Plutarch Time!

Plutarch2014-494x500One of the best things about being a member of Biographers International Organization (BIO)  is that each year, we get to vote for the recipient of the Plutarch Award, presented to the best biography of the year.* This is the only international literary award given by biographers to biography, which makes it pretty neat.  (It was inspired in part by the Edgar Award, presented each year by the Mystery Writers of America, and the Nebula, given annually by the  Science Fiction Writers of America.)

Here’s how it works: each year, a select committee of biographers puts together a list of ten nominees for the year’s best biography.** This list is presented to BIO members in good standing, who then make their selection by secret ballot. The winner (and three runners-up) will be announced (in suitably dramatic fashion, since I’m the one tasked with putting together the ceremony) at BIO’s Annual Conference, which will be held the first weekend in June at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

I should add for the record that as president of BIO, I don’t sit on the Plutarch Nomination Committee, and have no role in of the selection of the ten nominees; like all BIO members in good standing, my responsibility is to simply vote for the book on the list I think is the best.

And what a list it is this year–an interesting, diverse, even somewhat eclectic group of biographies, any of which would be a worthy winner. Wanna see? I won’t make you wait. Here are the ten books nominated for the 2015 Plutarch, listed alphabetically by author:

  • Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Jeff Hobbs, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Scribner)
  • John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh ( W. Norton & Company)
  • Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (Knopf)
  • Helen Rappaport, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra (St. Martin’s)
  • Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life (Viking Adult)
  • Richard Norton Smith, On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller (Random House)
  • Will Swift, Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage (Threshold Editions)
  • Edward White, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • N. Wilson, Victoria: A Life (Penguin Press)

I’ll be back here in mid-June to let you know who the winner is. And if you’d like to see a list of previous winners (and nominees), click here.

* In 2015, we vote on biographies published in 2014, which is why the medallion reads “2014”

** As a result of this process, we have NO SAD PUPPIES. (And we send kind thoughts to our friends at the Hugo Awards. Lost? Click here for more information on this year’s Hugo kerfluffle.)

Remembering Stan Freberg

stanMan, this one hurts. The great Stan Freberg has passed away at age 88.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Freberg around 2012 when I was doing research on Jim Henson.  I was very excited to make the phone call, as I was a huge fan of his, and when I mentioned how much I loved his “Banana Boat” parody, Stan immediately dropped into that great voice and did a bit of it on the phone (“I came through the window!”)

So what does Stan have to do with Jim Henson and the Muppets? Glad you asked.

In the early days of the Muppets, when Jim Henson was doing Sam and Friends here in DC on our local NBC station, Jim used to have the Muppets lip-synch to comedy records–which more often than not meant he was gonna use one of Freberg’s. Here are a few of the members of the cast of Sam and Friends (specifically Moldy Hay and Hank and Frank) lip-synching to Freberg’s “C’est Ci Bon,” probably sometime in 1955 or 1956.  Take a look, and I’ll be back with you after the video:

Wasn’t that great? Now, an interesting coda to all this: back in the 1950s, there was never much thought given to clearing records for usage, which likely would have involved paying royalties–an expensive proviso, especially for a college student, which is what Jim still was in 1957. The strategy, then, was to ask forgiveness instead of permission–and when any wounded artist brought their concerns to Jim’s attention, most gave way after meeting Jim and watching the Muppets.

That was true for Freberg as well, who in 1957 learned that his records were being used without attribution (or recompense!) and went storming down to WRC-TV one evening to take up the matter with Jim personally. Once he actually saw Jim (and Jane) performing to his records, he immediately melted. Shortly thereafter, he sent Jim an enthusiastic telegram. “I take it all back,” Freberg wrote. “This is one of the greatest acts I have ever seen [and I] am honored to let you use my records for ever and longer.” And so they did.

Miss ya already, Stan.

Still Great at 232 Years.

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“Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; but great minds rise above them.” — Washington Irving, “Philip of Pokanoket : An Indian Memoir,” from The Sketch Book (1820)

Happy Birthday to Washington Irving, born on this day in 1783. Celebrate his birthday by reading a great American short story–for he pretty much invented the form, you know.

Making Progress — and Messes

I’m deep into Chapter 4 (or 5, depending on how I break these things up), and my desk is officially a disaster.

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And how’s your week shaping up?

(No) Wonder From Down Under!

I spent a few moments on the phone yesterday with Eoin Cameron from ABC Radio in Perth, Australia, discussing Jim Henson and the Muppets — and wouldn’t you know, it’s already available for your listening pleasure. If you’ve got eight minutes, click here if you wanna listen. And my thanks to Eoin for having me on.

It’s 2015! Remember Me?

Ugh, I haven’t updated this blog since October? Really? That makes this officially the Longest I’ve Gone Without Updating. Sorry about that–but I’m hoping I’ve got a decent excuse, as I’m hard at work on George Lucas.  In fact, I’ve written nearly 50,000 words, and I’m not even to Star Wars yet.

However, I’m sticking my head out to let you know that I’m Mississippi-bound later this month, where I’ll be talking about Jim Henson and the Muppets as part of the 26th annual Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration. This year’s theme is “Bigger Than Life: Extraordinary Mississippians,” and Jim’s about as extraordinary as they come. But you don’t need me to tell you that. I’ll be speaking on Saturday, February 28, at 3:30 at the convention center as one of the NLCC’s Family Day events.

I’m really looking forward to this one. If you’re in Mississippi or vicinities thereabout, come on by.

Washington Irving, Ichabod Crane, and Diane Rehm

UnknownI had a terrific time talking Washington Irving on The Diane Rehm Show this morning.  “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was (appropriately) chosen as the book for their monthly “Readers Review,” and I sat on a panel with two incredibly sharp experts on literature, film and media, professors Caetlin Benson-Allot of Georgetown and Sian Silyn Roberts of Queens College.

Me, I was there mostly to provide the background on Irving, though I did get to chip in and comment on the story every once in a while.  I was also fascinated by the interest in how Irving may have come up with the name Ichabod Crane — it was the topic of both an e-mail that was read on the air as well as a phone call.  It was fascinating to hear that the name has a Hebraic origin, but when it comes to Irving . . . well, I’ll let you listen to the show and you can hear what I had to say. If you missed it, not to worry: you can listen to the entire show right here.

And if you’re listening, and wanna know exactly which version of “Sleepy Hollow” we’re reading from and want to read along, it’s this one.

River Recap

Last weekend, I officially had one of the best times ever at the James River Writers conference — a really terrific two days of panels and talks, presentations and conversations. I had the pleasure of staying in Richmond at the home of my colleague Dean King (whose book on the Hatfields and McCoys, The Feud, continues to win one well-deserved prize after another), where I discovered to my delight that I would also be bunking with his agent and editor (not in a weird way, mind you) — which meant each evening ended sitting around a table with great conversation. And bourbon.

As I mentioned the other day, I had plenty to do, from talking Jim Henson (twice!) to sitting on two panels, including a really fascinating session on research — and I say fascinating, because it was a real learning experience for me, since I was the only non-fiction writer sitting up on the dais. Usually, I’m at a conference filled with biographers where research is pretty much what we do, so a panel on research usually turns into war stories and measuring contests. Here, it was a lot of fun to hear about the kinds of research fiction writers and poets use to inform and inspire their work without necessarily worrying about every last neurotic detail of the research, as we non-fictionalists tend to do.  Good stuff.

I sat on the research panel, by the way, with Hugh Howey, the current guru of self-publishing, who’s as charming a speaker and presenter as you’ll ever see.  That meant that the ringside seat I had for Hugh’s discussion/debate on the state of the publishing industry with former Little, Brown editor Geoff Shandler–who is also one of the smartest and most charming speakers you’re likely to see–was destined to be one of the conference’s hottest seats. The session didn’t disappoint–and moderator Erica Orloff did yeoman’s work keeping things both raucous and civil as Hugh and Geoff went at it for nearly an hour.

It was a tough room for Geoff; Hugh’s one of the guys who’s made it big in self-publishing, and his passionate Screw The Man And Keep The Money narrative was an appealing one embraced by much of the room, even as Geoff just as passionately shot it full of holes and urged writers not to rush to give away or devalue their own work in defiance of The Man. All in all, it was a spirited discussion, and ultimately the two of them did their best to agree to disagree–but as an industry, this discussion and debate is far from over.

Another New To Me experience was attending the conference’s Sunday afternoon Pitchapolooza session, in which writers were given one minute at the microphone to pitch their book to a panel of editors and agents. It takes spectacular guts to stand up in a crowded room and pitch your book for critique–so, well done all you gutsy writers who took your moment at the mic. Oh, and the winning pitch that day? It came from an absolutely charming thirteen-year-old who had clearly rehearsed and re-rehearsed her pitch for her urban fantasy novel. Practice matters.

For me, the best part of the weekend was  just sitting and talking with so many talented writers, poets and playwrights, all of whom had something interesting to say and were passionate about saying it. As I noted above, it was one of the best times I’ve had at a conference.

So: Thank you, James River Writers, for having me and taking such good care of all of us. I had a wonderful time, and I hope to come back.

People On The River Are Happy To Give

ConferenceLogo2014-width250I leave tomorrow afternoon for Richmond, Virginia, to attend an event I’ve been looking forward to for almost a year now: the James River Writers conference. I was so thrilled to be invited–and I’m even happier that they’ve chosen to keep me so busy over the weekend. I’ve been to Richmond lots and lots (I love their Poe Museum) but this is my first time at the conference as either a guest or speaker.  So, yeah, I’ll say it again: I’m really looking forward to it.

If you’re attending–well, first, come say hello, okay? I’ll be giving one of two TED-style talks on Saturday morning–a quick ten minutes on what writers can learn from Jim Henson (hint: practice and perseverance). Then, on Sunday, I’ll be serving on two panels, one on research, the other on the art of the first draft. (For more information, the weekend conference schedule is right here.)

And even if you’re not attending . . . well, one of the great things about JRW is they host a lot of events in Richmond that anyone can attend.  Late Saturday afternoon, then, I’ll be talking about Jim Henson at 5:30 p.m. at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond. I just finished putting together a new presentation, with a different line up of clips than I’ve used in the past, and I’m pretty excited about debuting in Richmond.  And did I tell you it’s free?  It’s free, people.

Seventy Four.

John Lennon would have been seventy-four years old today.

Take a moment today to think of peace, think of love, think of joy, and think of the music. Because those are the things John lived for, you know–and wanted you to live for, too.