A Walk in His Fellow Writers’ Shoes
Harper Lee Biographer Charles Shields Returning to Festival
By Haley Wilson
On a cold, snowy morning in New York, a woman flings open her apartment window and scatters fistfuls of papers into the street below with an angry shout. Fed up, she is convinced her novel will not make it. This revision is getting her nowhere; chock it up to a lost cause. She phones her editor in a wave of frustration and informs him she cannot finish this project. Per her editor’s demand, she marches out into the snow, picks up the manuscript, and tries again.
This woman was Harper Lee, and scenes such as this fill the pages of 2015 Festival author Charles Shields’ 2006 biography on Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Though the biography was published years ago, its relevance in the literary world is at an all-time high.
Manuscript Discovery Causes Stir
Readers across the country are reeling with delight over Harper Lee’s release of a makeshift sequel to her bestselling work and staple of high school English classes everywhere, To Kill a Mockingbird. Fans flew to their computers to eagerly preorder Lee’s work, Go Set a Watchman, to be released in March of 2015. For biographer Charles Shields, however, this release was far from news.
Author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Shields learned of the existence of Lee’s recently uncovered manuscript while conducting research for his biography. “From the notes in the collected papers of her agent back in the mid-1950s, it’s clear to me that Watchman is an early version of Mockingbird. Maybe much longer— that’s what I’ve heard second-hand— and in need of a lot of editorial attention, but containing much of the same content,” Shields says. “I’m convinced that the manuscript has surfaced now because Harper Lee’s elder sister Alice, who was in control of Harper’s career, passed away last year.”
While researching Lee, Shields also learned that some of Lee’s characters, such as Scout’s neighbor Miss Maudie, were based on real characters. (In this case, Scout’s Miss Maudie was modeled after Lee’s own English teacher, Gladys Watson.) “When To Kill a Mockingbird was finished but still in manuscript, Miss Lee sent it over to her teacher to have it read and corrected, just like a paper for class. It’s good to hear about the influence teachers have!”
In addition to his own career as a high school English teacher, Shields has written several biographies on mid-twentieth century authors. This fascination with detailing the lives of writers began while Shields was an English major in college. “I wanted to find out about the kinds of lives [writers] led; whether they struggled; and how they dealt with the public and criticism,” Shields says. “I wanted an answer to the question, ‘How does someone become a famous writer?’”
The Lives of Writers
As Shields grew older, he wanted to know more about the overlap between their fiction and the facts—the lives of writers and how their personal experiences influenced their work. This desire to know more led to Shields composing twenty biographies in just six years. He accomplished this by practicing strict organization and a regimented schedule. This included being at his desk by 7:30 in the morning, dressed in full work attire. “Even though no one was home, I wore dress slacks, a shirt, and a tie. No one was there to see me! But psychologically, I put myself in the mindset of being at work,” Shields says.
Shields advises aspiring writers to do the same, practicing dedication and focus. “Stick to a schedule and be organized. Having a schedule for writing might seem obvious, but that means treating writing like a job.”
In his line of work, Shields must pay close attention to detail in order to achieve accuracy and determine the validity of his sources. Organization is key to this process. “If I can’t remember where I saw or read something, I could waste hours trying to find it again. Always in the back of my mind is the concern, ‘What if somebody asks me where I got that fact or anecdote?’”
Though Shields acknowledges the New Testament as the greatest biography ever written, he’s eager to make a dent in the literary world and relishes the challenge that researching entails. “It’s as if the people I interview know a secret and I’m trying to find out what it is. Because as I interview them, I think, ‘Is he jealous of my subject? Was she in love with him? Is he trying to protect his old buddy?’”
Shields writes nonfiction for both young and adult readers, and his strategies vary depending on his target audience. When writing for young adult readers, Shields often dives into his story with an attention-grabbing anecdote, accounting for the lack of patience young readers possess. This was true in the case of his biography on author Roald Dahl.
“The first chapter of my YA biography of Roald Dahl describes him crashing his plane in the desert during World War II and being thrown from the wreck,” Shields says. “The ammunition starts exploding from the fire, and he crawls toward some rocks, his face bleeding, for protection. Much better than starting out, ‘Roald Dahl was born…’ don’t you think?”
Filling in the Gaps
No matter the age of his potential readers, Shields believes their interest in biographies stems from the same reasoning: a passion for filling in the gaps and answering questions about the life of someone else. “Reading a biography offers the chance to learn more about yourself by stepping into someone else’s life. It’s similar to fiction in that way. But some people, including myself, like to know, ‘This really happened. I could go see where this person lived for myself if I wanted to.’”
Shields’ latest book steps into the life of John Williams, author of Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing, and Augustus. “John was a man who grew up in Texas during the Dust Bowl, and yet he styled himself as a kind of Elizabethan gentleman— courtly, formally dressed most of the time, a ladies’ man, and yet his prose hasn’t a trace of falseness or pretense about it,” says Shields. “It’s serious and beautiful. The authentic, inner man and the outer, public man are so different. Why? Answering that question is at the heart of the book.”
Although no author has written about Shields, he has someone in mind if the situation ever arises: Blake Bailey, author of biographies on John Cheever and Richard Yates.
Until such a dream comes true for Shields, readers will simply to have to ask him their questions themselves at this year’s Festival of Books in Deadwood. Having attended the festival in the past, Shields is anticipating the eagerness of the attendees and hopes for agreeable weather. “There’s enough energy at the festival to warm up that whole part of the country. I was there when it was chilly, but what I remember is people’s warmth, their laughter, stacks of books, and good hot food.”
On a cold, snowy morning in New York, Harper Lee tossed her manuscript from her apartment in a fit of frustration, certain the world would never see her words. Her despair might have abated, though, had she known that over fifty years later, Charles Shields, too, would be picking up the pieces of her life in order to share her story with the world.