When you think of Harper Lee, do you think bad-ass? Neither did I, until I started reading Charles J. Shields’ Mockingbird, an unauthorized biography that paints the young Lee as a quick-witted, potty-mouthed, intensely private law school drop-out whose success as a first-time novelist so overwhelmed her that she retreated into the bosom of her Alabama hometown, never to publish another book — at least not in her lifetime.
Now Shields is writing a biography of Kurt Vonnegut and, since the Slaughterhouse-Five/Palm Sunday author is neck-and-neck with Mark Twain on my personal Totem Pole of American Literary Deities, when Shields wrote to tell me the news, I prevailed upon him to explain how the project came about.
The story, complete with a rejection and later approval from Vonnegut, appears below.
Not long after Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee was published last June, I started thinking about my next project. I weighed some ideas, did a little research, but for one reason or another, I couldn’t hit on an author who intrigued me enough to tie me to my desk for several years.
And then I thought — Vonnegut! My first letter to him started out as strong as I could conceive:
July 10, 2006
Dear Mr. Vonnegut,
Millions of readers would choose you as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. And if my 26-year-old nephew is any indication, you’re the literary hero of a new generation, too….
And I predict this: the importance of your work as a writer and social critic is about to receive renewed attention. The war in Iraq, the rapid degradation of the environment, corruption on the corporate and governmental levels, the nativism of religious and political conservatives — will bring about a new era of activism. Your novels, filled with your trademark wit and anti-authoritarian jabs, will be part of the literature that guides and inspires the next forward-looking age.
Robert B. Weide, I know, has worked for years to complete a documentary of your life. And his exceptional talents as a director and filmmaker guarantee that it will be historic. But I believe there are places in a life story that only the written word can reach. Would you consider meeting me to discuss my writing your biography? I’m convinced there couldn’t be a better time.
He must have mailed his response the same day he received my letter. Before the week was out, an oversized padded envelope arrived with a print of one of his purple ink-pen drawings inside — no letter. It was a self-portrait in profile [see below; full size here], one of ten made in June. He wrote at the bottom: “A most respectful demurring by me for the excellent writer, Charles J. Shields, who offered to be my biographer.”
I put the drawing on my mantelpiece and studied it for a few weeks. “Demurring” was not as definite as “absolutely not,” or worse, a letter from some third party — say, a lawyer warning me off.
So, remembering advice from Truman Capote about interviewing — that is, tell a person about yourself first and he’ll be more inclined to reciprocate — I took a different tack.
July 23, 2006
Dear Mr. Vonnegut,
Thank you for the drawing. It’s playful and mordant. Your profile is slumped on our mantelpiece staring dolefully at the archenemy of all booklovers — the television. Regarding your response to my offer, my nephew said, “Of course, he wouldn’t want anyone else writing about his personal life. He’s been doing that himself his entire career.” Smart kid. If only he’d get that final credit from the University of Illinois to graduate.
Respectfully, I’d like the chance to make another pitch. A do-over. This time, I want to begin by telling you about myself.
I’m a Midwesterner, raised in Park Forest, Illinois a community built for GIs and their families. William H. Whyte described it in The Organization Man (our house appears on an aerial map of the neighborhood; the key at the bottom indicates we hosted a coffee for a local political candidate but regrettably not a Halloween party for adults). When the kids on our block played Army, we had the goods — real helmets, ammo belts, and trench shovels. I thought everyone’s dad, like mine, had been in World War II. Then I met some remarkable people in the anti-nuke movement when my parents joined the Quakers.
My father wore a sharkskin suit and worked in public relations and advertising for Ford Motor Company in Chicago. He was an extrovert but came off as a square sometimes because he liked to talk about books. (On the side he was writing.) Maybe the Detroit office gave him the Edsel account because he was an egghead, figuring, “Charlie can figure out what to do with it.” The car’s grille looked like a toilet seat and the taillights like penguin flippers. As a publicity stunt, Dad froze a peach-colored Edsel in a block of ice and had it towed to Michigan Avenue. A photo of the “Ed-sicle” melting and smoking in 90-degree July heat made the papers, but the car’s moribund sales continued. Nothing could save that nightmare. It looked like a plumber had designed it. That’s when he decided, in one of his favorite phrases, “This is a buncha crap.” He quit and went into his first love, journalism.
Growing up, I read a great deal. (My mother didn’t tell me until I was married that she had dropped out of high school, afraid that her modest education would scotch my love of books.) At 18 I decided to drive to San Francisco, hoping that it might be the next Paris of the 1920s. Since I had the requisite VW microbus, freak girlfriend, and incipient problems with depression, your son’s The Eden Express was a guide in spirit. Later, I taught high school English, but left after 20 years to write nonfiction.
In the meantime, your worldview as an author and social critic became a leitmotif of the American Century. Beside me is Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, edited by William Rodney Allen; in my previous letter, I mentioned that I downloaded almost 600 articles about you and your work, some going back to the 1950s; I also have a preliminary bibliography that’s eight single-spaced pages; and your collection at Indiana University contains thousands of pages of your literary papers.
I explain these things as a prelude to making my case again: Someone else could cobble together a so-so version of your life just by mining what’s stored in library boxes and electronic files. And it will happen soon, I think. But I’m the guy for the job — for doing it right, that is.
I have important affinities with you: the Midwestern link, my experiences as the son of a World War II vet who wrote short stories while working for a big corporation; my values as a humanist; my admiration for your work. And I’m a damn good researcher and writer. When I started my life of Harper Lee, the odds were against me — mainly because so little was known about her — but I overcame the difficulties. Researching your life, by comparison, would be like traveling the Silk Road, with riches the whole way: lessons drawn from your writing life that would benefit young writers; political, social, and environmental issues in your novels and speeches that need to be taken up by another generation; insights into your work that only hindsight makes possible. Think of it as an adventure!
If you dread being quizzed by a stranger with a tape recorder, that’s not what I have in mind. I would to confirm with you whether a fact was true or not — that’s all. Life histories tend to be rife with stabs in the dark by biographers who are desperately trying to supply explanations due to conflicting stories or missing information. I’d like to ask you, by regular mail if you prefer it, for clarity about tenebrous points. I’ll limit my questions to real corkers — ones I can’t find the answers to any other way except by asking you.
Please give it some thought. This would be a privilege — a delight. And I’ll streamline the process for you — with better lines than the Edsel or the Volvo ever had.
Another week went by until I received the postcard below [full size here]:
“O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” I wrote him back. “Mr. Vonnegut said ‘OK’!”
Since then, our correspondence has fallen into a pattern. I send him a letter updating him about my progress; he sends me materials — hard-to-find articles, mainly — for my files. My goal is to win his trust, so that fact-checking will lead to friendship.
Image taken from this site.