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~ Writing a Biography ~ STALKING THE ELEPHANTAbout Writing Biography and Imagining a Life

REGISTER FOR THE 2019 BIO CONFERENCE, MAY 17-19!

  Here are a few of the things I love about the Biographers International Annual Conference:

  1. It's democratic. There's something for everyone: old hands who've already published six biographies, newbies still in the planning stage (or the thinking-about stage), and everyone in between.

  2. It's an unmatched opportunity (if you can name another, let me know, but I bet you can’t) to learn about biography from people who actually practice it and to meet and mingle with others who love talking about doing that. You get to collect practical tips and ideas, schmooze about craft, and make connections that can lead to—well, like everything else about biography, to just about anything. (Come on, you know you can't do that at your sports club.)

  3. Unlike academic conferences, it's a pressure-free environment. No one is there because they're competing for a job or trying to get tenure. They're there  Read More 

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HARVESTING VOICES FROM THE MOVEMENT THAT TRANSFORMED WOMEN’S LIVES (TBC, DECEMBER 2018)

Honor Moore and Alix Kates Shulman are using women’s voices to tell the history of a revolutionary era in women's history (Photo: CUNY Center for the Humanities)
  This fall I heard two well known writer-activists, Honor Moore and Alix Kates Shulman, talk about working on an anthology, Writing the Women’s Movement, 1963-1991. While their book isn’t biography per se, their talk touched on something I think a lot about as a biographer: the potential of life-writing for portraying history intimately—as it took place on the ground, so to speak, and in its own time—by having it unfold through the voices, and the viewpoints, of those witnessed it.  Read More 
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AN EDITOR WHO INSPIRES CONFIDENCE IN WRITERS (TBC REPORT)

Biographers Cathy Curtis and Will Swift present Tim Duggan with BIO's 2018 Editorial Excellence Award (Photo: Biographer’s International)
   Celebrating the contribution editors make to the work biographers do has become a joyful highlight of the year for Biographers International. On November 7, in a ceremony at New York’s landmark Fabbri mansion, BIO presented its fifth annual Editorial Excellence Award to the noted trade editor Tim Duggan, publisher of Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Crown at Penguin Random House.

      Board member Will Swift explained in his introduction that Duggan devotes about 25 percent of his small, carefully nurtured list to biography, an unusually high percentage for a trade publisher. The lively observations of three ardent Duggan fans that followed suggested some of the reasons why he is regarded as a biographer's editor par excellence.

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      David Michaelis, author of Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, which received rave reviews when it was published it in 2007 by Harper, told the audience that after the book lost its first editor, he was dispirited. Fortunately, he said, Tim Duggan turned out to be not a wicked editorial stepmother but “a mentor” who possessed “a level of sympathy you don’t usually find in an editor. That sympathy, Michaelis said, "reunited me with my book.” Read More 
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WHAT FOUR TOP EDITORS LOOK FOR IN A BOOK PROPOSAL (TBC REPORT)

An editor at work (Wikipedia)
   What Makes for a Good Biography Proposal? BIO’s 2018 Conference in May included a panel that provided a few helpful insights into what that is, as well as tips on what to avoid.

      Moderator Will Swift (Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage) presided over a panel entitled “What Four Top Editors Look for in a Book Proposal.” All of the four—Amy Cherry of W. W. Norton; Tim Duggan of Tim Duggan Books at Crown (part of Penguin Random House); Michael Flamini, Executive Editor of St. Martin’s Press; and Kristine Puopolo of Doubleday agreed that right now, publishers are most interested in lives that “speak to the current moment” (Puopolo), especially the lives of people of color, gay and transgender people, and “women who have done remarkable things” (Flamini). They also noted a special hunger among readers for books that can help explain the current political situation. Read More 
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THERE'S STILL TIME TO REGISTER FOR THE 2018 BIO CONFERENCE!

    You can even register on May 19, the day of the conference. For a few reasons why you should, click here.

  Update for 2018 BIO conference attendees: In response to the enthusiasm that greeted the announcement of our well-stocked book table, our partner, Merritt Bookstore of Millbrook, New York, will offer all books at 10% off the retail price as a courtesy to our members. The book table will be open from 10 AM until 5:30 PM on May 19 on the Concourse level at the City University of New York Graduate Center. For a complete list of titles, visit the Merritt Bookstore website.

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DEIRDRE BAIR ON WRITING A MEMOIR ABOUT BECKETT, BEAUVOIR—AND BAIR (TBC REPORT)

(UConn Humanities Institute)
   Deirdre Bair, who has written six biographies, is currently working on a memoir about her experiences in researching and writing Beckett (1978) and Simone de Beauvoir (1990). At the fall, 2017 Dorothy O. Helly Work in Progress Lecture, presented by New York’s Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, she talked about her reasons for undertaking a memoir and the challenges for a seasoned biographer who decides to become part of the story.

   Bair originally planned “a short book” about all her biographies but was unable to find a framework that would encompass all six,  Read More 
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"THE BOTTLE DIGGERS," A POEM (NOT MINE) ABOUT LOOKING INTO LIVES

Dumpdiggers, by Rob Campbell
  Every so often something comes along to remind me that this blog is about more than just writing a biography. It's also about using what we know (not only from research but from life) to imagine other lives: lives that actually happened, lives that were part of history. To me, it's one of the most satisfying things about writing biography.

  The title poem of The Bottle Diggers, a new collection by the poet Andrea Fry, blew me away because it so perfectly evokes  Read More 
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HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO SAY, "I DO"? (TBC, JULY 2017)

  How long does it take a biographer to commit to a subject?

  At the April, 2017 meeting of the New York University Biography Seminar, four noted biographers talked about their current projects and how they came to them. Turns out that even for experienced biographers, the process of deciding on a subject can be long, circuitous, and complicated.

      About a decade ago, journalist and former book editor Amanda Vaill  Read More 
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CARLA KAPLAN TALKS ABOUT JESSICA MITFORD, MUCKRAKER (TBC REPORT)

Carla Kaplan: "This book has to be funny."
    Carla Kaplan's previous biographies, Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (2002) and Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (2013) made it clear that she likes women rebels.

   Her current project, Something to Offend Everyone: The Muckraking Life and Times of Jessica Mitford, which she discussed at the Spring, 2017 Works in Progress Lecture of New York City's Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar, made it clear that she especially likes them when they’re combative, empathetic, and have a talent for being "laugh-out-loud funny"—qualities Jessica Mitford employed to breathe new life into the venerable Gilded Age tradition of muckraking.  Read More 
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TRADE EDITORS TALK ABOUT BIOGRAPHY (TBC REPORT)

   At a recent session of the New York University Biography Seminar, members Gayle Feldman and James Atlas invited four well-known trade editors to come and discuss whether biography has changed, what the editor contributes, and the hopes and expectations they entertain for the biographies they acquire.

      Tim Duggan, publisher of Tim Duggan Books at the Crown Publishing Group, doesn’t think writing biography or editing it has actually changed much from twenty years ago. Above all, he said, it remains “a huge undertaking” that can take years to complete. The glacial speed at which biography is produced, he observed, makes it "impossible to justify publishing only biography."

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       However, an editor's reason for taking on a serious biography is in any case less likely to be driven by visions of bestsellerdom than by the subject's perceived value, the quality of the writing, or both.

      Doubleday vice-president and executive editor Gerald Howard said that while biographies aren't regarded as money-makers, in respected critical venues biography remains the most frequently reviewed nonfiction genre. “In our world," he said, "success is being reviewed in the New York Times"—if possible, he added jokingly, by Dwight Garner. This personal and professional investment in a biography’s critical success has practical ramifications for authors, who look to their editors not only for encouragement and moral support over a long period but also for the enthusiasm that can translate into persuading other departments to support the book when it is published.  Read More 
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