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."