Compleat Biographer Conference Set to Open; Registration Deadline Nears
The 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
complete program may be viewed here, and the registration site remains active,
although prices will increase on May 11.
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.
breakfast, the first two rounds of panels and workshops will be held. Midday
attendees will break for lunch, during 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.
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
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
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
On 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.
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
have won the Pulitzer, Mr. Stiles, what are you going to do next?Stiles:
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
Biographers 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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.'
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."
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."
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.
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
the end of our discussion, TBC asked Nolan what advice he gives other
biographers considering using interviews for their books.
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.
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.
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
Amanuensis: A person
whose employment is to write what another dictates, or to copy what another has
written. Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary
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
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.
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
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.
comin' here and they got lots to
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
You said yes.
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.
Hear James McGrath Morris speak about Pulitzer at the Mid-Manhattan Library,
455 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY
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
Harrison Cheung, The Unauthorized Biography of Christian
Bale, to Transit
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
by James L. Haley
Betsy Ross and the
Making of America
by Marla R. Miller
The Secret Lives of
by Selena Hastings (Random House)
R. J. Reynolds Jr., a Tobacco Fortune, and the Mysterious Death of a
The Life of Irčne
by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt
by Euan Cameron
The Last Hero: A
Life of Henry Aaron
by Howard Bryant
Henry Clay: The
by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography
by Alexandra Popoff
Bob Marley: The
by Chris Salewicz
(Faber and Faber)
Barnum Brown: The Man Who Discovered Tyrannosaurus Rex
by Lowell Dingus and Mark
(University of California
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)
The Life of Maynard Dixon
by Donald J. Hagerty
The Life of General Lucian K. Truscott Jr.
by Wilson Hefner
of Missouri Press)
Signed, Sealed, and
Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder
by Mark Ribowsky
NEW IN PAPER
by Frances Osborne
Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America
by Douglas Brinkley (Harper)
A. Lincoln: A
by Ronald C. White Jr.
Satchel: The Life
and Times of an American Legend
by Larry Tye
Paul Newman: A Life
by Shawn Levy
James McGrath Morris,
P.O. Box 864
Tesuque, NM 87574