Featured Author: Charles J. Shields

Image courtesy Jen Fariello

Charles J. Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, was named our featured author this month for his nonfiction story "Doing in the Great Pasha."

F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. Charles J. Shields discovered this isn’t true; however, Act I may be so interminably long that you die before the second act.

After 20 years of teaching, Shields left the profession as English
department chair at a high school of 2,800 in suburban Chicago. On his final day in the building, another teacher trotted after him tremulously repeating, "But what will you do?" as if Shields had announced he was going to open a fried clam shack in the Antarctic. "I’m going to write," answered our hero.

And write he did, though the literary world did not welcome him right off as he had expected. In fact, it didn’t seem to notice that he had arrived on the premises. For several years, he wrote anything that paid: biographical profiles of young adult writers for encyclopedias; test prep booklets; articles for career magazines‹ not the sort of thing the Pulitzer committee was hungering to read. But Shields persevered, and finally stumbled upon his métier (where he had left it under the bed), which was writing 20,000-word histories and biographies for young people. The work was steady and respectable, and so Shields labored at this for five years, eventually writing 20 books of this sort (he likes the figure "20": 20 years of teaching; 20,000 words; 20 books. There’s something so Reese Witherspoonish about the number.)

But then a thought hit him in the back of the head like a well aimed slush ball on a March day in Chicago. "Evita!" he realized. "I should try my hand at writing a biography for adults. That’s where the big money is."

However, being the naïve, 50-something lad he was, he didn’t stop to think that it would take years to research a full-scale biography. Nor did he pause to consider all the difficulties when he chose to write a biography of Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird who A) didn’t want a biography written about her, and B) hadn’t granted an interview in 45 years.

Ha! Who cares? Shields chose to write about Miss Lee anyway, and the next four years whisked by… Well, they passed incredibly painfully and slowly actually. But at length, and after four rewrites, the big fat 110,000-word biography was finished with 700 footnotes to boot and as of this writing his book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over a month.

So there. The end.

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