Interview with Charles Shields

charles_shieldsCharles Shields  is author of.

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?

click to buy

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.

See SLR’s profile of Harper Lee.


  1. RomyAna Kaval says



    What a challenge and Sisyphean task to create a portrait of Nelle Harper Lee, the best novelist of the 20th Century while she is against and insists keeping her privacy. What a mission impossible for a biographer to not even exchange a word with the one whose character he wants to describe. And what an admiration, great respect and devotion is needed to keep the work on “Mockingbird” going no matter how hard it is for each and every step.

    I’m sure Charles J. Shields didn’t know what he was involving himself into when he decided to write his book. After all Nelle Harper Lee is one of the most mysteriously secretive women alive and yet the one so openly self-revealed throughout her own words brilliantly knitted into her novel “To kill a Mockingbird”. But Shields’ passion was to create an honest tale about the persona of this exclusively talented Alabama woman that armed generations to come with the greatest idea that giving respect to the differences between ourselves as human beings is all we need. And he went to his four years journey of struggle. He fought to get to the real sources of Lee’s exceptional gift, and to find out how the book was created, survived and proved itself through the years. As Harper Lee wasn’t cooperating, Shields had to meet with hundreds of people from different circles who knew her personally – relatives, old friends, acquaintances. And he had to make over 600 interviews to get the actual picture he was putting so meticulously on his canvas.
    Until Charles J. Shields, as Miss Lee preferred to stay out of the media lights, the only source about her persona could be squeezed only from the novel. I truly believe that Shields’ book is an honest and monumental work that will help future generations to reach and easier and better understand Harper Lee in her deep human essence, and hear clearly and on a deeper level her messages.
    The only thing sadly left to be desired here is the personal participation and presence of the real Nelle, with her own passions, emotions, feelings, motives and reasoning about different things and events in her own life and also about the ups and downs of the life and morality now days in general. Things that her privacy is depriving us all of and obviously creating more and more hunger for knowing her better and closer. The good news is Nelle Harper Lee is still here and with us and could change this, come back to her audience and add the missing components of her own portrait that Charles J. Shields painted with such precision, sincerity, love and ardor.

Leave a Reply