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A Biographer On Reading Biographies

As an author of award-winning biographies, I take my craft seriously, and I am fairly critical when I read those written by other people. I recently read three totally different biographies. These particular subjects may or may not appeal to you for summer reading, but you can apply the same principles when choosing subjects of your choice and selecting your biographies this summer. These books all receive my biographer’s nod for excellence.

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Cecil Smith: Mr. Polo, by Blair Calvert (1990) — This book is a must read for the student and fan of the history of polo in the United States of America. Smith was considered by many to be the best American polo player of all time. He carried a maximum ten goal handicap for a record twenty-five years. The apex of his career was early on during an East-West tournament in 1933, when Smith led the West team to show the East that they were not the only show in town. Humorist Will Rogers reported that polo had moved from the board room to the bunkhouse when the cowboys beat the east coast dudes. Publication of the book was a little rough as were some of the subject transitions, and I would have enjoyed more coverage of the later years in Smith’s career with the progression of the sport’s history. However, this biography serves the supreme purpose of saving an important and impressive life story of a true sports hero.

Eminent Hipsters, by Donal Fagen (2013) — Although this does not qualify as a biography in the true format sense, it contains autobiographical material by Steely Dan (rock band) front man and philosopher, Donald Fagen. The first half of the book shares remembrances from Fagen’s formative years with descriptions of the artists who influenced him and his work, from jazz greats to Tina Turner. The second half of the book is a diary of criss-crossing the country on the road in 2012 in claustrophobic tour buses with the “Dukes of September”, which included Michael McDonald and Bozz Scaggs. This was a decidedly lower budget style of travel than he was accustomed to with Steely Dan, and cause for recurring anxiety, from which he suffers. It was enlightening to learn what feeds the craft of this talented musician, and his viewpoint as he produced his tunes for the entertainment of rooms full of a combination of aging rockers, and those he calls “TV Babies,” who have no clue about good music and quality production. I was drawn in and understood Fagen’s outlook and frustration of dealing with everyday challenges while attempting to maintain the quality and art in his music. I enjoyed it thoroughly because Fagen approached it as a serious think piece rather than a self-indulgent tell-all gossip fest.

Stan Musial – An American Life, by George Vecsey (2011) — I kicked myself for not purchasing this book when I saw it while I was walking through the St. Louis airport, so I ordered a copy from home. I was a steadfast fan of “Stan the Man” while growing up in Illinois. I had read a fairly dry biography of his life in the 1960s. This one was a modern take on Musial’s life and times and brilliant baseball career. It took me back to good times, lurking in the parking lot at Busch Stadium with my dad, waiting for Stanley and his pal Red Schoendienst to appear from the locker room chatting away about the game, yet always ready to stop and sign an autograph. I also enjoyed reading about the struggles of a man as talented as Musial as he worked his way to the top in major league baseball, worked hard to stay there, and to maintain his character as a really good guy. He wasn’t a saint but dealt gracefully with pressure from public expectations. He worked hard and kept his character, and all that was important to him, close to his heart. I came away admiring him more than ever, for his foibles as well as his obvious assets. This is a top-notch biography. I don’t say this often, but I could not have done a better job than Vecsey of writing this important biography about my first true hero, Stan “The Man” Musial.

Biographies not only preserve details of the lives of their subjects, but give us real insights into the history and times in which they lived. Read biographies, read them often, and choose your biographer with care. A good biographer will either peel away the sludge, or else identify it for readers, so they know what is real and what is pure fabrication. You can find plenty of that in fiction.

Happy reading, Joyce B. Lohse
http://www.LohseWorks.com

 

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An Interview Revisited

Durango

Joyce in Durango, Colorado

This week, Wyoming Author Jean Henry Mead
revisited her 2011 interview with Joyce B. Lohse.
Jean’s interview is shared here for the first time.
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Joyce Lohse is an award-winning biographer and journalist, who accepted induction in the Colorado Women Hall of Fame for Eliza Routt, the subject of one of her biographies. Since 2002, she has worked as administrator for Women Writing the West.

Joyce, your books have won quite a few awards, which tells me that you spend a lot of time in research and writing. Which book was the most difficult to write and which did you enjoy most?

Each book has its own set of advantages and challenges. My shortest book, Justina Ford: Medical Pioneer, the first title in the “Now You Know Bio” series from Filter Press, was most difficult to write. Although Dr. Ford was a wonderful character, research material contemporary to her lifetime was scarce. Fortunately, she received recognition and was interviewed toward the end of her life. Through those precious retrospective articles, I was able to find her voice, and learn about her experiences, obstacles, and personality.

First Governor, First Lady: John and Eliza Routt of Colorado, is a personal favorite. For years, I was a journalistic drifter, unsure how and where to apply my writing skills. Through genealogy research of my ancestral cousin, Eliza Pickrell Routt, I found my niche in the world of biographies. Extensive research of the Routt’s lives and characters took about five years. That project also helped develop my knowledge and love of Colorado history. In 2008, I attained and accepted induction in the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame for Eliza Routt. It was an accomplishment to speak on her behalf, and share her story with an audience of 750+ people.

Tell us about your journalism background. When did you begin writing?

I wrote stories and learned the power of the pen at an early age. A poem I wrote about my father riding the commuter train to Chicago each day was published in the local newspaper. Readers loved it. Soon, I was editor of the junior high newspaper, and was forevermore hooked on writing.

Later, at Northern Illinois University, I received a rock solid, old-school journalism education, producing stories with yellow second sheets on a manual typewriter. My specialties were feature writing and photojournalism. I especially enjoyed writing profiles about people and their lives.

For whom do you write?

I write for “all ages.” My titles for the “Now You Know Bios” series from Filter Press, an independent commercial publisher in Palmer Lake, Colorado, makes them accessible to many readers. My simple and direct journalistic style lends itself to a wide reading audience. However, I need to restrain myself from getting carried away. For instance, I acquired enough material about General William Palmer and Baby Doe Tabor to write two or three bios.  Although it was a sad and painful process to remove half of my work from the Palmer manuscript, the book has done well. It received the 2010 Best YA Nonfiction Award from the Colorado Author’s League.

What sparks your interest in people that determines whether you write about them?

I enjoy writing about pioneers. It is extremely important that the stories of early pathfinders are shared and preserved in western history. Women’s history is especially important and appealing to me, although I do not wish to be pegged as only a women’s writer, or a feminist. For that reason, I also write about men. I choose all my subjects carefully. More accurately, they choose me. When good stories make themselves available or known to me, I am naturally compelled to share and preserve them through biographies.

What does membership in Women Writing the West mean to you?

Women Writing the West has a hugely positive impact on my writing. When I joined the group, I had one self-published book to my credit. My seventh book has since been published by Filter Press. WWW provides innumerable ideas, education, inspiration, and networking opportunities, as well as role models, friendships, and adventures in an otherwise isolated occupation. I am so fortunate to be part of a sharing community of talented western writers.

How would you spend your time, if not a writer?

My work has always revolved around publishing and administrative skills. For fifteen years, I was a self-employed typographer and pre-press graphic artist. I have worked in sidelines of writing, research, and publishing, but never far from it. Jaunts and outings with friends have a way of turning into research and photo excursions, often to historic settings, and always great fun.

What do you enjoy most about writing and what annoys you?

Research is the most enjoyable part of writing. Finding nuggets hiding in archives, or even in plain view, then implementing them into a story makes my spirit soar. Recently, I enjoyed experimenting with recipes from Baby Doe Tabor’s cookbook. It provided a strong connection with her for my book, Baby Doe Tabor: Matchless Silver Queen.  Also, nothing beats the euphoric feeling, or “writer’s rush,” of finding long sought-after or missing research elements, or finishing the last sentence in the last paragraph of a manuscript after months of hard work.

The worst part is when I prepare my tax return and realize my income is rather paltry. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”  As my publisher would say, “The intangibles, experiences associated with writing, are priceless.” In my opinion, writing is the best job in the world.

Why should the younger generation be interested in our Western heritage?

The American West was built and expanded from the collective courage, hard work, and independent spirits of pioneers, immigrants, and Native Americans. Through biographies, we learn about their accomplishments and successes, as well as mistakes, hardships, and tragedies, which all combined to create Western life and culture. To this day, people in the West maintain a strong pride and independence, which evolved from its pioneering past.

Advice to fledgling Western writers?

Maintain a high ethical standard. Do not cut corners. Respect and protect research materials, and choose sources carefully. Do all you can to locate, interpret, and preserve the truth. Be professional. Mistakes are inevitable. Own up to them, and move on. If you honestly feel you have done your best possible job, then you have.

Thank you, Joyce, for taking part in this series.

Joyce’s website: www.LohseWorks.com

Jean Henry Mead’s web site: http://writersofthewest.blogspot.com/

 

 
2 Comments

Posted by on June 4, 2013 in Western Travel, Writing Life

 

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Old Faces and New Places

Shrine of the Sun

Shrine of the Sun

In the early stages of writing a biography, ideas sometimes percolate on the back burner and germinate slowly through the seasons. Ideas grow as the creative cells divide. Sometimes I find myself in a locale that calls to me while I decide my next move. Usually, the place I seek is a cemetery. When I see the final destination of a person’s journey, I can visualize and speculate about the life which brought them there. Sometimes, I find inspiration, a hint of what brought them to this spot, or a familiar and surprising landmark when paths intersect.

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View of the Eastern Plains from the Shrine

This past week, I drove an hour south of Denver to my former home, Colorado Springs, for a book launch. Pikes Peak Library District published another fine compilation, Doctors, Disease and Dying in the Pikes Peak Region, which included my chapter about Dr. Justina Ford. Before the event, I visited the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun, high above Colorado Springs and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. On a crisp, clear fall day, the view was expansive, dizzying and breathtaking. I had the place to myself.

Mural at shrine

Familiar history through art at Shrine of the Sun

I was thrilled and watchful as I climbed the narrow staircase of cool stone outside the majestic tower made entirely of rock and mortar, except for the metal of the inside staircase, rails, and doors. In the entrance, I spied a familiar face. Was that General William Palmer on that painted mural, welcoming travelers on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad? I was back home now, on familiar turf, encountering an old friend from Colorado history. Was the clanking sound I heard above an uneasy spirit, or another pilgrim in this fortress? No, it was just a flagpole rope, caught by the wind, batting the metal flagpole. Perhaps the sound was demanding my attention, urging me forward.

This grand and glorious place, created by Builder of the West, Spencer Penrose, was built as a shrine to his entertainer and philosopher pal, Will Rogers, after his death in a 1935 airplane crash. The shrine also contains a chapel where the Penrose’s cremains were buried later. This enchanting haven could definitely qualify as the starting point for a new story and writing adventure.

Joyce Lohse
http://www.LohseWorks.com

 

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Moving Forward on Thanksgiving

If Thanksgiving is upon us, it must be time for CAL – the Colorado Association of Librarians Conference. Every year, publisher Filter Press hosts a booth for this event in Denver, allowing the authors to meet and greet librarians, teachers and readers. It is always illuminating, and a mixed bag of good news and bad news comments. The bad news is predictable … more book buying budget cuts, more social studies programs slashed, more demand for books about speicalized topics way down on the priority scale.

The good news is encouraging and will keep us going. As more people learn about our “Now You Know Bio” series, they find more ways to integrate them into their programs, and more people read them. They recognize the quality of the biographies and the research which has gone into each one. They love the topics we’ve chosen, and enthusiastically look forward to the newest arrivals.

I’m thankful for what we have, and I embrace the challenge of moving forward to produce more pioneer stories which appeal to young readers and history buffs of all ages. I appreciate Filter Press, who believes in my work and publishes it, giving me a voice, and for the encouragement and support of my colleagues there, and in Women Writing the West. I am honored to apply my writing skills to preserve history, and to give a voice to women who were formerly silent and consequently overlooked. Many of their stories have emerged and can now be celebrated, either as individuals or in conjunction with their pioneering partner.

John and Eliza Routt (rhymes with “scout”) provide a great partnership story. My award-winning book, First Governor, First Lady: John and Eliza Routt of Colorado, published by Filter Press, is a duo-biography about the life and work of the Routts as Western pioneers. I was fortunate to revisit their story and share it in an article for the current holiday issue of Steamboat Magazine. To read a condensed version of the article, go to: http://www.steamboatmagazine.com/articles/255.php

Happy Thanksgiving!
Joyce Lohse – 11/23/09
for more information about Now You Know Bios:
http://www.lohseworks.com
http://www.filterpressbooks.com

 
2 Comments

Posted by on November 23, 2009 in Western history

 

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