The Biographer's Craft
A monthly newsletter for
writers & readers of biography
July 2010
 Vol. 4, No. 5
Martin Amis Biography Put on Hold after Objections from Subject 

Peter Owen, a prestigious and influential independent publisher in London, has canceled publication of Richard Bradford's biography of Martin Amis after receiving a stern letter from Amis's agent, Andrew Wylie.
     Amis is a British novelist whose books Money and London Fields made him one of Britain's best-known writers and earned him a designation by the Times of London as one of the 50 greatest post-war writers.
   bradford  Bradford's book, called Martin Amis: The Authorized Biography, seemed to have angered Amis on two counts. First, he disputes whether he actually authorized the book. Amis agreed to five face-to-face interviews, in return for editorial say over the contents of the entire book, but he claims such cooperation does not make the book "authorized."
     Second, and more to the point, Amis was not happy with what he read in the first half of the manuscript. He told Bradford he did not like what he had written about his "nearest and dearest" and said Bradford had contacted sources Amis had deemed off limits, such as his mother, brother, and ex wife.
     News of trouble brewing between the biographer and the novelist first surfaced last April. Amis was said to have been fuming over a review of his latest novel. Written by Bradford, the review included information from his interviews with Amis suggesting the book was a thinly veiled autobiographical slice of life. Bradford identified the characters. "How do I know?" he wrote in the review. "I'll be honest; Martin told me. But for anyone even remotely apprised of his life, the parallels between fact and fiction are glaring and abundant."
     Neither Bradford nor Leslie Gardner, his agent, were willing to say much about the affair. Gardner disputed the facts reported in the Sunday Times of London but did not offer to correct any at press time. He did say, "We are in the midst of negotiating now with a new publisher."
     For his part, the only comment Bradford was willing to offer was, "I am presently discussing the final draft with Martin Amis."
     The Amis biography would have been Bradford's fourth literary biography with Peter Owen. His previous biographies were of Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and an authorized biography of Alan Sillitoe.

John Updike Papers Raise Biographical Questions

A year and half following his death from lung cancer, novelist John Updike is back in the news, biographically speaking. Renewed interest in the large collection of his papers that Harvard University acquired for an estimated $3 million was sparked by a pair of articles in the New York Times by Sam Tanenhaus.
     UpdikeUpdike, who died on January 27, 2009, was a renowned author of novels and short stories and a frequent literary critic. Two of the novels in his Rabbit series, whose main character was Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, received Pulitzer Prizes.
     Updike began giving his papers to the Houghton Library at Harvard in the 1960s. After 1970, when tax laws changed, Updike ceased donating his papers and merely deposited them with the library. With rare exceptions, the new batches of papers were off limits to researchers. Finally, after the author's death, Harvard purchased the collection from Updike's estate and began cataloging its acquisition. Writers won't be able to use the new material until 2012.
     Tanenhaus obtained rare access. "I was recently allowed an advance look, conducted over three days in Houghton's reading room, long enough to sample a range of the holdings (among them typescripts of early short stories rejected by the Atlantic and Harper's) and to confirm that they hold the keys to Updike's literary universe," he wrote.
     Excited by what he saw--and, of course, generating pleasing publicity for Harvard, who spent the three million--Tanenhaus published two long articles, sat for an interview with Charles McGrath, and created an interactive online display where one can see Updike at work on manuscript revisions.
     The Updike collection certainly merits attention. "Updike's archive may be the last great paper trail," Adam Begley, who is at work on a biography of Updike for HarperCollins, told Tanenhaus. "Anyone interested in how a great writer works will find here as full an explanation as we're likely to get."
     At the same time it has sparked an interesting debate about the nature of a writer's papers and what they can and cannot tell us about the author's world. Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, suggests that Updike's papers may actually reveal not how he wrote his books but how mysterious the process is. "You might as well gather together Picasso's paint jars, canvas, and easel and try to reconstruct Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, or imagine a ballet by looking at the music, costumes, shoes," Franklin wrote in the magazine.
     "What's more, the archive offers an illusion of completeness not entirely different from the way the novel itself offers an illusion of reality," she continued. "All those boxes, their contents neatly filed and numbered and alphabetized, in all their exquisite order! But anyone who has spent time poking through a writer's archive--and I have been doing a bit of this myself lately--will realize that the apparent intactness masks what is not there. The letters that got torn up, the drafts that were burned--if you're lucky, there are hints of these in other documents, so that you can agonize in frustration over what was lost. But for all the diary entries and recipes and Christmas cards that your subject saved, there might have been an equal number that he or she threw away. And perhaps rightly so. Even the most dogged researcher, poring over page after page of publisher's correspondence ('Enclosed please find your royalty statement for the period January through June 1951 ...') and similar monotony, will remember why this stuff is called ephemera."
     Begley is unconvinced. "The act of creation may be mysterious, but writing comes in layers, and in the days before the word processor, those layers remained visible," he told TBC. "After the flash of inspiration comes the hard work of shaping and polishing, and that's what's revealed in a good archive. Updike sometimes wrote so-so stories, tried to improve them, and failed. And sometimes he wrote good stories and later made them great. That process can be excavated through successive drafts, and I'd be tempted to argue that when you've understood that process, you've penetrated the mystery--you've seen prose transformed into art."Begley
     Already, Begley said, he has found a wealth useful material in the earlier manuscripts that are open for inspection at the library. "Those have been available to me, and I've consulted them extensively, thanks to the very helpful librarians," he said. "It's wonderful stuff--drafts of his great early stories ('Flight,' 'Pigeon Feathers,' 'A&P,' etc., covered with drawings and notations); drafts and annotated proofs of Rabbit Run; unpublished stories and poems; Updike's program for Ted Williams's last game, with doodles and notes he took for 'Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu'--an incredibly rich resource that has been hugely helpful and that gives a tantalizing preview of what's in the balance of the archive."
     But Begley will have to wait patiently another two years before he can see the remainder of the material. "The plan at the moment is for me to write the biography using the materials currently available, finishing with any luck just about when the archive opens up in 2012. Then I'll consult the new material and go back and revise accordingly."

Fall Lineup Includes Biographies of Cleopatra, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Lawrence of Arabia, Malcolm X, and Many More
Publishers gathered in New York at the end of May to display their new books at the annual BookExpo America. Here is a brief sneak peek at some of the major titles coming this fall.
    Cleopatra The biography building the most attention in the early days of summer is Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff, due out from Little, Brown in November. A few weeks ago, publisher Michael Pietsch confirmed that the actress Angelina Jolie wants to play Cleopatra in the film version under development by producer Scott Rudin. When asked who might play Marc Anthony, Schiff told reporters, it would be a "no-brainer" to suggest Jolie's romantic partner Brad Pitt.
     Any list of the other most anticipated biographies would have to include:
  • Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, by Hazel Rowley, Nov. (Farrar, Straus, Giroux)
  • Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow, Oct. (Penguin Press)
  • Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris, Nov. (Random House)
  • Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, by Michael Korda, Nov. (Harper)
  • Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable, Nov. (Viking)
     These biographies, among others, are also scheduled to be in stores this fall:
  • Michelle Obama, by Alma Halbert Bond, Sept., (ABC-CLIO/Greenwood)
  • Steve McQueen: Living on the Edge, by Michael Munn, Sept. (Aurum Press)
  • Norman Podhoretz, by Thomas L. Jeffers, Sept. (Cambridge University Press)
  • Nelson Mandela: A Force for Freedom, by Christina Scott, Nov. (Carlton Books)
  • Mandela, by Peter Hain, Sept. (Spruce/Octopus)
  • Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography, by Burton Hersh, Sept. (Counterpoint)
  • Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: The Georgia Years, 1924-1974, by E. Stanly Godbold Jr., Oct. (Oxford University Press)
  • Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation, by Harlow Giles Unger, Nov. (Da Capo Press)
  • Gallatin: America's Swiss Founding Father, by Nicholas Dungan, Sep. (NYU Press)
  • The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, by Jane Leavy, Sept. (Harper)
  • The Man Who Built the National Football League: Joe F. Carr, by Chris Willis, Sept. (Scarecrow Press)
  • The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum, by Geoffrey Wolff, Oct. (Knopf)
  • Frank: The Voice, by James Kaplan, Nov. (Doubleday)
  • John Ono Lennon: The Life and the Music, by Tim Riley, Dec. (W. W. Norton)
  • Judging Edward Teller: A Closer Look at One of the Most Influential Scientists of the Twentieth Century, by Istvan Hargittai, Oct. (Prometheus Books)
  • Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy, by Mark Christensen, Oct. (Shaffner Press)
  • Brother Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, and the Beat Generation, by Ann Charters and Samuel Charters, Nov. (University Press of Mississippi)
  • Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, by Robert Gottlieb, Sept. (Yale University Press)
  • Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film, by Ruth Barton, Sept. (University Press of Kentucky)
  • Young Michelangelo: The Path to the Sistine, by John T. Spike, Sept. (Vendome Press)
  • George Washington's America: A Biography Through His Maps, by Barnet Schecter, Nov. (Walker & Co.)

Biographers Rush to Join BIO; Podcasts and Videos to Go Online This Month; Website Offers New Services
Biographers, at the rate of several per day, are joining Biographers International Organization (BIO), since its board of directors determined membership requirements and set annual fees. Information about membership is available on the organization's website.
     BIO president Nigel Hamilton, working with the University of Massachusetts Boston, reported to the board that videos and podcasts from the Compleat Biographer Conference would soon be available on the Internet. In addition, a special seven-minute overview of the conference is currently being produced. The videos and podcasts were made possible with financial support from the University of Massachusetts Boston and the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies. When the videos and podcasts become available, links to them will be posted on the BIO website.
     The website is expanding. It will soon offer a members-only area and other enhancements. One of these is a new author listing service for members of BIO. As part of an Active Membership, biographers may choose to have a full web page free-of-charge. A sample of the page's format may be seen here.
     In addition, the members-only web pages will offer ways for biographers to link up and create regional groups, such as those that already exists in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.

Mayborn Conference Offers Fare of Interest to Biographers

The sixth annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, to be held from July 23 through July 25 in Grapevine, Texas, will offer a number of panel discussions of interest to biographers. Although primarily focused on journalism and narrative nonfiction, many of the topics are similar to those of biography.
     For example, Kristen Hinman, a staff writer for the St. Louis Riverfront Times, will discuss the tricks reporters use in writing profiles; Jack Shafer, Slate's editor at large, will explore literary journalism from the turn of the century to today; Steve Weinberg, biographer, prolific reviewer, and member of BIO's board, will be among a group of writers talking about the changing world of book reviews; and David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z, and Hampton Sides, author of Hellhound on His Trail, will discuss their tools for writing historical narrative. TBC's editor will moderate this last session.
     The Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas sponsors the conference. For more information about the conference, consult the organization's website.

Book Review
Arvon Book of Life Writing

This is one in an occasional series of TBC book reviews of books about the art and craft of biography.

Arvon bookThe Arvon Book of Life Writing: Writing Biography, Autobiography and Memoir
By Sally Cline and Carole Angier
271 pages, Methuen, £14.99 (US edition coming in August, $24.95)
Reviewed by Steve Weinberg
When the esteemed editor of the Biographer's Craft asked me to review The Arvon Book of Life Writing, I said yes right away. But I refrained from asking a question: What or who is "Arvon." I felt perhaps I should know, and though I usually ask questions even when admitting ignorance might cause embarrassment, I guess I did not want James McGrath Morris to think me ignorant.
     It turns out the Arvon Foundation is a British-based charity that promotes "the transforming power of writing." The foundation has offered courses over a 40-year span. This is the first book from the foundation, however. Carole Angier and Sally Cline are both biographers in England who agreed to piece together the book, which follows a format planned for future books (on short story writing, creative nonfiction, and maybe other genres).
     Part One in the format provides a primer about the development of biography, of autobiography, and of memoir. Angier (biographer of Jean Rhys and Primo Levi) and Cline (Zelda Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, among others) cover the historical development of each genre, discuss leading controversies, and entertain while offering large dollops of didactic text. Ethics, objectivity, truth, evidence, myth--these and other words explained briefly in the context of biography provide lots to consider and debate. The most experienced biographers alive can never state definitive rules, so the Angier and Cline passages offer grist for more than novices.
Here, for example, is Cline, discussing her "acts of empathy," one of her three motivating forces (the others are "more than a life" and "rescuing lives").
     "When I first encountered Carlyle's suggestion that writing about a life should be an act of sympathy, that idea established itself in my work as a rock. My subjects and I leant on it; tested our relationship against its hard surface; knew it would not withstand external knocks. But there were problems, rock or not. Often I did not approve of my subjects' actions or behavior. I was unable to feel sympathy for them. I no longer shared their sorrows nor cherished their joys."
     I think many life writers will concede that paragraph from Cline is the basis for a very interesting conversation.
Part Two of the book offers "tips and tales" from 32 guest contributors. Alphabetically, they range from Diana Athill to Edmund White. Philosophically, they range from ... gosh, I don't know how to construct a valid range of that sort. Some of my personal favorites include Alain de Botton, Geoff Dyer, Hermione Lee, and Meryle Secrest.
     Part Three of the book consists of writing exercises: how to research, how to write, that sort of stuff. Goodness, I dislike exercises of that sort. They really make a person think, and I can barely muster enough brain cells for my next book. But for those readers smarter than I, who recognize the value of such exercises well enough to actually complete them, they look quite on point.
WeinbergSteve Weinberg, a biographer but not a memoirist/autobiographer, serves on BIO's board of directors.

Ann Waldron, Biographer of Southern Writers

waldronAnn Waldron, a biographer of Southern United States writers, died at her home in Princeton, New Jersey, on July 2. She was 85.
     Among her best-known works are Hodding Carter: The Reconstruction of a Racist and Eudora Welty: A Writer's Life. The latter was the first, though unauthorized, biography of the famed short-story author and novelist. When Waldron reached 78, she turned to writing murder mysteries, most of which followed the exploits of a newspaperwoman who solved killings at Princeton.


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)

"I have rifled the poor man's underwear drawer. Such is the invasive snooping endemic to the role of the biographer. Along with the BVDs and the boxer shorts, I've combed his tax records, gone through his lineage with the precision of an OCD-addled genealogist, and I've clocked, oh, about 500 hours of audio recordings of our intimate, far-ranging and often wildly tangential conversations." [Read more]

Sam Weller, Time-Out Chicago

In This Issue
Amis Bio on Hold
Updike Papers Raise Questions
Fall Biographies

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From the
Editor's Desk
It's odd how stories percolate and, sometimes, similar types rise to the top at the same time. Looking at this month's TBC one might think we are solely interested in writers writing about writers. Well, as you know, that's not true. We like any kind of news about biography. So join in and help us out. Send us tips, story ideas, and act as our eyes and ears. After all, TBC is now becoming BIO's official publication, and that means it belongs to you.
   Speaking of the transition, remember that starting in September the full and complete edition of TBC will become a subscription publication available only to BIO members. With memberships for as little as $30, TBC alone should be a compelling reason to join. But if you consult the website, you will see there are many other benefits to membership as well.
   Recently BIO membership proved very useful to one US writer who wanted to enter the London-based Biographers' Club 2010 Tony Lothian Prize competition. To make it easier to pay the entry free, without getting involved in trans-Atlantic currency deals, BIO was able to accept payment from the BIO member and remit it to London.
Well, I've been called worse. But a recent article I wrote gave me the new moniker of "whining Luddite." My article "Will eBooks Make Midlist Authors Extinct?" appeared in the Huffington Post and triggered both nice compliments and a healthy number of rants that I was some old foggy who hated modern technology. You can make up your own mind about my sensibilities by checking out the piece yourself.
We now know what David Livingstone was trying to say. A crack team of scientists and academics has deciphered the contents of an illegible letter written by the 19th-century explorer. Officials at Birkbeck College announced that imaging scientists had made it possible to finally read the 130-year-old letter, written when Livingstone was stranded in the African village of Bambarre, in present-day Congo. Low on paper and ink, he wrote on pages torn from books using an ink concocted from the seeds of local berries. In the letter, to his future biographer Horace Waller, Livingston despaired of ever making it home alive.
Walking where one's subject once stood remains for me an important part of the quest to understand the person whose life one is chronicling. Last month I had a wonderful opportunity to do just that. It began with a ride on a small Coast Guard cutter, aptly named the Liberty IV, which ferries employees out to Ellis Island from a pier in the shadow the massive Staten Island Ferry terminal in lower Manhattan.
   I wanted to visit Ellis Island to see the crumbling remains of a building in which Emma Goldman, the subject of my next biography, was imprisoned in 1919 on the eve of her deportation from the United States. When I debarked, a National Park Ranger, Barry Moreno, who has written two books on Ellis Island, greeted me. Donning hard hats and accompanied by an archeologist, we headed off to the Baggage and Dormitory Building, where Goldman was kept for two weeks.
   It was like something out of a horror movie. (Renovation of the building was scheduled to start the next day.)  We climbed a staircase with missing tread, which the staff nicknamed "the Bela Lugosi stairs" for its sinister character. On the second floor we scampered over a pile of wooden beams and entered the hall containing the cells where Goldman was locked up with two other women radicals. Doors were hanging by a hinge; rusted metal bed frames supported thin mattresses rolled up; sinks were full of plaster that had fallen from the ceiling; and only if one shuffled one's feet to move the accumulated dirt, dust, and plaster did one see the terracotta tiles of the floor.
   Years later, long after Goldman had left, the same rooms were used to hold Nazis and Fascists, and we found graffiti from these residents praising Hitler and the great Mussolini. We toured other parts of the building, including a huge chamber with a large bathing and toilet area where the 246 men who were being deported that night were probably kept.
   I didn't get in touch with Goldman's spirit, but I know when I write the scene having actually been there will make a major difference. Could I write it without the visit? Sure. But what biographer would turn down a chance to walk the path of one's subject?
Happy reading,

James McGrath Morris 

Currently reading: Wolf: The Lives of Jack London, by James L. Haley

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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.

 Deirdre David, A Woman at War: The Story of Olivia Manning, to Oxford University Press

Mark Franko, Martha Graham: The War Years and Beyond, to Oxford University Press
Joan Barthel, Secret Soul: How Elizabeth Seton Shaped a New World for American Women, to Thomas Dunne Books

In Stores

The following are biographies in stores this month.


Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky
by Nicholas Von Hoffman

Admiral "Bull" Halsey: The Life and Wars of the Navy's Most Controversial Commander
by John Wukovits
(Palgrave Macmillan)
High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg
by Niall Ferguson
(Penguin Press)
Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen
by Jennifer Jensen Wallach
(Ivan R. Dee)
Fortune's Fool: Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis
by Fred Goodman
(Simon & Schuster)
Hollywood Hellraisers: The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson
by Robert Sellers
The Giant of the French Revolution: Danton, a Life
by David Lawday
Erich von Manstein: Hitler's Master Strategist by Benoît Lemay
trans. from the French by Pierce Heyward
Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century
by Ruth Harris
Gilded Lily: Lily Safra, The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows
by Isabel Vincent
Sonia Sotomayor: The True American Dream
by Antonia Felix
Errol Flynn: The True Adventures of a Real-Life Rogue
by Lincoln Douglas Hurst
Alekhine: Agony of a Chess Genius  by Pablo Morán

Willie K. Vanderbilt II: A Biography by Steven H. Gittelman


Queen  mother

 Queen Elizabeth: The Queen Mother, The Official Biography
by William Shawcross
(Pan Publishing)


James McGrath Morris,

Sarah Baldwin,
copy editor
Mailing address:
Biographers International Organization
P.O. Box 33020
Santa Fe, NM  87594