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).
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.
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.
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."
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!
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
- Trends in Biography: Representatives from
publishing houses and literary agencies join biographers to look at the future
- 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
- 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).
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.
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
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."
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)."
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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
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.
Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C. Heller (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
A Life, by Blake Bailey
Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, by Linda Gordon (Norton)
Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon, by Neil Sheehan (Random House)
First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles (Knopf)
A Life of Flannery O'Connor, by Brad Gooch (Little, Brown)
Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme, by Tracy Daugherty (St. Martin's)
Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China, by Hannah Pakula (Simon &
D. Brandeis: A Life, by
Melvin I. Urofsky (Pantheon)
Carver: A Writer's Life,
by Carol Sklenicka (Scribner)
The Life and Times of an American Legend, by Larry Tie (Random House)
Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, by Graham Farmelo (Basic Books)
Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin D. G. Kelley (Free Press)
This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, by Benjamin Moser (Oxford University
Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, by Douglas Brinkley (Harper/HarperCollins)
Daily Telegraph Biographies of the Year
Clark: The Biography,
by Ion Trewin (Weidenfeld)
Lees-Milne: The Life,
by Michael Bloch (John Murray)
Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, by Graham Farmelo (Faber)
World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, by Paula Byrne (Harper Press)
Spark: The Biography,
by Martin Stannard (Weidenfeld),
Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, by Selina Hasting (John Murray)
The Tramp's Odyssey, by
Simon Louvish (Faber)
Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome, by Roland Chambers (Faber)
Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies, by John Carey (Faber)
Magnificent Mrs. Tennant,
by David Waller (Yale)
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
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
--Charles Petersen, Wall Street Journal
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
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
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 &
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
James McGrath Morris
P.S. Check out a new feature below called "Writers' Services."
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 more information; please be sure to 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.
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
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
Betty Caroli, Lady Bird and Lyndon, to Simon & Schuster
Independent publicity services from industry veterans
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Reliable and affordable indexing
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Professional copyediting services by experienced New York editor
For more information
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
by Terry Teachout
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and
by Robert Sellers
Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-century Skeptic by Michael Scammell
The Lady in the
Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn
by Alison Weir
Doc: The Rise and
Rise of Julius Erving
by Vincent M. Mallozzi
Who Was Jacques
Derrida? An Intellectual Biography
by David Mikics
(Yale University Press)
Tragedy of Power
by Robert E. Sullivan
Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore
Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age
by Joćo Magueijo
Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers
Brothers Comedy Hour
by David Bianculli
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
by Joan Schenkar
NEW IN PAPER
White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas
by Brenda Wineapple (Anchor)
Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945
Two: Victoria and Albert, Rulers, Partners, Rivals
by Gillian Gill
James McGrath Morris,
P.O. Box 864
Tesuque, NM 87574
James McGrath Morris
by Michael Mudd