The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
September 2009
  Vol. 3, No.7
Hermione Lee's Compact Look at Biography Hits the Stores

Lee The distinguished biographer Hermione Lee has added a title to the growing shelf of books about the craft and art of biography. In the last three years, books such as Carl Rollyson's Biography: A User's Guide (Ivan R. Dee) and Nigel Hamilton's How To Do Biography: A Primer and Biography: A Brief History (both from Harvard University Press) have found a receptive audience.
     This month Oxford University Press will publish Lee's Biography: A Very Short Introduction as part of its popular and long-running series of compact books on a wide variety of topics in history, philosophy, religion, science, and the humanities. It also comes with a modest price of $11.95.
   Bio bookSprightly written and to the point, the pocket-sized volume provides an entertaining and thoughtful history, reflection, and commentary on the subject. Biographers, for instance, will love her ten rules for biography, especially the tenth one. The final two chapters alone, "Public Roles" and "Telling the Story," are worth the purchase price.
     Lee told TBC that she had general readers, students of "life writing," and fellow biographers in mind when she wrote the book. Although she expressed confidence in the continued health of biography, she admitted in a video interview that she remains puzzled as to what attracts readers.
     "Do we read biographies because we want to read about people who are different from ourselves or do we read biographies because we want to read about people who are very like ourselves?" Lee asked. "Is it about identification and empathy or about strangeness and otherness? Those kinds of conflicts are the sorts of things I am very fascinated by."

BIO Days Away from Becoming Reality; Website Up
The international committee charged with producing a mission statement and provisional bylaws for the Biographers International Organization (BIO) has completed its work. It approved a proposed founding document that has been sent to biographers who have expressed an interest in being members of the organization.
   BIO web Also this month, BIO may now be found on the Web at
     Assuming the bylaws are accepted by the would-be members, elections of officers and a board will follow. These would comprise a president, a vice president, a treasurer, a secretary, and a seven-member board.
     In this interim period, the duties of the executive director (to be picked by the board once in place) will be assumed by James McGrath Morris, the organization's corresponding secretary.
     Those who wish to run for one of the offices or the board should submit their names to him. The deadline for nominations is midnight (MDT), Thursday, October 1.
     The idea of creating BIO was first raised in the July 2008 issue of TBC. The completion of a founding document and the approaching election of officers represent major steps in the launching of an organization that aims to promote the art and craft of biography and seeks to further the professional interests of its practitioners.
      Next on the agenda will be its proposed May 23, 2010, conference. Details on this and other aspects of BIO may also be found on the new website.

Holroyd Wins James Tait Black Biography Prize
HolroydMichael Holroyd was selected for this year's James Tait Black award for biography. The prize, given each year since 1919 by the University of Edinburgh, is awarded to one work of fiction and one work of biography, based on a selection by scholars and students.
    Holroyd's A Strange Eventful History, which traces the lives of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, two stars of the Victorian theater, and their descendants, was picked from a list of five finalists that included Arthur Miller 1915-1962, by Christopher Bigsby; Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, by Gerald Martin; Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, by Sheila Rowbotham; and Chagall: A Biography, by Jackie Wullschlager.
     "I'm in good company, if a little far behind," said Holroyd referring to the fact that his wife Margaret Drabble won the fiction prize in 1967 for her novel Jerusalem the Golden.
     It took Holroyd seven years to write the book, and during part of that time he was suffering from bowel cancer. "Whenever I could escape from the sick room, I used to immerse myself in another world, of actors in the Edwardian age," Holroyd told the Guardian. "I hoped that need to get away from sickness and enter another world would give the writing an additional intensity. It was a magic carpet, and I was the time traveler."

TBC to Poll Its Readers to Help Plan Its Future

Wasn't everything on the Internet supposed to be free-of-charge? Heck, I read the New York Times online and don't send a penny to its hard-working staff. Instead the cost of delivering this daily editorial wonder is supposed to be borne by advertisers. On a recent day, I found folks paying large sums for space to persuade me to fly Air France, get a new Visa card, or take Vytorn (ezetimibel/simvastatin) pills, though they offered me no clue as to their purpose. But, from what I read in the financial pages, even the venerable New York Times can't make the new Internet economy work.
    Ultimately, free may not be the right way to get paid. That's the dilemma TBC is contemplating. When it was launched, we presumed that book publishers would eagerly seek an opportunity to reach our choice audience--yes, you, dear reader. That has not happened.
     So as we approach our third year, TBC is considering adopting an old-fashion economic model--charging for our product. To that end, we are going to conduct a random-sample survey of the readership this month to see if you would be willing to pay a modest subscription fee. The survey will also include some other questions to provide us with editorial feedback.
     If you receive one of the surveys, I hope you will take a minute to complete it. If you want to weigh in with a comment, suggestion, or thought, please write us. We love your letters.
     --The Editor

New Levy Center Director in Place
Wineapple Brenda Wineapple has been appointed executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography. She replaces Nancy Milford, who stepped down as director this summer in order to concentrate on completing her biography of Rose Kennedy.
     Wineapple is an accomplished biographer and scholar. Her most recent book, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was published last year by Knopf.
     Wineapple told TBC her plans for the center "include helping biography be better understood, both within the academy and by the larger reading (and reviewing) public, as a specific genre that depends not just on research, organization, and doggedness but on the finest writing, the most careful shaping, and the widest vision; and also welcoming innovations to the genre so that biography is not considered--or executed--as a rote womb-to-tomb exercise."
     In addition to her new duties as director, Wineapple is working on a book about the United States between 1848 and 1877, to be published by HarperCollins.

Biographers Invited to Attend Seventh IABA Conference
The Centre for Life History and Writing Research, at the University of Sussex, in England, is inviting biographers to attend the seventh International Auto/Biography Association five-day conference, to be held on its campus beginning June 28, 2010.
     The theme of this year's conference is "Life Writing and Intimate Publics." According to the conference program, the modern world has put a spotlight on intimate relations. "Families, feelings and love lives have been opened to public politics through pressures of globalization, digitization, the mass media and social movements such as feminism. At the same time, traditional citizenship of public rights and responsibilities find new definition through trauma, consumption, identity and care. As boundaries between 'public' and 'private' multiply, new constituencies of belonging and claim are convened, from Fathers for Justice to flood survivors to Facebook."
   Jolly  Conference director Margaretta Jolly reports that confirmed speakers include Michael Holroyd and Jenny Diski, among others. For more information, consult the University of Sussex website.
     "One of the aims of the conference is to bring together biographers, autobiographers, and academics in oral-history and life-writing communities," Jolly said.
     The deadline for paper proposals was September 1, but Jolly tells TBC she will accept proposals through the end of the month.

Calling All Rhode Island Biographers
This past spring more than thirty biographers and memoirists gathered at the Providence Athenaeum in Rhode Island. The meeting was an outgrowth of a small biography group that has been active for a dozen years. The next meeting will be in October, on a date to be determined.
     Contact Jane Lancaster if you would like to join the group.
     Currently there are active biographer meetings in Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, and London. For information on these city groups, write us.

James Lord, Giacometti Biographer, Dies at 86
James Lord, credited with writing the definitive biography of artist Alberto Giacometti, died at his home in Paris on August 23. He was 86.
   A soldier in World War II, Lord came to Paris after the city was liberated, befriended Picasso, and soon became a fixture among the artists of the city. "Returning to Paris after the war," wrote New York Times reporter William Grimes, "he became a kind of Boswell to the artistic and social elite in France and, to a lesser extent, Britain."
    In addition to his well-known Giacometti biography, Lord wrote novels and memoirs.

Picture This

This month at TBC's Room of Our Own (completely redesigned--you must check it out!) we are featuring the office ofMulley office 01 British author Clare Mulley. Her The Woman Who Saved the Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb, Founder of Save the Children was published in 2009 to coincide with the charity's 90th anniversary; it won the Daily Mail Biographers Club prize.
    Mulley worked at Save the Children for five years before moving to another INGO and is currently a trustee of the British charity Standing Together Against Domestic Violence. In 2006 she was awarded a distinction for her Social and Cultural History MA. She lives with her husband and three daughters in Saffron Walden, England, where she is researching her next book.
    Send your photo to us.

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)

No man is a hero to his valet, or for that matter, his spouse. The greatest of men have often been less-than-worthy husbands, be it Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy or Albert Einstein. Patrick Henry, the hero of the American Revolution, immortally declared, "Give me liberty or give me death", but afforded neither to the wife he kept chained in the basement.
   These sordid details are usually the stuff of biographies, safely tucked between the pages of some 500-page treatise, softened and often redeemed by a larger narrative of valour. But what if the storyteller were the wife, not her famed husband's biographer? What tales would she tell of the man she married? [Read more]
--Lakshmi Chaudhry,

Lately, unfortunately for me, a research commitment has forced me to trawl through dozens of books about the recent history of British politics. On the whole, this has not been much of a literary experience. Despite narrating the grand and subtle power games of our times, the typical biographer of current players in government seems to take their prose inspiration from the 1980s text adventure games. [Read more]
--Alastair Harper, The Guardian

Tips Corner: Bookmark This
Guide to Periodicals

Ellen Gruber Garvey, an associate professor of English at New Jersey City University, has put together a resource page that should be bookmarked by most TBC readers.
     The website features links to almost every scanned 19th, 20th, and even 21st century periodical. It includes publications devoted to women, children, schools, alternative and radical causes, African Americans, and Native Americans, to name just a few categories.
     The website is maintained by the Research Society for American Periodicals, of which Garvey is the former president. She recently returned from an NEH fellowship at the Massachusetts Historical Society, where she worked on a book about 19th-century scrapbooks.

In This Issue
Lee's Book on Biography
BIO Almost a Reality
Holroyd Wins Black Bio Prize
TBC to Poll Readers
New Levy Center Director
Biographers Invited to IABA Gathering
Calling All RI Biographers
Obituary: James Lord
Picture This
Tips Corner
From the Editor's Desk

"Don't presume the notoriety of your subject will sell your book" may be the lesson of this summer's sales reports on biographies. Jerry Oppenheimer's much-touted Madoff with the Money has sold only about 1,000 copies, according to Bookscan, which tracks 70 to 75 percent of the book market. Others have done better, but only slightly. For instance, Andrew Kirtzman's Betrayal: The Life and Lies of Bernie Madoff has sold 3,000 copies.

During this month's vote on bylaws I received two ballots by email that made reference to Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy in James Joyce's Ulysses. One was written by a male screenwriter, the other by a female author. When I asked one of the correspondents, the noted female writer, what it was about writers that a simple "yes" didn't suffice, she wrote back, "Perhaps we get our sex mainly through words? That's a pity."
The next books coming from two of England's best-known biographers have been announced. Claire Tomalin will be tackling Charles Dickens. At 76, Tomalin shows no sign of easing up on her ambitious biographical list, which so far includes Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, and Samuel Pepys.
    Hermione Lee, who is featured in this issue of TBC, once told a reporter that "people always ask what I'm working on. Now I say 'nothing'. It is a bugbear of mine that people should always be defined by what they're doing. Not enough allowance is made for the importance of just thinking." Of course, we asked. We had better luck than the reporter. She disclosed she is working on a biography of writer Penelope Fitzgerald.
As you will learn in this issue of TBC, we are trying to make some decisions about our long-run finances. We are counting on you who are selected for the surveys to help us make our plans. We will also listen carefully to anyone  who cares to write us. But, in the end, rest assured that should TBC become a paid-subscription publication, you, the original subscribers, will become charter subscribers, with at least a year-long complimentary subscription.

Happy reading,

James McGrath Morris

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Sold to Publishers

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

Dan Cryer, American Grain: Rev. Forrest Church and the Boomer-Generation Quest for Spirituality, to St. Martin's

Beverly Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Century, to Viking

Ken Gire, Albert Schweitzer, a short biography in the "Christian Encounter" Series, to Thomas Nelson

John Jenkins, Rehnquist, to Public Affairs

Bradley Ricca, Super Boys: Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and the Creation of Superman,
to St. Martin's

Joyce Tyldesley, Tutankhamen's Curse: A Biography of King Tut, to Basic

Michelle Goldberg, The Goddess Pose (life of Indra Devi), to Knopf

Elizabeth Goldsmith, The Cardinal's Nieces (Marie and Hortense Mancini), to Public Affairs

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. 

Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary by Bertrand M. Patenaude (Harper)
PW Review

Major Farran's Hat: The Untold Story of the Struggle to Establish the Jewish State
by David Cesarani (Da Capo)
PW Review
The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War
by Nicholas Thompson
PW Review
Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII's Most Notorious Minister
by Robert Hutchinson
(St. Martin's / Dunne)
PW Review
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession
by Allison Hoover Bartlett (Riverhead)
PW Review
Marcus Aurelius: A Life
by Frank McLynn
(Da Capo)
PW Review
The Secret Wife of Louis XIV: Françoise d'Aubigné, Madame de Maintenon
by Veronica Buckley
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
PW Review
Civil War Wives: The Lives and Times of Angelina Grimké Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant
by Carol Berkin
PW Review
Dark Side of the Moon: Wernher von Braun, the Third Reich, and the Space Race
by Wayne Biddle
PW Review
Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman
by Jon Krakauer (Doubleday)
Horton Foote: America's Storyteller
by Wilborn Hampton
(Free Press)
PW Review
Eureka Man: The Life and Legacy of Archimedes
by Alan Hirshfeld
PW Review
The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom by Graham Farmelo
PW Review


Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller
by Steve Weinberg (Norton)



James McGrath Morris,

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

Photo of
Hermione Lee
 by Jane Brown

Photo of
 James McGrath Morris
by Michael Mudd