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The Biographer's Craft 
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
November 2007
Vol. 1, No. 9
USC Established Biography Consortium
Cray
 

A Consortium for the Study of Biography is being created at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications.

     The consortium's approach is different from some of the exisiting centers, such as Center for Biographical Research or the Instituut voor Biografiek, that tend to be academic in nature. The new USC center will aim to "bring together the academy and the professionals on equal terms," according to Ed Cray (right), a noted journalist and biographer, who is organizing the venture.

     The consortium grew out of a conference held in May funded by a $15,000 grant from the USC's own budget. Attending what Cray called the "Framing Conference" were fifteen accomplished biographers, such as Pierre Assouline, James Atlas, Neal Gabler, and Stacy Schiff, and several scholars and critics. ( List of participants and invitees)

     During the meeting, all the writers came together on equal terms, drawn by their passion for biography, Cray said. "Everybody parked their egos, I saw conversations that made that point again and again. We were all professional working and knowing how lonely it actually is."

     In explaining how he was originally drawn to launch the Consortium, Cray recalled speaking to a large and enthusiastic audience in Wichita when his biography of Woody Guthrie was published. A woman came up to Cray when he completed his remarks and told him that her great-great-grandfather had been first black minister in Kansas and that she wanted to write up his life story for the family.

     "How do I do this?" she asked.

     "I looked at her and I drew a blank," Cray said.

     In a sense, the Consortium is the answer he came up since then for that woman's question.

     If Cray can obtain funding, the consortium will offer conferences, lectures, online forums, distance learning, a residential fellowship, and a mentoring program. "I don't want to compete with anybody. I want to embrace everybody. I want to be a permanent resource," said Cray.

I.F. Stone Biographer Wins Eighth Annual Sperber Award
MacPherson
 

Myra MacPherson, the author of All Governments Lie! The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone (Scribner) will receive the 2007 Ann M. Sperber Biography Award on November 27 in New York.

     MacPherson is a former Washington Post reporter and the author of several previous books. Her biography of Stone details the life of the iconoclastic investigative reporter whose self-published newsletter, I.F. Stone's Weekly, challenged government accounts of its activities by careful study of the government's public records. At the height of its power, the weekly directly confronted the government's conduct in Vietnam and inspired a generation of future investigative reporters.

     All Governments Lie! was a finalist in the Pen Center USA 2007 Literary Awards Research Nonfiction category. A six-member committee selected the book for the eighth annual Sperber prize, which is administered by Fordham University, and is given annually to an author of a biography or autobiography of a journalist or other media figure. The prize was established with a gift from Liselotte Sperber in memory of her daughter Ann M. Sperber, who wrote the best-selling biography Murrow: His Life and Times.

Writing Lives: Glendinning on the Challenges of Biography
Glendinning

 
by Sandra Hogan

 

Victoria Glendinning did not shirk the hardest and most tedious tasks when researching her recently published biography, Leonard Woolf: A Life (Simon & Schuster, 2006)

     At the Brisbane Writers Festival in September, Glendinning spoke about the difficulty of researching the life of a man who "kept everything," including boxes of lawnmower repair bills. "I would think: 'Do I have to go through all these repair bills?'" she told her Australian audience. "I did and, halfway through, I found a letter starting, 'My dearest love'."

     A biographer is like a detective, Glendinning said. "We live a double life, we follow clues, we join the dots and make connections. Do you remember those children's puzzles where you join up dots to make a picture of a camel? The only worry is that you may join them incorrectly and make a picture of a giraffe instead."

     "We read private letters. We question people gently, sometimes over a long time. We scour endless books. I use masses of spiral notebooks. I catalogue notebooks by putting a list on the front of each notebook. Otherwise I end up looking endlessly for that quote that was in violet ink on the left hand side of a page somewhere. This is a lot of fun and it's called research."

     Woolf kept a daily diary; not the kind of intense outpouring that his wife Virginia Woolf kept, but with records of the weather and the cost of groceries. Every day he jotted down what mileage he had covered in the car.

     As Glendinning read his diaries, she became increasingly excited as she came closer to the day when Virginia went into the water. What would he include in his entry that day? Finally, she came to the day of Virginia's death.

     "There was the usual entry with the mileage of the car," Glendinning said. "The only different thing about that day was a small smudge on the page. It could have been a tear or a drop of coffee. The mileage turned out to be the trip he took to tell Vanessa the news about Virginia. He was a very emotional man and a very controlled man-those impulses fought it out inside him."

     For Glendinning her subject was like a long-distance lover. "When I was writing about Leonard Woolf, my husband said there were three of us in the marriage. I thought about Leonard while I shelled the peas, went for drives, worked in the garden."

     "Biography takes you out of your own skin. You live a fantasy life in close intimacy with another. You have to be careful not to identify too closely. I have had to rip up pieces of writing, done in a great fever, because I looked at it in the morning and thought: That's not him speaking, that's me."

     Glendinning offered biographers in the audience a number of tips. She warned that the photocopier was a false friend. "If you photocopy all the letters you find in the library, you haven't done any research at all yet. If you don't have a photocopier, it sharpens the attention wonderfully. It's like running your fingers through silk. You're looking for something that catches your attention. You don't know what it will be but it catches you. Other people will go through the same papers and pick out different things. When you copy out, in your own handwriting, something in the handwriting of your subject, it is an intimate act. Handwritten notes have an intensity for you that photocopies don't."

     Biography was not credible if it didn't include what was discreditable about people, Glendinning said. "But now our eyes no longer stand out on stalks at the sexual antics of dead famous people-we take that for granted. These days the reading public has re-discovered morality. For instance, we are much more shocked now by T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitism than by clinical sexual details."

     Nevertheless, if Glendinning includes anything in her books about living people, she sends them the pages and asks for permission to publish that section. If they refuse because they can't bear to see that aspect of themselves in public, she always agrees to leave it out. "Life is more important than art," Glendinning added.

 

Sandra Hogan is an Australian freelance writer, working for newspapers and magazines and also for the public service. For pleasure, she devours biographies, memoirs, letters and novels.

Good Grief: New Biography of Schulz Wins Praise from Critics and Wrath of Family
Michaelis  

Schulz and Peanuts, a new biography of the creator of the ever-popular comic strip "Peanuts", garnered author David Michaelis (left) the praise of many critics this past month but unleashed a storm of protest from the family of the deceased subject. This, of course, is not the first time a family has cried foul when they read an outsider's version of their relative's life.

     However, the squabble that played out in the press may mask two aspects of the book that biographers, and close readers of biography, should want to examine. (In the spirit of disclosure, I am under contract to the same editor and house that produced this book.)

     The first unusual aspect of Schulz and Peanuts is Michaelis's extraordinary use of the 17,897 strips Charles Schulz produced in his career. Most biographers seeking to plum the psyche of their subjects look desperately through archives for revealing letters and diaries. Like the old adage of hiding something valuable in plain sight, the key to understanding Schulz was his comic strip. Michaelis makes deft use of a couple hundred strips, lacing them throughout the book to link the subject and his art.

     Any author might have done so, but in Michealis's hands the comic strips become an integral part of the text much in the same way a choice quote or anecdote become part of a traditional narrative. Anyone considering using non-textual material in their book should study this one.

     However, another part of Michaelis's work may be a lesson in what not to do. His endnotes obfuscate rather than enlighten.

     In recent years increasingly fewer publishers allow for numbered endnotes under the belief that numbers in the text make the book look like (gasp) an academic tome. Instead they have turned to using page numbers and extracts from the quotations or items needing sourcing. Michaelis resorts to an entirely different system. Each chapter's endnotes are organized by subject. Thus the endnotes to chapter 20 are broken down into "Day in the life; mornings", "Parenting", "Marriage: Lucy and Schroeder" "Day at the drawing board" and so on. Under each subject head, the sources of information or quotations are listed, often using abbreviations to let the reader know if the material came from an interview, email, speech, or even postcard. While it seems complete, it leaves those seeking the source of a specific quotation completely befuddled.

Ellison Biography is NBA Finalist
Rampersad

 

Arnold Rampersad's Ralph Ellison: A Biography (Knopf) is among the five finalists in nonfiction for the 2007 National Book Awards. The winner will be announced at the NBA Benefit Dinner and Ceremony in Manhattan on November 14.The dinner will be hosted by Fran Lebowitz and each winner will receive $10,000; each finalist will receive $1,000.

Bibliographies on Biography, in Paper and on the Web
Rollyson
 

A minor classic, Biography: An Annotated Bibliography by Carl Rollyson (left) is now available in an inexpensive paperback edition. Originally published in 1992, the book was the first bibliography to organize and to annotate the literature on biography. The chapters cover biographers on biography, historical and critical studies, Johnson and Boswell, Leon Edel (he gets an entire chapter) psychobiography, Feminist biography, innovations in biography, and biography in fiction.

Rollyson is an accomplished biographer himself. He has completed biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Pablo Picasso, Marie Curie, Rebecca West and Susan Sontag.

     Biography: An Annoted Bibliography is now available as an Authors Guild Backinprint.com edition published by iUniverse and may be purchased from Amazon.

 

If you are looking for something less comprehensive but still very useful, Robert A. Hatch, a University of Florida history professor, maintains an interesting select bibliography of works relating to biography and history.

Obituary
Curie Biographer Labouisse
 

Eve Curie Labouisse, who wrote a best-selling biography of her mother, the scientist Marie Curie, died at age 102 in her Manhattan apartment on October 22.

     Her biography Marie Curie was published seventy years ago, three years after her mother's death. It was widely considered a classic among scientific biographies though it was later criticized, perhaps anachronistically, for not mentioning Curie's affair with a married man following the death of her husband.

      Labouisse spent many years working for the United Nations and became a well know advocate of underprivileged children.
Letters to the Editor
 

Dear Colleague,   

     As you know, the first commandment of biographers is to fish with a net, not a hook, so I'm throwing my net to you. I'm under contract to Crown Books (Random House, Inc.) to write about the phenomenon known as Oprah Winfrey, and I'd be grateful to hear from any of you wh o might know someone who has a connection to Oprah, past or present.  I would appreciate being in touch with anyone who hass known or worked with her over the years in Baltimore or Chicago, or appeared on her show, and might have an anecdote to share about the experience of interacting with one of the world's most charismatic figures.

      No story is too small, no detail too slight for the texture of an in-depth biography. Ideally, this one will chronicle the life of a woman, who has broken all barriers to become a world-beating success, as well as tell us something about ourselves as a society while providing a mirror into popular culture--for better or for worse.

     I can be reached at kittykelley@thebiographerscraft.com.

My thanks for your time and assistance.

Sincerely,

Kitty Kelley

Tips Corner
Research ideas contributed by readers
 
lnterviewing Techiques
 

If you are working on a biography of someone who is alive, or was recently, interviewing may be one of the most important sources for your work. The Committee of Concerned Journalists, which describes itself as "a consortium of journalists, publishers, owners and academics worried about the future of the profession," offers Ten Tips for a Better Interview. Even if you have done many interviews, reviewing the tips may be a reminder of some sage advice. My favorite is number seven:

7.  Silence is golden. Sooner or later you will have to ask the tough questions that your subject may be loath to discuss. When you start asking those provocative questions, the answers most likely will be short, useless or carefully worded. You may not get an answer at all. If this occurs, look your source in the eye and don't say a word. In most cases, your opponent will begin to feel uncomfortable and begin to share information again. If this doesn't work, ask for sources who might be able to answer your question.

 
Thanks to Washington writer John Blair for this tip.
    

Have a great tip?

Send it to editor@the biographerscraft.com
In This Issue
USC Creates Biography Consortium
Stone Biography Wins Sperber
Advice from Glendinning
Good Grief: Schulz Biography
Ellison Bio NBA Finalist
Bibliographies in Paper & on Web
Obituary: Labouisse
Letters to the Editor
Tips Corner

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From the Editor's Desk

editor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Dear Readers,

In reading the correspondence I receive after each issue of The Biographer's Craft goes out has made me think that perhaps it might be worthwhile to put into succinct words the newsletter's editorial mission.

 

The Biographer's Craft is designed for writers, readers, editors, agents, critics, and retailers with an interest in biography. It limits its content to items about biographies, biographers, and publishing that relate directly to the craft. Additionally it is intended to help connect biographers with each other, with readers, and with institutions.

 

 

This month's issue is a good example of trying to meet that objective. The newsletter features news of a new biography center, a biography testing new techniques, advice from a seasoned biographer, news of biography prizes, an obituary, and several resources of use.

 

I hope you notice the advertisement for an academic journal that relates to our field. The advertisement is symbolic of our continued growth. So please keep telling others about the newsletter so that in 2008 we can become self-supporting.

I am continuing to make plans for the newsletter's second year. I am considering some changes in the format as well as additional resources on its web page. If you have suggestion, please pass them on.

Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris

P.S. Don't forget to forward this newsletter to your friends so they can sign up!

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Any book mentioned in this newsletter may be ordered from our official partner, Powell's Books, the legendary independent bookstore.
Sold to Publishers

The following are among the biographies sold to publishers in October as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources 

  • Douglas Brinkley, Evel Knievel: Daredevil in Winter, Harper

  • Steve Wermiel and Seth Stern, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, Houghton Mifflin

  • Brian Donovan, Broken Promise: The Remarkable Story of Nascar's First Black Driver, Steerforth

  • Ronin Ro, Prince: How he Revolutionized Rock n Roll and Survived, St. Martin's

  • RJ Smith, The One: The Life of James Brown, Gotham

  • Alison Light, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, Bloomsbury Press

     

Coming to Stores  

Gonzo

 

Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson by Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour (Little, Brown and Company)

A Lion in the White House: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Aida D. Donald (Basic Books)

The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi by Les Leopold (Chelsea Green)

 

 

King of the Club: Richard Grasso and the Survival of the New York Stock Exchange by Charles Gasparino (Collins Business)

 

The Lost Prince: The Survival of Richard of York by David Baldwin (Sutton Publishing)

 

C. L. R. James by David Renton (Haus Publishers)

 

Write it When I'm Gone by Thomas M. DeFrank (Putnam)

 
 
Credits
Photo of MacPherson by Neshan H. Natchayan
Photo of Rampersad by Brigitte Carnochan