The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
November 2009
  Vol. 3, No. 9
Unpublished Father's Tale by His Daughter Is Judges' Choice at Annual Biographers' Club Awards Dinner; Roland Chambers Wins Best First Published Biography

This year's Tony Lothian Prize, presented by the London Biographers' Club for a first-time writer working on a biography, was awarded to Harriet Tuckey for The Forgotten Hero of Everest, a book with poignant origins.
     In 1993 Tuckey went to a 40th anniversary celebration of the ascent of Everest at the Royal Geographical Society in London, attended by the queen and other members of the royal family. Tuckey's father, Dr. Griffith Pugh, had been part of the Everest team assisting with the dangers of high-altitude climbing.
    tuckey "I was very young at the time of the Everest conquest, and I did not get on with [my father], so I had never asked him about it," Tuckey told TBC. "I attended the lecture reluctantly, only to help my mother push the wheelchair my father was by then confined to, as it was too heavy for her. At the last minute he was not allowed to sit with the rest of the team in the row behind the queen at the front because his wheelchair was deemed a fire hazard, and I had to leave him at the very back, out of the way."
     The entire 1953 team was at the ceremony. At the end of the lecture, one man, whom Tuckey did not know, stood up and announced he was going to talk about the "unsung hero of Everest." A hush fell over the audience in anticipation of who it might be. "Then," Tuckey recalled, "he said my father's name. As he outlined vital work my father had done for the expedition, without which the mountain could not have been successfully climbed, I turned and saw that his chin was rising with pleasure and pride. I knew then that one day I would have to write about his life. He died the following year, but because our relationship had been so difficult, I could not bring myself to begin until 10 years later."
     After five and a half years of research and writing, Tuckey was the choice of judges Margaret Drabble, Anne de Courcy, and John Guy. In the past the winner, as well as several short-listed writers, has gone on to be published. A cash prize of 2,000 British pounds also accompanies the prize.

Best First Biography
The winner of the Best First Biography prize was Roland Chambers, for The Last Englishman: The Double-Life of Arthur Ransome, published by Faber.
     Chambers said he came across his subject by chance. "Ransome wrote some of the best-loved novels in the British children's canon, but I wasn't one of his readers as a child," he told TBC. "I was reading C. S. Lewis and Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin. I never thought about Ransome much. But then a few years ago there was a short article in the paper suggesting he had spied for Britain during the Russian Revolution. That article, shown to me by a friend, hit me like one of those soft-nosed bullets that makes a small hole going in and a terrible mess getting out.
     "Soon I was thinking of nothing else," Chambers said. "Ransome, the safest and most predictable of English authors, spies for the British, collaborates with the Bolshevik secret police, makes a bosom friend of Lenin's chief of propaganda, and winds up marrying Trotsky's private secretary."
    It took Chambers five and a half years to write the book. "I started the research as a bachelor in Hackney, London, wrote the book in nine different houses in four different countries, and wound up married in New Haven, America."
     As for his next topic? "That's a secret, but I've been doing a lot of research into pigs."
     For more information on the ceremonies and books that were short-listed, see the Biographers' Club website.

Preparations for First BIO Conference Move into Final Stages
All the logistics are complete for the first Compleat Biographer Conference, to be held on May 15, 2010, according to members of the planning committee, who recently concluded an inspection of the conference site at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
     The conference, to be run by the Biographers International Organization (BIO), will focus on the practical aspects of the craft and art of biography. It also aims to create a setting in which biographers can meet and share experiences with other biographers.
     The daylong meeting will begin with a breakfast gathering, at which BIO's bylaws will be formally approved and officers will be elected. During the course of the day, attendees will be able to participate in an assortment of 10 workshops offered in four time slots. Each workshop will be offered twice. The schedule will permit participants to attend four of the 10 selections. Most workshops will feature three speakers and a moderator and will leave sufficient time for discussion.
     The following are among the topics that have been preliminarily selected for the workshops:
  • Working in Archives: Tentatively to be held in the adjacent John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, a discussion of finding and using archival sources;
  • Market Trends in Biography: Editors and agents look at the future of biography;
  • Dealing with the Family: Veteran biographers discuss issues of copyrights, permissions, authorizations, and other pitfalls of working with a subject's family or heirs;
  • Choosing a Subject: Discussion by several biographers about how they selected and rejected subjects for their books;
  • New Frontiers in Electronic Research: An overview of the new resources now available, from government documents and newspapers to photographs;
  • Funding Your Work: In addition to advances, this panel will look at research grants and other means of supporting one's work;
  • Self-Editing: Tips on how to best prepare your manuscript in the post-Max Perkins era.
     In addition to the workshops, work is underway to put together a set of opportunities for unrepresented biographers to have one-on-one time with a set of literary agents.
    Lunch will feature a speech by a prominent biographer. The day will conclude with a reception, at which several authors will be signing books.
    A special discount rate for lodging will be available at a nearby hotel. To be put on a mailing list for the conference, send an email to Biographers International Organization.

2009 National Book Award Finalists and PW's 10 Best Both Feature Pairs of Biographies

Two of the five finalists for the National Book Award this year are biographies: Adrienne Mayor's The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy (Princeton University Press) and T. J. Stiles's The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Alfred A. Knopf).
     The winner in each category--fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people's literature--will be announced at the 60th National Book Awards Benefit Dinner and Ceremony, at Cipriani Wall Street, in New York City, on Wednesday, November 18.
     Meanwhile, getting a jump on the endless end-of-the-year lists of bests, Publishers Weekly came up with their top 10, including two biographies: Blake Bailey's Cheever: A Life (Knopf) and Neil Sheehan's A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon (Random House).
CUNY's Levy Center Sets Date for Its Second Annual Conference; University of Sussex to Host Seventh Biennial IABA

The Leon Levy Center for Biography will hold its second annual conference on biography on Friday, March 19, 2010. Information will soon be available at its website.
   The Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research and the International Auto/Biography Association will hold the seventh International Auto/Biography Association Conference at the University of Sussex, Brighton, England. Keynote speakers will include Nancy K. Miller, Sidonie Smith, and Alessandro Portelli.
   For more information, please visit the Centre for Life History website.

A Reading
Quoting the Unquotable: Finding Words to Describe the Music of Bebop's High Priest

Robin D. G. Kelley's new biography, Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press), strikes the right notes, according to reviewers, and is a hit with readers. The book offers a comprehensive and detailed examination of the much-misunderstood jazz musician whose compositions, filled with angular melodies and dissonant harmonies, gave birth to bebop.
    MonkTBC decided to turn to Kelley for advice about an intractable problem in writing about a subject whose greatest achievement is without words. Unlike a biography of, say, a politician or a writer, a biography of a figure who works in a nonverbal medium presents particular quandaries. What is it exactly one can quote from a musician or a composer, for example? One can't exactly quote a passage of music.
     Kelley, a consummate writer and researcher who spent 14 years on this book, offered a writerly response by selecting passages from his book in which he tackled this very issue of describing musical artistry in words.
     In this passage Kelley traces the musical origins of the Monk style:
     "Indeed, it was this very foundation that exposed him to techniques and aesthetic principles that would become essential qualities of his own music. He heard players 'bend' notes on the piano, or turn the bear around (the bass note on the one and three might be reversed to two and four, either accidentally or deliberately), or create dissonant harmonies with 'splattered notes' and chord clusters. He heard things in those parlor rooms and basement joints that, to modern ears, sounded avant-garde. They loved to disorient listeners, to displace the rhythm by playing in front of or behind the beat, to produce surprising sounds that can throw listeners momentarily off track. Monk embraced these elements in his own playing and exaggerated them."
     In this next passage Kelley describes Monk's sound at a particular recording session:
    "All of the songs on the date, particularly Monk's musical dialogue with Milton Jackson, exemplify Monk's characteristic parallel voices, collective improvisation, and layering of melodic lines and countermelodies. In these and other recordings, he invents countermelodies, incorporates arpeggios (outlining chords in single notes, often emphasizing the most dissonant tonalities), and plays many different 'runs' down the piano--particularly runs built on whole-tone scales. Monk, in other words, conceived of the piano as an orchestral instrument."
     In future issues of TBC, we'll offer examples from authors who describe paintings, photos, and other unquotables.

Handling Intimate Lives of America's Demigods

The prolific writer Thomas Fleming has turned his attention, and his pen, to the private side of the founding fathers. His new book, The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, published this month by Harper, examines the roles of  women--mothers, wives, and lovers--who were formative in the lives George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.
   fleming1  In chronicling the relationships of these men with the women in their lives, Fleming offers tales of tortured love, adultery, reconciliation, and devotion, as in the case of Abigail Adams, who kept home and family together during her husband's prolonged absences.
     The author credits 20th-century feminism for making it easier to research the lives of historical women. "Even Martha Washington, long considered the most reclusive of the group (she burned all but two letters of her correspondence with George), has had a collection of her letters published," Fleming told TBC.
     Nonetheless, one is limited in writing about the women who existed in the shadows of famous men, Fleming said. "The most important 'tip' or insight in my experience was the need to realize you cannot grasp the whole truth about the women in the lives of major historical figures in same objective way that you largely rely on for the men. It is necessary to explore probable truths--making it clear, of course, you are dealing in probability."
     In regard to Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, there is virtually nothing in the way of letters or a diary. But in Intimate Lives I point to strong evidence that the marriage was not a happy one. It was climaxed by Martha's bitter deathbed demand that Jefferson promise never to marry again."

$54 Million Pledged to Save One of the World's Greatest Newspaper Collection

The British government is going to spend $54 million to preserve and improve the British Library's famed newspaper collection. The library collects copies of every local, regional, and national newspaper published in the UK, as well as hundreds of newspapers from other countries. More than 30,000 people use the collection, now exceeding 750 million pages, annually.
   The collection is currently housed in an aging facility in Colindale, in North London. According to officials, 15 percent of the collection is beyond use and another 19 percent is in peril. The funding will allow the collection to be moved to a new storage facility in Yorkshire and will create digital and microfilm access to the newspapers from the main library at St. Pancras, in London.

Letters to the Editor
Last month's TBC published a letter by a writer seeking advice on how to handle the death scene in writing a biography. Here are some responses we received:
Dear Editor,
     I ended my biography of the poet James Elroy Flecker, Roses and Rain, with the sentence, "Afterwards the snow fell heavily."
     On the next page I put Flecker's translation of Novalis's poem "Last Love" without comment, and I added no comment of my own to the description of his last hours given by his wife. It was she who let readers know about the snow falling heavily.
     I do not think that there could be a standard way of describing the death of one's subject, except that too much of the biographer's comments might result in presenting a slightly different picture. The biographer was not there, after all.
     Yours sincerely,
     Heather Walker, author of Roses and Rain: A Biography of James Elroy Flecker
Dear Editor,
     I would suggest you tell it with Graham Greene's "sliver of ice in the heart," meaning: deliver the facts and cut the emotion. No one likes being told how to feel, on or off the page, and lines such as "the most tragic and shocking circumstances of his death ..."  telegraphs what the writer feels, leaving no room for readers to make up their own mind.
     Good luck and all best wishes,
     Anna Swan, author of Statues without Shadows
Dear Editor,
     Have you considered combing various newspaper obituaries, perhaps noting any discrepancies, what a family spokesman may have said to the press, and so on? This information can also help you decide on how much agony and suffering is appropriate in describing the process of death--e.g., newspapers often say "died after a long battle with XYZ."
     We had a member of our congressional delegation die of measles; writers wrote about how rare this was for adults, and how sudden and unexpected it was.
     I would contrast any published information with a death certificate's details for accuracy. Sometimes medical records are also available.
     Sometimes, it's also possible to get information from a cemetery. Often it's just kept on index cards and can give previously unknown details, especially on who paid for the plot, when, how much, who made the funeral arrangements, plus next-of-kin and addresses. If a plot was purchased six months before the death, that could be a lead sentence.
    It's always worth a visit to your subject's resting place, to sit next to the person and get the vibes that will steer your course, if you're over-thinking it.
     Good luck.
     Sandra Kimberley Hall, author of Duke: A Great Hawaiian


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)

Imagine that Sylvia Plath, aside from writing poetry and "The Bell Jar," also penned beauty tips for Cosmopolitan and ghost wrote an advice column under Marilyn Monroe's name for the New York Post, and you have an idea of the breadth of Clarice Lispector's career.
   The attraction of a life story bouncing so wildly between the antipodes of high and low culture is obvious. However, while there have been a plethora of books, movies and TV shows about Lispector and her novels in Brazil, she has never made her mark in the United States. So the American publishing world must be a bit bemused that "Why This World," Benjamin Moser's recent biography of Lispector, has received more attention in major review outlets--The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Texas Monthly, etc.--than has been given to the whole of her works translated into English. [Read more]
--Roger Gathman,
Austin American-Statesman

I cannot say when the biographer's work is done. [Read more]
--Dee Jarrett-Macauley

Tips Corner: Can't Get to Moscow?

Sometimes one of the hurdles in planning a research trip, or even considering if one is worthwhile, is obtaining specific information by long distance about the kinds of documents or sources that may or may not exist. If your plans include Russia, this is less of problem.
     A company called Blitz conducts research in the archives of St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as other archives in the former Soviet Union, for clients around the world.
     An outgrowth of glasnost (remember that?), Blitz has maintained a small team of in-house researchers for 17 years and also hires highly experienced researchers.
     I recently used them for eight hours of research and received a professionally produced report answering my queries.
     You can learn more about Blitz at its website.
Thanks to author Anne Heller for this tip.

In This Issue
Bio Club Prizes
BIO Conference Set to Go
National Book Award Finalists
Levey Center Conference
Quoting the Unquotable
Writing about Intimate Lives of US Founders
$54 to Save UK Newspaper Collection
Letters to the Editor
Tips Corner
From the Editor's Desk
It felt almost like I was cheating on someone.
   A couple of weeks ago I went to the manuscript room at the Library of Congress to look at a small cache of correspondence involving my next subject. My biography of Joseph Pulitzer is on its way to some printing press in the heartlands, and I figured it was time to get cracking on the next book. I was wrong.
   As I read those letters, I felt like a widow jumping back into the dating scene too soon after the death of his companion. The guilt was further confused by a sense of bewilderment in reading letters by someone I hardly knew. I was beset with first-date uncertainty: "What if I order steak and she is--gasp--a vegetarian?"
   I know this will pass. In fact, Pulitzer will fade into the past. But right now this feels an awful like dating someone on the rebound.

It turns out that "shovel ready" has appeal beyond the confines of American economic stimulus politics. The British government is going to spend $54 million (see story in this issue of TBC) to improve the British Library's newspaper collection.
   Dame Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the library, invoked the term in announcing the funding. "Our plans are already advanced, with a number of key contractors already in place," she said. "We are 'shovel ready,' and this commitment will allow us to start building in 2010."
   A few years back I used the library's newspaper collection. Like many I wrongly assumed it was housed in the flagship building at St. Pancras in London. Instead I found myself taking a long tube ride out to Colindale, in North London, where I found the collection in a fairly dilapidated three- or four-story building. The funding is well overdue.
   It will also enhance the research life of many biographers who never set foot on the scepter'd isle because the funding will also increase the digitization of the collection and widen its availability.

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.

Harvey Sachs, Toscanini: A Life,
to Oxford University Press

Peter Hartshorn, I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens,
to Counterpoint

Robert West, St. Francis of Assisi, to Thomas Nelson

Joe Wheeler, St. Nicholas, to Thomas Nelson      

Rick Marschall, Johann S. Bach, to Thomas Nelson

Ian Halperin, Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), to Objective Entertainment

Sylvie Simmons, I'm Your Man, biography of  Leonard Cohen, to Ecco

David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler, biography of Thomas Jefferson, to Random House

Donna Lucey, Sargent's Women (an account of the stories behind five of John Singer Sargent's most famous paintings), to Norton

Ray Arsenault, biography of Arthur Ashe, to Free Press

Tina Cassidy, Jackie After O, to It 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. 


Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
by John Milton Cooper Jr.
PW Review

Samuel Johnson: A Life
by David Nokes

PW Review

 Prince of Quacks: The Notorious Life of Dr. Francis Tumblety, Charlatan and Jack the Ripper Suspect
by Timothy B. Riordan

Paul McCartney: A Life
by Peter A. Carlin

High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly
by Donald Spoto

Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving
by Vincent Mallozzi

Trotsky: A Biography
Robert Service
(Harvard University Press)
PW Review

I'm No Monster: The Horrifying True Story of Josef Fritzl
Stefanie Marsh and Bojan Pancevski
PW Review

Thucydides: The Reinvention of History
Donald Kagan
PW Review

The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers
by Thomas Fleming
PW Review

Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing
by Michael Slater
(Yale University Press)

PW Review

U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth,
Joan Waugh
(University of North Carolina)
PW Review

When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin
by Mick Wall

(St. Martin's)
PW Review

Abigail Adams: A Life
Woody Holton
(Free Press)

PW Review

Prophet of Purpose: The Life of Rick Warren
Jeffery L. Sheler
(Doubleday Religion)

PW Review

American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
Joan Biskupic
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
PW Review

Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life
Carol Sklenicka
PW Review

The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily
by Nancy Goldstone


PW Review

Paul Johnson
PW Review

The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China
Hannah Pakula
(Simon & Schuster)

PW Review



Samuel Adams: A Life
by Ira Stoll
(Free Press)

Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah: A New Biography

by Tim Footman
(Chrome Dreams)
Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography
by Stanley Plumly
(W. W. Norton)



James McGrath Morris,

Sarah Baldwin,
copy editor
Mailing address:
P.O. Box 864
Tesuque, NM  87574

Photo of
 James McGrath Morris
by Michael Mudd