Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Biographers Club in London

Reading INK can lead you down all sorts of roads.  
Marfé Ferguson Delano’s 2011 post  on Biographers International Organization (BIO)  led to my joining the group, and recently in London, took me to Mayfair and the Savile Club......
......for the February meeting of BIO’s UK counterpart, the Biographers Club
Helen Rappoport, British historian and biographer,  spoke on 'The Search for a Subject: New Ways of Looking at Old Stories.' Defining biography as “exploring human lives against a background of human events,” Rappaport presented a lively illustrated talk using her own and others’ works to present novel approaches to writing a life. Most of the following books are British, but are also published in the U.S.

Objects as a Way In
• Paula Byrne has put a new spin on an old subject in her new book, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, giving us Austen through everyday objects she lived with: a portrait, a shawl, a barouche (a sort of carriage.) These are the port-keys to personal, social, and even political history that impacted Austen’s life and work.
• The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal, tells his family’s history on two continents over a century, through the lens of their collection of netsuke, small Japanese carvings.

Begin the Story from a Different Perspective
• Rappaport’s No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War, reflects the author’s penchant to “look at the little people,” in this case, the soldiers’ wives who followed their men to war. She had to describe the war itself – the Big Event – in order to interest a publisher, but she told a new story within that context.

Create a Countdown
To create dramatic tension, structure a biography around a single day, week, month, or year and keep the calendar in focus as the climactic event approaches.
• Rappaport focused on two weeks for Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs, which ends with the murder of the Imperial Russian family.
• James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, recounts nearly daily happenings of that year. I jumped for joy when I discovered this book, just at the time I was writing All the World’s A Stage: A Novel in Five Acts, a middle grade novel about WS & Co., set in that very year.
• The Day Parliament Burned Down, by Caroline Shenton begins at 7am on October 17, 1834 and ends at 6am the following day. Not a biography as such, the book uses the dramatic device of a single day to present a wide picture of contemporary British politics and society.

Private Domestic Life
• In Lenin in Exile, Rappaport wanted to tell the story of the women who traipsed around Europe with Lenin as he plotted the Russian Revolution.  She knew that their stories alone wouldn’t sell the book, so she centered it around Lenin’s activities as she revealed the relationships with his wife, mother-in-law, mother, and mistress.
• Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, brings to light the Muse of her famous brother. True, it is Dorothy's relationship to a famous man that makes her story publishable, but it is a story worth telling.

True Thrillers and Crimes
• INK’s own Steve Sheinkin has unearthed some thrillers and true crimes to tickle our fancy.  His Bomb:The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, the cover of which is littered with well-deserved medals, is a group biography of scientists, spies, and scientist-spies. His latest, Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, promises just as many dastardly villains and cliff-hangers.
• Kate Summerscale's Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of the Victorian Lady, describes a divorce trial of an alleged adulteress. (I wonder if Simon and Garfunkel knew about this Mrs. Robinson.) Summerscale couches the scandal in a discussion of Victorian double standards and crackpot theories about women’s sexuality.

Bits and Bobs
Helen Rappaport ended with a quote from Hilary Mantel, double Booker Prize winner for her Thomas Cromwell novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.  I googled the quote and found a whole interview

Mantel says, “Nothing touches me so profoundly as the traces the dead have left; it’s an intellectual fascination but also an emotional pull….I actually like the constraints, enjoy solving the narrative problems that arise when you have strict guidelines of fact....You can’t change the facts of an incident, but you can change its whole feel and meaning by the angle from which you report it.”

Just days later the Guardian newspaper published The Art of Biography is Alive and Well . Press on INKsters!
The March Biographers Club meeting included a delicious lunch at another posh Mayfair venue, Corrigan’s. 
Neil McKenna spoke about his new book, Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England. Their “crime?” Cross-dressing, but since that wasn’t actually a crime, when they were arrested, the court dredged up the seamier sides of gay Victorian London that "outraged public decency and corrupted public morals." (Spoiler alert: they were acquitted.) 

McKenna sees his subject as larger than the “doom and gloom, crime and criminality” of gay history. He wants to reclaim and reveal the “joyous, happy, effervescent” gay subculture that often created “pretend family relationships” to support a group that was victimized by the establishment. 

This reminded me that however poor and/or oppressed a group may be, they find joy and love in the midst of hardship. In writing their stories, I want to balance their struggles with their comforts and pleasures.

Upcoming CCSS Workshop

The Children's Literature Council of Southern California is holding a workshop called "“Embracing Your Core: Libraries Literature, and the New Common Core State Standards" on May 11, from 9-12 in South Pasadena, California.  Speakers are Roger Sutton, Editor of Horn Book, and Kristin Fontichiaro of the University of Michigan. Click here for more information.

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