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

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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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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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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FRANKLIN THROWS LIGHT ON UNDERAPPRECIATED SHIRLEY JACKSON, by EVELYN BARISH (TBC: April, 2016)

Ruth Franklin
   For fans of Shirley Jackson ("The Lottery"), an intriguing report by Women Writing Women's Lives member Evelyn Barish (The Double Life of Paul De Man) on a talk given by another member, Ruth Franklin, on her upcoming biography of Jackson (to be published September, 2016).

   Barish's report appeared in the April, 2016 newsletter of the Biographers International Organization, which is dedicated to fostering the community of biographers worldwide. For more reports, click on "TBC reports" in the sidebar.
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BIOGRAPHERS EXPLORE POINTS OF VIEW: A Report by Deirdre David (TBC: April, 2016)

"Other Point of View," by Beryl Owl (Deviant Art)
   If you're writing a biography (or a memoir), or you're thinking about writing one, the following report by Deirdre David (Olivia Manning: A Woman at War) on the proceedings of the annual 2016 Leon Levy Conference on Biography may offer some food for thought.

   David's report appeared in the April, 2016 newsletter of the Biographers International Organization, which is dedicated to fostering the community of biographers worldwide. For more reports, click on "TBC reports" in the sidebar.  Read More 
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WOMEN WRITING WOMEN'S LIVES CELEBRATES 25 YEARS (TBC REPORT)

    Whose life is valuable enough to deserve a biography? For those who attended the all-day conference on October 2 at the City of New York Graduate Center in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar, the answer was clear: Any life.

       Women Writing Women's Lives is an ongoing independent discussion group of about seventy women journalists, independent writers, and academic scholars whose mission is to find "new ways of looking at and presenting women's stories" and ultimately influence the way those stories are perceived and written.  Read More 
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