Mayborn/BIO Fellowship

Morgan Voeltz Swanson Wins Mayborn Fellowship

Morgan Voeltz Swanson won the Biography Fellowship awarded annually at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, held in July at the University of North Texas. The fellowship is cosponsored by BIO and BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris. With her fellowship, Swanson receives a two- to three-week residency in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and mentoring from Morris during her stay. In addition, she will receive complimentary admission to the 2020 BIO Conference and a $500 stipend.

During her stay in New Mexico, Swanson, a BIO member, will be working on To the Edge of Endurance: American Soldier Henry W. Lawton, Apache Leader Geronimo, and a Manhunt Through the Desert. Her previous writings include journal articles about Lawton and his wife, Mamie.

In 2020, the fellowship will be relaunched as the Mayborn/BIO Hidden Figure Fellowship, intended to assist aspiring authors working on books about figures who merit a biography through their actions rather than fame. “The marketplace is a cruel arbiter of who is deserving of a biography, reflecting our worse biases,” said Morris. “The publishing industry will eagerly commission yet another biography of Washington, Lincoln, or Roosevelt rather than a biography of someone we don’t know but ought to know. The lives and voices of the lesser known need to have their day on the bookshelf.”

The change in focus for the fellowship began following Morris’s address to the 2019 BIO Conference, where he received this year’s BIO Award. “This issue has implications far beyond a writer’s personal writing ambitions,” Morris said at the conference. “It bolsters a leader-centric view of history. In this manner wars are won by generals, economic crises solved by presidents, and industries built by moguls. In turn this elevation of leaders creates historically inaccurate expectations.”

The fellowship provides for a grant of $1,000, a two-week stay in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a casita at the historic Acequia Madre House in cooperation with the Women’s International Studies Center (WISC), dinner five nights a week in the home of James McGrath Morris and Patty Morris, a public reading, and a meeting with an agent. Time will also be set aside for consultation with biographer Morris regarding research and writing techniques for a book on a hidden figure. Morris is the author, among other books, of The New York Times bestselling Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press, which was awarded the Benjamin Hooks National Book Prize, given annually for the best book in Civil Rights History.

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.