The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
December 2009
  Vol. 3, No. 10
Applegate and Hamilton Take Reins of BIO

Debby Applegate, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for biography, and Nigel Hamilton, the author of numerous award-winning biographies and books on biography, have agreed to act as interim president and vice president, respectively, of the Biographers International Organization (BIO).
     The two, along with James McGrath Morris, who is serving as interim secretary/treasurer, are directing the day-to-day conduct of BIO until its bylaws are formally approved and its board and officers elected at the May 15 business meeting. The following have also agreed to serve as interim board members: Lesley Coffin, Gayle Feldman, Louise Knight, Paul Maher, Charles Shields, and Steve Weinberg.
     BIO's bylaws were approved in principle earlier this year, and a committee is preparing a final document for ratification at the meeting. Following the vote, officers and board members will be elected to staggered terms, ranging from one to three years.
     "For over three centuries life-writing has been one of America's most popular and powerful forms of literature," said Applegate in explaining why she accepted the post of interim president. "Yet biography has not given rise to the sort of sustained critical study, institutional support, or social camaraderie as have the other major literary genres. I believe this new moment of nearly instantaneous global knowledge and networking is an especially auspicious time to remedy this long-standing neglect. It is a great honor and pleasure to serve as the interim president of the BIO, and I encourage everyone to take the time to get involved in making this an important national institution of letters."
     Hamilton also said the promise of BIO led him to agree to join the leadership. "'Present at the Creation' always seemed to me a great book title. I wanted not only to bear witness, though, but also to participate," he said. "As I see it, there are two sides to the challenge of creating an organization that will represent practicing biographers and promote the craft: the positive--and the anti-negative!
     "On the one hand I wanted to work with fellow biographers to make something that's never existed before: something practical and communitarian that will aid those who are working on biographical projects, or want to do so, and who have nowhere to turn for professional advice and fellowship.
     "And on the other, I wanted to combat the ignorance and disparagement of biography that continue to this day, despite biography's burgeoning popularity in the marketplace. It pisses me off, frankly, that the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, could, for example, open a brand new (and beautiful) main public library this year, at a cost of $90 million in taxpayers' money, and not permit a section devoted to biography! (Instead, biographies are assigned to constituent 'subject' areas, as if the life of a complex, interesting human being could be reduced to a single subject--'cuisine,' say, or 'numismatics'). I hope that, despite our natural tendency to focus on a chosen individual's life when we're doing our work, we can nevertheless pull together in BIO to reverse such stupidities and garner for biography the recognition that the profession and the craft are due."
     Under the direction of the interim leaders and board, BIO is proceeding to plan for its first conference (see below article) and beginning the process of obtaining its not-for-profit status. Until then, the Freedom to Write Fund, in Washington, D.C., has agreed to serve as its fiscal agent.
     Although its vice president is British born, BIO has a decidedly American flavor at this point, admitted Morris. "However, this is only a temporary condition. We are working on creating the formal organization under American tax laws. We know we have strong support from biographers in other nations, and the organization will reflect that once it is up and running. In the end, the word 'international' in our name will truly reflect our membership."

Compleat Biographer Conference Plans Unveiled; Registration to Open on December 15
Biographers of all stripes, from Pulitzer Prize winners to beginners, as well as leading editors, literary agents, foundation officers, and publicists are making plans to descend on Boston on May 15 for the first Compleat Biographer conference.
     A planning committee and a site committee have been hard at work in making the arrangements for the daylong conference, which will focus on the practical aspects of the art and craft of biography.
  UMB Registration for the conference, to be held at the University of Massachusetts Boston, will begin December 15, with an early bird discount of 10 percent off the fee of $195 ($95 for students) valid through January 15. The fee includes breakfast, lunch, and access to all the panels and events as well as to the end-of-the-day reception.
     The day will open with a welcome from Ray Anthony Shepard, site committee chair. Debby Applegate will then deliver a president's report. Following her talk, BIO's bylaws will be ratified and officers and board members will be elected.
     A total of 10 workshops will be offered in four time periods, providing attendees the opportunity to attend four of the offerings. The panel topics will be:
  • Working with Primary Documents: A discussion by archivists and biographers on the challenges and opportunities of working in archives today;
  • Trends in Biography: Representatives from publishing houses and literary agencies join biographers to look at the future of biography;
  • Dealing with the Family: Veteran biographers discuss issues of permissions, copyright, authorization, and other pitfalls of working with a subject's family or heirs;
  • Selecting a Subject: Discussion by several biographers about how they came to find or reject subjects for their books;
  • Marketing Your Biography: Specific tips on how to create buzz, conduct targeted marketing, and capture readers for your biography;
  • New Ways to Publish/Republish: From digital books to I-Universe;
  • Self-Editing: What, why, and how to cut;
  • Electronic Research: Learn how to use online resources, with demonstrations of the newest ones;
  • Funding Your Work: How and where to obtain research grants and other means of supporting one's work, in addition to advances, as well as how to obtain a fellowship to attend a writers colony (complete with resource guide); and
  • The Proposal: Tips on writing a winning proposal for a biography (samples included).
     The conference will also include a speed-dating session with agents during which authors without representation will have a chance to meet one-on-one with an agent and pitch their projects.
     To register for the conference or to learn more, check BIO's conference website.

Stiles's Vanderbilt Biography Wins NBA Nonfiction Prize

T. J. Stiles, whose The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Knopf) was featured last spring in TBC, took home the National Book Award for nonfiction and $10,000 at the 60th National Book Awards Benefit Dinner and Ceremony, at Cipriani Wall Street, in New York City, on November 18.
    vanderbiltnbaWhen Stiles was working on the book, he believed it could amount to a significant biography if he handled it right. "I uncovered enormous amounts of new information about Cornelius Vanderbilt, but I wanted to use it to go simultaneously big and small: to tell a fast-paced story of real, complex characters and to provide a searching look at the making of the American corporate economy, with all its power and problems," Stiles said. "In short, I wanted to tell a good story that would also make readers think anew about how our world came to be."
     "With the National Book Award, I feel as if the jurors said that my vision of what this book could be had in fact been realized. I don't pretend that my book is the only one that a jury could rationally have selected--or even the only biography they could have selected. Frankly, it's mind-boggling to have my book plucked out of all nonfiction. So I don't have a sense of superiority or victory, but of enormous gratification that my hopes for my book were ratified by a panel of fine writers and thinkers (not least of whom was the chair, historian David Blight)."
     The award, Stiles said, is also a recognition of the work done by the staff of Knopf, booksellers, and critics who liked the book and told others. "I also appreciate the fact that major awards, by singling out just one book, immediately make us think of the many excellent works that could have been picked but weren't. It's a real reminder of how much fine writing is out there. (I tried to make these points in my acceptance remarks.) And I'd like to think that it would expand my audience. I try my best to provide both sound historical scholarship and reading pleasure; if more readers find my books and like my approach, I think it will be good for all biographers.
     Stiles's acceptance remarks can be viewed at minute 72 on BookTV's website. 
     He is currently working on a biography of Custer. "I deliberately picked someone who has been well-covered before, a subject with large, well-identified collections of letters. After spending seven years discovering new sources on a figure who saved nothing and wrote as little as possible, I just had to find more solid ground--so my selection of Custer is an expression of respect, not contempt, for previous biographers."
     The awards evening also possessed a romantic coda. Five years ago to the day, Stiles had walked into Colum McCann's office, which was next door to his office at the Cullman Center, and told him he had met someone special. That someone is now Stiles's wife. "Colum was the first person I talked to about her. Five years later to the day, we both won the National Book Award [McCann for fiction]," he said. "Pretty cool."

New York's Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar Meeting for Almost Three Decades 

By Dona Munker
In literary fiction, Mary Gordon observes, "the male voice is the default setting." The same can be said of biography--but not at the monthly meetings of the Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar, a mutual-support group of about sixty women writers dedicated to helping themselves and each other depict the lives of women.
    wwwl Founded by, among others, biographer Deirdre Bair and the late Carolyn Heilbrun, the Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar is a self-supporting discussion group of academics, journalists, independent scholars, and a sizable minority of memoirists. It currently convenes under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Women and Society and the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. (The group also maintains a collegial connections with the Leon Levy Center for Biography. The Levy's newly appointed director, Brenda Wineapple, is a member of the seminar.)
     Since 1990 the seminar has been meeting eight times a year to present and exchange ideas on members' work and to hear from outside presenters. Its goal is ambitious: to tweak biography's "default position" by bringing the stories of little-known women to light and by positioning already-known lives within the complex larger framework of women's political, cultural, and social experiences. "By examining the circumstances and choices our subjects faced in their own times and places," says one historian who is a member, "and by helping our members find new ways of looking at and presenting those stories, we give readers a better grasp of how society has worked throughout history."
     Many members, like Eleanor Roosevelt-biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook, are old hands at writing biography; others are first-timers, like Abby Santamaria, whose subject is the poet Joy Davidman, the wife of C. S. Lewis. Participants come to network with other biographers (Betty Boyd Caroli, author of First Ladies and The Roosevelt Women, says that she comes partly to "find out who's publishing what with whom") and glean tips, ideas, and insights into their own subjects from the lively discussions that follow the presentations.
     But the biggest draw is the camaraderie of being with other writers who face the challenges of writing about figures whose public and private lives often leave fewer traces than men's lives do. Many members who also belong to mixed biography groups find that the Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar provides something special.
     "Women's lives--especially their inner lives--are complex," says Marjorie Jones, who published a biography of Frances Yates last year. "The insight and expertise of the other women in WWWL has helped me to understand why and how best to tell their stories." And Diane Jacobs, who is writing about Abigail Adams and her sisters, says of her seminar colleagues, "When I feel dispirited, their dedication and passion for their subjects steadies me. If I were now writing about a man, I would still relish the seminar."
Dona Munker is a former college English teacher and trade book editor in New York. Her book, Daughter of Persia: A Woman's Journey from Her Father's Harem through the Islamic Revolution, written with Sattareh Farman-Farmaian, was the first account in English of the life of a modern Middle Eastern woman. She is currently working on Sara and Erskine, An American Romance, a book about the love affair of poet and suffragist Sara Bard Field with the anarchist C. E. S. Wood, and inching toward a long-planned blog on her website, "Writing a Biography, Imagining a Life," about the intersection of research and the literary imagination in writing a biography.

Transforming a Biography from Paper to Film: An Interview with Kirk Ellis

HBO scored an enormous hit in 2008
with the seven-part miniseries
John Adams, based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Screenwriter and co-executive producer for the program Kirk Ellis talked with TBC about the challenges of converting a biography to film.

TBC: Is biography well suited for screen adaptation?
Ellis: Biography is no more or less well suited to adaptation than any other literary genre. It all depends on the inherent story. In dramatic terms the span of any human life is rarely consistently interesting from beginning to end. One of the things that made David McCullough's book appealing was the very fact that John Adams was such a (regrettably) little-known figure. It offered a chance to dramatize the American Revolution from a very idiosyncratic personal viewpoint. As a screenwriter, one's focus must always be on the personal--a fact too often forgotten in screen biographies, which frequently lose sight of the people in their effort to capture a broad sweep of events. But then you can say the same about many biographical books as well.
TBC: What are the challenges to adapting a biography in comparison to other kinds of work?
Ellis: The challenges with fashioning any screen story--whether based on a nonfiction book or a novel or created from whole cloth--are largely the same. What is my point of entry into the narrative? What parts of the life make for the best drama? How can they be structured into a consistent whole? One of the most frequent comments on John Adams I receive is, "It must have been great for you to work in a miniseries format, because you could adapt the entire book." But even with a project of such length (over nine hours), the selection process was still considerable. The movie's story begins with the Boston Massacre trial, which occurs roughly 150 or more pages into David's book. That single choice put a very distinctive stamp on our view of the character: as a man of principle who believed the rule of law was paramount. It defined his character for the whole seven-episode cycle.
TBC: I know about the research you did; how else did you prepare yourself for working on Adams? Did you, for instance, look at how other biographies have been adapted for the screen?
Ellis: Each story has its own internal dynamic, so it's rarely useful to screen other biographies. I find that the fiction of any particular era can be as revealing as research into hard facts--and often a better indication of the intellectual and spiritual currents of the times. With Adams, I read a good deal of the literature of the time: Samuel Richardson, Tobias Smollett, Laurence Sterne (all authors read by both the Adamses, by the way). Those works not only unlocked a manner of thinking unique to the time, they also helped me to craft a believable language for the period, which was so important to insuring verisimilitude.
Kirk Ellis is now working on Escape, a feature film based on the nonfiction book by Carolyn Jessop, about a woman's flight from the Warren Jeffs-led polygamist compound on the Arizona-Utah border. For television he is developing a miniseries for AMC based on Laton McCartney's The Teapot Dome Scandal, and, for ABC, the true story of the Von Trapp family from The Sound of Music.

Best 2009 Biographies

New York Times Picks
The New York Times selected Sklenicka's Carver among its 10 best books of the year. Here are the biographies on the newspapers list of 100 notable books of the year.

Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C. Heller (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey (Knopf)
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, by Linda Gordon (Norton)
A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon, by Neil Sheehan (Random House)
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles (Knopf)
Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, by Brad Gooch (Little, Brown)
Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme, by Tracy Daugherty (St. Martin's)
The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China, by Hannah Pakula (Simon & Schuster)
Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin I. Urofsky (Pantheon)
Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, by Carol Sklenicka (Scribner)
Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, by Larry Tie (Random House)
The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, by Graham Farmelo (Basic Books)
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin D. G. Kelley (Free Press)
Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, by Benjamin Moser (Oxford University Press)
Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, by Douglas Brinkley (Harper/HarperCollins)
Daily Telegraph Biographies of the Year
Alan Clark: The Biography, by Ion Trewin (Weidenfeld)
James Lees-Milne: The Life, by Michael Bloch (John Murray)
The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, by Graham Farmelo (Faber)
Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, by Paula Byrne (Harper Press)
Muriel Spark: The Biography, by Martin Stannard (Weidenfeld),
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, by Selina Hasting (John Murray)
Chaplin: The Tramp's Odyssey, by Simon Louvish (Faber)
The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome, by Roland Chambers (Faber)
William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies, by John Carey (Faber)
The Magnificent Mrs. Tennant, by David Waller (Yale)
Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother: The Official Biography, by William Shawcross (Macmillan)


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)

Letters are a biographer's best friend--and worst enemy. They are a vivid way of tracking a subject's day-to-day thoughts and activities, but they can also have an up-staging effect. William Faulkner, in a letter to his parents, wrote about a ride on a New York subway: "The experiment showed me that we are not descended from monkeys, as some say, but from lice." No mere biographer's narrative, however conscientious, can compete with such personal confidences
[Read more]
--Charles Petersen, Wall Street Journal

In This Issue
Applegate & Hamilton Lead BIO
Compleat Bio Conference
Stiles Wins NBA prize
NY WWWL Almost 30 Years Old
Biography from Paper to Film
Best Biographies of 2009
the Editor's Desk
In addition to the selection of a biography for the nonfiction National Book Award (see article in this issue), a biography for young readers also took top honors. Phillip Hoose's Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) was given the NBA for Young People's Literature.
   Colvin is not only an interesting subject but also food for thought among biographers. Ignored by most histories, she is an African-American who refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, nine months before Rosa Parks's action triggered the boycott in 1955, a key moment in the Civil Rights movement.
   A fascinating and now award-winning book about a lesser-known but deserving subject should be a reminder to publishers that not all biographies have to be about the famous figures of the past. See this New York Times article for more.

A film for biographers? Recently I went to the movie theater, a rare event around our household. We saw Julie & Julia. I was deeply taken with the movie, and on the way home I pondered why. The answer came to me. It is really a movie about what we do as biographers as much as it is a film about food. Julie not only cooks Julia's food, but she works hard to understand Julia, to get into her skin, to feel her pains and joys, experience her love of food and of her husband.
   So this may be a first, but TBC is making a movie recommendation: if you write biographies, go see Julie & Julia.
When we look back over time, most all of us have a Terry Murphy in our lives. Terry was my most important college professor and mentor. He passed away this past month. I was extraordinarily fortunate in having been one of his students, not once but several times and, as odd as it sounds, in periods separated by decades.
    I first took a course under Murphy in 1975. It was daunting class in medieval history in which we read Dante, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, and other works I had never before encountered in a history class. I left college having earned an incomplete in the course (never turned in the final paper on Pope Boniface VIII).
   Twenty years later I returned to college and found myself in a class taught, once again, by Murphy. He had aged greatly because of a myriad of serious health problems that had left him infirm and almost blind. But none of the hardships had affected his brilliance and devotion to scholarship.
   Every year, for instance, he would have a graduate assistant read the exam essay aloud to him, and he was famous for being able to pick out essays that had been plagiarized from another student's work. He would tell his assistant to get out the files from, say, three years earlier, and there would be the version of the essay copied (probably bought) by the offending student.
   As a well-read middle-aged student I stood out in class, and Murphy and I became friends. I took every course he taught, and he guided my studies. He even discovered that my incomplete from the 1970s had no time limit, so he provided me with credit for the course. He instilled in me a love--one that might be labeled anachronistic--of a kind historical scholarship rarely practiced anymore, those majestic, sweeping interpretations of the past built on a wide foundation of facts, literature, art, music, and even folklore.
   I know I am not alone in being saddened by his passing. If I write successfully today, it is owed in great part to Murphy's tender teaching of me. It was a task born of a love of learning and a love of students. He proved to me that Dante was right when he wrote that it is "love that moves the sun and the other stars."

Happy reading,

James McGrath Morris 

P.S. Check out a new feature below called "Writers' Services."

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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.

Richard Rashke, The John Demjanjuk Story, to Delphinium

Jodi Kantor, biography of the Obamas, to Little, Brown

David Michaelism, biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, to Simon & Schuster

Vicki Constantine Croke, The Way of the Elephant (a biography of Lieutenant Colonel J. H. Williams), to Random House

William Gildea, biography of Joe Gans (the first African-American boxing champion and a subject for the artist George Bellows), to Farrar, Straus

Rachel Swarns, biography of First Lady Michelle Obama, to Amistad

Benjamin Schwarz, life and times of Winston Churchill, to Random House

Betty Caroli, Lady Bird and Lyndon, to Simon & Schuster

Writers' Services

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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. 


Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
by Terry Teachout
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
PW Review
Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and Oliver Reed
by Robert Sellers
(St. Martin's/Dunne)
PW Review
Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-century Skeptic by Michael Scammell
(Random House)
PW Review
The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn
by Alison Weir
PW Review
Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving
by Vincent M. Mallozzi
PW Review
Who Was Jacques Derrida? An Intellectual Biography
by David Mikics
(Yale University Press)
PW Review
Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power
by Robert E. Sullivan
PW Review
A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age
by Joćo Magueijo
PW Review
Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
by David Bianculli
PW Review
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
by Joan Schenkar
(St. Martin's)
PW Review



White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson
by Brenda Wineapple (Anchor)

Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945
by Carlo D'este
(Harper Perennial)

We Two: Victoria and Albert, Rulers, Partners, Rivals
by Gillian Gill



James McGrath Morris,

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

Photo of
 James McGrath Morris
by Michael Mudd