Compleat Biographer Conference Succeeds Beyond Organizers' Hopes; Next Year's Conference Set for Washington, DC
first ever Compleat Biographer Conference, held at the University of
Massachusetts Boston on May 15, attracted nearly 160 participants from dozens of
states and from nations as far away as Chile, the United Kingdom, and Holland.
Biographers of all stripes, from Pulitzer Prize winners to writers beginning
their first work, met with agents, editors, archivists, and librarians in a
jam-packed day of workshops, panels, speeches, and networking.
The conference actually got underway the night
before, when a reception was organized at the last minute at the request of
attendees. More than fifty attendees showed up for the conference-eve
gathering, sponsored by Bearmanor Media at a harborside restaurant.
The conference opened the next morning with a
business meeting for Biographers International Organization (BIO), which put on
the daylong gathering. Interim President Debby Applegate welcomed the crowd and
described at length her travails in finding advice and help while writing her
first book, The Most Famous Man in
America: A Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, which, when finally completed
and published, won the Pulitzer Prize.
She told her audience that she chose to dwell
on her personal story "because the fact that we are here today--at the founding
meeting of Biographers International Organization--is for me and for those of
you who share my feelings a very real dream come true and a genuine happy
"At every point in the
process of writing my first book, whether researching, writing, or selling, I
longed for the opportunity to learn from the experience of other biographers," Applegate explained.
"And I volunteered to help build this organization because I want to make sure
that my next book is born among friends and colleagues, rather than strangers,
however kind they might be."
Following Applegate's address, bylaws for BIO
were ratified and the organization's first slate of officers and board members were
elected (see below article).
The business portion of the meeting complete,
attendees went off to two morning rounds of panels on topics such as working
with primary documents, writing a winning proposal, and marketing. (A 16-page PDF version of the program may be downloaded from the BIO
Lunch opened with a welcome from University of
Massachusetts provost Winston Langley. The university not only offered the
space for the conference at an affordable price but also provided funding,
along with the McComack Graduate School of Policy Studies, to support
videotaping and recording the panels and speeches for later distribution.
Nigel Hamilton, president of BIO, presented
Jean Strouse with the BIO Award for her contribution to advancing the art and
craft of biography. The award consists of a bronze plaque and a cash prize made
possible this year by donations from HarperCollins and Readex. After receiving
the award, Strouse delivered the conference's keynote address.
Strouse titled her talk "The Unknowns," a
phrase she said was "loosely borrowed, with a large measure of irony, from
Donald Rumsfeld's famous statement: 'As we know, there are known knowns; there
are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to
say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown
unknowns--the ones we don't know we don't know.'"
Strouse captured the audience with a
wide-ranging discussion of the intricacies of biography, using examples from
her well-known works on Alice James and J. Pierpont Morgan. Many pens in the rooms
began scribbling madly when Strouse described how she overcame particularly
difficult problems in portraying one of her subjects.
"Morgan left so few records in his own voice
for the last years of his life that it is possible to see him mainly through
other people's eyes," Strouse said.
"Biography inevitably includes elements of
triangulation--locating an unknown point by reference to two known points--but
the known points for the aging Morgan rarely yield straight lines. His wealth
and power so affected people's perceptions that he could not tell whether they
were responding to him or to what he could do for them."
Since the distorting effect of power and wealth
was an integral part of Morgan's life, Strouse decided to make it part
of the narrative. She named the second-to-last chapter in her book "Portraits," drawing on stories about Morgan by several people who knew him well or wrote about him. "My hope was that the chapter would create a kind of
hologram, in effect recording the light scattered from an object (in this case,
Morgan) and then reconstructing it, from multiple angles, as if the object were
actually there at the center. I hoped that readers would take in the multiple
stories and 'see' the man they had been reading about for, by this time, 627
pages--just as I had finally, after more than a decade of reading and writing
and thinking--come to 'see' Morgan myself.
"I think something like that holographic
process has to happen between subject and writer to make a biography come to
life; something transforms the accumulation of research, facts, sources,
information into a story that makes
sense of the experiences in question and feels, to the writer and ultimately to
the reader, intuitively true."
Attendees moved on after lunch to two more rounds
of panels on such topics as trends in biography, self-editing, and new ways to
publish. Many also attended a speed-dating session, in which unrepresented
writers had an opportunity to meet one-on-one with some of the many agents who
attended the conference.
The day concluded with a reception and an author
signing. More than half the participants turned in surveys, and the initial
compilation of results revealed a high marks for BIO's first conference. In
fact, dozens of attendees and panelists have written in with praise. Typical of
such letters was one from Barbara F. McManus, a professor emerita of classics
from the College of New Rochelle.
"Everyone I spoke with during and after the
conference agreed that it was a very worthwhile, productive, and enjoyable
event," McManus wrote. "We especially appreciated the practical nature of the
workshops, the excellent mix of speakers, including writers, agents, and
editors, and the open and friendly atmosphere."
BIO Ratifies Bylaws, Elects Board, and Begins Accepting Members
at the Compleat Biographer Conference gave their unanimous support to the
ratification of bylaws and the election of a slate officers and a governing
Nigel Hamilton was chosen to assume the presidency,
succeeding Debby Applegate, who served as interim president. Charles J. Shields
was elected vice president, and the following were selected for one- to
two-year terms on the board:
- Carol DeBoer-Langworthy
Paul Maher Jr.
In its first actions, the board selected James
McGrath Morris to serve as executive director and approved a resolution
defining membership requirements to join BIO and establishing dues.
Under the provisions of the resolution, Active
Membership will be open to anyone who has published a biography or is currently
engaged in writing, filming, recording, or otherwise producing biography.
Annual dues for Active Membership vary according to income earned from biography: $45, where annual income
from biography is less than $25,000; $75, where annual income from biography is between $25,000 and $50,000; $90, whereannual income from biography is between $50,000 and $100,000; and $150,
where annual income from biography is more than $100,000.
Associate Membership is open to anyone interested
in the craft and art of biography, with annual membership dues set at $30 a
The board also approved an Affiliate Membership
classification open to corporations, companies, and firms wishing to provide
financial support to BIO.
To learn more or to become a member of BIO, visit the membership webpage
Chernow to Give Levy Talk
on Eve of His Washington Biography Debut
Chernow will present the 2010 Inaugural Lecture at the Leon Levy Center
Biography on September 28. Obtaining Chernow is a considerable coup for
center because his address will come on the eve of the publication of Washington: A Life
, one of the most
anticipated biographies of the fall season. Others would include Joseph
First Family: Abigail and John Adams
; Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life
; and Edmund Morris's Colonel Roosevelt
the final installment of his three-volume biography of Theodore
"The theme of the speech will be the biographer's
need to strip away all preconceptions and open himself (or herself) up
inevitably surprising dimensions of the subject's life," Chernow told
"Whether we realize it or not, we all set out with convenient
the person (sometimes shaped by previous biographers) and at first brush
those pesky details that don't suit out neat little clichés. They may
trivial or bothersome or simply beside the point, but, if pursued
they usually break open new ground and lead to a fresh appraisal of
Chernow's previous biographies include Alexander
and Titan: The Life
of John D. Rockefeller.
He is also author of The House of Morgan
and The Warburgs.
illustrate his talk with examples from all his books.
Want to Get Close to Your Subject? Rent the House Next Door
McGinniss is adding yet another page to the biographer's playbook. On contract
to Broadway Books to write a biography of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin,
McGinniss has rented the house next door to the would-be presidential candidate's
lakeside house in Wasilla.
Palin was none too pleased. "Knowing of his
many other scathing pieces of 'journalism,'" Palin told her fans, "we're sure
to have a doozy to look forward to with this treasure he's penning. Wonder what kind of material he'll gather while overlooking Piper's
bedroom, my little garden, and the family's swimming hole?"
McGinniss told NBC's Today show that the price was right on the house next door to the
Palins and he needed to be in Wasilla to do his work.
Entries Sought for Tony Lothian Biographers'
Tony Lothian Biographers' Club Prize is accepting entries until August 1. The
£2,000 ($2,900) prize is given each year to an uncommissioned first-time writer
working on a biography. Sponsored by Elizabeth, Duchess of Buccleuch, the daughter of the prize's
namesake, receipt of the prize usually leads to publication of the work.
Recent winners include Clare Mulley for Eglantyne Jebb: The Woman Who Saved the
Children, now out in paperback from Oneworld, and Helen Smith for Edward Garnett: Midwife of Genius, due
out in 2011 from Jonathan Cape in the UK and Farrar, Straus in the US.
year's judges are Matthew Parris, Timespolitical journalist, author, and broadcaster; Kate Williams, author of England's Mistress and Becoming Queen; and Benjamin Buchan,
former editorial director at Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Applicants should submit a proposal of no more
than 20 pages, including a synopsis and a 10-page sample chapter (double-spaced,
numbered pages), a CV, and a note on the market for the book and competing
literature to the prize administrator: Anna Swan, or by
post to 119A Fordwych Road, London NW2 3NJ.
The material should be accompanied
by a £10 ($15) entry fee. For further details and the mandatory entry form,
visit the Biographers' Club website.
Entries are judged primarily on literary merit
and commercial prospects. In a tough publishing climate, agents and
commissioning editors are looking for books that will capture readers'
imaginations; in other words, a cracking story engagingly told with telling
details and historical context.
The winner will be announced on October 21 at
the prize-giving dinner, to be attended by members of the Biographers' Club, including
writers, publishers, agents, literary journalists, and filmmakers, as well as
the judges for the 2010 Best First Biography prize: Lady Antonia Fraser, Anne
Chisholm, and Roland Chambers.
James Tait Black Prize
biographies will compete this summer for the £10,000
(US$14,419) James Tait Black
Memorial Prizes, founded in 1919 and
judged by literary scholars and students.
The five biographers under consideration are:
- Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey
William Golding: The Man Who
Wrote Lord of
the Flies, by John Carey
Muriel Spark: The Biography, by Martin Stannard
A Different Drummer: The Life
of Kenneth MacMillan, by Jann Parry
The English Opium Eater: A
Biography of Thomas De Quincey, by Robert Morrison
The winner will be announced at the Edinburgh
International Book Festival in August.
Amanuensis: A person
whose employment is to write what another dictates, or to copy what another has
written. Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary
years," she added, "I've been introduced as an unauthorized biographer, and it
used to make me squirm a little bit because the word sounds so nefarious, kind
of like breaking and entering. But that's what biography is. It does break and
enter a life. I'm much more comfortable with the word now. I own it, I stand up
to it, and I don't want to live in a world where all my information is
[more . . .]
I wrote a book.
PF: You did?
Huh. What's it about?
many longwinded sentences about your book.
[more. . .]
BIO Is Now a Reality!
Sign up and become a member today
Membership benefit include, among other things:
Subscription to The Biographer's Craft (it won't be free
Discount on the Compleat Biographer conference
Assistance in creating a local BIO group
Access to members-only webcasts and phone seminars
Participation in agents read and speed dating
To learn more about membership in BIO or to download an
May 15 I stood in the corner of the ballroom at the University of Massachusetts
Boston and scanned the scene before me. On the stage, as well as projected on
two jumbo screens, was biographer Jean Strouse delivering the keynote address
at BIO's first Compleat Biographer Conference. In her audience were Pulitzer
Prize-winning biographers, at least an equal number of best-selling
biographers, and a sea of biographers of all sorts, as well as would-be
biographers, all listening attentively.
I realized at that moment what had begun two
years ago as a germ of an idea had come to pass. Biographers International
Organization would no longer be something we would talk about in the future
tense. It was here. We had done it.
Thanks to the dozens and dozens of you who have
worked to make this dream a reality.
the creation of BIO you will see some changes with TBC in the coming months.
The newsletter will be turned over to BIO and become its official publication.
Subscription to TBC will be a membership benefit after September.
recently had a chance to look at Chase's
Calendar of Events, regarded as the most comprehensive and authoritative reference
available on special events, holidays, historic anniversaries, and more. I learned to my surprise there
is a day set aside for us. Yes, May 16 is listed as "Biographers Day." On that day in 1763 James Boswell and Samuel Johnson met in London, beginning
history's most famous biographer-subject relationship.
So, dear Reader, I'm sorry we didn't alert you
earlier to this event, but we will endeavor to make sure you are amply warned
in 2011. In any case, a belated Happy Biographers Day to each and every one of
James McGrath Morris
Currently reading: South of Broad, by Pat Conroy.
Sold to Publishers
The following are among the biographies recently sold to publishers, as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources.
Donald Spoto, The Redgraves: Actors for a Century, to Crown
Douglas Coupland, biography of Marshall McLuhan, to Atlas
William Mann, Hello Gorgeous: The Beginnings of Barbra
Streisand, to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Bartholomew Sparrow, The Strategist:
Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security, to Public Affairs
Michael Starr, Shatner: The Amazing
Trek of William Shatner, to Sterling & Ross
Mary Sharratt, Know the Ways (biography of Hildegard of Bingen), to Houghton
Tom Folsom, Hopper: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the
American Dream, to Dutton
Sam Wasson, Bye Bye Life: The Loves and Deaths of Bob
Fosse, to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Lois Banner, An Uncommon
Woman: Marilyn Monroe as an American Icon of Passion and Power, to Bloomsbury
The following are biographies in stores this month.
The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Biography of Stieg Larsson
by Barry Forshaw
The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the
Origins of Kindness
by Oren Harman
(W. W. Norton)
Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor by Paul Stephenson
Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin
by James Sullivan
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives
by François Dosse
(Columbia University Press)
Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the
Marriage of the Century
by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger
Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the
by Diane Atkinson
John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail
by Tim McGrath
Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's
by Lyndall Gordon
Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth
by Hilary Spurling
(Simon & Schuster)
Lyndon B. Johnson: The American Presidents Series, The 36th
by Charles Peters
William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies
by John Carey
NEW IN PAPER
by Woody Holton
The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of
by Kenneth Roman
Trotsky: A Biography
by Robert Service
Stalin: A Biography
by Robert Service
Lenin: A Biography
by Robert Service
Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt
by Joyce Tyldesley
The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger
James McGrath Morris,
P.O. Box 864
Tesuque, NM 87574
BIO conference photos by Harry Brett