Category Archives: BIO

In Which I Am On CNN, Go To Boston, and Get Back In The Chair

Good grief, it’s really been over a month since I last checked in here? I’m never gonna get a John Scalzi-type following at this rate…

First thing’s first–and because everyone asked me about it at the time–the CNN piece on the Muppets finally aired in late May. The CNN crew had come to my house here in Maryland ages ago to film me in my basement office, and then I never heard anything more about it. I had assumed it had turned into vapor trails, until a sharp-eyed fan on Twitter alerted me to it: a half-hour special called CNN Spotlight: The Muppets, with a brief look at Jim Henson about a third of the way through it.

In case you missed it (and even if you didn’t), here’s the piece in its entirety:

 

I also had the great pleasure of speaking in mid-April at the newly-opened Gaithersburg Library here in my neck of the words, with the added bonus that C-SPAN was in attendance to record my hour-long talk in its entirety for BookTV.  No word yet on when, or even if, it’ll air, but I’ll let you know what I hear. More than likely, some eagle-eyed Muppet fan will spot it before I do and let me know about it.

In mid-May, I headed for Boston to attend Biographers International Organization’s annual conference. It was my privilege to be elected the organization’s president in early spring, but that meant that in addition to the two panels I was on and the one panel I was moderating, I also had to act as emcee for much of the conference–which also meant I didn’t have as much time to spend catching up with everyone as I would have liked. One of the founding principles of BIO is to address with what we informally call “the loneliness quotient,” so the opportunity to mingle and trade stories with other biographers is one of the genuine pleasures of attending the BIO conference. It’s also perhaps the only place on the planet where you can grouse about having to assemble the index for your book (“And that index?!? AMIRIGHT?”) and have everyone in the room nodding sympathetically.

At the final reception, we announced the finalists and winner of the Plutarch Award, presented to the best biography of the year, as chosen by biographers.  I was pleased and honored that Jim Henson was among the finalists (along with Ray Monk’s Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center and Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin), with the well-deserved winner being Linda Leavell’s Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne MooreIf you haven’t read any of these fine biographies, do yourself a favor and grab any one of them. Better yet, grab ’em all.

And, oh yeah . . . I’m at work again. On Something Cool. That means I’ll be back at the desk regularly again –which I’m also hoping means I can get back here more often. Bear with me.

Pulitzers and Plutarchs

The 2014 Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday, and I’m thrilled with the winners for a couple of reasons. First, as vice president of Biographers International Organization (BIO), I’m delighted that this year’s winner was BIO member Megan Marshall, for Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. Megan’s been a steady, supportive force in BIO for years, and I’m so thrilled for her — as the saying goes, it really couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. (And if you want an opportunity to congratulate Megan in person, she’ll be attending BIO’s annual conference on May 17, which you can sign up for right here. Just sayin’.)

Speaking of good things happening to nice people, here’s the second reason I’m thrilled for this year’s Pulitzer winners: my editor at Random House, Ryan Doherty, also happened to edit another pretty spectacular book released in 2013, Dan Fagin’s Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, which won the Pulitzer for Nonfiction.  As soon as I saw the announcement, I immediately sent Ryan an e-mail of congratulations, and completely stunned him, as he hadn’t even heard yet. To say I’m excited for Ryan would be an understatement; he’s a creative and hard-working editor, and I’m so pleased for him and Dan Fagin.

Meanwhile, back over at BIO, we’ve announced the ten nominees for the Plutarch Award, our annual prize given for the Best Biography of the Year. I’m honored and humbled to have Jim Henson among the nominees — and it’s such an interesting list that I’m going to reproduce the full roster of nominees here.* In alphabetical order by author, then, the nominees for Best Biography of 2013 are:

Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (Doubleday)

Bolivar: American Liberator by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster)

Wilson by A. Scott Berg (Putnam)

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee, Jr. (Little,Brown)

Jonathan Swift: His Life And His World by Leo Damrosch (Yale)

Gabriele D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallet (Knopf)

Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones (Ballantine)

Holding On Upside Down: The Life And Work of Marianne Moore by Linda Leavell (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore (Knopf)

Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center by Ray Monk (Doubleday)

Like the Nebula award, we turn the voting for the award over to our membership, and the winner will be announced at our conference on May 17.  I’ll be sure to let you know the winner at that time.

___________________

* Disclaimer: while I’m an officer for BIO, I have no role in selecting the nominees for the Plutarch.

Places To Go, Things to Do

I’m hanging my head in embarrassment that I’ve let the ol’ blog lie fallow for the past few weeks. For shame, Doc, for shame.

First off, I’ve got several folks to publicly thank and acknowledge. I’ve thanked them all privately, but the events were so terrific that they deserve a public mention as well.

In mid-March, I had the great pleasure of being one of the twenty authors invited to the Literary Feast, a three-day fundraiser for literacy programs sponsored by the Broward Public Library Foundation.  Our hosts took great care of us, the company was grand, and the weather . . . well, considering it was 21 degrees when I left Washington for Ft. Lauderdale, the weather just could’t be beat.  In fact, it was while griping about East Coast weather in a shuttle bus that several of us discovered we had come in from the DC region; besides me, there was John Shaw (author of JFK in the Senate) and Andrew Carroll (a multitasking machine who’s latest is Here Is Where), and making their acquaintance was one of the high points of the trip. As an added bonus, I also spent a good part of one reception hanging out with the super cool Rupert Holmes (yes, that Rupert Holmes) and never once made a Pina Colada joke.

The day after I returned, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Arts Club of Washington, one of DC’s really great (and under appreciated!) venues, housed in a 19th century mansion that once served as the home of President James Monroe.  I had to task my host for the evening, the poet Sandra Beasley, with running my slideshow from my laptop from her seat in the center aisle–and with our unspoken language of arched eyebrows and nods and finger waves, things ran smoothly. (In fact, I thought it was one of the best presentations I’ve done in a while.) My thanks, then, to Sandra and the Arts Club for having me. It was a terrific evening — and if you find yourself in DC, locate the club over on I Street and drop in.

Up next for me: I’ll be at the newly-renovated Gaithersburg Library on April 16, starting at 7 p.m.  It’s free and open to the public, and it’ll be a lot of fun.  Here’s a bit of video of me (sitting in my basement office) giving a sneak preview of the April 16 event:

And as an added bonus, here I am again, talking about Jim Henson in Maryland:

Finally, on the weekend of May 17-18, I’ll be attending the Biographers International Organization’s annual conference in Boston. I’ll admit to being a bit biased about this one — I’m BIO’s vice president, after all — but BIO’s conferences are always informative and entertaining, with first-rate panelists and moderators. I’ll be sitting on two panels, one on book tours, the other on working with the family of your subject.

Even better, the recipient of this year’s BIO Award — given to individuals who’ve made a significant contribution to the art of biography — is Stacy Schiff, whose Cleopatra: A Life is an art unto itself. Plus, Stacy’s a class act, and a dynamite speaker — and you’ll get to hear her at lunch at the BIO conference.  Really, that should be enough to convince you to attend right there.

Conference Report and More Jim Henson

…and hello again.

I’ve had a wonderfully busy couple of weeks. In mid-May, I spent several days in New York City attending BIO’s Fourth Annual Compleat Biographers Conference, though attending seems a bit too weak of a word to describe what a terrific time I had. Here are a few highlights of my long weekend:

(1) Watching Janet Reid, Sarah Weinman, and Jennifer Richards enthrall a packed room with advice and tales of successfully (and unsuccessfully!) using social media — and gamely carrying on as if nothing had happened when the lights suddenly went out over their heads.

(2) Sitting on a panel with the remarkable Amanda Foreman, who was shot right out of a cannon and had the audience eating out of her hand with one funny story after another — and I had to follow her. Yikes.

(3) Listening to Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow speak at lunch about the importance of listening to the silences in your subject’s story.  Your role as a biographer, he said, “is not to see what’s there . . . but what’s missing.”  Beautifully put.

(4) Moderating a lively panel on the the future of biography and publishing, with two crack agents and two crack editors — including my own agent and editor –participating enthusiastically and knocking it out of the park. Despite everything you might hear, print isn’t dead, or even dying — but it’s got to willingly share its space.

passage-of-power-review_320(5) Introducing BIO’s first ever Plutarch Award, given to the year’s best biography, as chosen by biographers. I’m really proud of this one — I sat ex officio on the committee that chose the ten nominees that would be sent to BIO members for their vote, and had the pleasure of coordinating the awards ceremony for the Saturday evening reception. The winner of the first Plutarch — as selected by BIO’s members — was the fourth volume in Robert Caro’s massive biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power.

While Caro couldn’t be there himself — he was off doing the research for the next volume in his series (which he joked was “volume five in a four volume series”) — his longtime editor at Knopf, Katherine Hourigan, accepted on his behalf.

(6) Meeting the incredibly modest and friendly Tom Reiss, whose The Black Count won the 2013 Pulitzer for biography.  Tom was probably one of the most photographed people at the conference (heck, have a photo with him, and I hate having my picture taken!) and he was always patient, generous, and genuinely interested in talking with everyone. A class act all around.

All in all, a successful weekend — and we’re already in the early planning stages for next year.

When I returned from New York, I had a week left to finish going through the galleys for Jim Henson. Fittingly, perhaps, I made my changes and notes in Kermit-green ink, and shipped everything back three days early. As a result, yesterday I got in the mail from Random House a heavy box full of these:

IMG_0340 These are the advance uncorrected proofs that will go out for review.  There’s still  no cover for it, and the photo insert is being finished off as well. But as my editor wrote in his cover note, “It’s nearly a book.” And it is indeed.

 

Be Right Back . . .

I’m back from BIO 2012 and will have a full report for you just as soon as I can. In the meantime, I’m working hard to wrap up things on Jim Henson — which, trust me, is what you want me doing, instead of blogging.

Until then, head for the lobby!

Avengers Assemble! Sort of.

If you’re a biographer or aspiring biographer, a reader of biographies, or even just someone who loves the Biography Channel . . . well, have I got an offer for you. It’s not quite Avengers Assemble! but it’s close.

Biographers International Organization — the world’s premiere group of biographers and lovers of biography — is holding its third annual conference this May, at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. There’ll be panels of research and writing, interviewing and negotiating, and even a bit of sex and violence. Yeah, really.  And all brought to you by a crack team of biographers, including Charles J. Shields, Richard Schickel, Will Swift, Jonathan Eig, Kate Buford, and Pulitzer Prize winner Debby Applegate. 

There’ll also be two all-day sessions on Friday to choose from — one where you can tour the Academy of Motion Picture Arts library, the other where you’ll get a peek into the archives of the Los Angeles Public Library, where they keep their old photos and maps and directions to  finding the Ark of the Covenant. 

Oh, and did I mention the lunchtime keynote address by Arnold Rampersad? Now I have. And now you know you need to be there, right?
For more information, go here.  And I’ll see you in Los Angeles.

Running In Place

During May’s BIO conference, Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro was presented with the BIO Lifetime Achievement Award—a moment that brought the crowd enthusiastically to its feet. On receiving the award, Caro gave a typically thoughtful—and moving—speech on one of my favorite topics, the importance in biography of “sense of place.” It’s all great stuff–and take it from someone who lives here, you will never hear the U.S. Capitol building described quite so majestically anywhere else. You’d be running, too.

Confused? Don’t be. Have a look, and enjoy:

A Sense of Place from Biographers International Org on Vimeo.

A Quick Rundown

Apologies for being away so long — I keep meaning to update here each day, and even get as far as opening up the blogging window and then  . . . well, things seem to get away from me, and I end up closing out the window.  In lieu of a proper post, then, here’s a quick rundown on what I’m up to:

– The BIO conference was a spectacular success, well-attended with truly interesting panels, and an amazing lunchtime keynote address by Robert A. Caro (the speech was filmed, and I’ll put it up here as soon as it’s available).  I participated on one panel, moderated another, and spent a good part of between-panel time buttonholing some terrific writers and begging them to update me on their works in progress. Trust me when I say that there are some great books coming out. In hardback, even.

During the course of the day, I made Kitty Kelley laugh (we were seated next to each other at lunch), got hugged by a Pulitzer winner, and tried really hard — and failed — not to geek out when I spoke briefly to Robert Caro as he signed my hardcover of Master of the Senate. I also had the honor of being elected to the BIO board, and I’m looking forward to the coming year. (Thanks, fellow BIO members, for the vote—and here’s a special shout out to Charles J. Shields for nominating me.)

– I’m making a quick sprint to New York this week for another conversation with An Amazing Person — and then another with a different person the following weekend, when I’ll piggyback a bit of work onto an otherwise family-focused weekend in New York with Barb and Madi.  It’s getting to the point where I can do the Northeast Regional train to New York in my sleep.  And have.

– Finally, to answer what’s continuing to be the number one question I receive each day (namely, How’s the book going?): I’m pleased to say it’s going well — and so far, it looks like I’m on target to ensure a Christmas 2012 release.  But that’s still a long way away, and there’s a long way to go, so stay tuned.

Big Fun at the BIO

The second annual conference of the Biographers International Organization (BIO) is now officially one week away, on Saturday, May 21, at the National Press Club (and several other sites, such as the Library of Congress and National Archives) right here in beautiful Washington, DC.  If you’re a biographer, an aspiring biographer, or someone who enjoys biographies, you should be here.

What’ll you find? In a word: lots.  BIO works hard to offer panels that are packed with information, staffed by some of some of the best writers, editors, agents, grant writers, publicists, and publishers in the business—so many, in fact, that you’ll probably find it tough to narrow down your choices.

You’ll also get a keynote lunch headlined by—wait for it—Robert Caro, winner of the 2011 BIO award and . . . lemme see . . . oh yeah: the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Twice.  The end of day features a reception where you’ll have the chance to mingle with pretty much everyone, buy books (and get ’em signed), and listen to Stacy Schiff (of Cleopatra fame) in an interview/discussion in Inside the Actor’s Studio style.

What are you waiting for? Click here for tons more information. Online registration closes soon — but if you miss the online deadline, don’t worry. Shoot BIO an e-mail and they’ll take care of you.

Oh, and if you hurry, there’s still space available in several pre-conference workshops being held on Friday, May 20, at the Library of Congress and the National Archives.  In addition to an exclusive tour of the Library open only to BIO attendees, space was still available as of yesterday in several of the daylong workshops, including the Library of Congress’ Performing Arts Division, Geography and Map Division, and a favorite of mine, the Motion Picture and Television Division, which has a really fun (though surprisingly small) reading room. For the latest information, click here.

See you in DC.

Breakfast (and Lunch) of Champions

There’s something else I’ve come to love about biography: biographers.  Last week, Barb and I had a wonderful Indian dinner in DC with Charles J. Shields and his lovely wife Guadalupe, who had braved bad weather and slick roads to attend the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference. It was a terrific time, with good food and even better company — and I’m even more excited now about getting my hands on Charles’ upcoming biography of Kurt Vonnegut, which his publisher, Henry Holt,  is rightly making its Christmas 2011 centerpiece bio.

Speaking of top-notch biographers, the Biographers International Organization recently announced that its recipient for the 2011 BIO award — which also means its keynote lunch speaker for this year’s conference here in DC — will be Robert Caro.

Yes, you heard me — and forgive me for being crass here, but — ROBERT EFFING CARO. If there’s a Mount Rushmore of Biographers, he’s on it.  If there’s a Beatles of Biographers, he’s John Lennon. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, his comprehensive, multi-part biography of President Lyndon Johnson stands — in my view, at least — as the ultimate example of what great biography should be: thorough without being mind-numbing, dramatic without being histrionic, and scholarly without being pedantic. (I’ve described my favorite book of his, the third volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography, Master of the Senate, as a biographical thriller.)

We’re less than a hundred days away from the 2011 BIO conference, and slots — as well as hotel rooms — are filling quickly, so if you’re interested in attending, click here for complete information.  As a member of the Washington Biography Group, which is serving as this year’s host, I’ll be moderating one panel, but I’ll also be participating as a panelist during the session on “The Role for Fiction in Biography.” Plus, it’s your chance to see Robert Effing Caro live and in person, which is more than enough, really.

Last year’s conference was hugely successful, and a lot of fun.  And you don’t have to be a biographer or even a writer to attend. Just loving books is more than enough.