Category Archives: BIO

Back At It

Happy 2011! And good lord, is the first week of the year really almost over?

The winter break was a quick sprint through the Southwest for Barb and me — I’m a New Mexican, and she’s an Arizonan, so we spent a few days with family and friends in each state before setting up camp (read: staying in a hotel) out in the Gold Canyon region of Arizona for several days.  Barb took advantage of the spa services while I spent my time in front of a fire, sipping Land Shark, burning the eight-dollars-a-piece Duraflame logs provided by our hotel, and reading Robert Caro. All in all, not a bad way to pass the time.

It was unseasonably cold while we were out there — as it seems to have been across most of the continental US that week — and a snowstorm blew through northern Arizona late last Wednesday, blanketing Flagstaff under two feet of snow and closing roads in all directions.  The only problem was, our New Year’s Eve plans included driving to Flagstaff and ringing in 2011 from there. Fortunately, the roads cleared and we made it to Flagstaff with no problems, though we greeted the new year with temperatures hovering at 15 below. On New Year’s morning, I discovered that a case of sodas I had stupidly left in the back seat of the rental car had frozen and exploded — then instantly froze again, making the clean up easy: I simply picked up the frozen ice sculpture of cans, box, and foam and threw it away.

I left behind the laptop I had intended to carry along with me — we decided to forget work and stay off the grid during our vacation, though Barb couldn’t resist bringing along her iPad and checking e-mail every once in a while.  Since our return, however, we’ve been back at it.  In fact, this week, I’ll have a draft of several chapters completed that I can ship off and have some folks take a look at. Yeah, I’m pretty excited, too.

On a completely random aside, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve got two Washington Irving-related events in the coming months, both in Philadelphia.  One is a speaking engagement at the Rittenhouse Club, while the other is at a celebration of Rebecca Gratz at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. At the Rosenbach, I’ll be speaking in tandem with Susan Sklaroff, a Gratz scholar and docent at the Museum.  Susan writes a great blog about Gratz (which you can see here) and she and I will be discussing Irving and Gratz’s rather amusing relationship, as well as whether Sir Walter Scott based his heroine Rebecca in Ivanhoe on Irving’s description of the dynamic Rebecca Gratz. I’ll post more information as it becomes available.

Finally, I just registered for the Biographers International Organization’s 2011 Compleat Biographer conference, right here in Washington, DC.  And you should too.

Happy New Year!

Odds and Ends

It’s funny, when I started this blog several years ago, I was fairly good about updating and posting — on a good week, I might post three times, sometimes daily.  At the time I was doing the political job by day, while promoting Washington Irving and working behind the scenes on Jim Henson. And I thought, “Man, if I ever get to the point where I can stay home and write full time, I can blog daily! I’ll be a blogging machine!”

Yeah.  Well.  Not so much, sorry.  But I think you’ll thank me in the end, since it means I’m devoting more of my writing time to my current project than to the blog.  Still, that’s not to say there isn’t plenty else going on.  Like for instance:

–  Early registration is already open for the second annual Biographers International Organization (BIO) conference, which will take place in Washington, DC on May 21, 2011.  Home base for the event will be the National Press Club, but conference sessions will also be held at the National Archives and the Library of Congress.  More information — including a tentative list of panels — is available at the BIO website, by clicking here.

– Barb and I attended an absolutely spectacular lecture at the Smithsonian the other night, where we got to listen to Bob Hirst, the general editor of the new Mark Twain Autobiography, discuss Twain’s life, work, and the problems an editor stumbles across when trying to decide exactly what is meant by an “authoritative” autobiography.  To a packed house at the Natural History Museum, Hirst showed photos of Twain’s original typed manuscripts, which had been written on by Twain, corrected by later typists, smudged by typesetters, and revised by previous editors who thought they knew better than Twain how to tell his life story.  Looking at the mess on each page, it was sometimes unclear which corrections were Twain’s — was the slash through a comma, for instance, really his correction or that of a later editor? — which really made you appreciate the hard work, and the detective work, that goes into a project like this.

– This Saturday, we’re attending a showing of A Christmas Carol over at Ford’s Theatre.  It’s one of those things that’s become something of a Christmas tradition with us, in the same way that we always watch Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas or A Christmas Story. Plus it’s an opportunity to go see the Christmas trees for each state over at the White House, and the huge tree at the Capitol.  The only wrench in the plan right now is the weather.  It was a whopping 19 degrees this morning here in Maryland, which is not conducive to strolls on the Mall.

– Finally, here’s a really interesting piece on Herman Melville over in the New York Times, courtesy of my colleague — and 19th century historian and fellow political speech writer — Ted Widmer.

Almost Like Being There

As you can imagine, the last week has been fairly crazy — crazy in a good way, natch — and I apologize for not checking in here a bit more quickly.  I appreciate all the kind e-mails and notes — you’re all Good People.  Thanks for all the nice words.  I mean it.

BIO guru Jamie Morris sent out a heads up the other day to note that many of the remarks and sessions from the Compleat Biographers Conference in May have been made available by the University of Massachusetts — our hosts that day — for your viewing pleasure.  And just so you don’t have to go and find them, here they are:

First, here’s the opening session, with welcoming remarks by Ray Sheppard, and the opening address by Pulitzer Prize winner Debby Applegate (The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher), who discusses the need for an organization like BIO, where writers can get together to learn from and support each other (Her stunning “I don’t know what to tell you” story comes at about seven minutes in):

Next, here’s a panel on Trends in Biography, where journalist D. Quincy Whitney, Henry Holt senior editor Helen Atsma, and biographers Gayle Feldman and Megan Marshall (The Peabody Sisters) discuss the future of biography — and, at times, publishing in general:

Next , here’s Harriet Reisen (Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women), editor Carole Deboer-Langworthy, Beatrice Mousli (Virginia Woolf), and Steve Weinberg (Armand Hammer: The Untold Story) discussing one of the most surprisingly difficult parts of writing a biography, Selecting A Subject:

Now it’s the keynote speech by Jean Strouse, winner of the first BIO Award (there’s a bit of organizational housekeeping to take care of before Ms. Strouse speaks — her keynote begins at about 17 minutes in):

Next up, biographers Debby Applegate, James Bradley (Flags of Our Fathers), Anne C. Heller (Ayn Rand and the World She Made), and editors Yen Cheong and Lissa Warren head up a lively discussion on Marketing Your Biography. It’s one thing to write it; now how do you ensure it finds readers?

Finally, here’s a fun session — courtesy of Melissa Nathanson (who’s working on a bio of Justice Blackmun), Charles J. Shields (Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee), Will Swift (The Roosevelts and the Royals), Nancy Kriplen (The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur–Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary), and Kitty Kelley (Oprah)on Dealing With The Family of your chosen subject:

Like what you see? C’mon, how could you not? If you’re not a member already, think about joining BIO. Go here.

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.

Conference Call

A few things.

First, here’s a laurel and hearty handshake extended to T.J. Stiles, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Stiles pulled off a literary hat trick, of sorts, by having his biography awarded both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for non-fiction.  Plus he’s a Caro fan, which gives him even more points in my book.  Not that he needed them. Anyway, congratulations all around.

Speaking of Pulitzer Prize winners (watch what I do here), we’re less than a month away from the first Compleat Biographer Conference, hosted by the Biographers International Organization (BIO) in Boston on May 15.  It’s your chance to immerse yourself in biography for a day, talking with, listening to and learning from some of the best — including interim BIO President and Pulitzer Prize winner Debby Applegate, the aforementioned T.J. Stiles, Charles J. Shields, Kitty Kelley, James McGrath Morris, and tons more.  It’s a daylong series of workshops and panel discussion on the practical aspects of the craft and art of biography, including a session with agents who represent biographies and non-fiction.  Come on, it’ll be fun.

For more information on the conference, go here.  While you’re at it, stroll over to the home page for The Biographer’s Craft — soon to be the official newsletter of BIO — and put yourself on the mailing list.

The BIO Conference

Are you an aspiring or published biographer, historian, writer, or just plain interested in books?  You might want to think about attending the first-ever conference of the newly-formed Biographers International Organization, to be held May 15 in Boston.

The brainchild of my colleague and pal James McGrath Morris (whose biography of Pulitzer is due in bookstores in early February) and the result of tons of hard work by folks like Debby Applegate, fellow WBG member Charles Shields, and devoted locals like Rob Velella, the daylong conference focuses on the nuts and bolts of biography writing.  Ten workshops are offered throughout the day on topics like working with primary documents, choosing a topic, working with the family of your subject, and how to land an agent. Yeah, it’s good stuff.

For the price of admission, you’ll also get fed twice, hear a keynote from a prominent biographer (more on that later), and get to hang out with lots of like-minded folks.  Think of it as a more literary San Diego Comic-Con, but without the filk singing or people dressed as Boba Fett.

“The Compleat Biographer Conference” will be held at the University of Massachusetts Boston on Saturday, May 15.  For more information on BIO and the conference, check out the Biographers International Organization’s website.