Friday, May 27, 2011

KC's Corner: KC at the Compleat Biographer's Conference

by Kelley Coyner (who's an FPP regular. She writes about nonfiction).

The ride up the elevator to the National Press Club was my last quiet moment at the recent Second Annual Compleat Biographer's Conference hosted by BIO: the Biographers International Organization. From the registration desk forward the whole conference buzzed with energizing exchanges in the panel sessions and in the halls, over book signings, at lunch, and in the First Amendment Lounge and the elevator down. The 200 participants including many TWC members were almost all biographers. These participants include practicing biographers have published and those who working on biographies – in every medium, from print to film. The mix of practicing biographers than 60 presenters resulted in a concentrated day of learning about the art and ethics of writing biography, tools to sustain writers, and technology for research and promotion of books and authors. (The presenter included practicing biographers, book reviewers and editors, publishers, agents, documentarians, an NPR station president, and foundation directors.

At first, I felt like a pretender. The standard conversation opener was “what is your project?” I would answer somewhat tentatively, “I am not a biographer, but a blogger.” Soon I found a toehold and felt like we were holding impromptu workshops on blogging in the halls, while we waited for a session to begin and over lunch. Why should biographers? What should they post about? How should they organize their blog? How can a biographer build an audience for their blog? Should biographers post as guests on other blogs. (Answer: Clearly yes and would you like to do a guest post on First Person Plural.)

There were four flights of panels each with four workshops held from morning to late afternoon. I attended four sessions plus a presentation by Robert Caro, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Baines Johnson. Caro focused on how he learned about his a subject’s by gaining a sense of places that person lived and worked. In particular, Caro told how he walked and rewalked LBJ’s path to his Capitol Hill office from his boarding house by Union Station trying to gain an understanding of why the then young hill staffer ran the last leg of his daily commute. The cold of winter was not an adequate explanation; LBJ ran it every day. Finally he made the walk at sunrise when LBJ would have made the walk. And then he saw how the marble of the Capitol’s fa├žade beamed like gold in the reflected light. Andrea Pitzer Neiman Story Board captures Caro’s remarks more fully in her post The Power of Place on the Neiman Story Board.

I attended four sessions: Book Reviewers Address Biography, Writing for Young Adults; The Art of Interviewing; and Funding Your Work. The rooms were a neutral press room blue--- but the writers presenting gave a strong sense. Expect to see more on these sessions including a report on the bird’s eye view into the “bookroom” at the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post and the Washington Independent Review of Books (not only do they publish online they only read electronic galleys). The next KC’s Corner will highlight funding opportunities for nonfiction writers including biographers. (Be sure to send any suggestions or questions you have on that topic.)

By the way, I did not participate in speed dating with literary agents. I also had to exit before the interview and reception with Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra.

Past, present and future for the Compleat Biographer Conference. BIO held its first conference at University of Massachetts. If you want to attend that conference virtually, tune into the videos on the BIO website. James McGrath Morris promised that a recording of Robert Caro’s presentation and video consolidating clips from the conference will soon be available.

Next year in in Los Angeles! For more information participating in BIOs conference on the West Coast in 2012, James McGrath Morris, who in addition to serving as the executive director of BIO is also author of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power.

In the meantime, I have some writers I need to follow up with on guest blogging on FFP. If you would like to do a guest blog on biography or another nonfiction topic let me know. I am particularly interested in flash interviews of TWC members. Post a comment here or drop me at note at coyner.kelley at

1 comment:

Pat McNees ( said...

Liked the way you caught the atmosphere for a first-time conference attendee. I've posted a link to your blog entry and to a couple others here:
on my Writers & Editors website