Interview: Vonnegut biographer Charles Shields 

click to enlarge Charles J. Shields - MICHAEL BAILEY
  • Charles J. Shields
  • Michael Bailey

After receiving Kurt Vonnegut’s blessing to write his biography, Charles J. Shields was able to meet with the author twice — the second time occurring on the same day that Vonnegut would trip and fall down the front steps of his home in New York City, hitting his head and going into a coma from which he would never recover.

Shields’ difficulties were just beginning. Although he continued working on his Vonnegut project, he did so without the support of Vonnegut’s son, Mark, or the cooperation of Vonnegut’s longtime attorney, Don Farber. Mark Vonnegut and Farber would eventually bar Shields from quoting Vonnegut letters that Shields solicited from some of Vonnegut’s many correspondents.

Mark Vonnegut recently issued a public statement about Shields’ book: “Charles Shields spent very little time with a much diminished 84 year-old who right up to the end showed more flashes of brilliance and warmth than most. There’s a ton of evidence, including his art and writing that he fought hard and largely succeeded to overcome PTSD from WWII and a quirky if not altogether unloving childhood to have mostly loving and supportive relationships with his siblings and children and even his allegedly distant father. Shields had to ignore most of what I and other people who knew Kurt and most of what he read in the letters to come up with these shocking truths about a beloved writer.”

Last week Charles Shields agreed to tell NUVO his side of the story.

NUVO: What led you to Kurt Vonnegut in the first place?

Shields: I was in college in the late ‘60s. I was in the first draft lottery. Like a lot of young men my age, my father had been in World War II and it was difficult for us to make up our minds about where our duty lay, in terms of serving our country and doing our job as citizens.

Then along comes Slaughterhouse-Five, which sort of broke over us like a storm. Billy Pilgrim epitomized our confusion and bewilderment and disorientation. What Vonnegut was really describing in that book was a condition that was undiagnosed at that time, which was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Pilgrim is having terrible flashbacks. One moment he’s lying in the snow and the next he’s talking to Rotary, then he’s on Tralfamadore. While none of us had yet experienced that, we did feel like the country we had known was coming apart.

So I wanted to find out who was behind that book and who was behind the Vonnegut canon, so to speak. And, finally, where did his work belong in American literature, because the jury’s still out on that. I still run into people who are dismissive.

NUVO: Indianapolis is a recurring point of reference in Vonnegut’s work. What place do you think his hometown held for him as his work developed?

Shields: It was his point of reference for everything else that happened in his life. When I would talk to him late at night on the phone he would steer the conversation back to his childhood in Indianapolis. I think that was his basis of comparison: Am I as happy or am as content as I was when I was 10 years old, jumping off a pier into Lake Maxinkuckee? If not, why not? I’m successful, people stop me on the street. Why do I feel this continuing malaise of insufficiency, and why am I resentful? Why do I feel somehow discomfited?

I think his brooding about his unhappiness informed a lot of his books. And, of course, he had a lot to be unhappy about. There was the mystery of his mother’s suicide. The woman didn’t even leave a note. What message was she trying to convey by killing herself on Mother’s Day when her son is home on leave? I don’t think that riddle was ever solved for him.

Then all the other terrible coincidences and accidents in his life. Was he supposed to get some kind of meaning from this? Or was he just a hapless bystander, a victim of circumstance. The question that Vonnegut first asked in his first book, Player Piano, “What are people for?” is a question that runs through all of his work — and it runs through his life: “What am I for?”

NUVO: Is there a distinction to be drawn between Vonnegut the man, the husband and father, and the figure who inserted himself so frequently into his books?

Shields: Oh, sure. There’s an imaginative, creative person who, alone at the typewriter, was plumbing his feelings and ideas. Then there was the middle-aged freelance writer who was barely making it, who was under a lot of duress and constantly had to put up with a lot of children running in and out. He was pulled between the really quotidian, really mundane aspect of being a man in a large, rickety house who is broke, and the place where he wants to be, which is being a respected author. Maybe it’s that tension that creates the intimacy in his voice. You open a Vonnegut book and you get the sense that he’s talking to you. I haven’t thought of it before, but maybe a little bit of his loneliness and his sense of alienation is what creates that sense of intimacy.

NUVO: I’ve read about your issues with the Vonnegut estate over the use of letters in your book. What exactly happened in that situation?

Shields: Right before Kurt passed away I asked point blank: Do you have any letters? And he said, “No, I lost them in a fire in my study.” There still are papers at the Lilly Library at Indiana University, but they tend to be the papers of a career writer. A lot of them are business-related. It’s a good collection if you want to look at Kurt Vonnegut the writer, but there wasn’t much personal that was in there. After Kurt died, I began asking people, “Do you have any letters from Vonnegut?” It was amazing. They had kept them because Kurt didn’t write short, chatty notes. He warmed up his fingers at the typewriter by writing long letters to people. I think it got the rustiness out of his voice as a writer.

When my wife and I collected these letters, we found that sometimes he had written two long letters to two different people on the same day, about entirely different things. When I got done collecting all these letters that people had saved, we had 1,500 letters from 1945 to three weeks before he fell and went into a coma. We arranged them in chronological order. I wanted to quote from about 13 to 15 percent of the letters directly.

So I finished the draft of the book and we had to go to get permission from the estate to use that percentage of the quotes in the book. And all we got back was, “No.” No explanation. Don Farber, Kurt’s agent, told my agent, “Don’t kill the messenger, but all I can tell you is no.”

So I need to go back in — the book had already been through three drafts — reopen the manuscript and change quotes to paraphrases. It was an interesting exercise for me. I learned something from it, which is some of the quotes I really didn’t need to use. It wasn’t as critical as I thought. But some of them it was really work to reconstruct. That took me an extra month. But that’s really the whole story. They just said no.

NUVO: Is this a reflection of the turmoil that was in Vonnegut’s life all along?

Shields: No, it has nothing to do with the turmoil in his life. It has everything to do with the estate not wanting me to write his biography. Six months into the project I found out that they had hired an official biographer to write Kurt Vonnegut’s biography. I don’t know what happened, but, in any event, that went nowhere. So since they didn’t have an official biographer, I guess they regarded me as a bit of a loose cannon because I could say whatever I wanted to. What they did was not allow me to use quotes and I think Don Farber met with the Vonnegut girls and tried to persuade them not to work with me, things like that. So there were a lot of obstacles in the way that were unnecessary because I was going to do it anyway. Why not cooperate?

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