Daring Biography Had Hard Road to Publication
August will see the
publication of Justin Spring's biography of Samuel Steward, who had an unusual
life, as the subtitle suggests. Secret Historian: The Life and Times of
Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is generating
remarkable buzz and anticipation in the month usually considered the doldrums
of serious book publishing. It seems destined for best-selling success. But in
this TBC exclusive, Spring explains the sale of the proposal was an against-all-odds
kind of story.
By Justin Spring
My agent, Charlotte
Sheedy, sent the manuscript to 10 editors, all of whom were afraid to take it on--one
actually took her to task for peddling smut. This hurt me, because that
particular editor was an old friend and work colleague of mine.
Anyway, after 10 editors my agent wanted to call it quits, and she
called me into the office to say that further circulation of the proposal would
be damaging to my reputation. I went home very dejected (and a little angry)
and chatted with my friend Francine Maroukian, who writes for Esquire magazine. She begged me not to
let go of the project but rather to bring it around to magazine editors. She
said that once it had been published as a magazine story, some editor at a
publishing house would see its potential and buy it.
So I asked around for introductions to magazine editors. My agent put
me in touch with Doug Stumpf at Vanity
Fair, and I went over to Condé Nast for a talk. I brought my laptop and gave
him a slide show of all the things I'd found in the Steward Archive in San
Francisco. And he said, "Wow, this is amazing!" But then after a moment he
said, ". . . but we could never publish it here--the magazine is too
conservative. So what would you like me to do?"
I thought for a moment and said, "Find me a person who might help get
it published." So he put me in touch with two people: an editor at the New Yorker, and the head of marketing
at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The New
Yorker editor couldn't handle it, said it was too extreme. The head of
marketing at FSG, however, invited me to come down and give him the same
presentation I'd given Stumpf.
It was a stressful experience; this was at the old FSG offices, which
were very claustrophobic. We sat in a hallway and I showed him the slide show. He
was amazed, and said so, which I thought was good. But then he said, "I'm not
an editor, so what would you like me to do?" And I said, "Well find me the
person at the publishing house who could take on a project like this." He
nodded and said he would think about it.
When I got home there was a message from Jonathan Galassi on the
To make a long story short, I brought the laptop down to his office, gave
him the slide show, and again there was the same shocked expression. His first
response was, "I don't know if FSG could ever publish something like this." The
next response was, "Let me think about it."
In retrospect there were three things that worked in my favor. First, I'd
published a biography with Yale Press a couple of years earlier about Fairfield
Porter, a painter who loved poetry and wrote wonderful criticism. The poet
James Schuyler had lived with the Porter family for nearly a decade. Galassi
had been Schuyler's editor at the end of his life and has continued to publish
Schuyler ever since. So he knew I'd written sensitively and well about sexually
delicate subject matter (a bisexual affair), and well about poetry too. And, of
course, Galassi is one of the top poetry editors in the world.
The next big help was Samuel Steward's own
writing. Sam had started out as a poet and literary novelist, and he wrote
beautifully and distinctively and with amazing clarity even when describing the
most complicated emotional responses relating to sex. And just enough of it had
been published that Galassi had a good sense of what the texture of the life
story might be like. Also, late in life Sam had been published by Don Allen,
the legendary poetry and fiction editor who had made his reputation at Grove
Press. Galassi had a lot of respect for Allen and was fascinated at the
Finally, Galassi had been
working at Houghton Mifflin when that publisher had come out with Dear Sammy, Sam's memoir of his friendship
with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. And while Galassi remembered that as a
fine book, he had had no idea that it had been written by a tattoo artist and
a pornographer, since Sam had concealed all that information from Houghton
So, after taking a long look at me and my subject, he had me back the next day and said, "Okay,
let's give it a shot."
Selling the proposal was an agonizing experience that took about six
months all told. But when I said as much to Francine a few days after I
got my contract, she told me to get real.
"Sure, it got rejected, but after that, all you did was take it uptown
to Vanity Fair and downtown FSG," she
pointed out. "You know, most writers have to work much, much harder to sell a
story or a book."
So that's my story about selling the book. It very nearly did not got
sold--or written. And of course I then spent seven years writing the book!
In putting pen to paper
, I found the greatest challenge was in finding the right tone. I was dealing with highly inflammatory subject matter that could so easily have
become boring or disgusting (or both), even to people who are sympathetic to
homosexuality. And, of course, not everyone is.
I rewrote endlessly and edited down from an original draft
of 1,600 manuscript pages to the current 550. And I just happened to be in
group therapy during those years with therapist Will Swift, who is also a
biographer. Together the group of about ten guys would sometimes
discuss the most difficult moments in Sam's life, as well as very controversial issues
like sexual addiction and compulsivity.
But in one sense I was lucky: my writing about Sam's sexuality
could never be interpreted as a betrayal, because he himself had fought all his
life (and against terrible odds) to be honest about his sexuality in his
writing. Moreover, because he had devoted so much time and energy to reflecting upon
his sexuality and noting down all its particulars, I had an abundance of material to work with. In that sense he was a
In the end, what I came up with is a scholarly and literate biography
of a man who devoted his life to sexuality and at the same time to making his
sexuality entirely readable: that is, making his private life transparent for
his future biographer. Most writers and public figures don't do that; they
protect themselves from that kind of intrusion. In that sense I was
blessed with a truly unique subject. So, if the book is ultimately considered
remarkable, it's in large part because I had a remarkable a subject.
To be truthful, I don't think I will ever have that luck again. In
letting go of Sam's life, I've had a very hard time envisioning anyone or
anything more interesting than what I've just written about.
Justin Spring is a writer specializing in
20th-century American art and culture, and the author of many monographs,
catalogs, museum publications, and books, including Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art and Paul Cadmus: The Male Nude.
To learn more about the book visit his website.
Fall Lineup: Part Deux
Last month, TBC offered a peek at biographies
coming out this fall. We are not done yet. (If we haven't mentioned your book,
please be sure to read "Six Prepublication Publicity Tips," below).
to the list Louise W. Knight's Jane
Addams: Spirit in Action
, which W. W. Norton will bring out next month. The
book's publication is timed with the 150th anniversary of Addams's birth.
Knight will be the keynote speaker on September 24 for a Jane Addams symposium
entitled "From Hull House to Human Rights," at the Center for Worker Education,
CCNY, 25 Broadway. For details, see the Center's website.
Buford's Native American Son: The Life
and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe
will be published by Knopf in October.
The book has already been chosen as a featured selection of the Book of the Month
and the History Book clubs.
president Nigel Hamilton will bring out what is called alternately a prosopography
or a prosobiography. Modeled on one of the most famous
histories of ancient Rome (The Twelve
), Hamilton's book, American
, reexamines the lives and careers of the 12 leaders of the
American empire since World War II, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W.
Bush. It is being published in the United States by Yale University Press and
was brought in July in the United Kingdom by the Bodley Head.
Over two decades of work have gone into Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion
, by Seth Stern and
Stephen Wermiel, which Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish in October.
in December, Palgrave Macmillan will publish an unusual World War II biography, Muriel's War: An American Heiress
in the Nazi Resistance
, by Sheila Isenberg.
Six Prepublication Publicity Tips
Last month, following the publication of TBC's
preview of fall biographies, we learned of other biographies that had not been
included. Herein lies a lesson. In assembling our list we relied primarily on
listings disseminated by publishers. For instance, the Publishers Weekly fall announcements included only those titles
publishers felt worthy of submission.
short, don't depend on your publisher to tell the world about your work.
Below are six useful tips to consider as soon as you finish the last page of
- Always list your forthcoming book on the bottom of your
Don't assume your publisher has notified everyone. Duplication will not hurt, but omission
Consider working with an independent publicist. The
publicist assigned to you by the publishing house may be marvelous, but he or
she works for the publisher, not for you. They must tend to the interests of
their company as well as those of other authors.
As early as you can, get review copies into the hands of key
people in your field. Doing so will build buzz.
Good venues have enormously long lead times. For instance,
don't wait for the book to come out before approaching the 92 Street Y.
Find any excuse to write about your book.
2003 I went on a book tour. I arrived at a university where I was scheduled to
give a talk and a well known, but rather gruff, professor invited me to stop in
his office. "Well," he announced when I arrived, "I'm not going to read your
aback, I stammered, "Why not?"
wife," he explained, "was sent a review copy months ago. And every night when I
was trying to fall asleep she would elbow me and say, 'Bill, you've got to hear
knew then that my publisher and publicist had done their job. One can't buy
that kind of buzz.
--James McGrath Morris
Grapevine, Texas, Shines Briefly as Capital of Nonfiction Storytelling
More than three hundred writers from around the country
gathered in Grapevine, Texas, at the end of July to hear from and talk with some of the best narrative writers in the business at the Sixth Annual Mayborn
Literary Nonfiction Conference. As one toast maker exuberantly proclaimed, "No
greater talent of storytelling has assembled in one spot since Herodotus dined
Dallas Morning News
(link below) and the Neiman Storyboard
provided excellent coverage of the conference.
Karr, a noted memoirist, gave the opening address
. An array of journalists,
book writers, photographers, screenwriters, and ghostwriters then provided a day and
a half of talks and panel discussions
. They included Ken Raymond, a reporter with the Oklahoman
, who told the moving story of chronicling the final
months in the life of Jim Chastain, who died of cancer, and offered a frank
discussions of the pitfalls of such an assignment.
Kristen Hinman, a staff
writer for St. Louis's River Front Times
, discussed the best practices for profile writing. Jack Shafer, Slate
's editor at large,
explored the arc of literary journalism from the turn of the century. Bloomberg editor Bob Blau delineated the elements of writing an engaging business
Author and Vanity Fair
staff writer Bryan Burrough provided personal tips on his approach to writing articles
and books--he triggered much conversation by asserting he knew exactly how his
books and articles would turn out before beginning work.
Hampton Sides and
David Grann, authors respectively of Hellhound
on His Trail
and The Lost City of Z
discussed journalistic and narrative techniques for bringing historical writing
alive, in a panel moderated by James McGrath Morris.
Kevin Fedarko and Bill Marvel, ghostwriters for
Stones into Schools
and Island of the Dammed
, talked about their
experiences writing somebody else's story for that somebody.
Book reviewers and authors Steve Weinberg,
Mike Merschel, and Bob Shacochis discussed the art
and the state of the art of book reviewing.
Gary Smith, National Magazine Award-winning
sportswriter, brought the conference to an end with an offering of his secrets
of the highlights of the conference was certainly author Mark Bowden's keynote
speech on Saturday evening. Here is how the Dallas Morning News
reported the soiree:
"By Saturday night around 8, attendees of the
Mayborn Nonfiction Literary Conference were stuffed with both dinner and the
knowledge gained from the day's 10 sessions with great writers from across the
country. We were comfy, lulled into nonchalance.
we were in Mogadishu, Somalia, courtesy of two giant screens at either side of
the stage. Helicopters circled as gun-wielding Somalis wreaked chaos in the
streets below. A rocket-launched grenade hit a chopper, and the raven bird
tumbled from the sky, crashing with a screeching skid. 'Black Hawk down,' came
the first words of the film clip. 'We have a Black Hawk down.'
Applause. 'I'd like to thank Ridley Scott for spending $100 million to make
that opener for me,' Bowden noted to audience laughter. Scott directed the
Oscar-winning film Black Hawk Down
based on Bowden's best-selling book about the 1993 incident in Mogadishu that
left 18 American soldiers dead."
information on next's year conference, consult the Mayborn website
Plans Underway for 2011 Compleat Biographer Conference; Seeking Volunteers for Survey; BIO Unveils BIOConnect
The 20011 Compleate Biographer site committee, co-chaired by authors Barbara Burkhardt and Robin Rausch, is currently inspecting locations in the Washington, DC, area.
planning committee is expected to start working in September on conference programming.
BIO is conducting a survey to determine the best date
for the conference. Please help pick the most suitable time by completing this short online survey.
has also initiated an effort to help biographers link up with other biographers
living nearby. Already Boston, New York, Washington, and Los Angeles have
regular meetings of biographers. Toward this end, BIO's website is unveiling BIOConnect, a
webpage devoted to bringing biographers together.
Levy Center to Offer Biography Fellowships Again
Four fortunate biographers will be selected for $60,000 resident
fellowships beginning September 2011 at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. The fellowships include
writing space and access to research facilities.
to the center's website, "Applications are thus welcome from established and
emerging biographers, writers moving to biography from other genres, and
artists working on biography in film or other media."
deadline for 2011-2012 biography fellowship applications is Friday, October 15, 2010. Fellowship winners will be announced in April 2011. Details and
application materials may be found at the Levy website.
Devoted Author of YA Biographies Goes It Alone
One day at a library sale Jennifer Phillips found an old
paperback copy of Nina Kosterina's diary. Written by the Russian teenager
during the Stalin era, the diary became a best-selling book in the 1960s.
Phillips was intrigued with her story. "I started researching more about her
and the Stalin years just because I was curious," Phillips said, "and then I
started to think about tackling a biography when I discovered none existed."
former newspaper reporter whose coverage included hanging out in crime labs
like those now featured on popular television shows, Phillips did not limit
herself to the usual research. "I ended up using an American agency that has
researchers in Russia to help me find more documents about Nina and her family.
And this researcher actually located Nina's elderly sister and grown nephew and
conducted interviews on my behalf." (The research agency Phillips used is Blitz,
featured in the November 2009 issue of TBC.)
Phillips had written a biography of Kosterina for young adults. When she took
the work to publishers, however, she was surprised to learn there was little
interest in Kosterina's story, nor in that of Elijah Lovejoy, her next subject.
would get back 'nice manuscript but no thanks' comments," she said. "I even had
one person say we didn't need a book about Nina Kosterina because there are so
many biographies about Anne Frank.
was running out of suitable publisher possibilities, so I decided it was fairly
low-risk to try publishing the works myself. I wouldn't have taken the plunge
if I didn't believe these were worthy biography subjects."
the end Phillips self-published Nina
Kosterina: A Young Communist in Stalinist Russia as an e-book and followed
it up with Elijah Lovejoy's Fight for
Freedom, another children's biography, the latter published in both
paperback and e-book editions. While sales have been a struggle, both books
have found readers.
for children is different from writing for adults, and it's not just about
fewer pages," Phillips advises others, reflecting on her experience. "You have
to decide what material is most relevant for the age group you are targeting
and how to write it in an engaging way. For the Lovejoy book, I decided many parts of his life needed to be mentioned only briefly or not all. Those aspects of his story would
have been complicated to explain to a young audience, and I had to decide if
they were critical to showing who he was and what struggles he experienced. And
if you're writing about a historical character, you're also trying to identify
a contemporary relevance so kids can relate.
any writer, I'm learning the absolutely critical need to revise, revise, and
revise. I am learning to be more patient with putting manuscripts aside and
giving them time so I can come back to them with fresh eyes."
marketing one's own books, admits Phillips, takes time away from writing, and it
remains a struggle to tend to both, plus her part-time work as the innovation
director at a Seattle medical center and the demands of family life.
"I get up
early in the morning to do my personal writing, and I work like a demon on my
days at home when I'm not juggling kids' appointments and such. But I need to
find a balance so I also have time to develop as a writer and time to tend to
existing books and being out there.
"I don't think I'm alone in this struggle,
and I don't think it's true just for authors who are self-published or working
through a small publisher. My understanding is that even authors with larger
traditional publishers are in the same boat."
To learn more about Phillips' work, visit her website.
Weekend Workshop on Writing Biographies Slated for September in Rhode Island
A weekend workshop on writing biographies will be held from
September 10 to September 12 at the new Panther Orchard Writers' Retreat, in
southern Rhode Island. The workshop, called "Writing Biographies: The Art of
Making Historical Characters Come Alive," will be led by Marla Miller, author
of Betsy Ross and the Making of America and The Needle's Eye: Women and Work
in the Age of Revolution.
to organizers, the workshop will "provide participants with insight into
biography as a literary genre and the techniques biographers use to breathe
life into the raw material left behind by individuals from the past."
Miller is offering a manuscript critique and coaching session by advanced reservation
for an additional fee. Space is limited to 16. For more details about the
workshop or to download a flyer and registration materials, consult the retreat's
Oprah Movie or Miniseries in the Works
Larry A. Thompson, a producer who has done biopics of
Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, and Sonny and Cher, has bought the rights to Kitty
Kelley's biography of Oprah Winfrey. He is pitching his project as either a
movie or a TV miniseries. Thompson hopes to release the film around
the time of the final episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show, airing on September 9, 2011.
deal will certainly give a boost to Kelley's book, whose sales were below her
publisher's expectations. According to BookScan, which tracks 70 percent to 75
percent of sales, Oprah sold about
115,000 copies of an announced 500,000 copy printing. Sales of all unauthorized biographies have
fallen tremendously in recent years, according to the Associated Press.
word yet as to who might star as the talk-show host in the film.
Carola Hicks, Biographer of People and Art
Carola Margaret Hicks,
British historian and biographer, died of cancer on June 23, at age 68. Best
known for her 2001 biography Improper
Pursuits: The Scandalous Life of Lady Di Beauclerk
, Hicks was also a
celebrated art historian.
"She created something new in the world of
contemporary biography, writing the life stories and afterlives of iconic works
of art such as the Bayeux tapestry and the stained-glass windows of King's
College Chapel, Cambridge," according to the Guardian
. "She swept the dust off old masterpieces, explained their
cultural contexts and infused them with life for a new public."
these works are The Bayeux Tapestry: The
Life Story of a Masterpiece
(2006) and The
King's Glass: A Story of Tudor Power and Secret Art
(2007). Before dying
she was nearing completion of Girl in a
, a biography of Jan van Eyck's enigmatic portrait of the
months ago, Carola was diagnosed with cancer, which she faced with clear-eyed
dispassion," reported the Guardian
died at home, stylish to the last, with a red rose from the garden on her
Amanuensis: A person
whose employment is to write what another dictates, or to copy what another has
written. Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary
"On a windy, rainy New York morning in April 2007 I found
myself sitting on my suitcase at LaGuardia airport, watching information
screens roll through page after page of cancelled flights. I had flown in from
London the day before; I was jet-lagged and incredibly homesick, and I had no
way of knowing when I would reach my destination. Moreover, I had no idea,
really, about my destination. I knew it was Iowa City, that it was in the
Midwest, and that its university had an important literary archive. I was armed
with a copy of Richard Holmes's Footsteps:
Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, which I thought was appropriate since
I wanted to be a biographer, and here I was, undeniably having an adventure. I
had never felt less romantic." [Read More]
--Daisy Hay, The Daily Beast
Videos from the first Compleat Biographer Conference are now available for viewing. Visit BIO's website for details.
The clock is ticking. Don't let this be your last issue of TBC!
To learn more about membership in BIO,
I had the pleasure last month of serving as moderator for a
discussion between authors Hampton Sides and David Grann during the Mayborn
Literary Nonfiction Conference, about which you can read in this issue of TBC.
addition to producing this annual conference, the Frank W. Mayborn Graduate
Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas also publishes a
magazine on narrative nonfiction. The new issue features a number of articles
that might be of interest to biographers. By special permission, an article I
wrote for Mayborn about some
techniques I use in writing biography is available for download free-of-charge
on BIO's website.
If Justin Spring's piece in this month's TBC intrigues you,
be sure to check out Patricia Cohen's New
York Times article on the author and his book. The Times also posted a slide show.
This short item appeared in Galley Cat recently:
"After months of domination by William P. Young, Dan
Brown, and the Bible, the hardboiled work of Stieg Larsson has finally cracked
the top five on Amazon's Most Highlighted Books of All Time List. The Girl
with the Dragon Tattoo unseated Malcolm
Gladwell, rising to #4 on the list."
got me thinking. Do owners of Kindles know that Amazon can track what they
highlight in their books? I bet a number of readers would be surprised to learn that this
private act is no longer private in this new age of e-books.
It reminds me of
how we learned during the flap over Janet Jackson's wardrobe problem that it
was the most often replayed bit of video on the then-new device known as TiVo.
advice? Read the fine print when selecting an e-book reader. You might want to
learn who is watching over your shoulder when you read your next book.
You can be a biographer without writing a word. A group
called the Blind Project has launched a new apparel line that "promotes the
recovery and well-being of women and children exploited by the commercial sex
trade in Southeast Asia." According to the group's website, "the brand teaches [these women and children]
marketable job skills in fashion design and employs them in a positive work
environment with a sustainable living wage to help them regain autonomy."
brand is now holding a design competition and is asking designers to visually
represent stories of women the organization helped save from slavery. The
contest is called "Be a Biographer." Sounds like a great cause, but what's up
with the contest's name?
Next month TBC as you have known it for four years
will begin a new chapter as the official publication of BIO, available only by
subscription. A redesigned and improved TBC will be coming your way--that
is, of course, if you become a member of BIO.
the new features will be a "News & Notes" section that will allow us to
offer extended coverage of all the news-making happenings among BIO members. So
please send us news about yourself, your books, or your writing.
James McGrath Morris
Currently reading: Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, by Peter Manseau
Sold to Publishers
The following are among the biographies recently sold to publishers, as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources.
Brian Jay Jones, yet to be titled biography of Jim Henson,
Stephen Bown, The Last Viking, a biography of Roald Amundsen,
to Da Capo
Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life's
Work at 72, to Bloomsbury
Bill McGrane, All Rise! The Remarkable Journey of Justice
Alan Page, to Triumph
Julian Dawson, ...And on the Piano, Nicky Hopkins!: The
Extraordinary Life of the World's Greatest Sideman, to Plus One
Carlo D'Este, To Save a Nation, a biography of Raoul
Wallenberg, to Crown
The following are biographies in stores this month.
Rauh: An American Liberal's Life in Law and Politics
by Michael E. Parrish
(University of Michigan Press)
King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba's Last Tycoon
Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of King Charles I of England and Henrietta
Maria of France
by Katie Whitaker
Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the Unexpected Rise
of Britain's Greatest Monarch
The Man Who
Built the National Football League: Joe F. Carr
by Chris Willis
Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, the Civil War's Most Daring Spy
An Unauthorized Biography
by Andrew Morton
Under the Ivy
by Graeme Thomson
His Life and Art
by Duff Hart-Davis
(Yale University Press)
Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America
Daniel R. Biddle and
(Temple University Press)
and Music of Kenny Davern: Just Four Bars
by Edward N. Meyer
The King of
Carnaby Street: A Life of John Stephen
by Jeremy Reed
NEW IN PAPER
The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum
by Rebecca Loncraine
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life
by Gerald Martin
Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels
by Tristram Hunt
Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story,
by J. Randy Taraborrelli
American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme
Court Justice Antonin Scalia
by Joan Biskupic
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Madoff with the Money
by Jerry Oppenheimer
Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life
by Lori D. Ginzberg
(Hill & Wang)
Augustine of Hippo:
by Henry Chadwick
Biographers International Organization (BIO) is the first-ever international organization that
represents the professional interests of biographers: those who've already published as well as those working on first-time
biographies--in every medium, from print to film.
Membership benefits include the monthly Biographer's Craft, discount on our annual conference, free personal webpage, and much, much more.
To join, visit the membership page of BIO's website.
James McGrath Morris,
Biographers International Organization
P.O. Box 33020
Santa Fe, NM 87594