Charles Shields is the author of a number of nonfiction books, including biographies of two notoriously elusive literary figures: Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, and And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life. How does a writer write about writers? Let’s ask him:
HDYWT: How do you come up with the idea for a new book?
Charles: I rarely hear stories that strike me as an idea for a book. I suppose that’s why I don’t write fiction. I don’t hear anecdotes or see incidents that could be spun out into a novel. Books, articles and news events are my resources for nonfiction.
Even so, I seriously pursue only a fraction of the possibilities I run across. Here’s an example: the other day I heard of someone with the last name “Bowditch.” That reminded me of Nathaniel Bowditch, the 18th century American mathematician regarded as the founder of modern ocean navigation. I read a few articles about him online, but then I ran up against what usually kills an idea: Who would want to read about Bowditch? I’m not a scholar; I’m a writer of popular nonfiction, and if an idea doesn’t have wide appeal, I drop it. (A professor of mine in graduate school encouraged me to get a PhD in African history. But when I realized that scholarship means publishing monographs in runs of a few hundred, I applied to be a high school teacher and left campus. Never looked back. I want to see my books in bookstores.)
If an idea clears the hurdle of “Who will read it?” then the next question is, “Will the subject hold my interest for a few years?” And that’s why I keep coming back to literary biography. I’ve been interested in the lives of authors since I began reading biographies in college — on my own, incidentally, they were never assigned. And so, the ideas that cross the finish line are always about authors. And even then, some get disqualified because I’ve lucked into writing two books on authors who never had full-length biographies before. If an author already has a biography, I’m less interested. Therefore, as I start work on my third literary biography — Cormac McCarthy — he wins because he fits all the criteria: broad appeal, difficult and challenging for me, never been done before.
HDYWT: How do you get started on a project?
Charles: First, I read all the things about my subject that are easy to find, always keeping in mind that these probably aren’t reliable. After I’ve scooped up all the names, dates, and so on in a person’s life that are commonly known, then I have to start excavating: Has anyone my search turned up donated papers to a library? Where? Are there any contemporary accounts such as oral histories, newspaper articles, diaries? I make lists of names I come across — editors, children, classmates: Are they still living or dead? My unsorted inventory gets bigger.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Charles: One desktop folder splinters into dozens, like when Mickey Mouse chopped up the enchanted broom and it turned into an army of them. The very first folder for instance might be “Harper Lee Biography”; then inside, as I find out more information, folders begin to multiply: family, childhood, schools, church, early writing, and the all-important one, “Chronology.” The document inside the Chronology folder grows longer and longer as years break down into seasons, and months — maybe even days.
From the files in these folders I build an outline.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Charles: Well, I used to be more disciplined. When I started writing full-time in 1997, I dressed as if I were going to work in an office every day: dress shirt, tie, trousers. And I was at my desk by 7 am (my wife was still commuting then and left the house at that time). I took an hour for lunch downstairs and worked until 5 pm. But I don’t have the stamina anymore I did then. I drink coffee in the mornings and look out the window; I talk to my wife; I mosey upstairs when I’m good and ready.
When I’m deep into a project, I work on whatever my energy is in the mood for that day: maybe it’s interviewing some people, or outlining, or doing more research. Sometimes I can write for five or six days at a stretch. But the point is to keep moving the project forward by working on some aspect of it. The variety of switching from task to task keeps me interested.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Charles: I love online finding aids in library collections. The lists of correspondence, materials, and photographs are like a raw index of the book I’m working on. They’re treasure maps to me.
Bonus question: What do you wish someone could have told you before you started this project?
Charles: I always wonder at the beginning whether I’m the right person to write this biography. Even finding out everything there is to find out about a person doesn’t guarantee that a book will be well-received. Interpretation, insights, pacing — and most important of all: empathy with the person — are all places where I might shine or stumble. So I have to answer my own question in the affirmative: Yes, I am the right person to write this book. No one else knows except me until it’s finished.