The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
April 2010
  Vol. 4, No. 2
Stiles Wins Pulitzer Prize for Vanderbilt

T.J. Stiles's The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbiltby T.J Stiles (Alfred A. Knopf) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
   Also nominated as finalists in this category were: Cheever: A Lifeby Blake Bailey (Alfred A. Knopf), and Woodrow Wilson: A Biographyby John Milton Cooper, Jr. (Alfred A. Knopf).
Clock Ticking Down on Registering for Compleat Biographer Conference

Final preparations are underway for Biographers International Organization's first-ever Complete Biographer Conference, expected to bring together working biographers from several countries in Boston next month. Registration is keeping up with projections, and some sessions at the conference may become sold out in coming weeks.UMB harbor
 Taking its name from Izaak Walton's famous 17th century book on fishing, the Compleat Biographer Conference will focus on the practical aspects of the craft and art of biography. The daylong conference will feature speeches by prominent biographers such as Pulitzer Prize-winner and BIO interim president Debby Applegate and the recipient of the BIO Award Jean Strouse, as well as workshops, panel discussions, and networking opportunities. 
 "Biography faces huge questions in our era of transition to post-print life--not to speak of the cultural and artistic threats and opportunities in this third millennium," said Nigel Hamilton, BIO's interim vice president and author of the forthcoming American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush. "Any biographer who wants to get published or be taken seriously by his or her audience should try to be there--or be square!"
 Ray Anthony Shepard, chair of the BIO Host Committee, has been busy attending to the logistics of the conference. Shepard and his committee have been making final inspections of the conference facilities, working to obtain additional hotel rooms, and preparing to publish the program.
 The conference will bring together a mix of seasoned, accomplished, and prize-winning biographers with writers beginning their first works, as well as editors, agents, foundation officers, publicists, archivists, and librarians. "I'm a newbie at this biography business," noted Robin Rausch, of the Library of Congress. "I'm coming to the BIO conference to bask in the glow of  'The Published,' learn from their experience, and find an agent for my biography of Marian MacDowell."
 "Come to Boston," adds Shepard, "the hub of life stories, on May 15, to support your art and profession."
Bancroft and Cohen Prizes Awarded; New Stowe Prize Launched
Two biographies garnered Bancroft history prizes this year. Linda Gordon's Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits and Woody Holton's Abigail Adams. A third book, Margaret Jacobs's White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940, was also given a Bancroft.LangAdams
 The Bancroft prizes are awarded annually by Columbia University for books in American history, including biography, and diplomacy.
Cohen Prize           
The second volume of a biography of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau by John English won the 2009-2010 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for excellence in political writing. English, a history professor and former member of the Canadian Parliament, received the $25,000 prize for Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968-2000.
Stowe Prize
The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford (right next door to the Mark Twain House) is launching a new book prize. Recognition and $10,000 will be given to a U.S. author whose work makes "a tangible impact on a social justice issue critical to contemporary society."
  The inaugural Prize will be awarded in 2011 and honors the 200th anniversary of Stowe's birth. Her 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin changed how Americans thought about slavery, galvanizing the antislavery movement and widening the divisions that led to the Civil War. Translated into 60 languages, Uncle Tom's Cabin remains an international classic, read for its powerful portrayal of the struggle for freedom. 
   It is in this tradition that the winner of the Stowe Prize will be chosen, according to a spokesperson. The prize will be awarded biennially. The winner will be announced in March 2011 and the prize awarded in June. Submissions for the prize must be postmarked by June 1, 2010. For complete information, visit the Stowe Center website.
Paris, Spring, and Picasso: Elements of a Children's Book Featuring "Fictional Biography"

picassoAn illustrated book for children published this past month offers an imaginative look at a day in the life of Pablo Picasso and the people surrounding him. Written by Joan Yolleck and illustrated by Majorie Priceman, Paris in the Spring with Picasso (Random House) follows Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Max Jacob, Apollinaire, and friends on a typical Saturday before one of Gertrude Stein's famous soirees. "The evening soiree that the narrative takes as its focus isn't as important as the ordinary ways these extraordinary artists spend their days," noted Publishers Weeklyin a starred review.
    TBC talked with Yolleck to learn about her work, particularly what she calls "fictional biography."
   "Everything in this book could have or did happen," Yolleck said. "For example, the conversation between Gertrude and Alice was taken from words they used with each other in conversation.
   "As every biographer does, I read everything available on the characters and subject. I spent several years doing research in the library and using interlibrary loan to find out about Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Alice B. Toklas, Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Fernande Olivier, Marie Laurencin, and others during the early part of the 20th century. As the research fanned out, I followed it in its many directions and learned about movements, contemporary artists, and scholars' current work on the material. As well, I visited museums, watched films, and searched the Internet."
TBC:You focused on the day and the ordinariness of the way your famous cast of characters spent it. Why?
Yolleck:What they are doing is ordinary only in that many of us spend our time painting or writing, visiting friends and family, sleeping and dreaming. In some ways, this is the biographer's craft, to show them as accessible people. This famous cast of characters is extraordinary because of their creativity and the way society embraced them. It's the creative energy that you see in the book that makes them (or anyone who is creative) extraordinary.
TBC:What was your goal in writing this book?
Yolleck:My goal was to introduce children to a broader range of historical figures. The beginning of the 20th century was a remarkable period that is constantly studied by adults. It seemed natural to show children this world for their enjoyment, and perhaps, as a basis for further exploration, now or when they are adults.
TBC: What's next?
Yolleck: Iam working on a fictional biography for children about an African American who made a large contribution to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Publisher Finds Market for Biographies Relating to Olden Days of Cinema, Radio and Television

Readers in search of biographies relating to classic cinema or the old days of radio and television are becoming increasingly acquainted with a Georgia publisher with an unusual name. BearManor Media, less than a decade old, has already built a large catalog of biographies (both print and audio) on figures such as John Holmes, Agnes Moorehead, Guy Williams, and Verna Felton, to name just a few.
  Ben Ohmart started the company while working as a writer. "I learned how hard it was to tap into the mainstream market with what is essentially nostalgia fodder," he said. So he published his book The Great Gildersleeve by himself and learned he enjoyed the publishing side more than the writing side.
  "I always had a big interest in radio, coming from Abbott &feltonCostello, Fibber McGee & Molly, Duffy's Tavern, and all the comedies. When I learned online that Charles Stumpf had written a book on Fibber, I got his address and wrote to him for a copy. The book was great, and there started a long friendship (he died last year), during which time Charles showed me the delights of nonfiction writing."
  Ohmart pursued his new passion through research and churning out books on voice actors, his favorite subject. "I wrote books Walter Tetley, Paul Frees, Daws Butler, the Bickersons, and Mel Blanc," he said. But he doubted if publishers would be interested.
  "Having had the experience of rejection before, I didn't want to wait another year before placing these [other works], when books of this sort did not show up on Borders bookshelves anyway, so I started self-publishing," he said. "And in the process, I found that I preferred the tedious work of publishing to writing."
  BariNow, as a publisher, Ohmart is most interested in obtaining biographies related to entertainment. "My main love is voice actors and radio, but my problem is that I like too many kinds of things. I'll watch a Buster Keaton movie and a Saw horror film with equal pleasure; I enjoy Snoopy cartoons and BBC Radio 4 alike. That's why my catalog is so wide. Of course I have a large soft spot for the unheralded supporting players of film. There aren't enough books on these hardworking, forgotten people. Who's at the top of my list? Allen Jenkins, Tim Curry, Sterling Holloway. That's not my whole list either. Books on these people would be wonderful.
  "It seems like few companies are in a rush to take a chance on a Verna Felton or a Benny Bell or a Vernon Dent or a book on the Riverboat TV series. But these are valuable areas of history that should not be overlooked. And the longer you wait, the more witnesses are lost, diminishing the history you can capture. So if you have a passion to write that book on Herbert Marshall, Eric Blore, Frank Morgan, go for it! You'll always have a home with us."
Reflections on a Book Tour

By James McGrath Morris
Have you ever wondered why rental-car companies give you two keys on a ring welded closed so that you can't separate the two? What's the point of having two keys? These are the kinds of profound questions that crossed my mind recently as I crisscrossed the country in search of folks who might buy my new book.
 As many TBC readers engage in this timeworn practice known as the book tour, I thought I might share a few observations, aside from my rumination about rental-car keys. My experience is quite unlike that of famous authors such as Rebecca Skloot, author of the bestselling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,who reports, "I've read to thousands of people in classrooms, churches, community centers, cafeterias, bars, chapels, and many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many independent bookstores."
 The fate of us midlist authors is far different. We get thrilled when six people--unless you count the two who wandered in by accident and eagerly sought the exit--show up for a reading in a bookstore. (Truth be told, there were also events that included healthy sized crowds.)
  So why should a midlist author do these kinds of events? Aren't they better suited to the Skloots of this world? No, quite the opposite. While Skloot might boost her sales with her appearances, her book would do fine without a tour. It is the lesser-known authors whose sales may be tipped critically upwards by these events.
  But if the crowds are small, aren't these events a waste of time? No, one cannot judge the success of a bookstore reading by the size of the crowd for a number of reasons. First, the bookstore will give your book more prominence before your arrival. That is valuable publicity. Second, sales for your book will increase before and after your event. Third and most important, the bookstore event may simply be an excuse for obtaining valuable media exposure.
  On more than one occasion, I have done a bookstore event with, say, a dozen folks. But I obtained an hour on the city's most prominent radio talk show, reaching thousands of readers, by using the news hook of the event. In other words, the radio time was generated by the event itself.
  Also new media can extend these sparsely attended events to new and larger audiences. For instance, I gave a talk in New York and in Washington to nice-size crowds. But what made the events even better was that videotaped versions were posted on You Tube. This can work no matter the size of your event. I did an interview-style event at a venue in a large Western city attended by a handful of folks. It was filmed and aired locally.
  In another occasion, I worked with the Strand Bookstore in New York to cook up an event that attracted CSPAN. Instead of my doing a book talk, we invited Michael Wolff, the biographer of Rupert Murdoch, to come and do a conversation about our respective media lords. The resulting show aired twice on Book TV and introduced my new book about Pulitzer to thousands of potential readers.
  So my point is don't judge your reach by a head count of those hardy souls who make it to your events. The small crowd may be only the tip of an iceberg of interest.
  Next month, another imponderable: who is that woman whose voice we hear in airports throughout the United States?
British Biographer and Novelist Mervyn Jones
Mervyn Jones, a prolific novelist and occasional biographer, died February 22 in Brighton, England, at age 87. His three biographies were the life stories of Megan Lloyd George, George Meredith, and Michael Foot, the latter his best known work outside his fiction.
 Jones met Foot in 1955 while working as a reporter. He grew to become one of his closest friends. Three decades later, when Jones learned that Foot was not planning on writing his memoirs, he asked permission to write a biography. Foot granted him complete access to his papers. "Jones's fascinating and effortlessly readable 700-page study was an affectionate account of a generous and affectionate man," reported the Telegraph.

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)

An author's first reaction to the news that the president of the United States is reading one of his books is, naturally enough, admiration for the man's superb taste in prose. Then come qualms. What if he gets bored and badmouths it on Jay Leno? What if he is seen using the paperback edition to swat horseflies at Camp David? [more]
--Edmund Morris, Daily Beast

In May 1992 a postcard changed my life. Three months earlier, on hearing that Muriel Spark was to review the second volume of my biography of Evelyn Waugh, I had expected a mauling. I knew that she was a friend of Auberon Waugh. I knew he disliked the book. Nevertheless, and much to my surprise, she had praised it, so I wrote to thank her. Shortly afterwards, a postcard arrived depicting a detail of mosaics from the vault of the presbytery of the Chiesa di S. Vitale in Ravenna: two doves, or pigeons, side by side amid leaves and fruit. Turning this mysterious image over, I found an equally mysterious handwritten message from 'Muriel Sp.' saying that she hoped she would have as good a biographer as me when her turn came round. [more]
--Martin Stannard, OUP Blog
Tips Corner: Footnote Free This Month; Fire Up Google Alerts
Use Footnote for Free This Month
Footnote, a leading digital archive company, is expanding its trial offer of free access to its U.S. census materials. "A few weeks ago," they write, "we granted all visitors to Footnote free access to the Interactive Census Collection. Due to the positive response we received, we have decided to keep this collection open to the public through the month of April."
Follow this linkto gain access to the material.
Google Alerts: No Author Should Be Without Them
Never assume that everyone knows about a good thing. One such good thing is Google Alerts. By setting up a Google Alert(very easy to do), you will receive emails when the item you identify is mentioned on the web, in a publication, a blog, or even a video. Many authors use it to keep track of their publicity efforts, but it can be used for research purposes as well. But be careful to narrow your search query. If you are researching the life of a well-known person, the number of hits will overwhelm you and, probably, none of it will be new. But if you compose your queries carefully, a Google Alert may provide a useful tip.

In This Issue
Stiles Wins Pulitzer
Clock Ticking Down for Conference
Bancroft & Cohen Prizes
Paris & Picasso in a new Children's Book
BearManor Media
Reflections on a Book Tour
Obit: Mervyn Hones
Tips Corner

If you want to be a biographer, make plans to be in Boston this May 15th for the Compleat Biographer Conference
 The conference will bring together biographers from the United States and other countries for a daylong series of workshops and panel discussion on the practical aspects of the craft and art of biography, with topics ranging from Dealing with the Family to New Ways to Publish in the Age of the Internet.


To learn more or to register,
visit BIO's website.

From the
Editor's Desk
Philip Turner is back in action. This fall Philip Turner Books will bring out its first title in conjunction with Rowan & Littlefield Publishing Group, The Deeds of My Fathers: Generoso Pope, Sr., Power Broker of New York, and Gene Pope, Jr., Publisher of the National Enquirer, by David Paul Pope.
  Turner, who began his working life on the retail side of books as the owner of a chain of independent bookstores, has been a noted editor in several book publishing companies, most recently Carroll & Graf, which closed in 2007. "In my career I have directed several thematically driven imprints of narrative nonfiction--purpose-driven imprints. I am devoted to editing and publishing books that chronicle miscarriages of justice, social issues, the wrongfully accused, errors of historical understanding, unique achievements, and revelatory discoveries," Turner said.
   "In 2009 I began representing these projects as a book producer to publishers and in addition have developed publishing capability under the Philip Turner Books imprint."
   Turner is a man biographers ought to know.
If you are need of help selling your book at non-bookstore events in New York, check out Mobile Libris, a clever and nimble company that specializing in selling books at events. They have even sold my book at an event in a cemetery. Think of it as a bookstore on wheels. 
Please remember to give us advance warning if you are doing something that might interest biographers. Over the past year we have often learned of events too late to include them in TBC before they occurred. The most recent case in point, mentioned here so that at the least it will get some press, was a March conference at the American College of Greece entitled "The Craft of Biography: Writing Greek Lives." The daylong meeting included presentations on Plutarch and ancient Greek biography and writing the biography of George Seferis, among other topics.
Correction:TBC erroneously reported in February that Jerry Oppenheimer's next book was going to be a biography of Casey Johnson. We were incorrect. Oppenheimer, who has written biographies of the Hilton and Kennedy families, is writing a book on the entire Johnson & Johnson dynasty for St. Martin's Press. We regret the error.

Happy reading,

James McGrath Morris 

Currently reading: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, and This Book is Overdue!, by Marilyn Johnson.

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"This well-researched, exhaustive biography reads like a novel. . . Morris paints a vivid picture, portraying his subject as an ambitious, hotheaded, at times violent, often charitable man; a perfectionist, shrewd in matters of business yet cold in matters of the heart."
--The New York Times Book Review



Order your copy at IndieBound
or order a signed copy here

Sold to Publishers

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

Kirstin Downey, Isabella: a biography of Isabella, Queen of Spain, to Nan Talese
Richard Lucas, Axis Sally(World War II radio personality and convicted traitor), to Casemate

Randall Woods, untitled biography of William E. Colby, to Basic

Robin Lane Fox, Augustine, to Basic

Steve Turner, And the Band Played On: The Musicians Aboard the RMS Titanic, to Thomas Nelson

Harlow Unger, Beaumarchais: The Unlikely History of the Inventor, Spy, Playwright and Rogue Who Saved the American Revolution, to the University Press of New England

Ethan Mordden, Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, to St. Martin's
Richard Whitmire, The Bee Eater(DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee), to Jossey-Bass

Robert Graysmith, Black Fire: The True Biography of the Original Tom Sawyer, to Broadway

Joan Druett, Tupaia (Captain Cook's Polynesian navigator), to Praeger

Rob Chapman,  A Very Irregular Head,(an authorized biography of Syd Barrett, the founder of Pink Floyd) to Da Capo

Virginia Scharff, The Women Jefferson Loved, to Harper

 Maureen Callahan, Poker Face: The Rise and Rise of Lady Gaga,to Hyperion
Marcus Brotherton, Shifty Powers: The Band of Brothers Quiet Warrior, to Caliber

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. 


The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, by Alan Brinkley
PW Review

Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson, by Rus Bradburd

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, by
David Remnick

Julius Finn: A Chess Master's Life in America, 1871-1931, by Olimpiu G. Urcan
Kentuckian in Blue: A Biography of Major General Lovell Harrison Rousseau,by Dan Lee

Rick Ferrell, Knuckleball Catcher: A Hall of Famer's Life Behind the Plate and in the Front Office, by Kerrie Ferrell with William M. Anderson
Appetite for America: Fred Harvey Civilizing the West-One Meal at a Time, by Stephen Fried
PW Review
Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Became Mark Twain,by Roy Morris Jr. (Simon & Schuster)
Cleopatra: A Biography, by Duane W. Roller
(Oxford University Press)
PW Review

Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens, by Jerome Loving
(University of California Press)
PW Review
Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon, by Roland Lazenby. (Ballantine/ESPN)
PW Review



How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood,
 William J. Mann
Trotsky: A Biography,
by Robert Service
(Pan Publishing)
Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne,
by James Gavin
Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage,
by Edith Belle Gelles
(Harper Perennial)
'Blinker' Hall: Spymaster: The Man Who Brought America into World War I,
by David Ramsay
(History Press)


James McGrath Morris,

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