Writing About Writers: Charles Shields on Kurt Vonnegut
Charles Shields is a writer who writes about writers. He previously penned a bestselling biography of Harper Lee (Mockingbird), and now he's written the definitive portrait of Kurt Vonnegut, And So It Goes, which chronicles Vonnegut's slow and often difficult path to the upper ranks of American literature.
It's not always a pretty portrait. "Kurt wanted to be a writer from the time he was a teenager," Shields told me during a recent phone interview. But after serving in the military, getting married and having kids, he faced a dreary life behind a desk "which is not the kind of artistic one that he thought he'd have."
Yet the truth about writers is just that: they don't often live the exciting, public lifestyles of a Hemmingway or a Mailer. Most toil in solitary exclusion. It's a desk job in an office of one. It's sedentary, quiet, and often dull. Still, Shields is fascinated by the process of writing, and by the power and reach of the written word, which he discovered at age 15 upon earning a byline for his first high school newspaper story. "That was a magical moment for me," he said.
Shields has worked since to grow and change, to learn from others. That desire led him to study the works and habits of other writers, and eventually to become a biographer, joining a group he admiringly refers to as "snoops" and "gossips." (Shields is co-founder of Biographers International Organization.)
His interest in Vonnegut began when he learned Vonnegut was miffed that no one had tried to write his biography. Shields reached out, was rebuffed, persisted, and finally received a postcard on which Vonnegut had sketched a self-portrait, smoking a cigarette. The card contained two letters: "OK."
"It's too trite to say that it was a shock," Shields said. "I felt a kind of… I felt sort of separate from myself for a little bit. Because I had invested a lot in this, and I had come to like him. And now suddenly, after dubbing me his biographer, he was gone."
As a young man, Shields had felt that Vonnegut had a message for young people. "Now that I'm much older,” he said, “I wanted to explore the whole ethos of Vonnegut and what Vonnegut had to say. And I wanted to know also whether he fits somewhere into the American canon of literature."
Shields’s biography was saved by the discovery of 1,500 letters to or from Vonnegut, which had been presumed lost. "So, going on my interviews with him, and all of these long, intimate letters that he wrote, I was able to construct what I felt was a very authentic, personal portrait of this man as writer, father, struggling freelancer, suddenly famous man, divorced parent, divorced husband, over the course of more than fifty years," Shields said.