Charles Shields wrote Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, a New York Times bestseller, without help or permission from his subject.
How did he do it? When Lee wouldn’t talk to him, he interviewed everyone else who would: friends, neighbors, classmates, people she met in Kansas when she was there helping Truman Capote with In Cold Blood. Talk about making an end run.
Producing his portrait of Lee took Charles four years. Of Mockingbird, novelist Anne Rivers Siddons says, “Shields’ evocation of both the woman and her beautiful, sleepy and smoldering South are pitch-perfect.”
Now Charles, who lives in Barboursville, has tackled another literary legend. His biography of Kurt Vonnegut was published in 2011 by Henry Holt & Co.
Charles closed the 2010 JRW Conference by discussing his career with Dean King. (You can hear this interview in Prime Number magazine.) He was interviewed by Jann Malone, former JRW board member, in May 2010.
QUESTION 1: Your bio says you taught English — including To Kill a Mockingbird — for many years before you started writing nonfiction books for young readers. How did you find the courage to leave your day job?
When I left teaching after 20 years, I received a sympathy card from a colleague and a phone message from another educator who said, “I’m praying for you, Charles.”
You shouldn’t attempt a jump into the hyperspace of writing unless you have adequate resources. In my case, my wife continued to work an as elementary school principal in Chicago, and I cashed out my teacher’s pension fund (an act that created shock and awe).
It was a tremendous financial comedown at first, writing $250 articles in a bedroom I had converted into an office. There were weeks when I would have made more money working at a fast food restaurant. But writing nonfiction is much less risky than writing fiction, and gradually I began to get work-for-hire assignments from publishers of textbooks, test prep books and biographies for young people. By working every day, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., I was making a middle-class living after two years.
QUESTION 2:The idea of Mockingbird must have been daunting originally, since you probably suspected you had very little chance of getting Harper Lee’s cooperation. What made you go forward?
CJS: My mind is divided in half: one side is creative; one side is financial. The creative side asks, “Is this subject so interesting that you could stick with it, year after year, even if the going gets rough and tedious?” If not, I drop the idea. The financial side asks, “And when you finish this book, who will buy it?” Because I’m not a scholar; I have no interest in writing monographs. I want to continue to be a popular writer and sell books.
After Miss Lee said she wouldn’t cooperate, I was inspired. I thought, “I’ll make this a fair, comprehensive and sympathetic work even without her help.”
QUESTION 3: How were you able to win Kurt Vonnegut’s cooperation on his biography? How far along were your interviews with him before he died?
I wrote Vonnegut directly. The first time, he said politely “no.” The second time I wrote, appealing to our common backgrounds and interests, he replied with a postcard, on which was written, “OK.” We talked on the phone and I interviewed him several times in New York during the last six months of his life. I was at his home the day he later fell outside on the sidewalk and lost consciousness. He died after a month in a coma.
QUESTION 4: When you’re writing a biography, how do you know what to include and what to leave out, so that the book is more than a collection of facts?
CJS: In a biography you want to include everything that contributes to demonstrating patterns — personal or professional — in a person’s life, and pare down exposition that doesn’t serve that purpose somehow.
QUESTION 5: What’s the most difficult part of writing a biography?
Running out of Preparation H.