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International Biographers’ Conference Coming to Emerson

Next weekend, Pulitzer Prize winners, academics, and people eager to spend the better part of a decade researching someone else’s life will gather at Emerson when the College hosts the 2017 BIO Conference.

Now in its eighth year, The BIO (Biographers International Organization) Conference, being held May 19–21, is an opportunity for biographers at all levels of their careers to come together, learn from each other, and network.

One Pulitzer-winning biographer who will be speaking at the conference is Emerson Professor Megan Marshall, who won the prize for her Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, and whose Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast was just released to wide acclaim.

“Boston is just an ideal place to do this, and we’re all incredibly grateful to Emerson and the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department, specifically, [for hosting],” said Marshall, who serves on BIO’s Advisory Council and helped facilitate bringing the conference to campus.

“This is a great thing for Emerson to be supporting,” she said.

The conference attracts established biographers, who use the time to get together with colleagues, as well as newcomers to the field, who are able to learn “how it’s done”—a valuable opportunity since time-intensive and research-heavy biography is rarely taught in writing programs, Marshall said.

On Saturday morning, Marshall will speak on “Women in Love,” along with award-winning biographers Ruth Franklin, who wrote Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, and Charlotte Gordon, author of Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. The panel, which will explore “how their subjects’ romantic attachments enabled and hindered their lives and work—and how and how much the biographer should focus on them,” will be moderated by Hannah Arendt and Ayn Rand biographer Anne Heller.

Marshall said she started writing biographies in the 1980s, a kind of “golden era of women’s biography,” which she now feels we’ve returned to.

“In the ’80s, as the women’s movement kind of flowered, there was this look to history and retrieving and reviving women’s lives and asserting that women’s lives were just as interesting even if this person wasn’t president,” Marshall said.

With Hillary Clinton’s loss of the 2016 election, and with it the denial (or delay) of our first woman president, there has been a renewed interest in women and their role in history, she said.

Women’s stories allow us to “look at different kinds of courage and try to understand better how we got to where we are,” Marshall said.

“But I think biography was one of the first forms of storytelling there was,” she added. “And learning from exemplary lives or from the lives of people who went astray, it’s just human nature.”

Emerson Associate Professor of Journalism Tim Riley, author of Lennon: Man, Myth, Music, will speak on the panel “The Challenges of Writing About the Known” on writing about extremely famous or well-trodden subjects. That afternoon, affiliated WLP faculty member and literary publicist Lissa Warren joins a panel on “The Birth of a Biography.”

Candice Millard, bestselling biographer of Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, will give the keynote address, and BIO will give out this year’s Plutarch Prize, the only award for a biography given by biographers.

A few years ago, Holly Van Leuven ’12 was the first recipient of BIO’s Hazel Rowley Prize, awarded for the best book proposal by a first-time writer.

She had already started work on her biography of Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, but the vote of confidence, and the material benefits of the prize (money, access to an agent) “came at the right moment and sort of propelled things along,” she said.

Now six years into the process and in the home stretch, Van Leuven said while she won’t be able to attend this year’s conference at her alma mater, she highly recommends it to anyone just starting out in biography, or even just contemplating it.

She said in past years she’s found herself at a table sandwiched between someone who’s written about Jesus Christ and the author of a book about Kurt Cobain. And biographers are very good at trivia, she said.

“Just go be exposed,” Van Leuven said. “There [are] wonderful writers there. It’s a very unusual organization, in that you can be brand new to the genre, as I was, and you still find yourself talking to a Pulitzer Prize winner.

“I think the process of writing is so isolating; having any camaraderie like that is definitely worthwhile,” she said.

For more information, visit the BIO Conference website.

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