Reflections on the BIO Conference

The first Compleat Biographers Conference — sponsored by the Biographers International Organization (BIO) — was held in Boston this past weekend, and I’d have to call it an enormous, unqualified success.  It was easily the best, most informative conference I’ve ever attended, with plenty of interesting sessions, great speakers, and — perhaps the best part — plenty of opportunities to sit and talk with fellow writers, editors, agents, or book lovers. 

Want a highlight reel?  Here’s a sampling of  just a few of this weekend’s many memorable moments:

  • Starting the weekend by diving into a cab — with the super polite super British super agent Andrew Lownie — and being driven all over south Boston by a driver who clearly had no idea where he was going.  I ended up taking out my phone and paying for a day’s worth of its GPS function so we could get where we needed to go.  And the guy still charged us 15 bucks!  (Best quote of the ride came from Andrew, who shouted, “You’re to go right! No, right! GET IN THE RIGHT LANE!” as our driver cluelessly ignored my phone’s spoken directions. Only the British can get so charmingly annoyed.)
  • By my count, there were at least four Pulitzer Prize winners sitting in the same room at the same time, and — delightfully — there wasn’t a single ego to be found. Debby Applegate — BIO’s interim president and the 2007 prize winner for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher — was genuinely flattered when I approached her with a hardcover copy of her book I had brought with me from DC.  “Thanks for buying the book,” she inscribed on the title page, ” — and in hardback!”
  • On a similar note, Debby’s opening remarks sparked one of the first jaw-dropping moments of the conference, as she told the story of her struggle to find just the right narrative voice and story arc for her Beecher biography, which also just so happened to be her first book. When she brought her concerns to the attention of her editor, the response was “I don’t know what to tell you.”  “Those were the last words we ever spoke,” Debby said to a stunned room. She cancelled her contract, gave back her advance (another gasp-inducing moment) and started over again with a new editor and publisher.  A great story.
  • I had a nice breakfast with fellow WBG member Charles J. Shields (Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee), to whom I owed huge thanks for some advice he had given me on Project Blue Harvest.  We chatted over fruit and bagels about our projects (he’s in the midst of edits on his Kurt Vonnegut bio) and he didn’t even flinch when I nearly splattered hot coffee into his lap.
  • The keynote speech for the day was delivered by Jean Strouse — the recipient of the first BIO award for Excellence in Biography — whose masterful Morgan: American Financier was the result of more than 15 years of writing and research. Strouse talked about learning finance, choosing a subject, and sticking with a project that nearly engulfed her.
  • Kitty Kelley — who’s in the midst of a massive tour for her equally massive Oprah: A Biography— gave the conference several hours of her time and participated in an incredibly useful session on How To Deal With The Family of your chosen subject.  While three of the panel’s participants gave valuable advice on how to work with family, friends, and heirs, Kelley told one funny story after another about the hows and whys of covering  your ass. (“I ask the hard questions first,” she said, “because I’m always afraid they’re going to throw me out.”)
  • Another writer who interrupted a book tour to participate (and made it with only minutes to spare) was another Pulitzer winner:  T.J. Stiles of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius VanderbiltStiles ran point in a session on self-editing, which evolved into an entertaining discussion on a variety of topics, from narrative arcs to the future of publishing (which included a heartfelt tangent on why self-published books, unfortunately, have a tendency to suck). Stiles also reiterated the point — with a funny story about a long digression on Nigerian steamboats in an early draft of his Vanderbilt biography —  that not all your research drives your narrative, no matter how interesting you think it might be. “It was like someone had dropped another book right into the middle of mine,” Stiles said.  Out it went.

My thanks to Jamie Morris — the soul of the operation — as well as to Ray Shepard of the Boston Site Committee and all those who participated.  It was a memorable weekend — and we’ll see you next year in Washington, DC.

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