Finding the Right Note: Biographers at Work on Musical Subjects
Musical figures comprise a rich field for biographers to mine, but not one without unique challenges, as the authors of several new titles can testify.
Recent musical stars make particularly tricky biographical subjects. Charles R. Cross
(left) has tackled several such works, including the highly praised Heavier Than Heaven: The Biography of Kurt Cobain
and Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix
. This past month Little, Brown & Company published Cobain Unseen
, a collection of artifacts and photographs from the archive of the late singer's estate.
To write his biographies of Cobain and Hendrix, Cross had to confront the lack of archival collections and surmount the myths that surrounded his subjects. "One of the first things I do," Cross told TBC, "is throw out everything that has been said before. So much of what is written about Cobain and Hendrix was in error. As a biographer I was most interested in going to interview subjects who knew these men, but asking them questions that had not been asked before."
In the case of Cobain, Cross conducted more than three hundred interviews, including people who attended junior high with the singer. These interviewees were a treasure trove, especially as many of them had not kept up with Cobain through his years of fame. "These kinds of sources were less biased and myth-creating, and they gave me great insight into Cobain's eventual character," Cross said. "When one of his junior high classmates told me that Kurt had witnessed a suicide hanging from a tree not far from school, that told more about who Kurt was than anything in any of the biographies before mine."
For a biographer chasing down the story of a famous musical figure, or film star, for that matter, it is also becoming increasingly difficult to find interviewees who are not trying to profit from their association with the person being written about. "I have found over the past decades," Cross said, "that a greater number of interview subjects now ask for money--and, of course, I don't pay anyone." This frustrating trend, he says, "has really been exasperated by television shows and documentaries; they all pay their subjects, and many of these people can't differentiate between a serious biographer and [TV tabloid show] Inside Edition
As with any demanding biographic subject, the work requires zeal. Although Cross does not limit himself to writing about music, it holds a special place for him. "The arts so changed my life, particularly when I was a semi-troubled teen--they gave me purpose and order," he said. "I try to remember the passion and innocence I had then and put that into my writing." Carol de Giere
's passion for her subject was such that she moved halfway across the country to complete her biography of composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz.
De Giere first corresponded with Schwartz through his website. He was then at the top of his field, having written scores for such hit musicals as Godspell
. "My husband, Terry, and I lived in an 800-square-foot bungalow in small-town Iowa," recalled de Giere. "I needed to be closer to Broadway and to Stephen to develop enough of a connection to my subject through interviews. Terry was willing to move east to look for work, so we stuffed our possessions into a U-Haul, sold our house, and started renting, at first in New York and then in Connecticut. Our relocation proved essential for my book and confirmed how giving in to promptings from a muse can change your life!"
"Most deeply, though," she continued, "my life changed because I had a highly successful artist front and center of my life. Among the many things he helped me learn was not to second-guess what an audience would want but instead to satisfy my own artistic intention first and foremost." The result of her efforts is Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, From Godspell to Wicked
, published this fall by Applause Books.
When Pamela Blevins traveled to London in 2004 to turn in her manuscript, she thought she had completed her dual biography of poet and composer Ivor Gurney and musicologist Marion Scott. Afterwards, Blevins went to the Royal College of Music library to take another look at the Marion Scott archives. Late in the day the librarian brought her a box that contained, under stacks of sheet music, four chapters of a memoir Scott had written in the late 1940s.
" I must have gasped, and I know my heart began pounding," said Blevins. "Little was known about Scott's childhood and background beyond what I had been able to piece together from her own scrapbooks at the RCM, so finding her memoir was like discovering gold. Scott was a very visual, evocative, and insightful writer--her memoir was titled The Home of All Our Mortal Dream
. The manuscript I had handed to the publisher that September afternoon was adequate, the best I could have done up to that point, but finding the memoir shot fresh life into the narrative and enriched the final outcome."
Pamela Blevins's Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty
will be published this month in Great Britain and the United States by Boydell Press.
Don't Leave the Kids Out:
Making a Juvenile Biography
Out of Your Research
By Jill Norgren
The late Tony Hillerman did it; so have Madonna, Katie Couric, Brooke Shields, Bette Midler, and Lynne Cheney. Each of these celebrities has written at least one book for children, crossing the divide from the world of adults into the culturally and linguistically distinct space of younger generations.
In my experience biographers who write for adults seldom consider composing for the young adult audience (ages nine to thirteen). I recently did and think more of you should follow suit.
A month before delivering the manuscript of my biography, Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would Be President
), I realized that a children's writer was likely to take my research from the adult biography and use it to craft a book for young adults. Why not do it myself?
The idea of writing in another voice, one appropriate for fifth, sixth, and seventh graders, was at once intimidating and intriguing. Why shouldn't Lockwood's story would be written by the person who, having spent seven years researching and writing the version for adults, had dug the deepest and pondered the longest? It would be authentic, not derivative.
Writing for young adults poses questions similar to those in all biographical writing. What is the shape of the narrative? What is the right voice for this particular biographical subject and this audience? I had used a fairly straightforward, theme-based narrative structure in my adult biography, one that was largely--but not completely--chronological.
This structure seemed appropriate for a young reader version, which meant I could "convert" the adult biography into one for younger readers without truly starting over. For a novice this decision created a comfort zone of familiar territory. I could imagine that after writing two or three young adult biographies, I might become more adventuresome. Certainly Jacqueline Edmondson's essay "Looking for Ways to Engage Young Readers in Biography" (TBC
) suggests that if we are to stay competitive we must engage young readers in creative new ways. We do not want to become slavish faddists; neither do we wish to lose the next generation of readers.
Narrative structure posed no problem. Voice was another matter. Like most writers who do not specialize in children's literature, I have been writing solely for adults since I first tried to impress some second- or third-grade teacher. To learn what I needed to know about voice, I acquired a pile of biographies written for young readers. Some were classics, such as Russell Freedman's Lincoln: A Photobiography
; others were new offerings, such as Kathleen Kroll's several science biographies in Viking's Giants of Science series.
At my public library I queried the children's division librarian--what works, what does not, who is "hot." I read three or four different biographies of Marie Curie, both to see how a woman subject had been treated and to study the choices the different authors had made in writing about the same life.
Once I had my bearings in the general matter of voice, I turned to the experts in order to establish how to approach "technical" material. To describe Lockwood, who lobbied Congress and tried cases in local and federal courts, including the Supreme Court, I would have to write about the institutions of the U.S. government. I needed to know what a typical fifth or sixth grader would have learned about the branches of government. I wanted to write a biography that would be accessible while not compromising historical accuracy and sound scholarship.
I called upon my fifth-grade granddaughter as one of these experts. I grilled her about what she and her schoolmates had been taught about Congress, the courts, and the West Wing. At the invitation of a former student who teaches sixth and seventh grade, I spent a day talking about Lockwood at a local middle school. I learned a great deal in the discussions after my short presentation, and even more when I invited the students to draw a cover for my (proposed) book.
When I had written half of a first draft, I prevailed upon two friends--a children's writer and an expert in PR--to give me a "read" and a critique. This part of the process, too, proved invaluable. Each had superb suggestions, including how better to draw word pictures and where to add more emotional content.
Russell Freedman has said that biography intended for young readers calls for books that are lean and approachable, that rely on the art of distillation, good storytelling, and the responsible use of the documented record. I would urge all of you to take up your pens and to bring your knowledge and love of your subjects to our young readers. Jill Norgren is the author of the recent young adult reader biography Belva Lockwood: Equal Rights Pioneer (Twenty-First Century Books/Lerner).
Birthing Burlingame's Massive Lincoln Biography
For decades those who frequent American archives, as well as many out-of-the-way depositories, have encountered Abraham Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame slaving away on a new biography of the sixteenth president. Burlingame's emancipation has arrived. His massive, 2,024-page, two-volume work is at the printers and will soon be released by Johns Hopkins University Press.
"Lincoln scholars have waited anxiously for this book for decades," said Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose own Lincoln book came in under a thousand pages. Publishers Weekly confirmed the anticipation. In an unusual move the magazine gave the biography from an academic house a two-third page, signed review by James Swanson, author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killers. "Burlingame," said Swanson, "has produced the finest Lincoln biography in more than 60 years and one of the two or three best Lincoln books on any subject in a genetation,"
The job of shepherding Burlingame's manuscript into print fell to Robert J. Brugger, history editor at the press and author of several books of his own, including Beverley Tucker: Heart over Head in the Old South.
The challenge, said Brugger, was to work with Burlingame to find a narrative voice that would carry the reader along through such an immense work. Burlingame, in Brugger's words, is a "researcher's researcher," and the first drafts of the manuscript were weighted down by all the data he had gathered. "It's been a winnowing process, a struggle to lift one's gaze so one can see the whole picture."
Originally Burlingame conceived the project as a six-volume biography, to be published by Random House. Editorial disagreements with the trade publisher led the author to Johns Hopkins, which decided to take the unusual step of publishing the work in a two-volume boxed set.
Abraham Lincoln: A Life "will be the book everyone who cares about Lincoln should read before looking at the countless reinterpretations," said Brugger. "That said, few will [read it] because it is so daunting and vast."
Rather, he added, the press expects that while the book may not find a home in many bookstores, it will have a long life as the single most important reference work on Lincoln.
European IABA Meeting Set For June 2009
European members of the International Auto/Biography Association are planning a June 2009 meeting in Amsterdam, according to Alfred Hornung, of the Johannes Gutenberg University, in Mainz, Germany, and Monica Soeting, of the University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands.
In a joint email that is currently circulating, the two write, "As there are many non-Anglo-Saxon Europeans working in the field of life writing who may not yet know about IABA or may have difficulties getting funds for traveling to the biennial international IABA conferences, it seems a good idea to organize additional, European IABA conferences."
The organizers hope that attendees will consider holding European meetings biennially and possibly create a European e-magazine on auto/biography.
If you are interested in joining the efforts for a European conference in the off-year of the International Auto/Biography Conference, contact either Hornung or Soeting.
Obituary: Levinson, Big-Band Biographer
Peter J. Levinson, 74, a music industry publicist turned biographer, died at his home in Malibu, California. He had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease two years ago but continued to work, with the aid of a computer, until the day he died.
He had worked in the music industry for five decades with such musical giants as County Basie, Dave Brubeck, Rosemary Clooney, and Mel Tormé. In the 1990s he turned to biography. The first work he completed was Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James. Music critic Nat Henthoff hailed it as "one of the very few biographies of a musician I have read that not only told me more than I thought I knew but compelled me to listen right away to the music again."
Levinson published two more biographies before his death, one of Nelson Riddle, the other of Tommy Dorsey.
Letter to the Editor
I want to add to your list of biographies of things The Biography of a Grizzly, by Ernest Seton Thompson, published in 1900.
author of Isabella Greenway: An Enterprising Woman
To submit an event, email the details no later than the 25th of the month prior to the event.
November 16. The Boston Biography Group will meet at
3 p.m. in a private home. Contact.
November 6. Rose Collins will speak at the Jubilee Library. Contact
November 6. Gary Kubota, journalist and author, will give a talk titled "Crewing/Writing about the Hokule`a Voyage through Micronesia" at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. Contact
November 13. Monique Chyba, Associate Professor of Mathematics, will give a talk titled "Women in Mathematics" at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. Contact
November 20. Susan Schultz, Professor of English, will give a talk titled "Writing Forward But Reading Back: The Composition of Dementia Blog" at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. Contact
November 12. Frances Osborne, author of The Bolter
, will speak to Biographers Club members at Sheppard's Restaurant, Marsham Court, Marsham Street, London SW1, about the pleasures and perils of writing a family memoir. 12:30 for 1 p.m. start. Fee £25. Contact
November 26. Ed Vaizey, Shadow Arts Minister, will be hosting a lunch at the House of Commons. The speaker will be Ffion Hague, author of the acclaimed The Pain and the Privilege: The Women in Lloyd George's Life
. She will be talking about the future of political biography to the club and invited guests only. 12:30 for 1 p.m. start, but please allow extra time to get through security. Fee £32.50. Security arrangements and directions will be provided to guests closer to the time. Early booking is essential. Contact
November 5. Stacy Schiff will give the inaugural lecture at the Leon Levy Center for Biography. Schiff is the author of A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America
. Her talk will take place in the Skylight Room of the Graduate Center, City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue, at 7 p.m. Contact
. Queens, NY
November 18. Carole Kessner will speak about her new biography, Marie Syrkin: Values Beyond the Self, on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m., at the Central Queens YM & YWHA in Forest Hills. Her talk is one in a series of Meet the Author programs of the Hevesi Jewish Heritage Library, a free public library of Jewish culture, at 67-09 108th Street in Forest Hills. All events are open to the general public, with a donation of $4 suggested. For information, call 718-268-5011, ext. 151, or contact
. Washington, DC
November (date to be determined). The Washington (DC) Biography Group will meet at the Washington International School, 3100 Macomb Street, NW, Washington, DC (between 34th Street and Connecticut Avenue). Contact
November 3. The New in Biography book club will meet from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble Wilkes-King's Bookstore, 7 South Main Street. Contact
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)
There are many varieties of literary biographer. For example, the biographer who, like the dog-owner and his pooch, morphs into what they're writing about. One recalls that eerie photograph on the dustjacket of Michael Holroyd's life of GBS where the images of Shavian biographer and Shavian biographee looked like dead certs for Private Eye's "Could they be related?" column.
Then there's the biographer who goes into his subject like an intrepid explorer and is never seen for 20 years, such as Norman Sherry and Graham Greene. [Read more]
--John Sutherland, London Times
Private by nature, despite a tendency to burst into song, I'm amazed to find I have a memoir coming out this week. How did that happen? When did I decide I felt comfortable writing about myself, beyond the confines of a rather arch newspaper column? I didn't decide. I'm not comfortable. Like the chubby teenager with a tummy ache who gives birth quite unexpectedly in the supermarket car park one day, it just happened.
Or rather, what happened is this: I had been longing for two decades to write a book about my hero Judy Garland, whose presence has inspired and enriched my inner world for most of my life. As a hyper-sensitive child with strong emotions, I had watched The Wizard of Oz
with my mother in a state of amazement. In Judy Garland, I saw a person whose feelings seemed to run as high as my own, only she wasn't hiding it or ashamed or even embarrassed; she was leading with her strong feelings as though they were the best things a person could have. [Read more]
, The Independent
Sharing research ideas
Scan It, Search It, Find It: A Sequel!
The "Tips Corner" in last month's issue of TBC discussed organizing and finding research documentation. I'd like to offer an additional tip: Devon Technologies has a wonderful paperless storage, filing, and search suit of software. (Unfortunately for PC users, this recommendation is only for those on Mac systems.)
For virtually any document and most digital imaging methods, this unique software has saved me many hours of searching and, more importantly, thousands of pages of notes, photocopies, and printed articles. The software has its own OCR process for importing scanned pdf documents, and it automatically reads a range of word-processing systems.
In recalling the stored data, the Devon products allow you to search on strings or words; it not only finds the relevant documents in your files but also highlights each occurrence of your search parameter within the documents. You can add annotations to your documents, draft notes, and share files. This flexible system allows the user to set up their own electronic filing system and to create any number of databases. I have been using the system for about eighteen months and have established two databases, one for my research and the other for teaching.
Give it a try. Version 2 is due to be released soon.
Thanks to David Sweet for this research tip. After thirty years in corporate public relations, Sweet had a short-lived retirement before taking up another career, this time in academia, at the University of South Australia, lecturing and tutoring undergraduate and postgraduate students in Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. He has a master's degree in photo-media and is currently a PhD candidate researching the family photography of the Australian Baby Boomer.
From the Editor's Desk
This month TBC has a musical bent as we look at some new biographies of musical figures. It seemed timely as a several readers recently shared with me what kind of music they listen to while working.
Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize-winning co-author (along with Martin J. Sherwin) of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Trajedy of Robert J. Oppenheimer, said when he is not motivated or is plain tired he finds music gets him going. What kind? Included on Bird's playlist in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he is currently living, are U2, Wilco, Green Day, Santana, Springsteen, and what he refers to "as that great Australian band" Midnight Oil.
It's Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Beethoven, and Wagner for Paul Maher Jr., at work on a biography of Henry David Thoreau.
As for your humble editor, I favor any kind of music without words when I am writing. New Age seems to fill the bill just fine. But when I'm taking notes or filing (ugh!), then I load up folk music and show tunes.
Size alone will cause biographers and biography readers to note Michael Burlingame's new biography of Abraham Lincoln. As our article below explains, it comes in at 2,024 pages. I checked--it ain't a record. Though it tops William Safire's novel about Lincoln, a mere 1,123 pages, it falls short of Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom, which weighed in at more than 130 pounds and is nearly as big as a Ping-Pong table.
Okay, so when writing one of the doorstopper books, what does one include and what does one leave out? Excellent advice on this score comes from Stacy Schiff, author most recently of A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. In a book review this past month she wrote, "There are few immutable rules of biography, but I would hazard this one: If the Triangle fire erupts and the subject in no way feels the heat, the Triangle fire does not belong in the biography."
We are lucky this month to receive a wonderful article and suggestion from Jill Norgren. The author of a biography of a pioneering legal figure, Norgren shares with us how she converted her biography into another one for young readers. Next month we will hear more about Norgren in an article we are preparing on eight scholars and journalists and their conversation about legal biographies.
Speaking of legal matters, it's getting nasty out there. In New Jersey courts Donald Trump is bringing proceedings against his biographer, in Atlanta members of Dr. Martin Luther King's family are suing each other over a proposed biography of Coretta Scott King, and in the corporate boardrooms of New York Rupert Murdoch is making a fuss about a forthcoming biography by an author with whom he cooperated.
Aside from choosing subjects who have been dead for a long time (they don't tend to sue), what can one do to avoid such litigious entanglements? Advice is coming in next month's TBC. Stay tuned.
James McGrath Morris
P.S. Editorial integrity is very important to me. So for the record, the wonderful Cobain Unseen giveaway advertised below was offered to us by the publisher after we finished the article featuring Charles Cross.
Win a Copy of Charles Cross's new Cobain
Send an email
by 11:59 p.m. (MST) on November 15, 2008. Put "Cobain" in the subject line. Five winners will be drawn at random. Qualified entries must have a mailing address (no P.O. boxes, please) in the United States or Canada.
(Prize books courtesy of Hachette Book Group)
Sold to Publishers
The following are among the biographies sold to publishers in October, as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources.
Shawn Levy, A Part of His Time: The Life and Art of Paul Newman,
Howard Sounes, The Life of Paul McCartney,
to Da Capo
Lesley McDowell, Literary Partnership,
Darrin Lunde, Theodore Roosevelt: The Naturalist, to Harmony
Gilbert King, untitled book on Thurgood Marshall, to Harper Studio
George Vecsey, biography of Stan Musial, to Ballantine
The following biographies are in stores this month. In cooperation with Publishers Weekly, many titles are accompanied by a link to the PW review.
The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America
by James Sullivan (Gotham)
Interview with a Cannibal: The Secret Life of the Monster of Rotenburg
by Günter Stampf (Phoenix)
by Charles R. Cross (Little, Brown)
The Yeats Brothers and Modernism's Love of Motion
by Calvin Bedient (University of Notre Dame)
Sinatra in Hollywood
by Tom Santopietro
Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame (Johns Hopkins University Press)
Malcolm X, African American Revolutionary by Dennis D. Wainstock (McFarland)
Joe Gans: A Biography of the First African American World Boxing Champion by Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott (McFarland)
Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
by Paul Mariani (Viking)
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
by Jon Meacham (Random House)
Lou von Salomé: A Biography of the Woman Who Inspired Freud, Nietzsche and Rilke by Julia Vickers (McFarland)
Jack Coombs: A Life in Baseball by John P. Tierney (McFarland)
Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life
by Sofka Zinovieff (Pegasus)
George, Being George: George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals--and a Few Unappreciative Observers
edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.
The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul
by Patrick French (Knopf)
PW Review Samuel Adams: A Life
by Ira Stoll
PW Review Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945
by Carlo D'Este
Walter White: The Dilemma of Black Identity in America
by Thomas Dyja
(Ivan R. Dee)
The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos
by Michael Lemonick (Atlas)
Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War by Robert Roper (Walker)
Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life
by Robin Wilson
PW Review Isidore Duncan: A Graphic Biography
by Sabrina Jones
(Hill & Wang) A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer
by Mark Wolverton
The Secret Trust of Aspasia Cruvellier Mirault: The Life and Trials of a Free Woman of Color in Antebellum Georgia
by Janice L. Sumler-Edmond
(Univ. of Arkansas)
PW ReviewCommander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader (1808-1883)
by John W. Kiser (Monkfish Publishing)
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Sid Vicious: No One Is Innocent
by Alan Parker
by Heather Lehr Wagner (Checkmark books)
A Civil General
by David Stinebeck and Scannell Gill
Photo of Levinson courtesy of Peter Levinson Communications
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