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Biographies, mysteries on tap for Brandeis

The Brandeis National Committee Tucson Chapter 24th Annual Book and Author Events will take place March 4 and 5, with four nationally recognized authors: journalists Todd S. Purdum and Hank Phillippi Ryan, each with a departure from their usual beats; biographer James McGrath Morris; and park ranger turned mystery writer Nevada Barr.

Todd Purdum

Todd S. Purdum, a staff writer at the Atlantic, will talk about his latest book, “Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution,” an in-depth look at the dynamic songwriting duo.

Purdum, a former White House correspondent for the New York Times, recently covered the impeachment trial. With “Something Wonderful,” he took a break from politics to write something more lighthearted.

“My wife suggested I write the book. It was something that allowed me to step outside of my day job and it was very rewarding.

“It was a relief from politics since the political atmosphere has been so contentious,” he says.

The hardest part of writing “Something Wonderful” was explaining how music works. It was difficult, says Purdum, to describe “why the songs sound the way they do, why they work the way they do, and why they are so lasting.”

The book contains never before seen notes and manuscripts that were borrowed from the families of both Rodgers and Hammerstein.

“I’ve been pleased to see how warmly people have accepted it. The book has opened so many interesting doors to me. It seems to have touched a nerve,” says Purdum.

Hank Phillippi Ryan

Hank Phillippi Ryan  has won numerous awards both as an investigative reporter for Boston’s WHDH-TV and as a mystery writer with two popular series. Her latest book, “The Murder List,” was nominated for an Agatha Award and a Mary Higgins Clark Award. A stand-alone thriller, “The Murder List” follows law student Rachel North, who just got a coveted internship, only it’s with her husband’s nemesis at the Boston district attorney’s office, a woman he describes as “Satan in pearls.” 

“I like twisty, gaslighting mind games with just a little bit of murder. I also love psychological thrillers that have a little bit of the legal world in them. I’m very interested in justice and how people decide what good means and how juries think and how each of us makes a life or death, high-stakes decision,” Ryan says. 

“Writing a book and creating the characters is one of the joys of my life. It’s not only that the characters resonate with me but they surprise me on every page,” says Ryan. “One of the incredibly special things about being a writer is the realization that we as human beings are the only creatures that can create new worlds out of nothing but our own imaginations. I don’t think my books are fully formed until the reader reads them. I’m the luckiest person in the world to be able to do this.”

Ryan uses her experiences as a journalist to bring her books to life, although she’s never based a plot on one of her stories. “My experiences in the real world have spanned more than what most people have ever done so of course I’m going to take that vast realm of experience and make it into fiction. My books are not my investigations cleverly disguised as fiction but I couldn’t write my books without being a reporter,” she explains.

James McGrath Morris

James McGrath Morris is a seasoned biographer and non-fiction writer, best known for “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power,” which he will discuss at the Brandeis Book & Author event.

“Writing is a very solitary task so one of the pleasures of meeting somebody who has actually read your work [is that it] completes the circle,” he says.

“Research has always been a joy for me. The writing is very exciting but it’s very hard. It’s a matter of time. You have to try to make sure you are engaging so someone will read the book. For me it’s not finishing the book, it’s the journey. The process of creating a book is far more important to me than when the book is finished. It sustains me, it’s what gets me up in the morning.”

As part of his research on Joseph Pulitzer, Morris traveled to Hungary to gather information about the Jewish immigrant who amassed such great wealth and power.

Morris looks forward to coming to Tucson for the event.

“We get to talk to people about books and raise some money for a good cause. It is hard to say no to that,” he says. 

Nevada Barr

Award-winning novelist Nevada Barr was born in Yerington, Nevada, and grew up in Susanville, California, where her parents, both pilots, managed a small airport.  She received her BA in speech and drama from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and an MFA in acting from University of California at Irvine. After graduate school, Barr began an 18-year acting career. She appeared in numerous off-Broadway plays as well as TV commercials, industrial films, and radio voice-overs. After several years in New York, she moved to Minneapolis. 

During the summers, she worked in law enforcement as a National Park Ranger, which got her interested in the environmental movement and provided settings for her novels. Barr’s first book, “Bittersweet,” a historical novel, was published in 1984. She then turned to mysteries, with “Track of the Cat,” the first volume in her Anna Pigeon series, winning an Agatha Award and an Anthony Award in 1994 for best first mystery of 1993. To date, she’s written 19 Anna Pigeon mysteries. Barr says the character “is based on me — except she is taller, and stronger, and smarter, and braver.”

Barr now lives in New Orleans with her husband, Donald Paxton, and their animals. Her latest book is a stand-alone mystery, “What Rose Forgot,” published in 2019. 

The Brandeis Book and Author dinner will take place on Wednesday, March 4, at 6 p.m. in Hacienda Del Sol’s historic Casa Feliz, 5501 N. Hacienda Del Sol Road. The lunch event, which includes books sales and signing, an artisan boutique, and silent auction along with the author talks, is Thursday, March 5, from 9:15 a.m.-2:30 p.m. at Skyline Country Club, 5200 E. St. Andrews Drive.

Both events benefit the “Sustaining the Mind” fund supporting research and scholarships for neurodegenerative disease at Brandeis University. The cost of the dinner is $90 or $125 for seating with an author. The cost of the lunch is $80 or $125 for seating with an author. RSVP by March 1 to Sheila Rothenberg at or 917-579-8030.