The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
May 2010
Compleat Biographer Conference Set to Open; Registration Deadline Nears

BostonThe site visits have been completed, the food has been ordered, last-minute preparations for a conference-eve social hour are being made, and on May 15 a new day in biography writing will dawn as writers from the United States and abroad will gather at the University of Massachusetts Boston for the first-ever Compleat Biographer Conference.
     The complete program may be viewed here, and the registration site remains active, although prices will increase on May 11.
     The first item of business will be the ratification of formal bylaws for Biographers International Organization (BIO) and the election of its first board (see story below.) This will occur during a breakfast featuring a welcoming address by Raymond A. Shepard, site committee chair, and an address by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Debby Applegate, BIO's interim president.
     Following breakfast, the first two rounds of panels and workshops will be held. Midday attendees will break for lunch, BIO Awardduring which Jean Strouse will be presented with the BIO Award for her contributions to advancing the art and craft of biography. She will deliver the conference's keynote address.
     The afternoon will feature more workshops as well a speed-dating session for unrepresented authors with literary agents. The day will end with a reception and an author signing.

BIO Board Candidates Ready to Take Office; Bylaws Prepared for Ratification

BIO's interim board has completed its selection of a proposed slate of officers and board members to assume the reins of the organization after May 15. Candidates were drawn from those who responded to calls for nominations in TBC and from recommendations. The slate will be presented for election during BIO's breakfast business meeting at the Compleat Biographer Conference.
     For president and vice president, the interim board selected Nigel Hamilton and Charles J. Shields, respectively. The following 11 other biographers were selected for the board:
  • Carol DeBoer-Langworthy
  • Gayle Feldman
  • Anne Heller
  • Kitty Kelley
  • Andrew Lownie
  • Paul Maher Jr.
  • Hans Renders
  • Carl Rollyson  
  • Stacy Schiff
  • Will Swift
  • Steve Weinber
     The organization's bylaws, which were approved in principle last year, have been slightly revised based on recommendations made during the approval vote. The final draft of the bylaws is scheduled to be posted on BIO's website on May 5 and will be submitted for ratification at the business breakfast.

Stiles Reflects on Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Biography
StilesOn April 12 T. J. Stiles was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography for his book The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Knopf). The editor of TBC won an online contest by predicting that Stiles would be chosen for the award. The happy author sat down for an interview with TBC.
TBC: Because we would like a vicarious thrill, tell us how you found out you won the Pulitzer?

Stiles: The Pulitzer descended upon me amid an ordinary day, giving me a kind of vertigo. This may sound like false modesty after the National Book Award, but I honestly did not expect it. For one thing, I received no advance notice; as I learned, the Pulitzer releases the news to winners, finalists, and the public all at once. For another thing, there were a lot of excellent biographies last year. The shortlists for the National Book Critics Circle award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize did not include my book, and no mobs took to the streets to protest. Every book on those lists deserved recognition.
     So I was unprepared, just carrying out my normal chores in San Francisco. I had just picked up my two-year-old son from preschool and was about to get my wife at a BART station when my editor called with the news. I was stunned. When I picked up my wife, I asked her where she wanted to go out to eat, then told her why we had to celebrate. Then I had to quickly call my parents, field calls from my agent and others, and return some of the early congratulatory email before my son woke up from his nap. It was my wife's day to work downtown, and I had childcare duty that afternoon. The next day I had to get up before 6 a.m., sick with a cold, to field an interview with Minnesota Public Radio (I was born in Minnesota), without waking up the family. The everyday continues amid national attention, and it's a bit dizzying. The Pulitzer luncheon at Columbia is on May 24, and perhaps it will seem more real then.

TBC: What are you working on now, and why did you choose your new subject?

Stiles: I'm working on a biography of George Armstrong Custer. Often a biographer is motivated by a belief that previous biographers missed an important interpretation of a subject or hadn't covered the subject definitively before. By contrast, I picked Custer out of respect for previous work on him. After almost seven years on Cornelius Vanderbilt--discovering most of the sources for the first time--I wanted a nicely mapped life with lots of well-identified manuscript collections. I want to change the camera angle on Custer, to look at him as a figure on a chronological frontier more than a geographical one--to examine the contradiction between his personality and the changes America was undergoing during and after the Civil War.

TBC: Now that you have spent seven years of your life writing The First Tycoon and you have won the Pulitzer, Mr. Stiles, what are you going to do next?

Stiles:  I'm going to the Compleat Biographers Conference in Boston! I'm delighted to be on a panel on editing one's own work and am very much looking forward to meeting other biographers at the conference.

After Talking to Hundreds, Biographer Nolan Shares Tips on Using Interview

shaw bioBiographers who write about living or recently deceased figures have an advantage over those of us working on long-deceased subjects. They can interview people who knew their subject, including in many cases colleagues, relatives, lovers, and spouses.
     Unlike paper records, however, interviews are a raw and unwieldy source that can be a challenge to the most diligent of biographers. For tips on making the best use of interviews, TBC turned to Tom Nolan, author of Three Chords for Beauty's Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw, which W. W. Norton is publishing this month.
     For his newest book, Nolan interviewed approximately one hundred people. In researching his previous biography, of Rose Macdonald, he talked with 300. Nolan conducted these interviews in person and over the phone, recording each conversation and letting the interviewee know they were being recorded. In rare circumstances he did some interviews by email.
     "After speaking with someone, I type a verbatim transcript of their remarks; I print those pages and file them in a folder along with other matter pertaining to that person, such as articles or correspondence," Nolan explained.
     But that is only the beginning of the work. Instead of reels of tape, Nolan is then faced with stacks of paper. So he developed a system to parse the material. Reading the transcribed pages carefully, he marks the most potentially useful passages.
     "On the folder, I'll note what pages these quotes appear on and to which subjects they pertain; for instance: '1945 band, p 11, p 14-16'; '1949 band, p 24'; 'AS in studio, p 19'; 'Ava, p 15.' I like to arrange all raw material chronologically, with a separate folder (or group of folders) for each year of my subject's life.  So the folder(s) marked '1936' will include all newspaper and magazine clippings, correspondence, documents, book excerpts, and other items pertaining to 1936. And there I'll also include whatever interview excerpts might be useful; or, if that seems unwieldy, I'll insert a note such as 'see Buddy Morrow folder.'
     "For the book's main player, I create more folders: topic files containing information and quotes (culled from interviews and other sources) on dozens of subjects, from '1938-9 band' to 'Star Dust' to 'psychiatry.'
     "It's tedious to do all this; but once everything is arranged in sequence, the effect is tremendous. You see connections you never imagined, and a story takes shape before your eyes."
     As anyone who has done an interview knows, sometimes one has to return to ask questions one has forgotten to ask or didn't think to ask at the time.  "I always try to get as much as I can in the initial session," said Nolan, "if only because you never know whether you'll have a second chance. I don't think I've ever exhausted anyone's patience, but I may have come close. ('You must have enough by now . . .' to which I reply 'I'm sure I do, but let me just ask you--.') As I see it, I'm interviewing someone 'for the ages,' so I want to do a proper job. And I think most people appreciate that and even welcome it."
     Sometimes spoken remarks transcribed on paper can seem incoherent. Some authors correct grammar, remove odd utterances, and generally revise in order to make sense of what the speaker was trying to say.
      Not Nolan. "I quote people with precision, letting the rhythms of their sentences deliver the music of their speech. Don't change a comma! If you're scrupulous in duplicating someone's dialogue, the verbal becomes audible and even visual; the speaker leaps from the page and into your mind's ear and eye.
     "That's why I always do my own painstaking transcribing. No one else could or would do it properly, to the degree that I want and need. I do of course take care in choosing what to quote and use ellipses to indicate omitted parts."
     At the end of our discussion, TBC asked Nolan what advice he gives other biographers considering using interviews for their books.
     "Talk to the oldest people first," he replied.

Gordon's Lange Biography Snares Los Angeles Times Book Prize

Linda Gordon's Dorethea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (W. W. Norton & Co.) was selected for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography during the newspaper's recently concluded annual book festival.
     Finalists included The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, by Kirstin Downey; Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, by Michael Scammell; and Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin Urofsky.
     Last month, Gordon's biography of Lange won the Bancroft Prize. She is the Florence Kelley Professor of History at New York University.

Levy Center Announces Its 2010-2011 Fellowships

The Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City has selected four New York writers to receive $60,000 stipends, office space, and library privileges. This is the third year the Levy Center has funded fellowships for biographers. This year's fellows are as follows:
  • Michael Massing, who is working on a biography of Luther and Erasmus, to be published by HarperCollins. He is a contributing editor to Columbia Journalism Review.
  • Jed Perl, who is working on the first full-length biography of Alexander Calder, to be published by Knopf. He is the art critic for the New Republic.
  • Claudia Roth Pierpont, who is working on a cultural history of 20th-century New York in the form of juxtaposed biographies of, among others, Alfred Barr, George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, and W. H. Auden. She is a staff writer for the New Yorker.
  • Mitchell Cohen, who is working on a political biography of Richard Wagner. He is a professor of political science at Baruch College and CUNY's Graduate Center and was selected for the fellowship reserved for a CUNY professor.


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)

What I am looking at is a biographer's dream. There are boxes, shelves and drawers-full of photograph albums, family documents, fragments of early drafts much crossed out and scribbled over, fascinating plot summaries and sketches for stories and novels that never came to fruition, research notes for an unwritten biography of her friend LP Hartley and everything from birthday cards and bills to invitations and vaccination certificates. [more . . .]
--Hermione Lee, The Guardian

Tips Corner: Catalog Your Own Personal Library
As book writers, biographers tend to accumulate a lot of books. In some offices they sit neatly organized on shelves, while in others (such a mine) they are everywhere, including the floor. For those who might like to bring a new level of order to their book collection, there are book cataloging programs available on the web. The best known and most popular is the LibraryThing.
     Here you can catalog your own library (up to 200 books for free and more for a modest fee thereafter) and interact with other book collectors. The software makes the chore very easy. Just enter the book's ISBN and, presto, you have a card catalog entry. Soon your house will feel like the Library of Congress.
     There are other such programs available. The blog Kimbooktu has compiled a review of them.

Thanks to Mauri Katz for this tip.

In This Issue
Compleat Biographer Set to Open
BIO Board Candidates
Stiles Reflects on His Pulitzer
Interview Tips from Nolan
Lange Bio Wins LA Times Prize
Levy Center New Fellows
Tips Corner
From the
Editor's Desk
Jonathan Eig, a widely admired biographer (see NYTBR), has found a new way to attract readers. According to our crack research team, he is the first biographer with an iPhone app. Check it out here.

What to bring if you are coming to Boston

If you are coming to the Compleat Biographer Conference this month, aside from packing your toothbrush and other necessities, please bring the enthusiasm evident in your letters to us these many months leading up to the event, as well as promises of help (there are bound to be moments when we will need it).
What to do if you are not coming to Boston
Many of you have written to say you can't come because of other obligations, distance, or lack of money. Just because you will be absent (and missed) doesn't mean you won't have a role in BIO. Please stay tuned. Right after the conference we will be opening up the membership rolls. By signing up early you will play a critical role in ensuring the success of BIO. In fact, if you want to make sure you are among the first to get a membership application, drop me a line.
Whom to keep in mind, whether you are coming or not
BIO would not be becoming a reality and our first conference would not be happening were it not for the dozens and dozens of biographers who have donated immense amounts of time and energy to the project. We have had an interim board, a planning committee, a site committee, an awards committee, and a bylaws committee, and many, many volunteers who have worked tirelessly to pull this off. Please be sure to thank them.
Now, with apologies to Dave Loggins, I leave you with the following, to be sung to the music of the 1974 song "Please Come to Boston."
Please come to Boston for the springtime.
Biographers are comin' here and they got lots to talk about.
You can sell your books on the sidewalk
by a bookstore where I hope my book will soon be in the window.
Please come to Boston.
You said yes.

Happy reading,

James McGrath Morris 

Currently reading: Young J. Edgar: The Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties, by Kenneth Ackerman, and The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson.

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May 12, 6:30 p.m.

Sold to Publishers

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

Brenda Maddox, George Eliot in Love, to Palgrave

Jesse Jarnow, Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, to Gotham

Johnny Morgan, Gaga: A Fully Illustrated Biography of Lady Gaga, to Sterling

Michael Shelden, a biography of young Winston Churchill, to Simon & Schuster

Harrison Cheung, The Unauthorized Biography of Christian Bale, to Transit

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. 


Wolf: The Lives of Jack London
by James L. Haley
Betsy Ross and the Making of America
by Marla R. Miller
PW Review
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham
by Selena Hastings (Random House)
PW Review

Kid Carolina: R. J. Reynolds Jr., a Tobacco Fortune, and the Mysterious Death of a Southern Icon
by Heidi Schnakenberg

The Life of Irčne Némirovsky
by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt
Trans. by Euan Cameron
PW Review
The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron
by Howard Bryant
PW Review
Henry Clay: The Essential American
by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler (Random)
PW Review

Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography
by Alexandra Popoff
(Free Press)
Bob Marley: The Untold Story
by Chris Salewicz
(Faber and Faber)
PW Review
Barnum Brown: The Man Who Discovered Tyrannosaurus Rex
by Lowell Dingus and Mark Norell
(University of California Press)
Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions
by G. W. Bernard
(Yale University Press)
A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of
E. M. Forster

by Wendy Moffat
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli
by Annie Cohen-Solal (Knopf)
PW Review
The Life of Maynard Dixon
by Donald J. Hagerty
(Gibbs Smith)
Dogface Soldier: The Life of General Lucian K. Truscott Jr.
by Wilson Hefner
(University of Missouri Press)
PW Review
Signed, Sealed, and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder
by Mark Ribowsky
PW Review



The Bolter

by Frances Osborne (Vintage)
The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America
by Douglas Brinkley (Harper)
A. Lincoln: A Biography
by Ronald C. White Jr. (Random House)
Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend
by Larry Tye
(Random House)
Paul Newman: A Life
by Shawn Levy
(Three Rivers)


James McGrath Morris,

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