Author Q&A: Charles Shields

  • November 8, 2011

Several years back, Charles J. Shields wrote the blockbuster literary biography, Mockingbird, about the reclusive Harper Lee and the sole novel she wrote, the omnipresent To Kill A Mockingbird – a novel so popular that in a recent survey conducted by the American Bar Association of the books most loved by lawyers, they had to eliminate Lee’s book in order to generate substantial votes for other books.  Now, Shields has taken on Kurt Vonnegut, the favored novelist of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, whose novels straddle the lines between popular fiction, serious fiction, and science fiction.  Shields’ book is titled And So It Goes, a phrase from Slaughterhouse Five that serves as the signature tag line for Vonnegut’s brand of fatalism and irony.  When Shields first approached Vonnegut about writing his biography, Vonnegut declined to cooperate.  Shields tried again, and the second time was the charm.

Q&A with Charles Shields

You tell the story of how you approached Kurt Vonnegut to be his biographer.  Why Vonnegut?

I was in college during the late sixties, and students were carrying Vonnegut’s novels in the back pockets of their jeans. Garry Trudeau said that he loaned out his copies at Yale until they fell apart. So I decided to approach Vonnegut about a biography for two reasons: first, I wanted to examine why his work was such a phenomenon; and second, to determine whether his work belonged in the canon of American literature. You know, with the exception of Slaughterhouse-Five, the jury is still out. The fact that a biography of him had never been published appealed to — as Janet Maslin said of me in the New York Times — my “slick commercial instincts.”

You describe the role of the biographer of a living person as a “guest among strangers.”  As you were researching and writing about Kurt Vonnegut in And So It Goes, and about Harper Lee in Mockingbird, did that experience change to one of greater intimacy with your subject or with his or her contemporaries?

Interesting question— I hadn’t considered the difference. I grew closer to my subjects’ friends, families and contemporaries, but not either Lee or Vonnegut. I’ve sent my condolences to spouses of elderly interviewees who died; Edie Vonnegut considers me a friend; Kurt’s cousin in Anacortes, Washington keeps up with me through his son. But I keep an emotional distance from the subjects of the work, come to think of it; seems to turn out better if I maintain a kind of professional air throughout the whole examination, like a doctor.

Vonnegut cooperated with your efforts and met with you, while Harper Lee did not.  It seems that a cooperative subject must make the biographer’s task easier, but were there any ways in which it became more difficult?

Kurt supplied me with names and telephone numbers of persons he wanted to interview; he was quite open in our interviews. I promised him, in a letter, because he said his wife Jill was “giving him hell” about the book, that he could read the manuscript and remove anything that was hurtful to family members or untrue. But then he died! So I carried on alone and ultimately didn’t have to show the manuscript to anyone. I don’t mean to sound ghoulish, but isn’t that the ideal situation for a biographer: to have your subject cooperate happily with you, and then die, leaving you a free hand?

How much time were you able to spend with Vonnegut?

I met him three times in person, and interviewed him, but he enjoyed calling me late at night and just reminiscing. He was lonely. He also enjoyed traipsing off to the post office regularly and sending me postcards and magazine articles. I reciprocated by sending him long letters about how things were going and what people were saying.

How many times did you have to read each of Vonnegut’s novels while working on And So It Goes?

Just once each, from beginning to end. I realize that sounds outrageous. But you see, I used the analyses of scholars to think about the novels: I wanted to have fresh insights almost subconsciously. Sounds mysterious, but it isn’t. I supercharged my mind with a lot about each novel and then just thought. Sort of like building an original machine out of parts.

Many of Vonnegut’s novels have a consistent tone of bemused irony.  Did you ever find yourself growing impatient with that tone – wanting to say, “Kurt, snap out of it?”;

I was in a hotel room and threw one of his novels across the room. Yes, his playfulness can be like having a friend around who never quits kidding and teasing. But that was consistent with Kurt’s need for attention. He acts up a lot.

You write with harrowing immediacy of the firebombing of Dresden in World War II that was the core of Vonnegut’s most popular work, Slaughterhouse Five.  What techniques did you use for researching and recreating such an appalling catastrophe?  Did you talk to other survivors?  Did you spend time in Dresden?

I read military documents from the National Archives; and historians’ books about the bombing. I also interviewed six or seven men who were there with Vonnegut. Thankfully, one of them is a retired historian who wrote a long, long letter to his grandchildren, describing his experiences eloquently and in detail. He deposited it in the library at Ohio University where he taught. Visiting Dresden wouldn’t help, actually. The old city was crushed under the bombardment.

Vonnegut’s estate barred you from quoting from his letters, though you were permitted to incorporate in the book the information from those letters.  Was that a significant handicap?  What was the motivation for the ban?

It wasn’t a handicap really, just damned inconvenient and tiring. I had completed the third draft just the way I wanted it, only to find out that the estate wouldn’t allow me to use about 15 percent of the 1,500 letters in my collection. As you say, the content of the rest of the letters contributed strongly to the narrative. But after hearing “No,” from the estate— and that was it, just “No”— I had to reopen the manuscript and recast in different words what Vonnegut had said. That occasioned changes in verb tenses, transitions, and all the rest of it. Really mechanical and time-wasting.

I’m convinced the estate wants Vonnegut to remain caught, like a bug in amber, to borrow the phrase from Slaughterhouse-Five— forever a jokey, avuncular counterculture guru. That image was, and continues to be, a moneymaker.

The “Prologue” of And So It Goes begins by portraying a pivotal moment in 1965 – forty-six years ago – when Vonnegut was driving to begin teaching at the University of Iowa.  Among the riveting details in the opening paragraph are that (i) Vonnegut’s head pressed against the roof liner of the VW Beetle he was driving, (ii) the car ashtray was stuffed with butts of Pall Mall cigarettes, and (iii) the windshield “was tawny with nicotine from his chain-smoking.”  How were you able to assemble such powerful details so long after the fact?

The prologue is a summary of what Vonnegut wrote in half a dozen letters on the way to Iowa, and after he arrived there. Also, Vonnegut was quite tall and rickety; folding himself into a VW must have been uncomfortable. The smoky interior isn’t a stretch: Vonnegut was a chain-smoker, lighting one off another; his brand was Pall Malls; and I’m old enough to remember what happened to the windows after hours of filling the car with unfiltered cigarette smoke.

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