SLR: Mr. Shields, when I learned of your biography, I wondered–how? May I assume that you didn’t start this project thinking you’d receive any help from Ms. Lee? And if so, did this undertaking turn out to be harder or easier than you expected?
CS: From the beginning in 2002, I didn’t expect Miss Lee to help me. I hoped to minimize her concerns about this book by proceeding cautiously and letting it be known among her friends that I wasn’t out to injure her reputation. I never insisted that anyone talk to me. Not having her help, however, meant that I had to find many people on my own who knew her, and that involved a great deal of sleuthing.
SLR: As a beautiful wordsmith and an experienced biographer, what was the hardest part about writing this biography?
CS: The biggest challenge was trying to convince the reader, which I hope I have, that someone may have only one book in her. I explained as best I could why that is so, keeping in mind that many admirers of have been waiting years for a second novel.
SLR: You spend a lot of time on her trip to Kansas with Truman Capote (see SLR’s profile) compared to the other 80 some years of life material. Is this because you saw it as the second most significant time in her life (the first being the success of Mb) or because her life lends itself to so few personal events?
CS: I wanted to give Miss Lee credit, long overdue in my opinion, for her part in creating one of the most important nonfiction books of the 20th century. Garden City, Kansas was a traumatized town after the Clutter murders in 1959. Not only did Harper Lee help Truman Capote penetrate a wall of suspicion and fear, but she also wrote character sketches and contributed insights about the people she and Truman encountered, which Capote later used in abundance. Nevertheless, when was published, Lee only received equal billing with Jack Dunphy, Truman’s lover, in the dedication. Dunphy had next to nothing to do within In Cold Blood. That gesture was extremely ungenerous of Capote.
SLR: After all your research do you feel Ms. Lee should have received more credit for ? It struck me that her reaction to the dedication seemed somewhat uncharacteristic of her, though believable? What are your thoughts on her reaction?
CS: From childhood, Lee was loyal to Truman, who could be quite a handful at times. He demanded attention and threw fits when he didn’t get it. I think it’s understandable that she would be hurt and angry that he would treat her compassion towards him so lightly and risk losing her as a friend.
SLR: What about Harper Lee did you learn in your research that most surprised you, if anything?
CS: Miss Lee has been remarkably consistent her entire life: she’s a nonconformist. I was surprised that the roughhousing girl of the 1930s was also the author of such a gentle book, and that she remained a pretty tough cookie into middle age and beyond. Friends know her as warm, but she also doesn’t care a fig about what anybody thinks of her.
SLR: If you could ask Ms. Lee any two questions, what would they be?
CS: I’d like to know whether she’s working on her memoirs— I’ve heard rumors that she is; and second, whether she will ever allow the hundreds and hundreds of letters she’s written to friends to be made public.
SLR: Thank you, Mr. Shields, for writing this biography. and for sharing your insight with us.