Category Archives: Writing: Craft & Community

My Book Proposal on Eliza Scidmore Wins Biography Prize

In Boston with Gayle Feldman, awards committee chairman, who presented me with BIO’s Hazel Rowley Award for my book proposal for a biography of Eliza Scidmore (Photo: James McGrath Morris)

My book project on Eliza Scidmore was awarded the 2017 Hazel Rowley Prize, given by the International Biographers Organization (BIO) for the best proposal for a first biography. I received the award May 20 at BIO’s conference in Boston.

BIO was born around the time I started my book project, and the organization has been a terrific resource for a novice biographer like me. The members, ranging from Pulitzer Prize winners to beginners, offer a wonderfully democratic network of encouragement and support.

The prize is named in memory of Hazel Rowley (1951-2011), born in London, educated in England and Australia, and a long-time resident of the United States.

Hazel Rowley was an enthusiast of BIO from its inception, understanding the need for biographers to help each other.

Before her untimely death, she wrote four distinguished books: Christina Stead: A Biography, a New York Times “Notable Book”; Richard Wright: The Life and Times, a Washington Post “Best Book”; Tȇte-à-Tȇte: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, translated into 12 languages; and Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, an NPR pick.

 

 

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Filed under Biography, Books, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Women's History, Writing: Craft & Community

Robert Caro and a Sense of Place in Biography

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Robert Caro at 2011 BIO conference in Washington

I’m grateful to Steve Weinberg, a journalist and biographer (and one of my former journalism school profs at the U. of Missouri), for flagging this article in The Daily Beast. It describes the evolution of legendary biographer Robert Caro’s first book: ‘The Power Broker’ Turns 40: How Robert Caro Wrote a Masterpiece.

The book is huge—1,200 pages. Intimidating. But based on this article, I’m inspired to track it down and study Caro’s style.

Caro’s keynote speech on the craft of biography impressed me at a Biographers International Organization conference in Washington a few years ago. He talked about the importance of place and setting.

[I]f the place, the setting, played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character  …

The message resonated with me because I’ve focused a lot on conveying a sense of place in my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

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A Home in Santa Fe

“My” casita in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Time was my Valentine this year. Long blocks of uninterrupted time.

I’m just back from three blissful weeks of solitude and seclusion in a cozy casita in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside Santa Fe, where I worked on my book about Eliza Scidmore.

Amid the desolation of winter in the East I came home recharged. And with some new ideas and answers to many questions I’d had about the daunting endeavor of writing a biography for the first time.

After a dinner party where I read an excerpt from my book for a select group of Santa Fe’s literati, Jamie offered good feedback.

I’m grateful to the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris and his wife, Patty, for sponsoring the residency through a Mayborn Fellowship in Biography.

Over dinner and stimulating conversation every evening, I discovered they’re both exceptional people — warm, generous, nurturing and neighborly. I like and admire them both a lot. I also learned Jamie is a terrific cook! (Can’t wait to make his yummy spinach-feta pie recipe.)

My desk in the casita faced a picture window that opened onto the landscape. During long stretches of writing, revision and cogitation, I watched fresh snowfall and a freakish hailstorm; listened to the comical stomping of ravens across the roof; built robust fires in my kiva fireplace. I took afternoon walks along mountain ridges and fell asleep to the moaning of coyotes in the arroyos.

Me in Santa Fe on Canyon Road (Photo: Tom Stephens)

I also made regular forays into town, where I hung out with Tom and Carol Stephens. They’ve been dear friends since Bruce and I came to know them a decade ago when we all lived in Jakarta. They recently retired in Santa Fe after spending 34 years overseas with USAID.

Santa Fe is celebrated for its many great restaurants, and I enjoyed a few with Tom and Carol. We also visited some museums and did a lot of walking.

I didn’t know Santa Fe, and it came as quite a surprise to me to discover what a vibrant literary town it is. It has scores of writers— and 16 independent bookstores!

 

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Mayborn Fellowship in Biography

An exciting development to report: Last month at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Texas I was awarded this year’s Mayborn Fellowship in Biography. It provides an “emerging biographer” with writing time during a short-term residency in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, north of Santa Fe, N.M. I’ll be working on my biography of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore.

James McGrath Morris (Photo: Michael Mudd)

What excites me most is that the fellowship includes mentoring by the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris. Besides this fellowship he inaugurated a program at Mayborn to coach high schools students in the skills of writing biography. Read Jamie’s delightful account of how, for his monumental biography on the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, he tracked down a long-lost diary of Pulitzer’s brother, Albert, then flew off to Paris to meet with Albert’s 85-year-old granddaughter Muriel,  a sculptor with a rooftop atelier at Saint-Sulpice church.

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New Mercury Readings in Baltimore

Last Saturday night I was one of four nonfiction writers who read at the Windup Space in Baltimore as part of the monthly New Mercury Readings series. Many thanks to Deborah Rudacille and John Barry for inviting me. I read from my book in progress on Eliza Scidmore, describing some scenes from her 1883 journey aboard the steamship Idaho when it visited Glacier Bay. I find it’s always helpful reading aloud to hear the rhythm and storytelling qualities of a piece of writing.  

Getting there turned out to be a frantic experience after the area’s intense storm Friday. I was working on my piece at 10:30 Friday night when we lost all power. Fortunately, I had plenty of draft printouts so I was able to cobble together some text. But when my husband and I got ready to leave for Baltimore on Saturday afternoon I realized I didn’t have the address or even the name of the location — it was all in my computer! My friend Kathy Stoner saved the day by using her ingenuity to call her mother in Pittsburgh, who found the details online.

A pleasant surprise: A fellow reader that evening was Sue Eisenfeld, a talented writer and essayist who’s work has been widely published. She’s also a terrific teacher, as I can attest after taking an essay-writing workshop with her at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md. Plus, we found out we’re practically neighbors in Northern Virginia.

 

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Some Great Teachers–and Writers

Writing is never easy, and the long-haul process of writing a book — especially if it’s your first — can feel overwhelming at times. When I started thinking about a book on Eliza Scidmore, I decided to do what I’ve always done when there’s something I’m not sure I can easily figure out on my own: take a class. I feel fortunate to live in Washington with access to so many great literary resources.

Here’s my shout-out to a few people I’m especially grateful to for their help as I try my wings in a new genre. Continue reading

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Eliza Scidmore’s American Fan Club

I’m not the only one with a fixation on Eliza Scidmore. After I began researching her I met two other women equally fascinated by her remarkable life. Washington writer Ann McClellan learned a lot about Eliza while writing The Cherry Blossom Festival, published in 2005 as a souvenir book for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Hearing about my project, a colleague in the Women’s History Discussion Group at the Library of Congress put me in touch with Ann, a friend of hers. Then earlier this year I met Andrea Zimmerman, soon after the launch of her children’s book Eliza’s Cherry Trees. We all agreed: Eliza was quite a gal. Continue reading

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