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The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
September 2008
 Vol. 2, No. 7
Bundock Wins Biographers Club Prize; Black Biography Prize Awarded to Rosemary Hill
winner
 

The winner of the 2008 Biographers Club prize is In Search of Francis Barber by Michael Bundock. The work explores the life and times of a Jamaican slave who was the valet and secretary to lexicographer and author Samuel Johnson. The pair eventually became devoted friends and Johnson made him a major heir to his estate.
    Bundock, is a lawyer, trustee of Dr Johnson House and editor of the New Rambler, the annual journal of the Johnson Society of London. He said he was "stunned and thrilled" by news of the £2,000 prize, sponsored by the Daily Mail. He added that his success was made all the sweeter by the fact that all the other short-listed entrants made a special point of congratulating him.
    The other entrants were:

  • Katie Waldegrave, for her Poets' Daughters (about Coleridge's and Wordsworth's troubled girls, Sara and Dora);
  • Sabina ffrench Blake, for her proposal on Henry Tonks (an artist and influential figure at the Slade);
  • Edward Black, for his Bristol: The Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll Aristocrat;
  • Helen Braithwaite, for her Gunpowder Joe (a new Life of Joseph Priestley, the 18th-century radical preacher, chemist, philosopher, educator and political theorist)

     At the awards dinner, attended by more than a hundred people and held at the Savile Club in London's Mayfair, biographer Simon Callow spoke about his trials and tribulations in writing the biographies of Charles Laughton and Orson Welles. As an actor and as a biographer, he said, one has to embrace "thinking other people's thoughts."
    The most revealing sources, Callow said, are not the grand passions or family members who may well resort to cover-up. Rather they are the secretaries, stage managers and commissaries, the people who observe with a sharp eye and recall with balanced hindsight. And what we as biographers choose to leave out, such as the nasty gossip and grubbier rumors, is as important as what we choose to submit to the page. 
    The Biographers Club prize supports an un-commissioned first-time writer working on a biography; in every case but one it has led to publication with a mainstream publisher.
    This year's judges were Nicola Beauman, publisher of Persephone Books and author of Cynthia Asquith and Morgan: A Life of E.M. Forster; Richard Davenport-Hines, whose books include biographies of Proust and Auden; and Andrew Crofts, prolific ghostwriter and author of the forthcoming novel The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride.

Black Biography Prize
Rosemary Hill's God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain (Allen Lane ) was selected for this year's James Tait Black biography prize.
    Augustus Welby Pugin is best known today for his architectural work on the houses of parliament, including the interior of the House of Lords. But in his personal life he was not triumphant. He went bankrupt, was widowed by age twenty-one, and died insane at age forty. Yet he changed British architecture.
    "I read a nineteenth-century biography [of Pugin] and thought, This story has got to be worth [re]telling," Hill said. "His life has the classic shape of early promise, success, decline, and fall, but it all happened at twice the ordinary speed."
    The book, however, was not a hurried matter; it took Hill fifteen years to complete the manuscript.
    The author came out on top of a strong shortlist, including Hermione Lee and Simon Sebag Montefiore, to take the £10,000 prize. Previous prizes have gone to Antonia Fraser, Lytton Strachey, and John Buchan.

Work on Launching Biographers International Organization Presses Onward
BIO logo 
Biographers International Organization (BIO), whose name was suggested by reader Lilla Ross, is one step closer to reality.
    Currently a call for a founding congress is circulating for signatures.  If you are interested in signing the letter, you may view it at the new BIO webpage. After reading it, simply send us an email and we will add your name to the growing list.
Diane Stanley: A Young Reader's Boswell
Stanley
 
Few biographies for young readers have been as successful as those written and illustrated by Diane Stanley. The recipient of the Washington Post/Children's Book Guild nonfiction award and the 2008 Mazza Medallion Award for the body of her work, Stanley is the principal creator of eleven books in a series of biographies for children. The twelfth, Mozart, The Wonder Child: A Puppet Play in Three Acts, will be released on January 27, Mozart's birthday.
    Apart from its target audience, Stanley's work is much like that of other biographers. "I always begin with book research, reading eight to ten of the most respected contemporary biographies on my subject, plus whatever primary materials are available," said Stanley. "In the case of Mozart," she noted, "as with Michelangelo, we are lucky to have a rich trove of letters (and drawings, and jokes) to learn from."
  Mozart book  To complete the research for the Mozart biography, Stanley and her husband Peter Vennema, who has co-authored some of the books, spent two weeks in Austria and the Czech Republic visiting the Geburtshaus, the Wohnhaus, and all the many museums, libraries, and theaters that were part of the composer's story.
     Stanley also pursued an unusual inquiry. She wanted the book to include strands of music that her young readers could play. To accomplish this she worked with Tomas O'Connor, director of Santa Fe Pro Musica, to choose for each episode music appropriate to that particular time in the composer's life. "I then wrote the music out by hand," said Stanley, "working with a pianist, Jacquelyn Helin, who played the pieces for me and helped make different selections when necessary."
     Not being a musician, Stanley had to take the further step of having her hand notation checked for style and accuracy. Once the manuscript and sketches were complete, both were vetted by John Muller, head of the music history department at Juilliard.
     In addition to making the musical samples, Stanley employed other methods to create a kid-friendly and artistic approach to the telling of Mozart's life. "While in Salzburg, we passed the famous marionette theater, and bells went off in my head," she said. "I spent hours in the Marionette Museum and was enchanted by the beautifully crafted and lavishly dressed puppets on display. It seemed like exactly what I was looking for."
     The result is that Stanley unfolds Mozart's life through a puppet play. "The Salzburg Marionettes started out, a hundred years ago, doing a Mozart opera (Bastian and Bastienne), and they still specialize in his works. Mozart himself spent a large part of his life performing on stage and writing operas for the stage. So it seemed highly appropriate."
    On the half-title page readers will find a group of children and their parents gathered around a poster for the puppet show. On the title page they are in the theater, waiting for the curtain to rise, and at the end of the book, the reader is backstage, looking out at the cheering audience as Mozart the marionette takes a bow.
   Though Stanley takes these imaginative steps, her biographies do not indulge in fiction, as many juvenile biographies do. "Though writers of children's books (and adult books, too) sometimes take a storytelling approach to history--adding scenes and dialogue, probing the thoughts of their historical characters--I have chosen never to fictionalize," Stanley said. "I have always believed that if it's a good story, and Mozart's certainly is, it will be sufficiently interesting to a young reader as it is." 
Looking for Ways to Engage Young Readers in Biography
Edmondson
 
by Jacqueline Edmondson
 
"Biographies? Nobody reads biographies! They're just stories about people's lives." (Luke, thirteen years old)
 
As I write biographies for adolescent readers, Luke's objection rings in my head, accompanied by a nagging concern that none of the young people with whom I talk seem especially interested in biography. Instead, they spend countless hours on Facebook and Google, reading some variation (aberration?) of life stories, and they turn to Biography.com to learn a specific fact about a famous person for a school project or to satisfy personal curiosity. 
    One of the major reasons adolescents give for not reading, even though they can, is lack of interest in reading materials, according to researcher Kimberly Lenters. To address this issue, I have become increasingly interested in how biographers can be attuned to the invitations a text presents to young people, including how those compare with the variety of texts and screens that are part of young people's daily lives.
    This does not mean that a life story needs to be compromised or shortened to the advertisement style that is commonplace on Internet biography sites. Instead, a form that conveys stories through a mélange of images, words, fonts, and other special formats may have more appeal.
    Books written for somewhat younger audiences already provide some interesting possibilities. Siena Cherson Seigel and Mark Seigel's graphic novel To Dance! (Atheneum Press) uses visual techniques to bring to life aspects of the story words alone could not, including the beauty and grace of a ballerina's hands, the Russian influence on American ballet, and the vastness of the New York State Theater. Chris Raschka matches the chromatic scale with the color wheel to represent harmonies and improvisations in Mysterious Thelonious (Orchard Books). Readers learn about Thelonious Monk and his commitment to music of freedom, and they can play Misterioso. Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian combine story, biographical data, and images in their memorable work, Snowflake Bentley (Houghton Mifflin).
    Biographers can experiment with alternate forms for adolescent readers that still uphold the highest standards for biography. Elizabeth Patridge has written award-winning, engaging biographies that weave photographs, images, and texts to relay the complex life stories of John Lennon, Woody Guthrie, and Dorothea Lange. Unfortunately, in final form these books are hardbound and quite large compared to the standard paperbacks high school students typically jam into their backpacks. Young readers are likely to leave these big, heavy books in the library or on the coffee table at home rather than take them to a place where they might be enjoyed at length.
    As writers, we need to find ways to invite young people into this wonderful art form. Images, texts, fonts, and binding offer some imaginative possibilities for opening this world to youth.
 
Jacqueline Edmondson is Associate Dean for Teacher Education and Undergraduate Programs at Pennsylvania State University. She has written several biographies for Greenwood Press, including Venus and Serena Williams (2005), Condoleezza Rice (2006), Jesse Owens (2007), and Jerry Garcia (forthcoming). Her next biography project will explore new text forms for adolescent readers.

Good Writing, Not Good Bodies, Can Resurrect Biography
Manthorpe
 
by Victoria Manthorpe
 
Kathryn Hughes' dismay at the advent of the glamorous biographer is understandable. Traditionally, the blue-stocking writer has always been able to hide in the stacks while wielding the power of authorship. Good looks were not required. Now it seems that the hiding place has been blown--the body of the biographer as well as that of her subject is being examined. This is not comfortable for many of us. The best bodies are young bodies, though the same cannot always be said of minds.
    One consequence of this commercial demand is a debased form of the genre, biography-lite. However, there are many reasons why people read biography: for the moral instruction, in the Protestant tradition of exemplary lives; to understand the psychology of significant or popular people; for background to the creation of big historical events; for marginalia on the creation of great literature and art; for commentary on a generation or a historical movement; and, good heavens, for idle curiosity--or, in another word, gossip.
    Surely all biographers have experienced the temptation to gossip, and no doubt some even enjoy indulging in it. Research produces trivia as well as important facts. How determinedly virtuous one would have to be not to mark the petty shortcomings, the sexual nuances, the risqué anecdotes about one's subject. Not that one should necessarily reproduce such material without a careful frame, but, nevertheless, it is there: the relish of all-too-human behavior. Boswell lead the way in this as in many matters.
    Kathryn Hughes also suggests that biography is in the doldrums from both a surfeit of detailed material on a few major subjects and a lack of new material on anyone else: letter writing is largely a thing of the past, how are we to deal with e-mail, and so on. My response to this dilemma is to remember that some of the great biographers of the past did not rely on heavy research. Rather, they were great sketchers of character. Careful observation more than compilations of laundry lists and copious correspondence guided their craft, and they used masterful strokes of the pen like confident sweeps of the brush. We have not seen much of this skill of late, and it is less likely to be found among the more youthful practitioners of life writing, however clever they may be, because it requires experience.
    For study of this insightful portraiture, I refer readers to the work of Hugh Kingsmill (1889-1949), who adapted Wordsworth's dictum on poetry: "biography is human nature delineated in tranquility." An example of his fine perception may be found in his exquisite summing up of Tennyson: "He chafed against his eternal adolescence instead of resting complacently in it, and in spite of everything shadowy majesty invests his great and desolate figure."
    The fashion for looking at all the women in a man's life, or all the men in woman's, in order to bring a new contextual glimpse of a figure who has been the subject of too many full-frontal biographies, was a novel approach when Margot Strickland first used it in The Byron Women (1974); now it, too, is an over-mined seam. In 1949 Kingsmill offered another avenue, in The Progress of a Biographer: "Plutarch's method of pairing off similar persons is plain and sensible, and jogs the reader along to instructive conclusions, but to juxtapose opposites is more stimulating to the imagination and outlines the persons concerned against a larger background." He introduced a sketch of Winston Churchill with a surprising contrast to William Blake, which served to accentuate Churchill's life of action. This idea could be developed in longer studies.
    Kingsmill was brilliant at catching the essence of a character. He described Karl Marx as "savage and self-engrossed throughout his life." Of D.H. Lawrence he wrote, "The conflict between his parents was never resolved....That was his tragedy, and the reason why his genius remained unfruitful." Of Kipling he was equally incisive: "he had too much of the hatred generated by fear, and the cruelty of inward despair" and "to the last he kept self-examination at bay."
    V.S. Pritchett (1900-1997), another consummate literary marksman, delivered his judgments with unmatched style. On Samuel Pepys he wrote, "The only serious rival to Pepys is Boswell, but Boswell is a snail without a shell. He trails through life unhoused and exclamatory whereas Pepys is housed and sotto voce. Boswell is confessional before anything else, whereas, though he too tells all, Pepys is not; he records for the sensual pleasure of record." Distillation is the key, as exemplified in his summing up of Joseph Conrad as author: "Conrad is an exile. He is not committed except to pessimism. He is, for private and public reasons, tortured by the danger of becoming a moral dilettante. Because he is so excruciatingly aware of all the half shades of that case, he has his authority" (The Other Side of a Frontier: A V.S. Pritchett Reader, 1984).
    It is not the endless research, either new or reexamined, but long reflection expressed in arresting prose that is needed to raise biography. As Kathryn Hughes has indicated, it is time for the shorter, pithier, and more astute biography to resurface, perhaps in new and surprising ways.
    The problem of glamorous authors remains. I fear that women are the most vulnerable. If they want to compete in the media market place, biographers may need to resort to stylish photographers and to developing extravagant, acute, or self-revelatory public personas. They will need to author themselves and display their latent narcissism. Otherwise they must rely on talent and dignity; in the current cultural climate that may not be enough.
 
Victoria Manthorpe is the author of Children of the Empire: The Victorian Haggards (Gollancz, 1996).



Your Personal Amanuensis
 

Amanuensis: A person whose employment is to write what another dictates, or to copy what another has written. Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

 
IS biography dead? The question is asked almost as often about life-writing as it is about novel-writing. But the short answer is no: not while Michael Holroyd is still writing. Famous for his authoritative books about George Bernard Shaw and Augustus John, as well as two well-received memoirs (and his marriage to novelist Margaret Drabble), Holroyd is about to publish A Strange Eventful History, an ambitious work subtitled: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their Remarkable Families. Sparkling, engaging, and informative, it would seem the perfect argument in favour of the genre's rude health.
more. . .
--The Scotsman 

A year ago, the UK and US markets were on a sympathetic course in the publishing world. The status quo merrily prevailed. Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, things changed. In the autumn, world stock markets trembled; our Prime Minister stumbled over whether or not to call elections; Northern Rock foundered on the iceberg of something called the credit crunch; and it was revealed that no one would be immune from the financial disaster fuelled by 'sub-prime lenders' who seemingly appeared from the woodwork like termites to put pressure on all our worlds. Or at least that's what they'd like us to believe. More. . .
--Susan Ronald, Andrew Lownie website


Tips Corner
Sharing research ideas
library Your Man Friday
 
In our line of work, it's not uncommon to get wind of a tantalizing document in a distant archive, but the cost of traveling to it may be prohibitive. Or one may want to check a quote or fact at a place already visited, but a return trip is not in the budget.
     For most researchers, the simplest solution is to request a copy of the document or documents. Most archives are well equipped to send a researcher a photocopy or PDF file for a modest fee.
     Sometimes, however, one may want something more than a photocopy--an extra set of eyes to look over certain documents. In such cases the solution is to hire someone. Most archives maintain lists of researchers, frequently graduate students, who are available to do some freelance work.
     If one follows this latter route, communicating exactly what one wants from the freelance researcher becomes important. To make it easier, TBC offers a sample of a research request form that has been tested in the field. It makes the assignment clear, but it also keeps the answer and the sources all on the same page, preventing later confusion.

In This Issue
Bio Club Prize Winner
Progress Made on Creating BIO
A Young Reader's Boswell
Engaging Young Readers
Good Writing, Not Good Bodies
Personal Amanuensis
Signup Block
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Link Yourself to Others!
 linked
The new and improved Biographer's Craft website now features links to biographers and organizations. Be sure to include youself!
editor 
From the Editor's Desk
  
This issue is being published two days later than usual so as to include the announcement of this year's Biographers Club prize.
 
Kathryn Hughes's recent  Guardian article suggesting that biography is in its death throes stirred up a considerable debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Biographer Victoria Manthorpe offers her take on the topic in this month's TBC.
    At least one reader, however, thought the issues Hughes raised were not new. Meryle Secrest, most recently the author of Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject, commented, "Things are worse now, that's all. Once upon a time I could and did sell my ideas about books on Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, Salvador Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bernstein, etc., on both sides of the Atlantic."
   That is no longer the case. Why? "Because of Amazon," said Secrest, clarifying that in the past, "you could not buy the American edition in Britain; now you can and, more to the point, the devalued dollar makes [the American edition] cheaper in the UK than a British edition would be."
    Secrest also suggests that British publishers are unwilling to provide the necessary financial support for biography of lesser-known figures. "If it's not a footballer or the Queen Mum, forget it."
 
This month we have two articles that focus on biographies for young readers, an important but often neglected group. The first discusses the work of Diane Stanley, who has produced a charming and beautiful series of biographies for children. The second article, by educator and biographer Jacqueline Edmondson, offers some suggestions for making the genre engaging to adolescents.

   If you are thinking of skipping these articles because you write for adults, think again. The techniques these writers use to keep their impatient young readers turning the pages may give you some fresh ideas.
 
For space reasons we had to cut our popular feature "Five Favorites" this month. We still have not found the right format to accommodate the demand for material in this newsletter without making it unwieldy, but we are working on it. As for the missing feature, don't worry--it will be back next month. 
  

Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris

 
 
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Sold to Publishers


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

 
Michael Foster and Barbara Foster, Shooting Star: The Sensational Life of Adah Isaacs Menken, the Original International Superstar, to Lyons Press

Gerald Imber, William Stewart Halsted, to Kaplan

Charlotte Gordon, Mary and Mary (Mary Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft), to Random House

Matthew Randazzo, biographies of Mafia figures Frenchy Brouillette and Kenny Gallo, to Phoenix Books
  
 

In Stores

The following are biographies in stores this month. In cooperation with Publishers Weekly, many titles are accompanied by a link to the PW review. 

 
forger
  
The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren
by Jonathan Lopez (Harcourt)
PW Review
 
The Genius: How Bill Walsh Reinvented Football and Created an NFL Dynasty
by David Harris
(Random)

Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling
by Charles Allen
(Little Brown & Company)
 
Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture
by John Capouya
(Harper Entertainment)
 
Simon Fraser: In Search of Modern British Columbia
by Stephen Hume
(Harbor)
 
Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of J.E.B. Stuart
by Jeffry D. Wert
(Simon & Schuster)
PW Review 

Polanski: A Biography by Christopher Sandford
(Palgrave Macmillan)
PW Review 

Reagan: The Hollywood Years
by Marc Eliot
(Harmony)
 
The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
by Jennet Conant
(Simon & Schuster)
PW Review
 
Marpeck: A Life of Dissent and Conformity by Walter Klaassen and William Klaassen (Herald Press)
 
Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt
by Joyce Tyldesley
(Basic)
PW Review 

In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography
by John Gartner
(St. Martin's)
 
Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause
by Tom Gjelten
(Viking)
 
Benjamin Disraeli
by Adam Kirsch
(Schocken/Nextbook)
PW Review
 
Frontiersman: Daniel Boone and the Making of America
by Meredith Mason Brown
(Louisiana State University)
PW Review 

Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life
by Jim Kershner (University of Washington Press)
 
To the Life of the Silver Harbor: Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy on Cape Cod
by Reuel K. Wilson (University Press of New England)
 
Samuel Johnson: A Biography
by Peter Martin
(Harvard University)
PW Review 

Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback
by Ralph Vacchiano
(Skyhorse)
PW Review 
New in Paperback
 
zog
 
King Zog of Albania: Europe's Self-Made Muslim Monarch
by Jason Tomes
(Sutton)
 
Bob Marley: Conquering Lion of Reggae
by Stephen Davis
(Plexus Publishing)
 
Bob Marley: A Life
by Garry Steckles (Interlink)

Warwick the Kingmaker
by Michael Hicks
(Wiley-Blackwell)
 
A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards
by George M. Marsden (Wm B. Eerdmans)
 
Credits
Photo of Diane Stanley by Karen Sacharby 

Masthead

James McGrath Morris, editor
 
Sarah Baldwin,
copy editor
 
Mailing address:
P.O. Box 660
Tesuque, NM  87574