An Interview With Charles J. Shields
In case you haven't heard, the first biography of Harper Lee has just been published. Mockingbird seeks to paint a portrait of the woman who created To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most widely read American novels. The author of the biography, Charles J. Shields, has been a teacher, a reporter for public radio, a journalist, and is the author of several nonfiction books for young people. He took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of my questions.
So Many Books: What made you decide to write Mockingbird?
Charles Shields: I wanted to answer a mystery: How could so little be known about the author of one of the 20th century’s most popular novels? After all, she gave interviews regularly until 1965; she accompanied Capote to Kansas to research In Cold Blood; and she’s alive. Yet not even encyclopedias could agree on simple facts about her upbringing and her life after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. I hoped that by tracing her life accurately, readers could learn more about how Lee created her novel, too.
SMB: Was it frustrating not being able to speak or correspond with Lee? How did not being able to contact your subject affect the way you approached the book?
CS: Nelle Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, responded to my letters— politely and warmly, but not at length. Nelle never did. When it became clear that Miss Lee was not going to correspond with me— in fact, I’d heard from her friends that she was “not happy” I was writing the book— I decided to proceed on the assumption that I’d have to win the confidence of as many of her friends and acquaintances as I could. This meant that the number of people I had to seek out probably tripled, because I had to reconstruct her life with glimpses, overheard remarks, and anecdotes.
SMB: Besides Harper Lee herself was there someone else you wish you could have spoken with but were unable to?
CS: I would have enjoyed speaking to Truman Capote, poor man, but he’s long gone. Also, I missed George Plimpton by just a few months. Finally, looking back, I think I should have approached Gore Vidal, whose reputation as a raconteur about the mid-20th century literary scene is legendary. But, as the Chinese writer Tai T'ung remarked centuries ago, "Were I to await perfection, my book would never be finished."
SMB: Lee has been rather reclusive, did you run into any difficulties with people trying to protect her privacy?
CS: Some people refused to speak to me on the grounds that they wished to respect her privacy. I lost some potentially good interviews this way. But I had no choice, of course, so I moved on to other leads.
SMB:What was the most surprising thing you learned about Lee in your research?
CS: First, that her personality has been consistent her entire life. As a child she was rough and tumble youngster, and outspoken. As an adult, she’s a nonconformist and is known to have a sharp tongue. Second, I was struck by the importance of her role in creating In Cold Blood. But in interviews, Capote deliberately downplayed how much she helped him. I tried to take Truman’s thumb off the scale, so to speak, in the longest chapter in my book, which details how the two friends worked together, day-by-day in Kansas.
SMB: Rumors have abounded about Truman Capote and Harper Lee even to the extent that Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. A letter has come to light that disproves it. Were you able to find out how Lee feels about the rumors?
CS: She has never dignified that rumor with a response. Frankly, I’m surprised anyone could put any credence in Capote as the ghost writer of To Kill a Mockingbird. Consider this: he always wanted to win the Pulitzer prize or the National Book Award. He never did. Is it conceivable that he would have passed up the opportunity to claim authorship of To Kill a Mockingbird? Truman always, always craved approval and attention.
SMB: Do you think Lee's second novel was really stolen by a burglar?
CS: The notion of a burglar stealing a ream of paper, and ending Lee’s career as an author forever sounds like “The dog ate my homework” to me. More likely, her father’s remark to the effect that she would really have to outdo herself for a second successful book summed-up her fears of failure. I think she struggled and struggled until a decade had passed and her momentum was gone.
SMB: Of course everyone wants to know, were you able to get a sense about whether Lee will ever publish another book?
CS: I don’t believe Miss Lee will ever publish another work of fiction. She may publish her memoirs, and I know that she is an enthusiastic letter-writer. Perhaps a summing-up from Harper Lee will appear someday.
SMB: How does it feel to be the first person to write a biography of Lee?
CS: I’m glad to have it behind me and eager to get on with writing my next biography.
SMB: Are you working on a new book? Can you reveal what, or who, it's about?
CS: Yes, I'm working on another book. A biography of a mid 20th-century writer about whom there's never been a biography. But he's been a public figure for decades, granted many interviews, and is still with us.
Those are all the clues I can give you right now!
SMB: Thanks for answering my questions.
CS: Thanks for the opportunity.
Tomorrow: A "review" of Mockingbird