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News and Events

Charles Shields

May 25th, 2010

Charles J. ShieldsCharles Shields wrote Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, 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.

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Spirit & Muse: A Literary Soirée, May 2010

May 6th, 2010

Mary Beth Johnson and Erica Orloff at 2010 Literary Fundraiser (photo by Laura Jones)

The Muse might have gotten more than she bargained for at James River Writers’ fifth annual spring gala. More than 100 people attended “Spirit & Muse: A Literary Soirée” on May 15, 2010 at the Virginia Center for Architecture on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Between ooh’s and aah’s at the architectural details of a historic Tudor Jacobean mansion, guests enjoyed a spring evening on the terrace with jazz, a harpist, wine, food food, and shopping for auction items.

The fundraiser included something for everyone. Those on the lookout for a literary bargain could bid on signed noels or an Edgar Allen Poe Tour that included visits, via Segway, to some of the Richmond sites frequented by Poe. Top bids went for personalized tours of the Library of Congress and the archives of The Library of Virginia.

As always, the event raised funds for JRW’s literary programs and allowed members and friends to mix and mingle for a good cause. A special thank you for this year’s soirée hosts who made such an enjoyable evening possible:

  • Yount, Hyde & Barbour, P.C.
  • Ellen and Orran Brown
  • Constance Costas
  • Reginald Gordon
  • Woodley and Rob Habgood
  • Jil and Hiter Harris
  • Elizabeth and Shelton Horsley
  • Denise and Larry Miller
  • Virginia Pye and John Ravenal
  • Ann and Brewster Rawls
  • Pam and Major Reynolds
  • Gigi Amateau and Bubba Sanderson
  • Kirk Schroder
  • Maya and Shaka Smart
  • Paula and Dean Squire

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Jacqueline Woodson

May 6th, 2010

Jacqueline WoodsonJacqueline Woodson focuses on young people’s literature, she says, because the work chose her. She says she writes because it makes her happy.

Her books have received many awards, among them the Coretta Scott King Award and designation as a Newbery Honor Book and a Caldecott Honor Book. Hush and Locomotion were National Book Award finalists.

Jacqueline is the recipient of the 2006 Margaret A. Edwards Award, honoring her outstanding lifetime contribution to writing for teens. “Woodson’s books are powerful, groundbreaking and very personal explorations of the many ways in which identity and friendship transcend the limits of stereotype,” said Edwards Award committee chair Mary Arnold. “Her captivating and richly drawn characters struggle and grow and celebrate who they are in the world, and reveal to readers exciting possibilities for their own lives.”

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Jaqueline spent her early years in Greenville, S.C. Now she lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Jacqueline discussed her career and participated in a panel at the 2010 JRW Conference. She was interviewed by Jann Malone, former JRW board member, in May 2010.


QUESTION 1: You say you told a lot of lies as a child but stopped lying in the fifth grade, when you started writing stories. Will you explain the cause and effect at work here?

I was making up stories and had no outlet for them aside from swearing the stories were true.  Once I was told I could write those stories down, they (and I) became legitimized. I wasn’t a liar, I was a writer of fiction. I wasn’t a mess. I had a “gift.” Crazy how that works.

QUESTION 2: Of all the types of books you could have written, what made you choose to focus on young adult, middle grade and picture books?

I write it all. Autobiography of a Family Photo was an adult book published by Dutton.  Many, many short stories in anthologies are for adults. But yes, I am most prolific when it comes to young people’s literature. The work chose me. This is where I found my voice, and the stories I was telling for this population were the ones I would have loved to have had as a young person.

QUESTION 3: Your picture books offer young readers much more than happy stories of dancing dogs and circus ponies. Why did you decide to write about difficult issues?  

I don’t write about “difficult issues,” I write about life. And life is complicated. The people in the situations I write about don’t see those situations as difficult, it’s just how things are. What’s difficult is reading about a dog coming home and everyone being happy without anything complicated happening. Yawn. I think writing about the real world makes the real world that much easier to walk through for myself and for the young people picking up the books.

QUESTION 4: What’s your advice for writers who want to write books for young readers?

Write them.

QUESTION 5: You have an impressive list of awards. From your perspective as the award winner, what do you believe makes your books so award-worthy?

In the words of Mari Evans, I “speak the truth to the people.”

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