Tag Archives: Compleat Biographer Conference

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.

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.