Category Archives: Robert Caro

Autumn Leaves

It’s fall, the publishing industry is back in full swing, and that means there are plenty of great new books to choose from.  Let’s see. . .

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch for American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America, by my  colleague David O. Stewart. Stewart views Burr’s tale as both an adventure story and a political/legal thriller, and why not? Imagine a novel in which a sitting Vice President is charged for murder in two states, plans an elaborate military coup to overthrow the U.S. government (and have himself installed as the head of the new upstart government installed in its place), is indicted for treason, and is put on trial — and acquitted! — before the Chief Justice of the United States. A tale too unbelievable to be true? You bet — and yet it is.  Stewart’s book is available now—and getting spectacular reviews—so go get it (and look for a cameo appearance by Washington Irving, who made sure he had a good seat in the courthouse every day of Burr’s trial in Richmond).

The book currently sitting on my nightstand is Walter Issacson’s biography Steve Jobs, which is already kicking ass and taking names on numerous bestseller lists. Those of us who were keeping tabs on Issacson’s book for the past year (and who rolled our eyes when it was rumored, probably falsely, that the book was going to called either The Book of Jobs or iJobs) watched with interest as it was updated and revised after the manuscript was already completed to reflect Jobs’s resignation from Apple due to health reasons — and then revised again immediately following his death. That gives Issacson’s book the wonderful weight of immediacy—though it’s not like most us weren’t chomping at the bit to get our hands on this one anyway.

Coming up next week is the long-awaited And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by my pal (and fellow BIO member) Charles J. Shields, who pulls back the curtain on the enigmatic writer whose Slaughterhouse Five has been picked up by countless high school students who thought they were reading a horror novel.  Ahem.

I’m anxious to get my mitts on this one as well, though I’ll admit to having some inside information: namely, I know how hard Shields worked not only on the book itself, but on getting Vonnegut to allow him to write the story in the first place.  You can read that story and more  over on Shields’ way-cool blog  Writing Kurt Vonnegut, where you’ll learn all about his adventures as Vonnegut’s biographer — as well as beer, kids’ TV, and writing in general. Go. Now.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve largely given up fiction—but I’m still a sucker for Stephen King (yeah, guh head, make the face!) and I’ve gotta admit to being psyched for his newest, the massive, 960-page 11/22/63: A Novel. I had to fling aside the review in today’s Washington Post, which seemed too eager to commit the major foul of Giving Too Much Away.

And finally, I just read this afternoon that the fourth — but not yet final! — book in Robert A.  Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson comes out next May.

What are you looking forward to reading this fall? You don’t have to post it here, just talk amongst yuhselves.

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.

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.

It Just Works.


That’s biographer Robert Caro, one of my all-time favorite writers, in the pic above, standing in the New York office where he does all of his writing.  Does a writer’s space need to be ritzy? Does it need to be crammed with bookshelves or filing cabinets or piles of notes?  Nope.  It just needs to work for him.  Considering Caro’s won the Pulitzer twice, I’d say this space has done its job.

Caro does his writing on an old Smith-Corona 210 typewriter, which you can see on his desk just right of center.  I don’t envy him that–I haven’t had to use a typewriter since 1984, and while I love the way they look, I don’t really miss using one–but I do love that he’s a notebook and binder type of guy. 

I’m often asked how I organize my notes and resources, and which computer program I use to keep things straight.  I keep hearing the merits of a program called Scrivener, where you can use a virtual bulletin board and Post It notes and outlines to keep everything straight. Thanks, but no thanks — I like to use actual paper, notebooks, Post It notes, and journals.  It’s a mess, but so far, it works for me.

And that’s why I love this picture of Caro.  His office is a place that works — a reflection of Caro’s own work ethic (he wears coat and tie to his office every day, to remind himself that writing is his job and that he’s there to work). Perhaps a visitor to the office might not be able to find anything, but that doesn’t matter.  He doesn’t have to.

Caro has his own order to things. There’s a method for shelving his books (as he told Newsweek, general non-fiction on the post-Cold War is farthest away from his desk, while those on his subject are closest).  The binders crammed with his interview transcripts and notes are stacked in an orderly manner by oldest to newest.  And I love those pages tacked to the wall behind him:  a gigantic outline, mapping out Caro’s progress from book one of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, through his still unfinished fourth volume.

A mess?  Maybe.  But it’s Caro’s mess — and he knows every inch of it.  “I trained myself to be organized,” Caro explained.  “If you’re fumbling around trying to remember what notebook has what quote, you can’t be in the room with the people you’re writing about.”