Last weekend, I had the happy opportunity to spend a few hours at the fourth annual “Compleat Biographer Conference” organized by the smart and intrepid folks behind Biographers International Organization (BIO), “the only organization of its kind, completely devoted to all aspects of the art and craft of biography.” The conference migrates. This year, it took place here in New York City; when I was offered the chance to visit, I snapped up the opportunity.
As a child, I was blessed with an early love for reading that was sustained, in part, by feeding a hearty appetite for biographies. I gobbled up the standard early-elementary introductions to Abraham Lincoln and other stalwarts, but I also read (and reread) a collection of profiles of other (albeit less) famous Americans published by Highlights. I was also an avid consumer of the Scholastic Book Club titles, and I remember in particular one book, They Led the Way: 14 American Women, which I encountered just a few years after its 1973 publication.
So maybe it’s not all that surprising that some of my earliest freelancing assignments were biographical profiles for encyclopedias. Or that my first idea for a history dissertation topic was a biography, of a French author and activist named Suzanne Prou (here’s the New York Times obituary that inspired my interest). My dissertation ended up taking a different direction, but I’m still drawn to biographies as a reader. (Most recently, I’ve read Jonathan Kirsch’s new biography of “boy avenger” Herschel Grynszpan, and I’ve just published a Q&A with the author on my other blog.) I continue to look for and file away possible subject ideas for my own writing purposes.
All of which is to explain why I’ve followed the development of BIO (I wrote a brief profile of the organization for The Writer magazine some years ago), and why I was so pleased to visit the conference. If I ever do plunge more bravely into the waters of biography-writing, I’ll definitely depend on BIO for guidance.