Biography

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.

New Podcast Brings BIO to a Larger Audience

By Lisa Napoli

Vanda Krefft was one of the authors recently featured on the BIO podcast.

If you attended the pre-conference festivities last year in New York, you may have seen BIO board member Sonja Williams and me wrangling audio gear as members rose to read from their latest work. Or, maybe you saw us sneaking off the next day to the offices of the Leon Levy Center to conduct one-on-one interviews with some of those authors.

We were taping for a podcast that we recently debuted online and on iTunes.

The goal is to profile writers at various stages of their career. We’re hoping to reach an audience beyond our membership, both to stimulate interest in what BIO has to offer, but also to explain the process (to writers as well as readers) of conceiving, researching, writing, and promoting biography.

In addition to our writing work, we both have backgrounds in public radio. We’ve been delighted to work on this project and hope you’ll give a listen, spread the word, and consider allowing us to interview you when your next book is published.

Lisa Napoli is working on her third book, a biography of Ted Turner and the creation of CNN, to be published by Abrams Press in 2020.

BIO Announces Winners of Caro Fellowships

Amy Reading and Nicholas Boggs are this year’s winners of the Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowships. The $2,500 fellowships  are available, on a competitive basis, to BIO members with a work in progress to help fund research trips to archives and to important settings in their subject’s lives. Reading’s book is Katharine White Edits ‘The New Yorker,’ and Boggs is working on James Baldwin: In the Full Light.

Caro Fellowship Committee chair Deirdre David said, “The committee was very impressed by Amy Reading’s detailed exposition of the cultural importance of Katherine White, and by her justification of the need to travel to Maine to explore its significance in her life. We were also engaged by her emphasis on White’s influence in publishing a distinctive list of women writers whose careers, as she put it, ‘were made at The New Yorker.’”

The committee “was also impressed by Nicholas Boggs’ compelling exploration of James Baldwin’s relationships and by his justification of the need to travel to France where Baldwin spent six months in 1956,” said Caroline Fraser, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who also served on the committee, along with BIO’s treasurer, Marc Leepson.

Reading and Boggs will receive their stipends on Friday, May 17, at the evening reception preceding the annual BIO Conference in New York City. The reception will be held at the Fabbri Mansion on the Upper East Side. Robert Caro is expected to present the award.

Go here to learn more about the Caro Research/Travel Fellowship.

Listen Up! BIO Has a Podcast

Hear what biographers have to say about their work in BIO’s new, weekly podcast. You can find out more about the podcast and listen to an interview with James Atlas, author of The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale, here.

 

BIO Announces Finalists for Plutarch Award

A distinguished panel of judges, all eminent biographers, has selected the final four titles in contention for the Plutarch Award, honoring the best biography of 2018. The Plutarch is the only international literary award judged and presented by biographers.

Following the announcement of the four finalists, BIO voting members around the world will choose the winning biography. The winner will be announced on May 18, 2019, at the 10th Annual BIO Conference in New York.

This year’s finalists, in alphabetical order by author’s name, are:

David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster)

Julie Dobrow, After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet (W. W. Norton)

Lindsey Hilsum, In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny (Viking)

You can read more about the four finalists here. To see all the books that were nominated, plus eight books that received commendation from the judges, go here.

James McGrath Morris Wins 2019 BIO Award

Among his other responsibilities, James McGrath Morris hosts the winner of the annual Mayborn/BIO Fellowship.

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 BarsThe 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.

BIO Announces Long List for Plutarch Award

A distinguished panel of judges, all eminent biographers, has nominated ten books for the Plutarch Award, honoring the best biography of 2018. The Plutarch is the only international literary award judged and presented by biographers.

Following the announcement of the ten nominees, BIO’s Plutarch jury will narrow the list to four finalists, and BIO voting members around the world will choose the winning biography. The winner will be announced on May 18, 2019, at the 10th Annual BIO Conference in New York.

You can see the ten nominees, plus eight books that received commendation from the judges, here.

Mayborn/BIO Fellowship Winner Hones Her Work

Alison Owings knew she wanted to write about homelessness, but she wasn’t sure how to approach the topic. Then, on a walking tour of San Francisco’s notorious Tenderloin neighborhood, she met Del Seymour, an elderly African American man leading a group of curious whites through the streets he knew so well. After all, he had earned the unofficial title of “the mayor of the Tenderloin.”

As he recounted some of his experiences as a homeless man in the neighborhood, Seymour said, “I could have gotten a Ph.D. in sidewalks”—and Owings knew she had the focus for her book. She would make Seymour a “micro example of the macro American scourge of homelessness.”

Owings talked about her subject and the biography-in-progress of his life at a reading marking the end of her residency in Tesuque, New Mexico, where she had spent several weeks working on the book as the ninth winner of the Mayborn/BIO Fellowship in Biography. Her host and mentor for her time in New Mexico was BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris, who also hosted Owing’s reading in his home.

Owings had previously written four books, but her book on Seymour is her first biography. Its working title is The Book of Del: Scenes from a Life Before, During, and After Homelessness. Owing began interviewing Seymour, now 71, in late 2015, and she also talked to about 15 people who had crossed his path in the Tenderloin—including his former crack dealer.

Seymour, a Vietnam War veteran who served as a medic and later became a successful contractor and engineer, found himself on the streets during his 18-year addiction to crack cocaine. During that time, he was a self-described hustler—acting as a go-between for other homeless people in myriad situations, legal and otherwise, and always for a fee. For a time, he was also a pimp.

Now clean and living in his own place, Seymour helps run Code Tenderloin, an organization he founded in 2015 to help provide education and ultimately jobs for people in his neighborhood. He also speaks frequently about homelessness to church and civic groups, and he shared his views on the “scourge” at the White House with the Obama administration.

While Seymour has been a cooperative subject, he is often fuzzy on dates and jumps around in his chronology. Owings has decided to present her material in impressionistic scenes. Right now, she envisions somewhere between 50 and 100 of these vignettes that show Seymour’s background, his descent into addiction and life on the street, and the positive path his life has taken since kicking crack.

Owings said the Mayborn/BIO Fellowship has given her what every writer craves: “uninterrupted time.” She has also received Morris’s help in structuring and condensing her writing. That included printing out her interview transcripts, which totaled two reams of paper. At the reading, Morris noted that Seymour’s domination of the research material and non-chronological presentation posed a particular challenge for Owings: “Organizing that so she can write a narrative is very hard.”

Another challenge Owings might face is finding a publisher, since she presently does not have any kind of collaboration agreement with Seymour, though she has promised him a share in any profits. Owings said, “Del has told me, oh, he’ll sign anything, don’t worry about it,” but as one audience member pointed out, he is a self-confessed hustler.

Still, Owings believes Seymour is motivated mostly by a desire for some kind of redemption: “He’s still trying to exonerate himself from what he did before . . . make good for what he did bad.” And while Seymour’s life dominates the story, Owings has kept a focus on the larger issue of homelessness and how people on the streets—or, increasingly, those working full-time jobs and living in their cars—struggle to survive.