How do you go about writing and publishing a biography when you’ve never done anything like that before?
I owe Biographers International Organization (BIO) a lot in getting me to the finish line of my newly published book. For years, biography was a neglected stepchild of the literary world. A mashup of history, literature, area studies and other disciplines. Most people had no idea how you went about writing one.
That’s changed dramatically since the founding of BIO, which grew out of a modest email newsletter in which prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris and others exchanged tips on the craft.
The group held its first conference ten years ago, around the time I started my project. I’ve attended a half a dozen BIO conferences since then, often in the company of colleagues in my longstanding Washington-area book-critique group. Our own little local group, which grew out of a workshop at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md., is amazing. We’re a group of eight, with nine published books of biography and memoir and several more in the works.
At the 2017 conference BIO gave me its Hazel Rowley Prize for best proposal for a first biography. It offered a huge shot of validation when I was having trouble finding an agent and publisher and needed the encouragement to keep going.
This year’s conference, held last weekend in New York, felt explosively energetic, with many attendees calling it the best BIO conference yet. Part of that came from a yearning for in-person reconnections after years of Covid restrictions. I was struck by all the new members I met. In perhaps its greatest virtue, BIO is a big tent organization that brings together biographers at all levels of interest and experience.
When Covid curtailed usual activities, BIO president Linda Leavell and her talented board members pivoted deftly to arrange a host of programs online. Most focused on issues of craft—the main reason many of us find BIO so useful. An all-day virtual “Biography Lab” in January 2023 attracted 160 registrants! It was pretty cool to see all those faces in a gallery view on Zoom, featuring people who tuned in from around the world.
Thanks to that accessibility, membership is soaring. Everyone expects even bigger things to come, after famed biographer Kitty Kelley—a stalwart member—announced a $1 million gift to BIO at this year’s conference following her rousing keynote address. Kelley has long been a major benefactor of the fellowships BIO awards to support research on biographies in progress.
This year’s program included rock star appearances by Beverly Gage, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her groundbreaking new biography G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, and Jennifer Homans, the author of Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century. BIO gave Homans its 2023 Plutarch Award for the best biography of 2022. The judges called it “a perfect model of seamless narrative integration of the life with the work.”
I arrived home from the conference both exhausted and energized. Here are some highlights: