Criticism & Features


NBCC Biography Finalists in Conversation with New School MFA Students 2017


Thanks to the students and faculty of Creative Writing at The New School for providing interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016. Below are excerpts from interviews with the biography finalists. Click the links to read more. 

Joe Jackson

Black ElkSamantha Thomson LoCoco interviewed Joe Jackson about his book Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

In Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary, Joe Jackson extends the narrative of the Lakota holy man made famous by John G. Neihardt’s 1932 Black Elk Speaks. Picking up where Neihardt left off, Jackson illuminates for a new generation of readers the full and complex life of Black Elk.

Samantha Thomson LoCoco: One of the most difficult challenges for writers are often endings. Neihardt chose to end Black Elk Speaks when Black Elk was in his twenties, even though the holy man lived for decades longer. It feels fitting that your book ends with Black Elk’s son, Ben, the image of the next generation stating, “We are still here.” How did you decide on your ending?

Joe Jackson: I had originally thought of ending with my own visit to what was then Harney Peak, but when I discovered the story of Ben’s transmission on Telstar, I knew that was right. In many ways, this biography is a family tale, and Ben struggled to preserve Lakota ways as ardently as his father. When Ben’s words atop Rushmore were translated for me – “We are still here” – I knew that had to be the last line since, after all, endurance is the major theme of the book.

STL: You mention that the paperback reissue of Black Elk Speaks in 1961 happened during a time when there was a “rise of counterculture, ecological worries, and a new interest in Native Americans.” I can’t help but think your book arrives at a similar time in history where resistance arises in daily actions, and native lands are once again under political and physical attack. Do you see this biography as potentially having a similar impact?

JJ: It could, but let’s be truthful, one never knows how his or her book will be received, or even what buttons it will push after you hit the SEND button. I see Black Elk Speaks as an American classic, but I also knew that it only encompassed about one-third of Black Elk’s life. Most Native American histories end at Wounded Knee, but I wanted to go beyond that, and with Black Elk and his quest such a tale was possible.


Nigel Cliff

Moscow NightsNa Zhong interviewed Nigel Cliff about his book Moscow Nights (HarperCollins).

Nigel Cliff’s latest nonfiction, Moscow Nights, follows the life and career of a Texan piano prodigy, Van Cliburn, and recreates the turbulent Cold War period. In 1958, the twenty-three-year-old not only won the First International Tchaikovsky Competition held in the Soviet Union but also captivated the hearts of countless Russians and Americans. For a time, it seemed his talents, genuine love for the Russian culture, and his affable demeanor would help to bridge the divide between the two hostile powers. In turn, as the Cold War carried on, the role of a cultural emissary Van assumed left an indelible mark on his life and career. Days before the National Book Critics Circle’s award ceremony, I had the great pleasure to speak with Mr. Cliff on the phone.

To watch Van’s performance, please click here.

Na Zhong: You mention in the Acknowledgements that you decided to write about Van Cliburn after you read about his death. What makes you want to write about him?

Nigel Cliff: Funny enough, I was actually looking at the Cold War and music independently, not expecting them to come together. And I read his story, the two things just lapped into each other, and I thought I had to do this story. It has everything you want: small events in the heart of a global conflict, and this young man who had decided what he was going to do with this incredible fame that was suddenly bestowed on him.

I think all my books seem to have something in common. They’re about individuals thrown into the center of world events, who haven’t tried or expected or necessarily even wanted to be in that position. My last original book was about Vasco da Gama. He was a captain who was doing his duty; he wasn’t out to change the world.

And it is the same with Van. He was an ordinary kid who had extraordinary talent. He was modest, humble, unassuming, a little bit lazy, not terribly driven in some ways, who suddenly found himself catapulted overnight to world fame. Plus I do love writing about the connections between cultural episodes and the wider world around them.


Michael Tisserand

KraxyBeatrice Helman interviewed Michael Tisserand about his book Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White (Harper Collins).

Beatrice Helman: I’ve read that you spent about eight years writing this incredible biographical work. My first question is, why? What brought you to George Herriman?

Michael Tisserand: I loved old newspaper comics as a child, ever since I discovered them at the Willard Library in Evansville, Indiana, in the beloved Dewey Decimal 741.59 shelf. After the 2005 flood of New Orleans, where I’d gone on to live most of my adult life, I found myself in Chicago and was fortunate to see the Masters of American Comics exhibit when it came to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Walking through a room of Herriman originals and reading them aloud to my young son, I realized I wanted to know much more about Herriman. And Katrina left me with a greater sense of urgency to tell New Orleans stories – a feeling that hasn’t left me. The more deeply I read Herriman’s comics, especially Krazy Kat, the more I realized that I wanted to spend a lot more time with him and his work.

BH: Were you starting from scratch, in terms of comic book knowledge? Was there ever a moment when you thought to yourself, I don’t know where to go next? Or, I might have to give up? Were there any moments that pushed the narrative along, propelling you forward?

MT: I had read Krazy Kat and was generally a fan of comics. As a child I was fairly obsessed with Peanuts. When I worked as editor at Gambit Weekly in New Orleans, I made it my little mission to bring as much comics into the paper as I could get away with. With Herriman, I knew that much of his life was misunderstood or misreported, right down to his own fantastic tales of his early life. So I just started contacting the people who knew the most about him, including his surviving family, the descendants of his old friends, and others who had written about him. Fortunately, everyone was very willing – even eager – to work with me to tell this story.


Frances Wilson

Guilty ThingChelsea Wolf interviewed Frances Wilson about her book Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Chelsea Wolf: Thomas De Quincey is such a fascinating man and I’m embarrassed to say that I had little knowledge of him before reading your biography. How did you first find out about De Quincy? And going off of that question, when did you decide to write a biography on him?

Frances Wilson: I first became aware of De Quincey when, as a child, I visited Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s former home in Grasmere where De Quincey lived for twenty years after Wordsworth moved out in 1807. Dove Cottage is a natural shrine to Wordsworth, but there is a single portrait of De Quincey on a wall. I always wondered about this other mysterious occupant, and what his story was.

CW: “Guilty Thing” was chock full of facts. It was both impressive and intimidating. What was your research process like? What challenges did you face while researching/writing “Guilty Thing,” if any?

FW: I made endless charts of dates in order to ensure that everything was happening at the right time! But apart from that, I have always felt at ease in the Romantic period; I think it comes from reading Jane Austen as a child. To my shame, I know far more about the politics and literature of the early nineteenth century than I do about our own age. The real challenge lay writing about an opium addict when I have never taken opium, but I realised that if I did, for research purposes, smoke opium the experience of a single trip would tell me nothing about the illness of addiction. What helped, in a dark way, was my daughter being admitted to an addiction clinic during the final stages of writing the book. It was then that I started to get a handle on what addiction was like for the addict.