Unpublished Father's Tale by His Daughter Is Judges' Choice at Annual Biographers' Club Awards Dinner; Roland Chambers Wins Best First Published Biography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.
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
"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
Best First Biography
winner of the Best First Biography prize was Roland Chambers, for The Last Englishman: The Double-Life of
Arthur Ransome, published by Faber.
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
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."
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."
for his next topic? "That's a secret, but I've been doing a lot of research
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
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
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
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.
are among the topics that have been preliminarily selected for the workshops:
in Archives: Tentatively to be held in the adjacent John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, a discussion of finding and
using archival sources;
Trends in Biography: Editors and agents look at the future of biography;
with the Family: Veteran biographers discuss issues of copyrights,
permissions, authorizations, and other pitfalls of working with a subject's
family or heirs;
a Subject: Discussion by several biographers about how they selected and
rejected subjects for their books;
Frontiers in Electronic Research: An overview of the new resources now available,
from government documents and newspapers to
Your Work: In addition to advances, this panel will look at research grants
and other means of supporting one's work;
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
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
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).
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
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.
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.
more information, please visit the Centre for Life History website.
Quoting the Unquotable: Finding Words to Describe the Music of Bebop's High Priest
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.
TBC 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.
this passage Kelley traces the musical origins of the Monk style:
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."
this next passage Kelley describes Monk's sound at a particular recording session:
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
future issues of TBC, we'll offer examples from authors who describe
paintings, photos, and other unquotables.
Handling Intimate Lives of America's Demigods
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.
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,
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
Letters to the Editor
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
ended my biography of the poet James Elroy Flecker, Roses and Rain, with the sentence, "Afterwards the snow fell heavily."
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
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
Heather Walker, author of Roses
and Rain: A Biography of James Elroy Flecker
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
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
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
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
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
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]
I cannot say when the biographer's work is done. [Read more]
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.
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.
outgrowth of glasnost (remember that?), Blitz has maintained a small team of
in-house researchers for 17 years and also hires highly experienced researchers.
recently used them for eight hours of research and received a
professionally produced report answering my queries.
can learn more about Blitz at its website.
Thanks to author Anne Heller for this tip.
From the Editor's Desk
It felt almost like I was
cheating on someone.
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.
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?"
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.
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."
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.
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.
James McGrath Morris
Be an Early Bird!
Save 10% on your registration fee for the Compleat Biographer Conference May 15, 2010, Boston, MA
Send an Email to BIO for a discount coupon. Provide your name and mailing address.
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
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
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
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
Milton Cooper Jr.
Samuel Johnson: A
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
I'm No Monster: The
Horrifying True Story of Josef Fritzl
by Stefanie Marsh and Bojan Pancevski
Reinvention of History
by Donald Kagan
The Intimate Lives
of the Founding Fathers
by Thomas Fleming
Charles Dickens: A
Life Defined by Writing
by Michael Slater
(Yale University Press)
U. S. Grant:
American Hero, American Myth,
by Joan Waugh
(University of North Carolina)
When Giants Walked
the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin
by Mick Wall
Abigail Adams: A
Prophet of Purpose:
The Life of Rick Warren
by Jeffery L. Sheler
The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
by Joan Biskupic
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Raymond Carver: A
by Carol Sklenicka
The Lady Queen: The
Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily
by Nancy Goldstone
by Paul Johnson
The Last Empress:
Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China
by Hannah Pakula
(Simon & Schuster)
NEW IN PAPER
Samuel Adams: A Life
by Ira Stoll
Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah: A New Biography
by Tim Footman
Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography
by Stanley Plumly
(W. W. Norton)
James McGrath Morris,
P.O. Box 864
Tesuque, NM 87574
James McGrath Morris
by Michael Mudd