BIO Award

Gerald Howard Wins the 2022 BIO Editorial Excellence Award

Gerald Howard received Biographers International Organization’s 2022 Editorial Excellence Award on Tuesday, November 8. The award is presented annually to an outstanding editor of biography. Co-hosted with the Leon Levy Center for Biography, the ceremony took place at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and featured five authors paying tribute to his work: Debby Applegate, Madison Smartt Bell, Kathryn Harrison, James Kaplan, and Jay Parini. 

“Having worked with Gerry for over 20 years, and having read many of his biographies,” wrote Applegate in her letter of nomination, “I can testify personally to the unusual care, sensitivity, and extraordinary cultural and historical knowledge he brought to these manuscripts. He always treats biographies as high art, as worthy of fine craftsmanship and vigorous storytelling as any novel.”

“We are delighted to present this year’s Editorial Excellence Award to Gerry Howard,” said Heather Clark, chair of the selection committee, “in recognition of the extraordinary care and attention he has given to his biographers, and the practice of biography, during his half century in publishing.” Also on the committee are A’Lelia Bundles, Tim Duggan, John A. Farrell, and Candice Millard. 

 Gerald Howard retired in 2020 as executive editor and vice president of Doubleday Books after almost 50 years in publishing. He began his career in 1972 as a copywriter for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and during his following tenure at Viking Penguin, Norton, and then Doubleday, he acquired and published biographies on an extraordinary range of subjects: from Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Frank Sinatra, Maurice Sendak, Luciano Pavarotti, and Joan of Arc, to lesser-known figures such as Iceberg Slim, Lester Bangs, Harold Hayes, and homicide detective Dave Carbone. Howard is also renowned as an editor of fiction, having received the 2009 Maxwell Perkins Award, and he has worked with authors such as Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, A. M. Homes, David Foster Wallace, and Hanya Yanagihara. His essays and reviews have appeared in Bookforum, Tin House, American Scholar, London Review of Books, n+1, Salon, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the legendary editor Malcolm Cowley for Penguin Press, which, to the amusement of some colleagues, is overdue. 

BIO’s Editorial Excellence Award has been presented since 2014. Past recipients are Bob Bender, Tim Duggan, Robert Gottlieb, Gayatri Patnaik, Jonathan Segal, Ileene Smith, Nan A. Talese, and Robert Weil. 

Sunlight in the Garden of Biography: A Conversation with Megan Marshall, Winner of the 2022 BIO Award

Interview conducted by Holly Van Leuven, editor of The Biographers Craft

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in the April 2022 issue of The Biographers Craft, the members’ publication of BIO. Megan Marshall is the distinguished biographer of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism (Houghton Mifflin, April 2005, winner of the Francis Parkman Prize and the Mark Lynton History Prize), Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2013, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Biography) and Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February 2017). A more complete reckoning of Marshall’s accomplishments can be read here.

While it is a longstanding tradition for the BIO Award Winner to be interviewed for The Biographer’s Craft, this interview also presents a unique situation: I have known Megan since 2011, when I was a student in her personal essay-writing class at Emerson College, in which I admitted one evening after the other students streamed out of the room that I was interested in writing biography. Among her many kindnesses to me, Megan introduced me to BIO in 2012. While we certainly never imagined a scenario a decade later where I would be editing TBC at the time that Megan won the BIO Award, here we are. Our ensuing conversation reflects some of our shared history and, in part, the powerful role of mentorship in biography. This conversation has been condensed here.

It seems common for very reasonable and talented writers to feel like the title “biographer” is too heavy a cloak to step into, even if they have done significant research on a subject or published a biography. “Writer” seems more approachable than “biographer.” What do you make of that idea?

I think every writer, whatever the genre, feels they aren’t a “real” writer until their first book is out there, between hard (or soft) covers. And I think we’re right to feel that way. The need to prove ourselves keeps us going through the hard slog of research and writing, and enforces a necessary humility in the face of so big a project—the project of knowing and summing up another person’s life. It gives us a proper respect for those who have already gotten there, those from whom we can learn how it’s done. And yet, the work of biography is so long. I also believe it’s reasonable, especially if you’re writing a first biography of someone, to consider yourself that subject’s biographer, once you are well into the work. No one else is! (Let’s hope. Competing biographers are an all-too-common added pressure!)

When did you first start to consider yourself a biographer?

When I began work on The Peabody Sisters in 1985, I thought the book was going to be a kind of historical survey of women’s choices, maybe a bit like Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, which I loved. I knew a few biographers—Justin Kaplan, an enormously generous man, was a friend. I met Jean Strouse at a party in [Kaplan’s] Cambridge home while she was researching Alice James, and Jim Atlas was a guest speaker in a poetry class of mine at Harvard. I knew how hard the work was, the suffering they all experienced as their projects dragged on, as well as the intense absorption and even identification they felt with their subjects, all of which I probably found subliminally attractive in a masochistic sort of way. To quote Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own: “It’s the hard that makes it great.” I’ll admit my heart sank when I realized I was writing a “full-dress” biography (a term Robert Richardson used), and I lived in fear thereafter, because I had no idea what I was doing! But of course, no one does, the first time out.

I kept telling myself, just write the book you would want to read on the subject—that’s all you can do. I had read a lot of biographies, including [those by] Kaplan, Strouse, and Atlas, of course, all excellent models. Maybe the form had also entered my subconscious, showing me the way.

Your biographies have been on the scene, shaping the genre, and influencing the cultural conversation for more than 15 years now. But you have also had many other responsibilities beyond “biographer” at the same time, not to mention all you did before The Peabody Sisters burst onto the biographical scene, and new responsibilities you’ve taken on since publishing Elizabeth Bishop. What is it like to have such a successful career as a biographer, to the extent that it might obscure your other accomplishments? Or is it freeing, like having discrete chapters of a book, to know when you are in a “biography” period of your life?

I have a lot of trouble devoting myself to more than one thing at a time. When my two daughters were young, I knew I’d have to put my writing on the back burner. They needed too much of me, and their “deadlines” couldn’t be put off. They were born seven years apart, so the years of their youths were many! My editor at Houghton Mifflin (the second of five, over 20 years), said he would “do me a favor” and take my book off the schedule. I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about, but I guess that meant they weren’t going to call me on the carpet, and to their credit they didn’t. But it was very hard, because I think I’m essentially a creative person, and I don’t feel that great if I’m not making something with words. There was a long dark time for me professionally, which may have been hard on my daughters, even as I felt I was “giving” them my all. I wasn’t sure I’d ever finish The Peabody Sisters, and I had to come to terms with that possibility, which in a way was liberating—like being taken off the schedule, I guess.

I admire younger biographers who seem to do a better job of combining parenthood with their writing lives—I think of Abby Santamaria and Louisa Thomas, to name just two of many. I don’t know how they do it, but perhaps it’s because they expect to do it. And, terrible as the child care system is now, it’s much better than it was when my kids were young. No one feels guilty about “putting” their kids in daycare, and daycare is better and more widely available. When I was little, there was almost nothing, and my artist mother struggled. The Massachusetts public schools didn’t have kindergartens until sometime in the 1960s, and where I grew up in California, preschool (a half-day cooperative, which parents staffed) was avant-garde—as outlandish as breastfeeding and natural childbirth!

It was easier for me to teach and write than to be a parent and write. I didn’t begin teaching full time until I was in my early 50s, when I was fortunate to find a good job at Emerson College, with many talented student writers like you, Holly.

We are in BIO because we believe the writing of biography is urgent and important work. And yet good biographies involve numerous challenges: they often take longer to write than other kinds of books; they rely so much on paper records (which can mean expensive research); and they often don’t reap the financial rewards of many other kinds of writing. How do you see biography continuing for the next decade or so?

There is an undying interest in biography in readers. The question is how to tap into it. I’m excited about the many new ways biographers are going about the work these days. There have always been experiments, but now there are more than ever. Perhaps the permutations are a bit like the way film and television are also morphing, transmuting. The audiences may be fragmenting along with that, and the financial rewards uncertain. But one should never write with the expectation of material success, even as you must write with the conviction that others will want to read the story you’re telling. The narrative needs to throb with that urgency—or at least pulse!

What are you currently working on? How has the pandemic disrupted or diverted your plans? What is on your horizon for the rest of 2022 and beyond?

I’ll be talking a bit about this—the disruptions of recent years—in my keynote speech. I hope BIO members will listen in! One current project I’m particularly pleased about, though, is the first Library of America edition of Margaret Fuller’s writings. It’s shocking there has never been one. I’m coediting the book with two excellent Fuller scholars, Brigitte Bailey and Noelle Baker. We hope the book will be out in 2024.

Finally, on a personal note if I may, I have always been impressed with (and blessed by!) your gifts as a mentor. You have a knack for appearing at just the right time and offering of your time and talents in a way that is meaningful. One example: In 2012, I had landed in Los Angeles for the first time ever when you emailed to say, “I’m not sure when you’ll be in Los Angeles, but this BIO conference is going on. . .” It was being held that weekend, within walking distance of where I was staying (a small miracle for LA!) but I wouldn’t have even known about it without your writing me. Do you have thoughts to share about mentorship? How have you gotten so good at it? Is it a practice you cultivate?

The pleasure of helping someone out is much more lasting than what a friend calls the “ta-da! moments” that have come my way. It’s a happier kind of happiness. And I’m also enormously grateful to my own mentors and more experienced writer friends who believed in me before I did, who thought I could finish The Peabody Sisters when I wasn’t sure of it. I remember them all, and often precisely what they said, because I lived on their words of encouragement. I would like to be helpful to others in the same way, and I try to see the opportunities. It’s also true that young writers grow up to become friends and colleagues from whom I can learn. And who knows, maybe one day you will be helping me out. I remember when two different senior biographers I’d admired deeply asked me to write blurbs for their new books. I felt a little sad about it—these were gods to me, and gods don’t need blurbs, especially from me! But I felt honored to be asked, and I did my best to return their generosity in this small way.

I want to say something more about Jim Atlas. I didn’t know him well, as so many others in BIO did. But he was the first biographer I ever met, when he visited Jane Shore’s poetry workshop. (Notice I call him a “biographer,” even though he wasn’t yet done with his Delmore Schwartz—but he was a biographer in my eyes!). I don’t think he ever knew this, but after I’d published The Peabody Sisters, I told Lindy Hess, another departed friend who ran the Columbia Publishing Course for decades, that I’d always wanted to write a short biography for Jim Atlas. She asked me which subject I’d choose, and I said Margaret Fuller. Lindy said—write the book, but don’t do it for Jim’s series. He can’t pay enough. I probably wouldn’t have written Margaret Fuller if it weren’t for Jim. And then Jim finally asked me to write a short book and the idea still excited me. I suggested Elizabeth Bishop, and I was under contract for a 30,000-word biography when I discovered a whole cache of Bishop papers that I knew meant that book would get bigger, too. Jim was the shadow in my garden of biography all along, to adapt the title of his last book—or maybe he was the sun!—and I’m glad to have the chance to say so here.

Megan Marshall will deliver the Keynote Address at the 2022 BIO Conference on Saturday, May 14, at 12:30 p.m. (Eastern).

 

Megan Marshall Wins 2022 BIO Award

Megan Marshall is the winner of the 13th BIO Award, bestowed annually by the Biographers International Organization, to a distinguished colleague who has made major contributions to the advancement of the art and craft of biography.

Marshall is the author of three biographical works: The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), winner of the Francis Parkman Prize, Mark Lynton History Prize, and Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction, as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography; Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Biography and Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction; and Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), a finalist for the Christian Gauss Prize in Literary Criticism of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

She is also the first Charles Wesley Emerson College Professor at Emerson College in Boston, where she teaches narrative nonfiction, life writing, and the art of archival research in the MFA Creative Writing Program. Marshall is a passionate advocate for the genre of biography as well as a practitioner, and a founder of the New England Biography Series at the Massachusetts Historical Society, which has presented several public programs each year for over a decade on topics related to biographical research and writing. Her essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Atlantic, London Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub. In support of her research and writing, Marshall has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library, Bogliasco Foundation Study Center in Italy, and T. S. Eliot House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, as well as a visiting professorship at Kyoto University. She has lectured widely on her work and appeared in documentary films on Fuller, Thoreau, and Poe.

Kai Bird, chair of the BIO Award Committee, stated: “Selecting a BIO Award winner is always a difficult matter because there are so many worthy candidates—but this year our committee quickly came to a unanimous decision when Megan Marshall’s name was mentioned.”

Upon receiving the news that she had won the award, Marshall said, “This is an astonishing and unexpected honor, and deeply meaningful. I remember the first presentation [of the award] to Jean Strouse, whose example led me into biographical work . . . and now all through the years, such great exemplars of the craft have been awarded this prize. To think of joining their distinguished company is quite overwhelming.”

In addition to Strouse, previous BIO Award winners are David Levering Lewis, Hermione Lee, James McGrath Morris, Richard Holmes, Candice Millard, Claire Tomalin, Stacy Schiff, Ron Chernow, Arnold Rampersad, and Robert Caro.

Marshall will give the keynote address at the 2022 BIO Conference on Saturday, May 14.

David Levering Lewis Looks at Two Black American Leaders in BIO Conference Keynote

David Levering Lewis accepts the 2021 BIO Award from Pamela Newkirk.

After receiving the 2021 BIO Award from Pamela Newkirk, David Levering Lewis spoke on “Black Biography Matters: A Prophet and A President.” The prophet was W. E. B. Du Bois, the subject of Levering’s two-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. The president was Barack Obama.

Lewis started his talk by giving a mini-bio of an unnamed figure: A biracial American who did not face the extreme discrimination other Blacks did, thanks in part to having one white parent and living in a relatively tolerant state. This figure, though, came to embrace his Black roots as well as the culture and aspirations of Black Americans.

Lewis said that if his audience assumed he was talking about the first Black president of the United States, they were correct. But Lewis pointed out that many of the details of Obama’s life as a biracial American applied to Du Bois as well, another man who embraced his Blackness and achieved greatness. The two, Lewis said, shared “strikingly similar biographical profiles,” and his introduction featured the “interweaving of like-minded quotations” from Obama’s and Du Bois’s autobiographical writings.

Lewis’s goal with this introduction was to illustrate “the significance of a largely unsuspected parallelism in the racial coming of age of two of the most influential American men of the last 100 years.” But as Lewis went on to show, Obama’s career as president ultimately diverged from the path Du Bois took as a scholar and activist, though he also noted that there would have been “no Obama presidency without the Du Bois civil rights legacy.”

After adding a few more details to each man’s biography (noting that in Du Bois’s hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, “black families were rarer than Democrats”), Lewis turned to Obama’s idea of the “audacity of hope,” the title of the book Obama wrote before announcing his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Lewis called that expression an example of political optimism—an optimism reflected in candidate Obama’s belief that racism was an old problem that the country had transcended. Lewis said he “had seemed to resolve those dilemmas of nationality and color unforgettably proposed by Du Bois in his foundational text The Souls of Black Folk.” And Americans seemed eager to embrace the idea of a “post-racial” future.

But then, in not so few words, Lewis said, “Not so fast.” He explained Du Bois would not have accepted that the country had transcended race. “Rather, he could remind us that he predicted that race still would remain the predicate of our American experience long after the formal dismantling of segregation.”

Lewis recounted how, as a presidential candidate, Obama tried to generate universal appeal by not being threatening to white voters, while winking reassuredly at Black ones. And he might have been “just progressive enough to intrigue old troublemaker Du Bois.” But Obama didn’t live up to the promise of the “audacity of hope” and become a transformational president. And Black scholars who pointed out that John McCain won the white vote in 2008 by 10 points over Obama had their op-eds dismissed as being out of sync with the supposed post-racial era the country had entered.

Lewis said that Obama didn’t seize the opportunity the Great Recession presented when he took office in 2009. Obama was economically timid and pursued a “futile strategy” of conciliation with his Republican critics. Though there were critics on the left, too, who berated Obama’s timidity. Still, Lewis said Obama had notable first-term successes, such as saving the auto industry and signing legislation that created the first federal consumer protection bureau. And Lewis called passage of the Affordable Care Act the signature accomplishment of Obama’s presidency (while noting it was a bonanza for the insurance industry).

Turning back to Du Bois, Lewis said he should avoid speculating on what his subject might have made of the Obama presidency. But he said he would any way, given that Du Bois had “spoken rather presciently to our times” in the 1950s about what he saw as a lingering American problem: too many people were willing to live in comfort “even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellow men.” Du Bois, Lewis said, moved from seeing racism as the central American problem to a broader economic emphasis on class discrimination, while still recognizing that race was a “component of America’s DNA.” Obama, on the other hand, saw race “as of limited value in formulating an economics of redress.”

In the end, Lewis suggested, Obama and DuBois stood at opposite poles. “For Du Bois, racism defined the American social contract.” For Obama, “the less said about race relations, the better.”  Lewis admitted that the Obama presidency ended “with much to its credit.” But the idea of a post-racial reset for the nation “had already been fatally belied by worsening disparities now become irrevocably color coded,” by a Supreme Court decision that hamstrung the voting rights of Black and Latinx voters, and by criminal justice misdeeds and police violence that fueled protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of these problems were only exacerbated during the Trump presidency.

Lewis closed with words from Du Bois, which he believes are relevant for the 2022 elections. Du Bois wrote that the majority of voters had to challenge a political system run by a minority based on their wealth and power. Du Bois said some might call his ideas for change “socialism, communism, reformed capitalism or holy rolling. Call it anything—but get it done.”

David Levering Lewis Wins 2021 BIO Award

By Kitty Kelley

Among his honors, David Levering Lewis received the 2009 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at the White House on February 25, 2010.

David Levering Lewis is the winner of the 12th BIO Award. This prize is bestowed annually to a distinguished colleague who has made major contributions to the advancement of the art and craft of biography.

Lewis, 85, an American historian, is the Julius Silver University Professor and Professor of History at New York University. He is the first author to have won two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography for his successive volumes on W. E. B. Du Bois: W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography Of A Race, 1868–1919 and W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and The American Century, 1919–1963.

Lewis also won the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his two-volume biography of Du Bois, 15 years in the research and writing, and hailed by critics as “definitive” and “magisterial.” Kirkus wrote: “Du Bois has finally found a Boswell worthy of his achievements as an African-American reformer who fought for human rights in the US and the wider world.”

A spectacular scholar who has written eight books and edited two, Lewis was educated at Fisk and Columbia Universities, and received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has taught at Morgan State University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of the District of Columbia. He was professor of history at the University of California at San Diego from 1980–1984 and, in 1985, he joined Rutgers University as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of History. He served as “distinguished visiting professor” in the history department of Harvard in 2001 and, in 2003, he was appointed to his current position at NYU.

Throughout his career Lewis has received prestigious fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the National Humanities Center, the American Philosophical Society, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He has served as a trustee of the National Humanities Center; the commissioner of the National Portrait Gallery; a former senator of Phi Beta Kappa; and former president of the Society of American Historians. He currently serves on the board of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine.

“The BIO Award is the highest honor that our organization bestows, and David Levering Lewis is an obvious choice,” said Linda Leavell, president of BIO. “His spectacular lifetime of work—his biography of Martin Luther King Jr., his two volumes of W. E. B. Du Bois, and his most recent biography of Wendell Willkie—inspires all of us and adds immensely to the genre of biography.”

Previous BIO Award winners are Taylor Branch, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, Richard Holmes, Hermione Lee, Candice Millard, James McGrath Morris, Arnold Rampersad, Stacy Schiff, Jean Strouse, and Claire Tomalin.

Kitty Kelley, who has written seven biographies, serves on the BIO Board of Directors.

Hermione Lee Wins 2020 BIO Award

By Justin Spring

Dame Hermione Lee, Emeritus Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford, is the winner of the 11th annual BIO Award, a prize bestowed yearly by the Biographers International Organization to a distinguished colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Lee will receive the honor on May 16, at the 2020 BIO Conference at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where she will also deliver the conference’s keynote address.

One of the leading literary scholars and critics of our time, Lee is best known for her Virginia Woolf (1996), widely considered the definitive biography of that author. The book won the British Academy’s Rose Mary Crawshay Prize.

Comfortable with literature from both sides of the Atlantic, Lee has written biographies of two American novelists, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, and also a critical study of Philip Roth. In addition, she has written a biography of the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen and, most recently, of the British novelist, poet, essayist, and biographer Penelope Fitzgerald. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life was the winner of the 2013 James Tait Black Prize and BIO’s 2015 Plutarch Award.

Lee has written extensively on the art and craft of what she calls “life-writing,” most notably in her books Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography (2005) and Biography: A Very Short Introduction (2009). She is a fine critical reviewer and judge of biographies, and her reviews have appeared regularly in The Guardian and The New York Review of Books, among many other publications. She was chair of the judges for the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2006 and has judged many other literary prizes throughout her career. In her work as a scholar of literature, she has edited and introduced numerous editions and anthologies of works by major English and American writers, including Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Trollope, Virginia Woolf, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, and Penelope Fitzgerald.

Hermione Lee has worked hard to raise the academic perception of biography. As president of Wolfson College, Oxford, she founded the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, in 2011. Nearly 10 years later, the Centre has become a busy hub of activities relating to many kinds of life-writing and interdisciplinary inquiry. Through its sponsorship of talks, lectures, performances, panel discussions, conferences, seminars, and workshops the Centre has helped raise public awareness about various forms of life-writing. It also fosters biographical research through postdoctoral research fellowships, postgraduate scholarships, visiting scholarships, and visiting doctoral studentships.

Lee’s honors are almost too many to list. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature, and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2003 for services to literature, and in 2013 was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), also for services to literary scholarship.

“I am delighted, honored, and amazed,” Lee wrote BIO President Linda Leavell when informed she had won the BIO Award. “Thank you so much, and thanks to the committee. It is particularly exciting to be given this prize for the Life-Writing Centre here in Oxford as well as for my writing. I accept with pleasure.”

Previous BIO Award winners are James McGrath Morris, Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Taylor Branch, Claire Tomalin, Candice Millard, and Richard Holmes.

Justin Spring, chairman of this year’s Awards Committee, is the author of Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward (FSG, 2011), The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy (FSG, 2017), and Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (Yale University Press, 1999). A Finalist for the National Book Award and the recipient of many other prizes and honors, he has also held a Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction Writing and a Leon Levy Fellowship in biography. He specializes in interdisciplinary and cross-cultural subjects.

Video Highlights from the 2019 BIO Conference

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
my favorites.

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.