Conference

2018 Conference Goers Take Home Useful Insights from Top Biographers

Below are reports on two of the panels that were offered at the Ninth Annual BIO Conference in May, written with assistance from John Grady. Each article continues on the BIO website. BIO members can read about seven more sessions in the July issue of The Biographer’s Craft; an archived copy is available in the Member Area.

You can see a photo gallery from the conference here.

Writing Multiple Lives

Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know: Three Lives, said she discovered that through a group biography she could dramatize her initial subject and anchor her in a community, a social circle. What tied together her three subjects—Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland—was that they “were women who knew everybody” and their sexuality.

“I didn’t set out to write collective biography,” Carla Kaplan said when she started work on Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance. From her earlier biography on Zora Neale Hurston, Kaplan knew that many white women had connections to Hurston and others in the renaissance. As Kaplan delved deeper into the relationships those women had with Hurston and each other, she found “extraordinary dead ends” on how to approach writing about a single white woman in that time, in that place. Finally, Kaplan decided, “I am going to have to write that book to read that book” on the complexities of the relationships of the “Miss Annes”—a collective nickname—of being hostesses, philanthropists, snubbers of convention, and more.

Likewise, Justin Spring in The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy had to work through “any number of false starts” to settle on how to proceed to write about six very different writers, who “were very much like the Americans of the ‘Lost Generation,’” in another era of “enormous American cultural ferment:” Paris after World War II.

Interesting as the six were as individuals, Spring said, “these people were not coming together” as a possible group biography until he found a key in Alice B. Toklas’s second book on cooking, and their shared love of French cuisine. Among the subjects in The Gourmands’ Way is Julia Child, to many Americans the doyenne of the Gallic way with food.
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From left to right: Marc Leepson, Kai Bird, Max Boot, and
Heath Lee. Photo by Jane O’Connor

Writing About the Vietnam War

Moderator Marc Leepson, a Vietnam War veteran, began the session by providing some background. The Vietnam War was the longest U.S. war before the twenty-first century and the country’s most controversial overseas war. After the war, Leepson said, “Nobody really wanted to talk about it” because of its divisive nature. But as panelists Kai Bird, Max Boot, and Heath Lee showed, there is a market today for certain biographies relating to the Vietnam War era, even if there are challenges in writing them.

For Bird, one challenge was getting one of his subjects, McGeorge Bundy, to open up about his involvement in the war. Bird’s The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms looked at the role both Bundy brothers played in setting U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Bird, a former Vietnam War protester, wanted to explore how smart, liberal intellectuals came to get America into and then defend the war. He was able to meet with both Bundys. William, he said, “was much more of a gentleman and a scholar” and more generous with his time. On the other hand, Bird said, “I feared Mac Bundy”—a man Bird once considered a war criminal. McGeorge was sometimes dismissive of Bird’s questions. The Color of Truth came out in 1991, and Bird said he had no trouble getting it published, but he was still dealing with his own anger about the war as he wrote it.

Both Max Boot and Heath Lee are of a younger generation than Leepson and Bird; their experiences of the Vietnam War were not nearly as direct. Boot said that with younger writers of Vietnam books “you lose some of that sense of immediacy” that came from authors writing just after the war. “But,” he added, “I think what you gain is some more perspective.” Boot brought that perspective to his recent biography of Edward Lansdale, the first complete look at the life of a military officer and CIA agent who helped shape U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Lansdale often appeared as a character in other books about the war, and Boot said he was usually presented in a one-dimensional way, as a con artist or malevolent figure. Boot wanted to present Lansdale in a more balanced way, while still presenting his flaws.

Heath Lee’s Vietnam book, The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the President, the Pentagon and the Rest of the US Government to Bring Their Husbands Home, which will be published April 2, 2019, is a group biography of civilians who have been overlooked: the wives of American POWs/MIAs. While writing the book, she said, she came to “love the ladies,” but she knew a biographer should not fall in love with her subjects. She interviewed most of the women featured, and they were eager to share a story that had not been told before. Another major source was the diary of Sybil Stockdale, one of the key figures in the book.
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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:

James Atlas Interviews 2018 BIO Award Winner Richard Holmes

Photo: Stuart Clarke

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.

BIO Conference Preview: Writing Multiple Lives

By Linda Leavell

“All biographies are group biographies. All lives are surrounded by a constellation of other lives,” said Susan Hertog, at a previous BIO Conference. “Every biographer must choose how much space to devote to each person.”

So why foreground several lives at once instead of making most of them secondary in a conventional biography or else subsuming them all in a history? What draws writers and readers to group biography? What particular challenges does group biography entail?

These are some of the questions to be addressed by the “Writing Multiple Lives” session at the 2018 BIO Conference in New York. The three panelists—Lisa Cohen, Carla Kaplan, and Justin Spring—generously gave a preview of their remarks.

Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know: Three Lives (2012), first planned to write a biography of Madge Garland, an influential fashion editor of British Vogue. But Cohen realized that even though she had enough material to write a whole book about Garland, “such a book would—ironically—not quite do her justice. And that it would not hold my interest.”

“I realized,” said Cohen, “that I had to grapple with the idea of ephemeral achievement more broadly. And that challenge also meant a different approach to the form of biography.”

All We Know juxtaposes Garland with two other lesbian women, Esther Murphy and Mercedes de Acosta, whose lives were both “central and marginal to their time.” The structure of the group biography allowed Cohen “to keep asking: what is failure and what is accomplishment?” Cohen never draws connections among the three lives explicitly. Rather, as in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, she lets readers discover parallels on their own.

Carla Kaplan decided to write Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (2013), because no such book existed when she looked for one. While the involvement of white men in the Harlem Renaissance is well documented, the many white women who “volunteered for blackness were either obscured or dismissed.

Kaplan focused on the lives of six women, some with motives that were honorable and some not. But even if she did not like them, Kaplan “still wanted to treat them with respect.”

The magnitude of research surprised her. “It was like writing six biographies—more really, because a couple of the women who’d been slated for the book just didn’t pan out. I didn’t feel I could bring them to life or make them interesting enough.”

She chose to write a group biography to allow her six women to “speak for themselves” whenever possible. They each needed “some space of their own.”

Justin Spring, author of The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy (2017), compares writing a group biography to “composing an orchestral piece rather than a solo piece.”

Like Kaplan, he started with an idea—“the effect of French foodways and French culture on the American understanding of good food, wine, and fine dining”—and then chose six American writers who played a role in that phenomenon. The six contemporaries vary in their personalities, sexual orientations, backgrounds, and relationships to French cuisine, and “their lives were full of overlapping dramas (and a good deal of antagonism).”

“Each of the six lives has a specific dramatic arc,” Spring said, “and the period itself has a dramatic arc, and at the same time there is much that needed explaining both in the USA of that period and in France of that period—so getting it right took a lot of arranging, trimming, and rearranging.”

The session on “Writing Multiple Lives” at the 2018 BIO Conference will engage not only those writing or contemplating a group biography per se but also anyone whose work encompasses multiple lives.

Linda Leavell, the moderator of the panel, won the Plutarch Award for her biography of Marianne Moore. Her current project is a group biography of the Stieglitz Circle.

(Photos above, from left to right, by Vanessa Haney, Robin Hultgren, and Jason Puris)

BIO Returns to Europe for International Conference

The conference will be held at the Doopsgezinde Kerk in Groningen.

On September 20 and 21, 2018, BIO will join the Biography Institute and the Biography Society in hosting the conference Different Lives: Global Perspectives on Biography in Public Cultures and Societies. This conference will take place in Groningen, the Netherlands, home of the Biography Institute, which is directed by BIO board member Hans Renders. The event will allow biographers to look beyond their own borders, explore how biography is practiced in other parts of the world, and discuss the cultural perspectives that guide biographers in their approach to the infinite complexity of the other.

With a mix of panel, roundtable, and public discussions, featuring speakers from many nations, this conference is designed to present the state of the art of biography from a wealth of different perspectives. Richard Holmes will deliver the keynote address, and BIO members participating include Carl Rollyson, John A. Farrell, and Nigel Hamilton. The latter will host a master class on Wednesday, September 19, for young biographers working on their first books.

Also on Wednesday, attendees can choose to explore two cultural sites in and around Groningen: Museum of Graphic Arts and Camp Westerbork, an exhibition depicting the Netherlands during World War II, focusing on the persecution of Jews.

Early-bird tickets for the conference are available until June 1, for 40 euros; after that, the price will rise to 60 euros. Attendees can also reserve a place at the conference dinner for 60 euros. If you require assistance in booking hotel or travel arrangements, email the conference board. Look for more information on the conference in future issues of TBC, and you can follow news of the event on Facebook at Different Lives Conference.

Annual BIO Conference to Be Held in New York in May

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.

BIO Members Explore the Role of Biography in Teaching the Humanities

Thanks to the efforts of Billy Tooma (rear), deputy executive director of the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA), four BIO board members took part in a panel at the CCHA’s annual conference. Next year, members of CCHA will participate in BIO’s annual conference. Shown here with Tooma are Kate Buford, Dean King, Heath Lee, and Brian Jay Jones.

Four BIO board members helped kick off an affiliation between BIO and the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA) on November 10, when they took part in a panel discussion at the CCHA’s national conference in Baltimore, Maryland. In front of an assembled group of two-year-college faculty and students, moderator Kate Buford introduced panelists Brian Jay Jones, Dean King, and Heath Lee. What followed was a lively discussion on the merits of biography as a focus of academic study and why such a field of study should be incorporated into higher-education course syllabi.

After the session, Jones said, “I thought it was an incredibly worthwhile ‘tech transfer,’ and so useful for us to learn and appreciate how biography is actively used (not just in concept) in teaching.” King’s assessment of the panel session reaffirmed this when he said that it “was a great opportunity to have a fruitful interaction with educators who have a deep interest in biography and are on the frontline of making biography relevant and motivational to a new generation of readers. I felt we had as much to learn from them as they did from us.” Buford noted that being able to present “the importance of biography to such a receptive group of academic professionals was a rare pleasure.”

Feedback on the panel from conference attendees was overwhelmingly positive. Jack J. Cooney, Associate Professor of History at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, made sure to spread the word to both fellow CCHA members and his own colleagues: “I was greatly heartened to hear how each biographer spoke so thoughtfully, and with candid humility, about their craft. The grace and good humor of their eloquent comments gave those of us in the audience a chance to reimagine biography. The panelists offered us ample evidence so we might better see how biography can break boundaries for humanities teaching.”

CCHA members will continue the dialogue between biographers and educators in May 2018 at BIO’s annual conference. This “cross paneling” affiliation is the brainchild of BIO president Will Swift and CCHA deputy director Billy Tooma (a biographer and a BIO member). By bringing the two organizations together, the two hope to see biography rise in prominence within the college classroom. “I think biography can go beyond the liberal arts,” Tooma said. “Educators are constantly trying to figure out ways in which we can turn STEM into STEAM, with the ‘A’ representing the arts, and I think biography is the answer. How do you humanize the study of physics? One way is to have your students read Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe.” Lee agreed with Tooma’s view when she said the “idea that biography is being woven intentionally into the humanities curricula as well as into STEM courses is revolutionary and exciting for biographers. The idea that our stories could help draw students into a larger narrative across the disciplines is thrilling!”

Thanks to Billy Tooma for his contributions to this report.

Bringing the Ghosts to Life: An Interview with Candice Millard

BIO Board member Cathy Curtis asked Candice Millard, winner of the 2017 BIO Award, to respond to a list of questions about her experiences as a biographer. Her thoughtful emailed replies appear below. You won’t want to miss Millard’s keynote speech at this year’s BIO Conference, on May 20 in Boston.

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.
CC: Are there biographers who have helped shape your own style or approach?
CM: The list of biographers I admire is extremely long, so I’ll start with those who have perhaps had the greatest impact on my own work: Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Martin Gilbert, Robert Caro, William Manchester, Laura Hillenbrand, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Antony Beevor, Andrew Roberts. I could keep going. . . .
CC: Do you tend to sift through numerous potential subjects before you find “the one”?
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.
CC: You have written, “What interests me more than moments of public triumph or infamy are instances of private trial and struggle, when no one can hide their weaknesses—or indeed their strengths.” Is this the thinking that led you to “slice of life” biographies, as opposed to the traditional cradle-to-grave format?
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.
CC: Are there key research or writing tips you gleaned from working on The River of Doubt that you were able to use in writing your next two books?
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.
CC: How have events in your own life contributed to your understanding of your subjects?
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.
CC: I’ve read that you align work on your books with your children’s school schedules—an inspiration to all of us who have other demands on our time. Was it difficult at first to use your limited time wisely?
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.
CC: What has been your biggest challenge as a biographer?
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.
CC: Tell us about a memorable moment on one of your book tours.
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.
CC: What are you working on now?
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.