshops will be held on writing and the art and business of biography.
Look for more information on the conference in upcoming issues of TBC.
Cathy Curtis: What prompted you to start writing biographies?
Candice Millard: I have always been interested in biography. In fact, one of the best parts of my job at National Geographic was looking for story ideas that focused on human history rather than natural history. So, when I thought of writing my first book, I immediately knew that I wanted it to be about someone, not something. But I also wanted a story, not a subject. I didn’t want to begin at the beginning and end at the end. I was looking for a story within a life.
CM: I spend a great deal of time looking for the right subject. In fact, I think it’s the most important part of writing a book. I’m looking for not only a great story, but one that comes with enormous amounts of primary resources, so much that I despair of ever getting through it all.
Without mountains of letters, journals, newspaper articles, it’s difficult to have dialogue; all the little details that, I hope, make readers feel as if they’re there; and a deep understanding of the story and the people within it. I’ve fallen in love with book ideas in the past and spent months, even years researching them, only to realize that there just wasn’t enough primary source material. As difficult as it was, I had to walk away.
CM: Like any thinking person, I highly value biographies that take in the full expanse of a person’s life, and I read a lot of them. But when I’m looking for a subject for myself, I’m interested in stories that are intimate, focused, and, I hope, illuminating. To me, the most illuminating moments in a life are when a person is at his or her most vulnerable, when they’re searching for a foothold, unsure of the path forward, frightened, grieving, even desperate. These are emotions we’ve all experienced, and they help us understand each other, help us find that thread of common humanity.
CM: The greatest lesson The River of Doubt taught me is the importance of outlining. I don’t know if this is true for other writers, but I am lost without an outline, and not just a basic sketch of how the book will unfold but a long, incredibly detailed outline that helps me think through every step of the story.
CM: As I get older, I feel like I understand my subjects a little better because I’ve had more of those shared experiences. I’ve seen more of the world, experienced more joy, more sorrow, even tragedy, and because of that when I peer into someone else’s life I can see a little of myself. Maybe because of that I have more compassion, I hope, and am not as quick to judge. I don’t know anyone who’s perfect. I’m certainly not. And that’s what interests me—not the perfect person, but the person who struggles, as we all do.
CM: While I love my work, and feel incredibly lucky to be able to do it, it comes in a very distant second place to my children. Surprisingly, however, what I’ve realized over the past 15 years is that being forced to work around my kids’ schedules is actually not a bad thing. I don’t know that I would have the discipline to get right to work every morning if I knew that I had all day to get it done. Knowing that I only have between drop off and pick up is incredibly helpful. I get up, get dressed, take the kids to school, and then go to work.
My office is in my husband’s company, so I’m not home, thinking about the laundry waiting to be done or the Legos that are scattered all over the floor. As soon as I step into my office and close the door, I’m in another place and time. To be honest, it’s a little disorienting when I have to go pick up the kids, but I leave myself notes so that I can pretty easily jump back in the next morning.
CM: Wrapping up the research. There’s always another lead to follow, another archive to visit, another storyline to investigate and that, to me, is the best part of the job. I love doing research, and I would be very happy to keep doing it for years on end, but eventually I have to start writing or I will never finish the book.
CM: I have been very fortunate to be able to meet many of the descendants of the people I’ve written about, not just the central characters but the people surrounding them, from Candido Rondon’s grandchildren to Winston Churchill’s granddaughter. I’ve really enjoyed meeting them all, but no one has made a stronger impression on me than Bob Garfield, James Garfield’s great-grandson.
I spent some time with Bob, who is now the patriarch of the Garfield family, while I was doing research, and I remember thinking that he was one of the finest people I had ever met—kind, smart, a skilled pianist, and the consummate gentleman. When Destiny of the Republic was released, Bob attended a talk that I gave at Garfield’s farmhouse in Ohio, where Bob had spent much of his childhood. After I spoke, he stood up and said that the book had meant a great deal to him and his family and that it had “brought a ghost to life.” I will never forget that moment. It made me very proud.
CM: I just started work on a book about the discovery of the source of the Nile. It’s a story that I fell in love with many years ago, when I was still working at National Geographic, so I’m thrilled to finally have the chance to really dig in and understand it.