Charles J. Shields’ Literary Detective Work Yields Vivid Portrait of Harper Lee

April 30, 2007
Written by

Mockingbird

Mockingbird: A Portrait
of Harper Lee
(Henry Holt, 2006)

by Charles J. Shields
Buy this book
via Amazon.com

An exclusive Authorlink interview with Charles J. Shields
Author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Henry Holt, 2006)

by Ellen Birkett Morris

May 2007

 

One of the first things Charles J. Shields did when he decided to write a biography of the famously reclusive author Harper Lee is log onto the web site www.classmates.com. The site helps people connect with high school classmates. Using this tool, Shields developed a list of 50 people who had known Lee in high school.

Shields made his way through the list, calling her former classmates and collecting stories about her life. He would close a successful interview with a former classmate by asking them if they knew of someone else he could talk to who knew Lee.

He coupled that with requests for public and court records, trips to examine the papers of Lee’s colleagues including agent Annie Laurie Williams and lifelong friend Truman Capote, and an exhaustive reading of published interviews with Lee written during the four years following the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird during which Lee gave interviews.

“It was like surveying a pond. . . and throwing a pebble in
to see how deep it is."

—SHIELDS

“It was like surveying a pond, walking around the edges and throwing a pebble in to see how deep it is,” said Shields of the development of MOCKINGBIRD: A PORTRAIT OF HARPER LEE.

Why would he choose to take on such a daunting project?

“There had never been a biography of Harper Lee. I thought the time was right to assess her place in literary history. Little was known about the most popular author of the 19th century and I saw that as a riddle to be solved,” he noted.

He was, in part, attracted to the prospect of writing a book that had the potential to sell well. Shields noted that 30 million copies of To Kill a Mockingbird have been sold, opening the door to an audience interested in the life of this popular author.

He was drawn to the parallels between the characters Atticus Finch and Lee’s own father A.C. Lee and the next door neighbor Dill and Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote.

"I was intrigued by
how she recreated the world
of the 1930s . . ."

—SHIELDS

“I was intrigued by how she recreated the world of the 1930s and her childhood,” Shields said.

The book took four years to complete. His intense literary detective work yielded a vivid portrait of one of America’s most beloved and least understood writers.

Shields background as a school teacher and author of young adult biographies proved to be both a help and a hindrance. He was equipped with the research skills and desire to finish the project. However, after a first draft his editor told him that the voice was too similar to that used in young adult biographies. He completed three drafts of the book.

"I had to be more interpretive
and intuitive."

—SHIELDS

“I upped the complexity of the sentences and sophistication of the insights. I had to be more interpretive and intuitive, whereas my first draft was all facts,” said Shields.

He noted that redrafting was a challenge. “My Dad would say that something ‘smelled of the lamp.’ This meant I had been up late and gone over it too many times. There where times when writing this book that I had to back off and step away from a section for two weeks and then come back to it and see exactly what was wrong with it.”

He rose to the challenge, writing character descriptions of key people in Lee’s life, sketching scenes to make her experiences vivid to readers and using snatches of recounted dialogue when possible. "

"I wanted to convey a
sense of urgency
and a life really lived. . . "

—SHIELDS

“I wanted to convey a sense of urgency and a life really lived,” he observed.

Shields work was complicated by the fact that the still living Lee was not in favor of the project. Someone at a major publishing house sent his book proposal to Lee. She then called friends and asked them not to talk with Shields or share photographs.

"This made it all the more important to confirm information."
—SHIELDS

“This made it all the more important to confirm information. I used triangulation. If I heard about an incident I’d find three people who could confirm what I had heard and corroborate the anecdotes,” said Shields.

His research was so meticulous that he recounted having woken his wife at 6:00 a.m. with the revelation that he had just established that Harper Lee did not like to wear hats.

Shields was helped by a mole in Monroeville, Alabama, the town where Lee grew up and now resides for part of the year, sharing time between there and New York City. The source is a contemporary of Lee’s and would confirm facts and point Shields toward people who could provide more information.

With a wealth of source material, Shields had to leave out some interesting facts such as Lee’s grandfather’s role in key civil war battles and the antics of Truman Capote’s father who was a con man.

Shields employed a system of virtual file cards, which he eventually found hard to organize. He has reverted back to 5 X 7 index cards in boxes for his current project, a biography of the late author Kurt Vonnegut.

"Several times I
had to cut long passages
that took me
days to write."

—SHIELDS

He takes pride in the fact that of the 700 footnotes in the book Lee only asked him to take out one piece of information, her address in New York City.

Among the book’s revelations are Lee’s history as a tomboy who often defended Capote from bullies, how she flourished as a writer while working on the college humor magazine and the key role she played in helping Capote gather information for In Cold Blood.

Lee contributed 150 single-spaced pages of notes to the development of In Cold Blood, including vivid descriptions and hand drawn maps from which Capote borrowed generously.

Shields sent the proposal to Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management, who accepted it right away. Kleinman sent it to 19 publishers, 9 of which expressed interest. There was auction between five publishing houses for the book with Henry Holt coming out on top. George Hodgman at Henry Holt & Co. was Shields’s editor.

“Several times I had to cut long passages that took me days to write. They were historical, or comical, and they interested me. But they didn’t have much to do with Harper Lee. You must be cruel as a Cossack about cutting out passages that aren¹t necessary. And you must let your editor do it, too. Don’t worry: there are plenty more words in you where those came from,” noted Shields.

"When you’re ready, make
writing a part-time job."

—SHIELDS

He advises new writers to take themselves seriously as writers, talk about their passion for writing, and take advantage of opportunities to write.

“When you’re ready, make writing a part-time job. Write an hour every morning before work. You can’t make progress by writing only when you feel inspired or the leaves are changing color. It’s not any different from becoming a better pianist. Practice, practice! Take any writing assignments you can get: covering meetings for the local paper; being the publicity person for your club or charity; even blogging. The idea is to write and get your writing noticed.”

He noted that the Writer's Market has helpful articles about the mechanics of publishing and lists numerous markets. “Study it and find your writing niche. How fortunate we are in live in a country with so many publishing opportunities!”

"You need not depend
on the usual subjects;
many great lives
are lived quietly."

—SHIELDS

Shields suggests that would-be biographers study highly regarded works, taking note of their tone and structure. “Read an area of history that you are interested in and you may find a character in a footnote to pursue. History is full of little known ship disasters, acts of courage, and disease outbreaks. You need not depend on the usual subjects; many great lives are lived quietly.”

Charles J. Shields resides in Barboursville, Virginia near the University of Virginia in Charlottesville with his wife, Guadalupe. He has written 20 nonfiction books for young people, and is the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Henry Holt & Co., 2006).

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris