The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
June 2010
 Vol. 4, No. 4
Compleat Biographer Conference Succeeds Beyond Organizers' Hopes; Next Year's Conference Set for Washington, DC

progamThe 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 ending.
     "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 conference website.)
     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 speaking   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."

bradley speaking

BIO Ratifies Bylaws, Elects Board, and Begins Accepting Members

Attendees at the Compleat Biographer Conference gave their unanimous support to the ratification of bylaws and the election of a slate officers and a governing board.
     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
  • Gayle Feldman
  • Anne Heller
  • Kitty Kelley
  • Andrew Lownie
  • Paul Maher Jr.
  • Hans Renders
  • Carl Rollyson  
  • Stacy Schiff
  • Will Swift
  • Steve Weinberg
     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 year.
     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
ChernowRon Chernow will present the 2010 Inaugural Lecture at the Leon Levy Center for Biography on September 28. Obtaining Chernow is a considerable coup for the 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 Ellis's 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 Roosevelt.
     "The theme of the speech will be the biographer's need to strip away all preconceptions and open himself (or herself) up to the inevitably surprising dimensions of the subject's life," Chernow told TBC. "Whether we realize it or not, we all set out with convenient stereotypes about the person (sometimes shaped by previous biographers) and at first brush aside those pesky details that don't suit out neat little clichés. They may seem trivial or bothersome or simply beside the point, but, if pursued doggedly, they usually break open new ground and lead to a fresh appraisal of the subject."
     Chernow's previous biographies include Alexander Hamilton and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller. He is also author of The House of Morgan and The Warburgs. Chernow promises to illustrate his talk with examples from all his books.

Want to Get Close to Your Subject? Rent the House Next Door

Biographer Joe 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' Club Prize
The prestigious 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.
     This 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 Shortlist Announced 

Five 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 (1913)

"For 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 authorized."
[more . . .]

You: I wrote a book.
PF: You did? Huh. What's it about?
You: Many many longwinded sentences about your book.
PF: Huh.
[more. . .]

In This Issue
Compleat Biographer Conference Report
BIO Up and Running
Chernow to Give Levy Talk
Get Close to Your Subject
Biographers' Club Prize
Black Shortlist Announced

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 much longer)

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 application form,
click here.

From the
Editor's Desk
On 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.
With 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.
I 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 you.
Happy reading,

James McGrath Morris 

Currently reading: South of Broad, by Pat Conroy.

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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 Mifflin Harcourt

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

In Stores

The following are biographies in stores this month.

Hoover 02

The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Biography of Stieg Larsson
by Barry Forshaw
(John Blake)
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
(Da Capo)
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 Western Front
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 Feuds
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 President, 1963-1969
by Charles Peters
(Times Book)
William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies
by John Carey
(Free Press)



Abigail Adams

by Woody Holton
(Free Press)
The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising
by Kenneth Roman
(Palgrave Macmillan)
Trotsky: A Biography
by Robert Service
(Pan Publishing)
Stalin: A Biography
by Robert Service
(Pan Publishing)

Lenin: A Biography
by Robert Service
(Pan Publishing)
Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt
by Joyce Tyldesley
The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger
by Alec Wilkinson



James McGrath Morris,

Sarah Baldwin,
copy editor
Mailing address:
P.O. Box 864
Tesuque, NM  87574
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Photo credits
BIO conference photos by Harry Brett