What do a bunch of biographers talk about when they get together? I found out last month when the Biographers International Organization--aka BIO, of course--held its second annual conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. On its website, BIO is described as "the first-ever international organization to represent the everyday interests of practicing biographers: those who’ve published the stories of real lives, and those working on biographies – in every medium, from print to film." My friend Catherine Reef, author of the wonderful Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, had invited me to be on a panel with her about writing biographies for young adults. Mary Bowman-Kruhm, author of The Leakeys: A Biography, completed our trio.
About 30 people showed up for our presentation, a pretty good turnout. (I always like it when the audience outnumbers the panelists.) They were a serious, note-taking bunch, which unnerved me a little until I told myself to think of them as 10-year-olds, my favorite audience. When I shared that with them, most of them smiled. "But I'm not talking down to you," I said, and then commented that good nonfiction books for children don't talk down to readers, either.
Later that day, while I was waiting in line for the restroom, a woman noticed my panelist badge and asked which panel I was on. "Oh, my friend went to that one and told me it was really interesting," she said. Just as I was beginning to preen, she added, "My friend said that writing for kids sounds so much easier than writing for adults that she wants to give it a try." Oh really? I started to bristle, then relaxed. One of our jobs as nonfiction writers for kids is to make complex subjects understandable. Obviously my co-panelists and I had succeeded in making our craft seem accessible. I smiled as sweetly as I could and said her friend should definitely give it a try. And I meant it. Let her learn how easy it is to paint a rich portrait of a human life in only 20,000 words, or in the case of my books, a mere 8,000. Heck, let her try writing a picture book biography!
To be fair, I don't think the woman in line with me was trying to sound condescending. And most of the other biographers I met were intrigued and genuinely interested in my work when I told them I write for children. It was a terrific conference, and I only wish I had had the opportunity to attend more workshops. Among the offerings: Dealing with Black Holes in Your Subject's Life; The Role for Fiction in Biography; How to Organize Your Research; Can I Quote That? Dealing with Copyright, Fair Use, Permission; The Art of Interviewing; Using Technology in Research; and Turning Research into Narrative. The keynote speaker at the luncheon was Robert Caro, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for biography, who spoke about the power of place in biography.
The 2012 BIO conference will be in Los Angeles. Think about it. And in the meantime I'll leave you with these words from Cathy Reef's excellent talk: "A biography written at any level is so much more than a collection of facts about an individual. It is a work of literature, a portrait in words."