Anyone writing life stories has a great resource in Biographers International Organization. The group began five years ago through the efforts of prize-winning author James McGrath Morris and others to provide collegiality and support in the often-long slog of writing biography.
I’ve attended three of BIO’s annual conferences. They seem to get better every year, and I got a lot from this year’s gathering, held in Boston in May. Three colleagues from my book-writing group in Washington also attended.
While in Boston I did some research at the Boston Public Library. Serendipitously, I found a letter that helped me resolve a major question about Eliza Scidmore‘s early travels in Japan in the 1880s.
Much to Ponder
It’s seldom that a conference program doesn’t have a couple of stinkers. But according to all accounts, this year’s lineup was outstanding. Some highlights for me:
I attended panels on writing about place, sustaining tension in biography, agents and editors, and finding the right balance in content.
- Paul Fisher, a Wellesley prof and expert on Henry James, offered thought-provoking points on different contexts of “place.” I found his comments intriguing because place is central in Eliza Scidmore’s story, given her extensive travels.
- Stacy Schiff, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cleopatra: A Life and other biographies, gave a luncheon address that left everyone stunned by her erudition.
- I enjoyed sitting at lunch with Justin Martin,whose biography of Frederick Law Olmsted I read after meeting Justin at the 2011 BIO conference in Washington. Justin has a new book coming out this fall, on Walt Whitman and his bohemian pals.
- I also enjoyed meeting, in the buffet line, William Souder. He wrote a definitive biography of Rachel Carson, On a Farther Shore, which I gave my husband, Bruce, for Christmas. Bruce grew up in the house next door to Carson, in Silver Spring, Md. He and his brother were photographed with her in the woods and appeared in Life magazine. Bill Souter knew the photo I meant.
As for that letter by Eliza Scidmore.
While doing research at the Boston Library, I found some records that answered a major discrepancy as to when Eliza Scidmore first went to Japan. The date matters a lot because it determines when she first saw cherry blossoms.
The surprise letter also turned out to be the earliest letter of Scidmore’s I found. So, double rewards.