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The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
October 2008
 Vol. 2, No. 8
More Than Words: A Graphic Biography of J. Edgar Hoover
Hoover 01
 
Rick Geary, a widely accomplished illustrator and cartoonist, has used his artistic pen to produce a graphic biography of J. Edgar Hoover. Those who favor biographies whose weight makes them suitable doorstops may look scornfully on the 112-page illustrated work, but reviewers have found much to praise in J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography (Hill & Wang).
     Publishers Weekly noted that the slender book successfully "encompass(es) events from the Great Depression, WWII, McCarthyism, the Cold War, the Kennedy administration, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate." Jodi Mitchell, of the Berkeley Public Library, wrote in Library Journal, "Geary's work serves as an engrossing, easy to take history lesson ... This excellent graphic biography makes the life of Hoover and the history of the FBI both accessible and engaging."Hoover 02
    In an interview with TBC, Geary explained that the idea for the project came from Hill & Wang editor Thomas LeBien, who was behind the development of such nonfiction graphic works as The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation. "I believe he came to me," said Geary, "because I have a track record in historical and reality-based comics and graphic novels."
     Of course, Geary is not the first to come out with a graphic biography. Capstone Press has a whole line of them. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux has published graphic biographies on Malcom X and Ronald Reagan, both by Andrew Helfer (with different illustrators). On the whole, however, these works have been intended for young audiences. Geary's biography of Hoover is clearly intended for all ages, though it may still find its greatest reception among the young.
     "I believe that on the most basic level my 'graphic' biography of Hoover is no different from a standard biography, in that clarity and accuracy are the highest aims," Geary said.
    Before beginning what he called his "script," Geary completed extensive reading about Hoover, including a number of existing biographies. "On top of this, I had to do research of a more visual nature, not only on the people involved but on things like cars, clothing, buildings, etc. to get the correct period flavor," he said. "This is what makes what I did different, though at heart I think the problems are the same."
     Geary is now at work on a graphic biography of  Leon Trotsky.
 
New Levy Biography Center
Gears Up
Levy logo 
In September the well-financed Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York held its first public event, launched its website, and announced its first lecture on biography.
   The premiere event, called "An Eloquent Beginning," was held on September 22. Intended to showcase brilliant opening paragraphs of biographies, a group of fifteen accomplished biographers read their favorite passages before an audience of fifty to seventy-five people and then talked briefly about their selections.
   Among the readers were John Matteson, author of Eden's Outcast: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father; Paula Giddings, author of Ida: A Sword among Lions; Patricia Bosworth, author of Diane Arbus: A Biography; David Levering Lewis, author of a two-volume biography of W. E. B. Du Bois; and Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of a two-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Lecture Series
   Schiff On November 5 the Levy Center will hold the first in what it hopes will be an annual lecture series on the process of writing biography. The center has invited Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff to inaugurate the series. She will speak about her work researching and writing a new biography of Cleopatra.

Fellowship Applications
    As it did in 2008, in its first year of operation, the center will offer three resident fellowships for the academic year, beginning September 2009, plus one that will go to a CUNY faculty member. Awards will include writing space, full access to research facilities, and a stipend of $60,000. The deadline for applications is November 11, 2008.
Turning to Another Page in Publicizing Your Biography
Dinkelspiel
 
As newspapers cut back on the amount of space devoted to book reviews, finding a way to publicize one's new biography becomes increasingly difficult. In a variant of the "think outside the box" concept, writers today need to "think outside the book review" for publicity options. Frances Dinkelspiel, author of the forthcoming Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California (St. Martin's) has this suggestion.
 
Newspapers offer a wonderful means to connect historical figures to contemporary events and to showcase them to a mass market audience. Every day most major newspapers run three or four articles by columnists, politicians, experts, and others on the op-ed page, so named because it appears opposite the editorial page. This is a prime piece of newspaper real estate to occupy, so it is a great place to get a different kind of exposure for one's book.
     It can often be difficult, however, to figure out just what kind of historically oriented op-ed will appeal to editors. Perseverance is key.
     I have been working on Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California for eight years and have pitched various op-ed pieces throughout that time. The book covers the life of one of California's most influential financiers, a man who was involved in the development of at least eight major industries, including banking, transportation, water, wine, education, electrical power, and land development. I pitched something to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, another piece about torrential rains in Los Angeles in 1861 (during a year that LA was seeing record rains), and some other articles. None were accepted.
     But when I read that Lehman Brothers was going to file for bankruptcy, I knew I had to try one more time. The man I wrote about, Isaias Hellman, was a brother-in-law to Meyer Lehman, one of the founders of the storied firm. In my book I detail at least two times Hellman turned to Lehman Brothers for help in propping up some California banks--once in 1875, and again in 1890. I thought readers in Los Angeles might be interested to learn how Lehman Brothers played a critical role in boosting that city's economy yet was getting the cold shoulder now.
     This time it worked. The Los Angeles Times said yes right away. The op-ed appeared on September 18.
     One of the challenges in writing about a historical figure from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is showing readers how a long-ago life is relevant today. Op-ed pieces are clearly one way of doing this and an opportunity for biographers to get their subjects before a mass market audience.

Submitting Op-Eds: A Resource Guide

Our crack team of researchers assembled the following links to information on submitting op-eds to many major newspapers:

For more newspapers, procedures, and addresses see the Office of Communications and Marketing of Fairleigh Dickinson University web page regarding op-ed submissions, as well as that of the Communications Consortium . Also, don't forget alternative weeklies--their readers care about books. For a listing of the weeklies, see this website.

Research Struggles Yield Novel Approach to a Biography
Colored Memories
 
When biographer Susan Curtis, a professor of history and American studies at Purdue University, found herself in a fifteen-year struggle to obtain answers to basic questions about her subject's life, she eventually decided to alter the focus of her book.
     At first the project seemed rather straight-forward. Her subject was Lester A. Walton, an African-American journalist, cultural critic, diplomat, and political activist who advised presidents and business leaders in a career that spanned the first six decades of the twentieth century. Curtis embarked on the process of researching and writing his life story.
     But as her research progressed, she realized that definitive answers were scarce. "As a result," Curtis said, "I structured the narrative around my discovering Lester Walton and my developing relationship with him. So the book is in many ways a story about my quest as well as about what I came to know about Walton's life, and why, I think, we can't know some things."
     The result, Colored Memories: A Biographer's Quest for the Elusive Lester A. Walton (University of Missouri Press), is a gutsy, striking, and provocative work in the tradition of A. J. A. Symons's classic The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography. It combines personal anecdotes from both the author's life and the subject's, it shares intriguing tales of research, and it refreshingly embraces the subjectivity of biographical research.
     Curtis writes in her book, "As you will see, I have remembered Lester Walton the way most of us remember people who matter to us--chaotically, anecdotally, and rarely in strict chronological order." Speaking of her own late father, Curtis says she doesn't typically recall the events of his life or the way he lived. Instead, she explains, "I remember him, as all of us remember people and things, when a cue--like the smell of Aqua Velva or an anti-FDR diatribe--sends neurons in my mind racing to find the bits of stored experience about how Dad lived and thought.
     "This may seem like a peculiar strategy for a biographer. After all, it is the job of a historian to put the past in order, to establish plausible causes and effects, and to craft a narrative that places history on a trajectory to the present."
     That was her intent when she set out to write Walton's life. But it couldn't be done. The problem was not a lack of sources but an absence of the kind of information that would shed light on life-altering events.
     Curtis also found that her subject was forgotten or left out of many histories that should have included him. "Walton wasn't there," she said. "So the question for me became, Why was he forgotten or left out of these histories? That demands a slightly different kind of research; instead of documenting the facts and chronology of his life and making a case that some influence on him had a particular effect, I analyzed what I could not find as well as what I found."
     The title of the first chapter, "Lester and Me," provides an early clue to this novel approach. Most biographers, who live with their subjects for years on end, will relate instantly to its contents.
PEN Biography Prize to Be Awarded Annually

The PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award, one of the newest biography prizes, will now be presented annually. Though it began last year as a biennial award, the donors and the board of PEN have decided to confer the $10,000 prize every year.
    The 2007 winner was Janet Malcolm for her book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (Yale University Press).
    To be eligible for this year's prize, an author must have published a biography in the United States between January 1, 2008, and December 31, 2008. Candidates must be US residents. Nominations will be received between September 1, 2008, and December 16, 2008. (PEN strongly recommends early submission.)
    Application instructions:
1) Pay a $50 entry fee online and proceed to checkout. If paying by check, skip to step 2.
2) Fill out the online submission form and click "submit."
3) Mail three copies of the candidate's book, a printed submission form, and proof of online payment or a check to:
Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography
PEN American Center
588 Broadway, Suite 303
New York, NY 10012
    Submission fees will be waived for publishers whose annual net sales do not exceed $4 million. For more information, please contact Nick Burd at (212) 334-1660, ext. 108.

October Calendar

To submit an event, email the details no later than the 25th of the month prior to the event.
 
Boston
October 19. The Boston Biography Group will meet at 3:00 p.m. at Elizabeth Harris's house, 56 Lime Street, Newburyport, MA. Contact.
 
London
October 21. Champagne brunch hosted by hotelier Robin Sheppard, author of the bestselling A Solitary Confinement. Sheppard will discuss his experiences writing his first book--a memoir of his sudden paralyzing illness and the road to recovery--at the private members' club, where his company is the operator/owner, the Grade I Listed Adam building, Home House, 20 Portman Square, London W1. Noon for 12:30 start. Fee £25. If you wish to attend, you must contact  the Secretary of the Biographers Club prior to the event.
 
University of Hawai`i at Mānoa
October 2. Derek Bickerton, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics, will give a talk entitled "In Search of Bastard Tongues" at noon in Henke Hall 325, University of Hawai`i Mānoa, 1800 East-West Road, Honolulu. Contact
  
October 9. Janette Sargent-Hamill, social gerontologist and independent filmmaker, will give a talk entitled the "Ohana Chronicles" at noon in Henke Hall 325, University of Hawai`i Mānoa, 1800 East-West Road, Honolulu. Contact .
 
October 16. Bronwen Solyom, Curator, Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, will give a talk entitled "Using Archives for Biographical Research" at noon in the Eugene Yap Room (A153) of the Hamilton Library, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, 1800 East-West Road, Honolulu. Contact.
 
Washington, D.C.
October 27. The Washington Biography Group will meet at 7:00 p.m. at the Washington International School, 3100 Macomb Street, NW, Washington, D.C. (between 34th Street and Connecticut Avenue). The topic will be "Getting Beyond the Research and Starting to Write." For further information contact the group's coordinator.


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)

 
The one idea that sticks in my mind more tenaciously than any other is something Whitman biographer Jerome Loving said. You cannot justify a new biography, he told me, unless it contains at least ten percent new information. In graduate school at the University of Delaware--can it be?--twenty years ago I had learned the importance of finding new information. Never before had I heard it quantified so precisely, however. Throughout the research and composition of The Road to Monticello, I strived to maximize the amount of new information the book would contain. Does it measure up to Prof. Loving's rule? I think it does--and more.
more. . .
--Kevin J. Hayes 

To illustrate the gap between critical and popular success, the recently-quoted indicator is that Hilary Spurling's life of Matisse, which won the Costa Prize, had sold 12,000 copies, while Being Jordan, the ghost-written memoirs of the glamour model Katie Price, shifted 335,000. Not really surprising: what's bought and read in quantity reflects the state of the nation. It's like comparing audiences for MTV and Radio 3.
more. . .
--Valerie Grove 
Tips Corner
Sharing research ideas
 
Scan It, Search It, Find It
Now where was that quote that you absolutely must have for your chapter about the Marquis's favorite food? What was the year again of his escape to Rome? And what was that felicitous phrase used by one of his previous biographers to describe his manner of speaking?
   Drat.
   Make the hyper-jump from note cards to electronically indexed information this way: just scan every blessed letter, caption, chronology, telegram, and bar bill. Yes, I know--we were taught in grad school to rewrite our research or risk falling unknowingly into plagiarism. What I'm talking about is organizing all your scanned materials by folders on your computer--family, military career, love affairs--and then using your computer's search capability to find information that goes into your outline. Imagine: you use "parents" as a keyword and every reference to parents--whether in the subject's letters or in background material--is instantly available. Talk about being able to find patterns, themes!
    Why, you're a genius!
 
     Thanks to Charles J. Shields for this tip. Shields is the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Henry Holt) and is at work on a biography of Kurt Vonnegut.

    Note: Macs have a function called Spotlight. It will find a word or phrase anywhere in your documents. For those who use PCs, both older versions of Windows and the new Vista come with search functions. The Vista version, despite the software's wide array of problems, has an extremely fast search capability. However, it may avoid non-Microsoft documents such as texts written in Word Perfect.
--The Editor


In This Issue
Graphic Bio of Hoover
Levy Center Gears Up
Getting onto the Op-Ed Page
Op-Ed Resource Guide
Novel Approach to a Biography
PEN Award Goes Annual
October Calendar
Personal Amanuensis
Tips Corner
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From the Editor's Desk
  
This month  Alexander Rose will publish his book American Rifle: A Biography. That got me thinking. When is a biography a biography? Does a study of a portion of a life constitute a biography? Or does one need to write the tale from cradle to coffin?
    Well, how about subjects that aren't persons at all? I've notice a growing trend in recent years of biographies of places and things. For instance, Peter Ackroyd has published London: A Biography and Thames: The Biography (I suspect the "The" is to distinguish it from The Thames: A Biography, by Jonathan Schneer ).
     This title trend is not limited to British subjects. Other recent biographies of places include Versailles: A Biography of a Palace, by Tony Spawforth;  A Biography of America, an Annenberg project; Africa: A Biography of the Continent, by John Reader; The Earth: A Biography (on National Geographic TV); and the grandest of them all, The Universe: A Biography, by John Gribbin.
     Also in this category of non-human biographical studies: Flag: An American Biography, by Marc Leepson, and The Bible: A Biography, by Karen Armstrong. At least two of the Bible's leading characters have merited biographies--God: A Biography, by Jack Miles, and Satan: A Biography, by Henry Ansgar Kelly--but only one of them won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Guess which one.
 
Look for an announcement soon--hopefully this month--of the date for the Biographers International Organization (BIO)'s founding meeting. For information about the proposed creation of an organization for working biographers, see its web page. 
 
Starting this month TBC will list upcoming events of interest to biographers in our new calendar section. Check it out.
.
Happy reading,
James McGrath Morris
 
 
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Sold to Publishers


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

 
 Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (republication),
to Houghton Mifflin
 
James Haley, Wolf: The Lives of Jack London,
to Basic

Lorenzo Benet, untitled Sarah Palin biography,
to Pocket

Joe Hilley, Sarah Palin: A New Kind of Leader,
to Zondervan

Jim Steinmeyer, The Last Magician: Howard Thurston, to Tarcher

Sheila Isenberg, Her War: The True Story of an American Heiress in the Resistance Against the Nazis, to Palgrave

William Kuhn, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's publishing career, to Nan A. Talese

Bob Schaller, Michael Phelps: The Untold Story of a Champion,
to St. Martin's  
 

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. 

 
Casanova
  
 
Casanova: Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy
by Ian Kelly
(Tarcher)
 
Champlain's Dream
by David Hackett Fischer
(Simon & Schuster)
 
Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life
by John Adams
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
 
Frances Yates & The Hermetic Tradition
by Marjorie G. Jones
(Ibis Press)
 
The Starker: Big Jack Zelig, the Becker-Rosenthal Case, and the Advent of the Jewish Gangster
by Rose Keefe (Cumberland House)
 
The Man Who Believed He Was King of France: A True Medieval Tale
by Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri, trans. from the Italian by William McCuaig
(University of Chicago)
PW Review
 
Madame de StaŽl: The First Modern Woman
by Francine du Plessix Gray
(Atlas)

Floyd Patterson
by Alan H. Levy
(McFarland)
 
 Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City: The Life and Times of an Urban Reformer
by Wendell E. Pritchett
(University of Chicago)
PW Review
 
Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel
by Edmund White
(Atlas)
 
The Borgias and Their Enemies 1431-1519
by Christopher Hibbert
(Harcourt)
 
Napoleon in Egypt
by Paul Strathern
(Bantam)
PW Review
 
The Florida Life of Thomas Edison
by Michele Wehrwein Albion
(University Press of Florida)
PW Review
 
Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave
by Leonard Todd
(Norton)
PW Review
 
Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane
by Ken McGoogan
(Counterpoint)
PW Review
 
The Activist: John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison, and the Myth of Judicial Review
by Lawrence Goldstone
(Walker)
 
Ronald Reagan's America: His Voice, His Dreams, and His Vision of Tomorrow
by Terry Golway
(Sourcebooks)

Reagan: The Hollywood Years
by Marc Eliot
(Harmony)
New in Paperback
 
Davis
 
 First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War
by Joan Cashin
(Harvard University Press)
 
Virginia Bruce:
Under My Skin
by Scott O'Brien
(Bear Mountain)
 
Joseph Walshe: Irish Foreign Policy, 1922-1946
by Aengus Nolan (Mercier Press)
 
Ignatius Sancho:
African Man of Letters

by Reyahn King
(National Portrait Gallery)
 
The Several Lives of Chester Himes
by Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre
(University Press of Mississippi)
 
Hold Firm: John Charles McQuaid and the Second Vatican Council
by Francis X Carty (Columbia Press)
 
Credits

Photo of Dinkelspiel by Ralph Granish
 
Photo of Schiff by
Sheva Fruitman
 

Masthead

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