Biographers, From Superstar to Novice, Gather in New York

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.

BIO conference 2014 in Boston

At the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, with Washington writing group colleagues, from left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.

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.

Growing Stronger

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 Balanchines 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:

Hanging with colleagues, from left, me, Beverly Gray from Los Angeles and fellow Washington-area residents and writers Laura Kaiser and Jennifer Cockburn. We enjoyed a lovely “springtime in New York” evening dining al fresco at Bryant Park, behind the legendary New York Public Library.


Molly Peacock and Diana Parsell

I was thrilled to meet poet and author Molly Peacock. I’m a big fan of her beautiful biography The Paper Garden, on an elderly widow in 18th-century England who created a new art form with her exquisite mixed-media flower collages. I also loved Molly’s memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece. (With her eye for all things artful, she admired my embroidered T-shirt.)


Morgan Voeltz and Diana Parsell

It felt like old-home week running into Morgan Voeltz Swanson. We both studied nonfiction writing in Johns Hopkins University’s Washington program and she later succeeded me as the recipient of a Mayborn Fellowship in Biography.


Stephanie Gorton and Diana Parsell

I presented a Sunday morning craft workshop on manuscript structure and revision, and thought a face in the group looked strangely familiar. It turned out to be Stephanie Gorton, whom I “met” through her author pic in Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell and the Magazine That Rewrote America. I read it for research and have a copy on the bookshelves in my home office.


Kitty Kelley and Diana Parsell at 2023 BIO conference

A legacy photo for my literary scrapbook (if I kept one). I have followed the groundbreaking biographical work–and related legal travails–of the indomitable Kitty Kelley since our paths first intersected in D.C. decades ago, including as co-founding writers and editors of the online Washington Independent Review of Books in 2011.


Alec Pollak and Diana Parsell at 2023 BIO conference

A moment of coming full circle, when I met Alec Pollak, 2023 winner of BIO’s ninth Hazel Rowley Prize for the best proposal for a first-time biography. Alec is working on a book about the American writer and feminist Joanna Russ, who authored a number of works of science fiction.

Share This


  1. Debra Kurtz on May 27, 2023 at 12:03 pm

    Wonderful reading! I am so proud to be related.

  2. Patricia Meisol on June 6, 2023 at 1:41 pm

    Great summary! Glad to meet you!

    • Diana Parsell on June 6, 2023 at 9:08 pm

      Patricia. Loved our meetup and dinner in NYC. Exciting to hear about your own forthcoming book, and will keep my eye out for it.

Leave a Comment