Category Archives: Biographers International Organization

BIOpics

I’m back from the 2016 BIO Conference in Richmond — and what a terrific three days it was.  As promised, I tried to take as many pictures as I could, blasting away with my iPhone, sometimes from the back of the room. We’ll have video of some of this weekend’s extraordinary moments here sometime soon — but meanwhile, here are a few highlights, taken at the panels I attended (and there were LOTS more, trust me!):

The opening plenary session featured two master biographers discussing the craft, mulling over everything from whether you need to like your particular subject as a person (answer: no) to whether a biography can be truly definitive (answer: probably not).  Oh, and did I tell you who the two biographers were? A pair of aces, with a list of awards as long as your arm: Annette Gordon-Reed, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, and T.J. Stiles, whose Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America won this year’s Pulitzer for History. And as I think the photos below convey, what a lively, wonderful, invigorating session it was.

Next, I attended a panel moderated by my pal and colleague Marc Leepson on the Future of Research.  Are you one of those researchers who wants everything in a library available digitally and on-line right now? Librarians and archivists want that, too — but stress that it’s not likely to happen as quickly as they’d like, either.

IMG_1172

Kathy Jordan (Library of Virginia), Paige Newman (Virginia Historical Society) and Marc Leepson.

Then it was over to one of the most lively and entertaining panel discussions of the day, as James Atlas, Blake Bailey, Stacy Schiff, and D.T. Max reflected on how they chose their subjects.  And laughed . . and laughed . . . and laughed. Wonderful.

The lunch session featured a show-stopper of a speech by the winner of the 2016 BIO Award: Claire Tomalin, biographer of Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and so many more. At 82, she’s as spry as ever. Take a look:

After lunch, I was off to another spectacularly good panel discussion (moderated with aplomb by Dean King) on Writing Family Biographies — in this case presidential or royal families — featuring Nigel Hamilton, Kitty Kelley, and Andrew Lownie. The conversation quickly evolved to authorized vs. unauthorized biography, and then to the legal nuances needed to ensure you protect yourself from legal challenges (hint: take pictures and write personal letters). As you can see from the photos below, this was another panel that knew how to have a good time:

Finally, at Saturday’s closing reception, we announced the winner of the 2016 Plutarch Award, the only international literary award presented by biographers for biography. It went to Rosemary Sullivan for Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva.  After learning only a few weeks back that she was the winner of the award — even we didn’t know who the winner would be until the ballot was closed in May — Rosemary went out of her way to come in all the way from Chile to attend the conference and make a lovely acceptance speech.  Well done.

As the outgoing president (and congratulations to Will Swift for presiding over this year’s conference so spectacularly), it was really nice to attend the conference from in front of the curtain, rather than keeping tabs on the goings-and-comings that go on behind the curtain.  My thanks to the hardworking bunch at BIO who made the conference so special, and so wonderful.  And thanks, Richmond, for having us.

Thursday Odds and Ends

I was thrilled this week to see Jim Henson get a nice shout-out in the New York Times Book Review, where it was listed in their “Paperback Row” as one of seven new paperbacks worth checking out this week. Many thanks for that — and thanks to all of you who’ve mentioned how much you’re enjoying seeing Jim in paperback.  I appreciate it.

Second thing: I’m leaving today for Richmond to attend this year’s Biographers International Organization (BIO) Conference. As the outgoing president of the organization, I had the pleasure of watching this planning and programming for this conference over the last year, and let me tell you — while it seems I say this every year, this really does look to be one of the most informative and entertaining conferences yet.

And with BIO’s new president (the terrific presidential biographer Will Swift, by the way) taking the reins of the organization as of yesterday, this’ll be the first conference I’ve attended since 2010 without being a board member, officer, moderator, or panelist.  I get to just sit and talk with people and enjoy the thing, which I’m really looking forward to. I also promise to report on things when it’s finished.  With photos, even.

See ya in Richmond!

…And Then There Were Four.

PlutarchHorizontal.JPG

Over at BIO, we’ve narrowed our list of Plutarch Award nominees from ten (see the list just below) to a literary Final Four.  You can see ’em in the pic above. And a really interesting bunch they are.

Voting stays open until May 15, which means once I finish George Lucas (should happen by the end of the weekend), I can get to reading these terrific books.  I’m especially looking forward to reading Peter Guralnick’s Sam Phillips, mainly because his Elvis book Careless Love is one of my favorite books of all time. And I’m not even an Elvis fan, thangyewverrahmush.

And the Plutarch Award Nominees Are…

Over at Biographers International Organization — a group I’m proud to be the president of for another three months — we’ve announced the ten nominees for the Plutarch Award, presented to the year’s best biography. This is the world’s only literary biography prize given to biography, by biographers, which makes it a pretty neat deal.

BIO takes the Plutarch very seriously.  In fact, last year, with an eye on — among other issues — the hubbub surrounding the hijacking of the Hugo Award, we decided to better define and add a bit of rigor to our own process for selecting the initial ten nominees.  For this year, then, we dug into our esteemed Advisory Board and tapped Douglas Brinkley (who counts biographer among his long list of accomplishments) to chair a distinguished panel of judges who were tasked with sorting through, reading, digesting, and discussing as many of the biographies published in 2015 as they possibly could. The result of their hard work is the so-called shortlist of ten nominees.

And what nominees they are. This year’s ten nominees, in alphabetical order by author, are:

  • Irrepressible: A Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage, by Betty Boyd Caroli (Simon & Schuster)
  • Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, by Cathy Curtis (Oxford)
  • The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon 1952-1961,
       by Irwin F. Gellman (Yale)
  • Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown)
  • Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times by Anne Heller (New Harvest)
  • Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal by Jay Parini (Doubleday)
  • Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell (Viking)
  • Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles (Knopf)
  • Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper)

That’s a pretty distinguished group of books. And here’s something else I really like about this list: we’ve got six books written by women, and five books about women. As Jim Henson might say: “Lovely.”

Next, BIO’s Plutarch Committee will narrow the list to four finalists. Once those finalists have been selected, BIO members will get to vote for which of those four they think should be the Best Biography of the Year. We should receive that list in March, and the winner will be announced at the BIO Conference in June.

By the way, looking back at when I discussed the Plutarch last year at this time, I promised you I’d tell you who the winner was after the vote — and then I never came back and told you who that was.  It was Hermione Lee, for Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.

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.)