New Yorker Critic Wins PEN/Bograd Weld Biography Prize
Richard Brody, a
film critic and editor at the New Yorker, was selected for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, a
$10,000 prize given to a distinguished biography possessing notable literary
merit published in the United States during the previous calendar year.
Brody received the award for his first
book, Everything Is Cinema: The
Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (Metropolitan Books). Billy Collins hosted
the ceremony, which was held in Elebash Recital Hall at the Graduate Center,
CUNY, on May 19.
The award was established by Rodman
L. Drake. This year's judges were Timothy Noah, René Steinke, and Judith
The finalists were Jeffrey Meyers, for Samuel Johnson: The
Struggle (Basic Books), and Stanley Plumly, for Posthumous Keats: A
Personal Biography (W. W. Norton & Co.).
For more information about the award, visit the
Book Watchers Spot an Unusual Biography Take Flight
after breaking up with a man who had been a passionate bird watcher, Olivia Gentile decided to write an essay on bird watching. When she telephoned a few
bird clubs to begin her research, one man misunderstood her. He thought she
wanted to join his club. Trying to encourage her, he said, "Who knows? Maybe
you'll be the next Phoebe Snetsinger."
"I asked who that
was," Gentile said, "and a couple of weeks later I was in St. Louis
interviewing her widower."
The late Snetsinger had become a consummate
and famous bird watcher after a doctor told her in 1981 that she was dying of
an incurable cancer. Rejecting medical help, she used an inheritance to travel
the world in search of rare birds. The quest seemingly extended her life; at
the time of her death, in 1999, Snetsinger had seen and recorded more birds than anybody else. In the
end, it was not the cancer that got her. She died in a car accident on a
birding expedition to Madagascar.
Seven years later
Gentile's biography of the legendary bird watcher, Life List: A Woman's Quest for
the World's Most Amazing Birds (Bloomsbury), has caught the attention of book watchers, gaining wide critical praise and readership. "I am not a woman," said Kurt Anderson of NPR's Studio 360, "[nor] am I a birdwatcher, and I don't plan to become one. But nevertheless I found Life
List to be a charming, heartening, fascinating, and altogether inspiring
guide to living life (and facing death) with one's full attention."
A graduate of Columbia University's MFA
program, Gentile had not written a biography before embarking on her pursuit of
Snetsinger. "At different stages of the research process I encountered
different challenges," she told TBC. "During the first two years--before I had
access to Phoebe's memoir and personal papers--my main challenge was tracking
down her friends and family all over the world, convincing them that I would be
a good caretaker of her story, and figuring out the best questions to ask them.
I tried to interview as many people as possible in person, but I hadn't sold
the book yet and was short on money, so I had to settle for phone interviews
with about half of my sources."
Eventually, Gentile pieced together a
timeline of Snetsinger's life and turned next to secondary sources to learn as much
as possible about the places where her subject had lived, the era in which she
grew up, her father's advertising business, the many countries she visited, the
thousands of birds she saw, and the history and culture of birding.
"I found this really enjoyable, and not
as difficult as my primary research, but it was a challenge to stay focused and
efficient. I must have spent weeks reading about the wonderful
birds-of-paradise of New Guinea, for example, even though I only ended up
devoting a couple of pages to them in the book."
Four years into her research, Snetsinger's
family gave Gentile access to personal papers. "I was able to get inside her
head in a way that never would have been possible otherwise," Gentile said. "This
was my biggest research 'break,' but it created its own challenges. Suddenly I
had hundreds and hundreds of pages of Phoebe's writing, and I had to figure out
how to organize them in my filing cabinets for easy retrieval, how to reconcile
what Phoebe had to say with what people had said about her, and which of her
statements to take at face value and which to question."
Now that it's
done, Gentile admits she had no idea how exhausting it would be write a
biography. "I spent a total of seven years on the book. I'd really like to
choose a topic for a second book that allows me to finish in about half that
time; I think that would be better for my quality of life."
"So, I don't think my next book will
be a biography--it will be some sort of research-based nonfiction, but I want
the research to center around going out and experiencing or observing something
in the present, rather than interviewing people about the past. That will be a
nice change of pace and a new challenge."
Progress on BIO Slow but Steady
Since early May, the international committee charged with
producing a mission statement and bylaws for the Biographers International
Organization (see TBC, April 2009) has been collectively working on the project
using a Wiki.
The online deliberations are set to
conclude on June 10. The final draft will be reviewed with the aim of sending
it to the BIO membership for approval in early July. Assuming the membership
approves the mission statement and bylaws, the next step will be to elect
officers and board members, which could be accomplished as early as September.
Meanwhile planning continues for a
spring conference, to be called "The Compleat Biographer," featuring workshops
on such practical aspects of the craft as choosing a subject, funding your research,
dealing with your subject's family, hiring a researcher by long distance, and
note-taking systems, among other topics.
Wendy Lesser: A Levy Center Fellow
first two years the Leon Levy Center for Biography has awarded eight one-year
$60,000 fellowships to biographers. The fellowships are among the most
competitive and significant funding awards available to biographers. TBC is
running profiles of the four 2009-2010 fellows. Last month we
featured Mary Lisa Gavenas; next month it will be John Matteson.
In 2006, Dmitri Shostakovich's centennial year,
author and critic Wendy Lesser heard all of the composer's fifteen string
quartets performed. A year later, when she heard the Twelfth Quartet, she
instantly recalled everything about his life that was connected to the program
notes from the prior year's concerts.
"I knew enough about his life to know
that he had been a very veiled and controversial figure, due to his persecution
by (but also support from) Stalin and the Soviet machine, and I wondered if the
quartets might be a way into the life that no one had tried before," Lesser
told TBC. "When I read the existing biographies, this seemed to be the
case--the quartets were mentioned but not focused on, and it was clear that
they did correspond to important personal events in his life and revealed
another side of him, and that he wrote them increasingly as he grew older."
the concept seemed viable," said Lesser. "Plus I loved (and still love) the
quartets as music."
Writing a biography of the Russian
composer is not the first challenging project Lesser has taken on. After all,
few people in these times can claim to have been the founding editor of a
successful literary review (The Threepenny Review), to have written seven books of nonfiction, and then to have turned out
this particular subject presents unusual hurdles. "You can't 'quote' from the
music without alienating most of your audience (the non-musician part), and in
any case I am not qualified to do that kind of musicological score-quoting,"
Lesser said. "So you have to learn to characterize the music in a way that will
be accessible to non-musicians but still not sound silly to professionals."
"That has been the hardest part, for me,
since the book is actually a 'close reading' of the fifteen quartets as well as
a discussion of his life with the quartets used as stepping stones."
Lesser believes the Levy fellowship
will permit her to complete her remaining interviews, which entail travel, and
finish writing the manuscript. "In this era of extremely limited advances," she
said, "that is a really important gift."
Obituary: David Herbert Donald, Lincoln Biographer and Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner
By James A. Percoco
David Herbert Donald, renowned Lincoln biographer and two-time
winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography, died on May 17 in a Boston hospital
while awaiting heart surgery. He was eighty-eight years old.
awarded his first Pulitzer in 1961 for his book about Charles Sumner, the
staunch Massachusetts abolitionist turned U.S. senator (Charles Sumner and the
Coming of the Civil War, published by Little, Brown). His second Pulitzer
came in 1988, for Look Homeward
(Knopf), about author Thomas Wolfe.
remains best known for his 1995 bestselling one-volume biography, Lincoln, which was selected for the
Lincoln Prize. Fourteen years after its publication, Lincoln still remains the standard treatment. "David Donald was
probably the shrewdest student of Lincoln's political career and leadership
tactics from Springfield to the White House," said Matthew Pinsker, a Lincoln
scholar and professor of history at Dickinson College. "Nobody has produced a
more sophisticated or nuanced analysis of Lincoln's decision-making."
Well-regarded for his lucid prose,
Donald expressed his respect for the craft in a 1995 interview: "I feel that
biography is an art, like a novel; I thought it important to get the author,
me, out of it, to let the story tell itself and have it as ambiguous, as
ambivalent as a modern novel."
born in Goodman, Mississippi, Donald had a grandfather who served in the First
Vermont Cavalry during the Civil War. His academic career began at Millsaps
College in Jackson, Mississippi. He went on to earn a master's degree and a
doctorate in history at the University of Illinois. It was there that he was
drawn to Lincoln studies, under the tutelage of James G. Randall. His academic
career included teaching posts at Columbia, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and
Harvard, where he served as Charles Warren Professor of American History,
emeritus, after 1991.
Donald's biographic oeuvre encompasses more
than two dozen books he wrote or edited, several of them considered important
contributions to Lincoln literature, including Herndon's Lincoln (1948), "the still-definitive biography of the
future president's junior law partner and a startling re-evaluation of both
Lincoln as an attorney and Herndon as a biographer," according to Harold
Holzer, a prolific author of books on Lincoln.
Donald soon thereafter published
another classic, Lincoln Reconsidered:
Essays on the Civil War Era, which shattered conventional wisdom about the
sixteenth president. The final books among the thirty he published were,
appropriately, Lincoln at Home: Two
Glimpses of Abraham Lincoln's Domestic Life (1999) and We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends (2003). Two
years later, together with Holzer, Donald edited a final work on his favorite
subject, Lincoln in the Times: The Life
of Abraham Lincoln as Originally Reported in the New York Times. At the
time of his death, Donald was at work on a long-anticipated biography of John
writings and teaching have had a legendary influence on many current leading
scholars and authors in the Lincoln and Civil War America fields. Those who
benefited from his mentorship include Jean Baker, Catherine Clinton,
Matthew Pinsker, and Gerald Prokopowicz. "An era has truly come to an end,"
said Pinsker on learning of Donald's death.
James A. Percoco is the author of Summers with Lincoln:
Looking for the Man in the Monuments (Fordham University Press) and is history
educator-in-residence at American University in Washington, D.C.
In the two months since TBC inaugurated this new feature of
posting photographs of our work spaces, it has become the most popular item in
This month we are featuring the office of Sandra Grabman. If you are wondering what all
the high-tech recording equipment is doing on her desk,
be sure to visit TBC's Room of Our Own website for the answer.
Send your photos to us.
To submit an event, email the details no later than the 25th of the month prior to the event.
The Boston Biography Group will meet on Sunday, June
21, in Newburyport, MA, at the home of Elizabeth Harris. Contact.
"Sporting Lives"--A discussion with biographers Melissa Isaacso, Jonathan Eig, and Gary Andrew Poole, moderated by Dan McGrath.
June 7, 1 p.m., at the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest.
"The Monarchy Debate: Who Was Our Greatest Monarch?"--Paul Lay, editor of History Today, as chairman; Marc Morris, presenting for Edward I; Alison Weir, presenting for Richard III; Susan Ronald, presenting for Elizabeth I; and Alice Hogge, presenting for James I.
Tuesday, June 2, 6:30 p.m., at Foyles Bookstore,
Charing Cross Road. Free of charge. The Biographers' Club will be providing free wine and nibbles afterward.
Biographers' Club Summer Party: Join us
in the last surviving example of a complete Adam interior and in the
private courtyard of Home House. We will have a second-hand bookstall
with books donated by members. All donations will go to funding the
Biographers' Club prizes.
Monday, June 15, 6-9 p.m., at Home House,
20 Portman Square. Tickets £25.
Washington Independent Writers--American Independent Writers conference.
Saturday, June 19, 7 a.m to 7:30 p.m., at the Cafritz Conference Center on the campus of George Washington University, 800 21st Street, NW, Washington, D.C. For more information, visit the AIW website.
Amanuensis: A person
whose employment is to write what another dictates, or to copy what another has
written. Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary
Sons of the Famous
The dozens of reviewers and
bloggers discussing Susan Sontag's Reborn: Journals & Notebooks
1947-1963--edited by her son, David Rieff--aren't commenting on just how
old-fashioned and inappropriate to our time this enterprise appears to be. In The
Boston Globe, Liam Kennedy comes the closest to apprehending
Rieff's mission: "What is at issue, though not directly stated by Rieff,
is Sontag's intellectual estate--her career, character, legacy--and he is
taking a significant editorial role here, shaping its initial public reception
before the critics go to work."
Let's put it more
plainly: We will probably never know the real Sontag because her son did the
editing. [Read more]
--Carl Rollyson, The Advocate
There's a particularly revealing anecdote toward the end of
the book involving William F. Buckley's flirtation with suicide as his
infirmities mounted. Given his routine abuse of prescription sleeping
medications, it would have been a simple enough matter, but he was restrained
by his Catholicism. His son, moreover, reports that, on more than one occasion,
he was tempted to assist his father but inhibited by possible legal
consequences. It also appears that the elder Buckley sought clerical advice on
whether the church's prohibition might be finessed.
However, when William F. Buckley's
biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, informed Christopher that he intended to write about
similar conversations for the New York
Times, where he serves as editor of the Book Review, the son threatened to
cut off his access to the father's papers. Tanenhaus relented and Christopher
informs readers of "Losing Mum and Pup" that he "can't wait to read" the
biography. [Read more]
--By Tim Rutten, Los
Tips Corner: The Treasure Trove to Be Found in Corporate Libraries
A biographer and noted screenwriter excitedly called TBC
recently after visiting the corporate archives of a well-known New York
magazine. He said he was astonished at its holdings and wondered if others knew
that such places existed.
don't know about these repositories, you may be missing out on an important
resource. To get started, you'll want to check out the sixth edition of the Directory of Corporate Archives in the United States and Canada, which was just updated last month. The online directory, published by the Society of American
Archivists, is a valuable research tool.
"This edition," say its editors,
"includes companies that maintain their historical records themselves, as well
as companies that contract with historical consulting firms to maintain their
archives collections for them."
Link Yourself to Other Biographers, Editors, Agents, and Readers.
Make sure your Web page is listed in the TBC Directory of Biographers
From the Editor's Desk
I'm notorious (notorious, not famous--there is a difference)
for typos and missing . So it's always a pleasure when an eagle-eyed copy
editor purges these embarrassing mistakes from my work. Recently, however, an
excellent copy editor at HarperCollins added another interesting level of
scrutiny to my work--rooting out the anachronistic metaphor.
There were three in question. I
referred to something being a carbon copy.
I said that the light from a window beamed down on someone like a spotlight. And I wrote that the fickle
treatment of certain employees by their boss made them feel as if they were on
the end of a yo-yo. Unfortunately,
carbon copies and theatrical spotlights turn out to be inventions that had not
yet appeared in the era about which I was writing. So they got nixed.
survived. Some quick research discovered that even the ancient Greeks had a
spinning disk at the end of a string. Though it was not called a yo-yo, the
concept of being at the end of one could well have been understood by my
characters. Once again, the Greeks save us writers.
Erika Dreifus, editor of The Practicing Writer, sends news of a fellowship that looks perfect for a biographer
working on a subject who lived prior to 1830. The Hodson-Brown Fellowship
supports work by academics, independent scholars, and writers working on
significant projects relating to the literature, history, culture, or art of
the Americas before 1830. The fellowship is also open to filmmakers, novelists,
creative and performing artists, and others working on projects that draw on
this period of history. The award supports two months of research at the John
Carter Brown Library, on the campus of Brown University, in Providence, Rhode
Island, and two months of writing at the Starr Center at Washington College in
Chestertown, Maryland. The stipend is $5,000 per month, for a total of $20,000,
plus housing and university privileges. The deadline is July 15.
Lastly, be sure to check out this month's Amanuensis
selections. I grouped two excerpts relating to that thorny problem of coping
with a subject's family. These accounts reminded me of Justin Kaplan's famous
comment. "The first rule of biography," he said, "is shoot the widow."
Biographer Meryle Secrest wrote a terrific book on this subject filled with
such tales (Shoot the Widow: Adventures
of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject, 2007, Knopf). It should be on
James McGrath Morris
P.S. Don't forget to submit a photo of your workplace for our Room of Our Own Web page.
Sold to Publishers
The following are among the biographies recently sold to publishers, as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources.
Lenore Smokal, The
Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter, to Globe Pequot
Sam Irvin, Think
Pink: The Curious Life of Kay Thompson, to Simon & Schuster
Jeff Feuerzeig and Paul
Cullum, Devil's Town, a biography of the singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, to Holt
Christopher Bram, Eminent Outlaws, a group
biography of the gay American writers who changed the culture, to Jonathan Karp
Peter Newman, biography
of liberal leader, prime ministerial contender, and public intellectual Michael
Ignatieff, to Random House Canada.
Norman Mailer: Still King, to Atlantic Library
The following are biographies in stores this month. In cooperation with Publishers Weekly, many titles are accompanied by a link to the PW review.
Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone
by Stanislao G. Pugliese
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne
Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of
by James Gavin
by Ralph V. Turner
(Yale University Press)
The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden
Political Genius of an American Icon
American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F.
by D.D. Guttenplan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Morrissey: The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart
by Gavin Hopps (Continuum)
by Frances Osborne
Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend
by Larry Tye
Republican Leader: A Political Biography of Senator
by John David Dyche (Intercollegiate Studies)
James McGrath Morris,
P.O. Box 660
Tesuque, NM 87574
Photo of Richard Brody by Alex Remnick
Photo of Olivia Gentile by Deborah Copaken Kogany
Photo of James McGrath Morris
by Michael Mudd