Kate’s Book Club: Q&A with phenom nonfiction author Kate Buford

Kate Buford, Native American SonBy Kate E. Stephenson

Welcome back, Bookclubbers! Kate’s Book Club took a little hiatus, but I have returned with a full line up of awesome Kate authors. If you have suggestions for Kate authors we have to feature, feel free to contact me. Help us keep the Kate community growing.

In this fourth week of November 2013, I hereby call to order the 25th meeting of Kate’s Book Club. Every meeting, we shall be reading a tome either (a) penned by an author named Kate or (b) that includes a character named Kate. If you missed our last meeting, feel free to get caught up.

Club members, this week meet Kate Buford.

Kate Buford’s Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe (Knopf 2010) was an Editors’ Choice of The New York Times and won awards from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and the Professional Football Research Association (PFRA).  The paperback was published in 2012 by the University of Nebraska Press. Burt Lancaster: An American Life, her biography of Burt Lancaster (Knopf/Da Capo/UK hardcover and paperback: Aurum) was named one of the best books of 2000 by The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and others.

She has written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, History Now, and Film Comment, among other publications, and has been a commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace, and on Virginia’s NPR affiliate, WMRA. A member of PEN, the NYU Biographers Seminar, and Biographers International Organization (BIO), she lives in Lexington, Virginia.

Knopf recently released an ebook edition of the Burt Lancaster biography this fall in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth in November 2, 1913 (and maybe as a birthday present for Kate [November 3]—let’s wish Kate a Happy Belated Birthday!).

Check out these books then contact Kate by email and twitter.

And now for some answers…

Who named you Kate and why?

I was christened “Kathleen” and was called—and am still called by old friends—Katey. Back then, there were no other Kateys or Kates. Every Kathleen or Katherine—and there were lots of them—was called Kathy, and I was glad to be different from all of them.

My dad shortened Katey to Kate and called me Sister Kate. He was a big nicknamer, popular music fan, and dancer, so I suspect that nickname came from the jazz song, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.”

How did you become an author?

I started out as a law librarian for Wall Street law firms in New York. It turned out to be prefect training for writing nonfiction: lawyers at that level demanded information about any- and everything, asap, and it had to be totally accurate; millions of dollars depended on those scrupulously researched, verifiable facts.

Once my children were older, I just followed my nose, doing all kinds of writing—feature articles, travel and food pieces, essays, radio commentaries. That led me to writing, at first, about the movies for FILM COMMENT, and ultimately to my first book contract, with Knopf, for a biography of the Hollywood actor and producer, Burt Lancaster.

What was the muse for your first completed/published book?

The subject, Burt Lancaster. A good biography never takes the focus off the subject and he was a compelling figure. I admired how he kept pushing himself to change and take on new challenges right to the end of his life.  And how he tamed the crazy circus of Hollywood.

What are you currently working on?

Taking a break from biographies of hyper-masculine men, I’m about ready to launch a fun little blog—NewBestFriendsForever.com. It’s a platform, like any blog, from which to write about anything that interests me—the stuff you want to share with a best friend: fashion, recipes that work, shoes, epiphanies, great books, more shoes, the exercise program that changed by shape, etc. It’s pretty much taking the place of the radio commentaries I did for NPR, which they don’t do anymore.

I’m also thinking about the next nonfiction book, as well as plotting how to publish a novel I’ve written about the talismanic power of jewels in women’s lives.  When I write this all out, it looks like a lot. Maybe it is.

What is your greatest accomplishment to date?

Raising two superb, accomplished, generous, delightful children. And, by extension, two adorable baby grandsons, who look likely to carry on the tradition.

What’s your favorite word?


What’s your least favorite word?


Who’s your favorite literary character?

Bridget Jones

What’s your favorite quote?

The last line of George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and they rest in unvisited tombs.”

If you weren’t an author, what profession would you like to try?

Playing the drums.

If you could do one thing in your life over, what would it be?

Absolutely nothing.

Now for some reading…

From Kate Buford’s Native American Son: The life and sporting legend of Jim Thorpe:

Chapter 5: Collegiate Sports Upset of the Year: Carlisle [PA] Indian Industrial School v. Harvard football game, 1911:

“With twelve minutes left in the game, Carlisle in front 15-9, Harvard sent in its well-rested captain and eight varsity players. [Harvard coach Percy] Haughton had always planned to send in the first string at the end of the game – a gratuitous slap at Carlisle. The fresh Harvard players broke through the Carlisle defensive line with much greater force and ease. The only way, Jim realized, to beat the Cambridge team was to hold them until the very end and then make another placekick. After Carlisle made a first down and was stopped on the next two plays, at Harvard’s 48-yard line, Jim told [teammate] Arcasa, “Set the ball up. I’ll kick it.”

The big crowd went quiet. Jim’s leg was “pretty sore,” he said but the found the pain “sort of helped me because it made me more deliberate.” He knew his team was exhausted. “As long as I live,” he would recall, “I will never forget that moment. There I stood in the center of the field, the biggest crowd I had ever seen watching us . . . I was tired enough to that all my muscles were relaxed. I had confidence, and I wasn’t worried. The ball came back square and true, and I swung my leg with all the power and force that I had, and knew, as it left my toe, that it was headed straight for the crossbar and was sure to go over . . . I got the thrill of that moment . . . Nothing else mattered.” Jim had kicked his fourth field goal – “the most wonderful place kick,” said one Boston paper.

He signaled [Carlisle coach Pop] Warner and was carried off the field in the last minutes of play. The crowd jumped to its feet and roared for the great show he had given them. Four minutes later, Harvard scored a final touchdown after a Carlisle fumble. The gun went off, the game was over, the score 18-15, Carlisle.

“When . . . we knew that we had beaten Harvard,” Jim said, ”a feeling of pride that none of us has ever lost came over all of us . . . Maybe football victories and athletic championships don’t mean very much compared to some of the great accomplishments of famous men, but I’ll be none of them . . . ever got a bigger kick of winning.” “We all played better because of him,” said Jim’s teammate Henry Roberts. A Harvard lineman came up to congratulate the team with tears running down his face.

At a time of minimal national media outlets and a much smaller pool of national celebrities, Jim had become a legend overnight . . . In 2008, Sports Illustrated would point to the 1911 Harvard game as the highlight of a season that would have earned Jim the Heisman Trophy, had it existed then.”

Kate’s Book Club is a column on Kate-book.com featuring interviews with authors named Kate, as well as reviews of books starring Kate characters. It runs on Kate-book.com every other Wednesday at 10:30am, and is written by the self-admitted bibliophile Kate E. Stephenson, who you should follow on Twitter here. Oh, and write to Kate to suggest authors and books we should read for future columns.

Other great Kate reads:

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4 thoughts on “Kate’s Book Club: Q&A with phenom nonfiction author Kate Buford

  1. Love reading about my friend Kate B. !
    I hope that you know about the wonderful Hungarian-American writer, Kate Seredy. Her book “The Good Master”, a chapter book about life on a Hungarian ranch in the 1930s is a favorite of three generations of children in my family. And, while it is fiction, the main character is a terrific, adventurous girl named Kate.

    • Kate E. Stephenson says:

      Thanks for the author suggestion, Lea! If you have any more great Kate author or characters on your book shelf, please let me know.

  2. Kristina Ruller says:

    Always proud of my Katey! And, that answers the question I’ve had… “Should I read this copy of Bridget Jones, or just watch the movie?” The book it is!!

  3. hard core says:

    Magnificent web site. Plenty of useful information here.
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