Q&A: Indiana Authors Award winner Michael Shelden


Historian, biographer and Indiana State University professor Michael Shelden says he's “grateful” to have been awarded the Indiana Authors Award's top prize — the National Author award, given to a “writer with Indiana ties, whose work is known and read throughout the country” — because it demonstrates that a jury that has typically given the award to fiction writers “understands that history, and certainly the kind of history that I'm trying to write, involves the imagination.”

For Shelden, who's written biographies of Orwell, Graham Greene, Mark Twain and, most recently, Winston Churchill (2013's Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill), it's important for a historian to have the almost novelistic skill to conjure a world using letters, diaries, interviews and the other archival materials extant.

It's why an Oklahoma-born and Indiana-based writer can write about British culture as convincingly as any native. According to Shelden, early readers of one of his first books, about the British literary critic Cyril Connolly and the '40s journal Horizon, were convinced that the author must have been a fellow Brit.

And it's that kind of facility with British English that led to his job as North American correspondent for London's Daily Telegraph. He worked for the Telegraph, then one of the most widely read papers in Europe, from 1995 to 2007, an experience he calls “a second graduate school,” when he became “the kind of professor who actually does what he teaches.”

Shelden, who's working on a book about Herman Melville and Moby Dick, will attend the open-to-the-public Indiana Author Fair Oct. 25 at the Central Library, then accept his award at the sold-out award dinner that night. His book about Churchill's coming-of-age, filled with at least five marriage proposals and plenty of romance, is now in development as a miniseries by Carnival Films, the producers of Downton Abbey.

NUVO: I'm looking at a review of Young Titan in The Guardian that's a little supercilious, if you will, that questions why an American is writing about Churchill. One characteristic phrase is “perhaps more people still go for the 'great man'” theory in America. Do you often get that sort of reaction from British readers?

Michael Shelden: “Slightly supercilious” is a good way to put it. The origin of that word is “raised eyebrow,” and I think that's what they're doing; they're raising an eyebrow that an American would dare to write about iconic English or British figures.

What many of them know — and sometimes they go easier on me for it — is that I worked for the Daily Telegraph in London for 15 years. I was their North American features correspondent, so I wrote to deadline — and sometimes the deadlines were pretty close — in British English. I did this for 15 years, traveling all around the country. I probably did 200 feature interviews, face to face. We never did anything over the phone; we always went and spent a day if we could.

In those days, the mid to late '90s and early 2000's, the newspaper business had not yet collapsed and they had money to throw around. It was great fun because you could go and interview just about anyone you wanted to. But the thing is I then had to file 1800 words in pretty flawless British English in order to meet deadline because nobody at the paper in London had time to sit around correcting an American's bad British English.

The Telegraph was at that time probably the most read English-language newspaper in Europe. It had circulation all over Europe. Once I picked up the paper in Rome; another time I wrote a story in Madrid, and the next day, there was the paper in front of my hotel door. It had a lot of reach.

One of the editors at The Telegraph Magazine — which, like The New York Times Magazine, is a glossy that goes inside the paper — was Emma Soames, who is Churchill's granddaughter. I worked for her for a little while, and liked her very much, and met a lot of people all over British cultural life. It looks strange that there's this guy in the Midwest writing about all of these people, but that's only because I had this second life in the '90s and early 2000's, afterwards and during which you get pretty used to understanding how things work over there.

So some of them — and some have actually been friends — have taken their shots at me in reviews. But most people have been pretty good to me and said nice things. You get a little bit of both, but I've survived, and I think I've done a pretty good job with it.

NUVO: How'd you come to live that “second life” over in the U.K.? Was it after you wrote your first book about British literary culture? [Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of Horizon, published in 1989, tells the story of literary critic Connolly and the influential journal Horizon, which he edited from 1939 to 1949. From the Library Journal review: “The London-based literary review Horizon introduced a brilliant and eclectic group of European and American writers to war-torn Britain. The review owed its success largely to Cyril Connolly, gifted essayist and well-known bon vivant, under whose imaginative editorship Horizon published works by Auden, Sartre, Orwell, Dylan Thomas, and many others.]

Shelden: Yeah, that didn't do much over here, but it was big hit over there. It got enormous review coverage; there must have been 40 different reviews of it in just about every magazine and newspaper at the time. They love that subject of World War II when it intersects with literary life, and I decided to write about that based on a magazine that was big at that time and the people who wrote for it. It got so much attention that the then-editor of The Telegraph — a man now knighted named Sir Max Hastings — invited me to write for the paper, doing reviews and interviews.

They were always year-to-year contracts, but that was how I wanted it because I had a job teaching as well. I could do most of it in the summers and on weekends. Therefore, for a long time I really had two jobs, and I enjoyed for a change being the kind of professor who actually does what he teaches. I was writing for publication every week, almost. Academic life being what it is, instead of embracing that kind of thing, they frown on it. They don't like you to go out and actually do what you teach because that isn't theoretical enough for them; it's too practical and they don't like practical things.

So I was always rubbing against the grain with that work, but I loved doing it and I learned a lot. When you have to churn out copy under a great deal of pressure for a million or two million readers every week, that'll get you over any kind of writer's block or any other problems you have with writing because if you fail one of those deadlines, you're finished.

It was really quite tense at times, but you learn to sit down with your notes and write up the piece, to get it done and have some time to spare so that nobody goes into a panic. That was the best training I ever got as a writer; it was a kind of second graduate school for me. I already had a PhD, but you know how school is. School was kind of make-believe for me, but writing for a paper like The Telegraph was the real thing.

NUVO: And you remained just as productive after leaving The Telegraph.

Shelden: I suspended writing books while I was with The Telegraph, and when that was winding down, I went straight back to writing books. I've written two large ones since that time and I'm working on a third now. I went right back into it, but for me the biographies are just really long interviews. If the person's dead, instead of actually sitting down with them what you try to do is go back and get enough material — letters, diaries, interviews that were published in the old days — and pull that together and try to recreate a sense of being on the scene with a person and watching them do, in the case of Churchill or Twain, watch them do the things that made them famous.

NUVO: What are you working on now?

Shelden: It's on Herman Melville and Moby Dick, a kind of dramatic history of how it came into being.

NUVO: And why Melville?

Shelden: Laughs. None of the stuff I do makes any sense! I should probably never take on any of these books. Why should an American in the Midwest be writing about Churchill? Melville's much more familiar to me, and so was Twain, of course, than Orwell or Churchill. But lives are still lives. They still have patterns that are fairly similar; people go through the same ordeals.

A writer's life is very familiar to me; how writers choose certain subjects, why they're attracted to certain things. The story of Melville writing a book that just fails utterly, that destroyed his life and destroyed his career — I think it's fascinating that someone would create a masterpiece and, yet, the world would take 70 years to find that out.

[page]NUVO: Can you talk the new angles you've tried to take when writing biographies about very well-known figures? What kind of discoveries have you made in archives?

Shelden: I probably did 50 interviews for Orwell with people who had known him or worked with him: his secretaries, his editors, his best friends. Within about 12 years, all those people were dead, so I got them at the very end. All those interviews are valuable, and, in fact, I just had a guy email from England asking if I still had my notes for an interview I did 25 years ago. I'm saying, 'They're somewhere around here, but geez, I've moved on to so many other things.' But it was the last chance to catch these people, so I think at some point I should gather all these interviews and put them together for a library.

For Twain and Churchill, you find new material in archives. There was a large group of papers — the papers of Henry Asquith, the prime minister in the early years of the century — that dealt with Churchill at the Oxford Library in England which held a lot of information. [The Asquith family] kept diaries, they corresponded with each other almost daily, and Churchill was constantly coming up in his family's correspondence and diaries. Those were very revealing about Churchill as a young man, giving a sense of his character and his plans for the future. Asquith's daughter Violet was in love with Churchill, and no one before I came along had taken Churchill seriously as a romantic figure when he was young. They're thinking as an old man he was not very romantic at all, but as a young man he had Violet as a girlfriend — and there were at least four other women who he proposed to. Three of them turned him down before the fourth accepted. And all of that had been ignored.

His early romantic life as a very dashing young man had been ignored by both British writers and the one or two Americans who had written about him, so it came as a bit of a surprise to a lot of people, and I think that's what attracted the producers of Downton Abbey because they bought the film rights to Young Titan. They've commissioned a writer named William Boyd, who's a very good novelist, to write the script to a miniseries that will basically focus on young Churchill's love life.

If that makes it to the screen, it'll be very interesting because people will not have seen that side of Churchill. That's what I was trying to capture in my book, and all of that is new. And that's why Carnival Films, the company that makes Downton Abbey — they're part of NBC Universal but are based in London — bought the film rights for both television and movies. It looks more likely that this will be done as a television series, first in Britain and then it will probably show over here in the U.S.

NUVO: Did you consult with William Boyd on the script?

Shelden: Yes. He's finished the first script and that's the one that we're using as the basis for selling the series.

NUVO: What kinds of questions did he ask?

Shelden: He wants to make it as dramatic as possible, but he also wants to stick to the facts. So if his sense of drama seems to be outrunning the facts, he'll come back to me and say, 'Does that make sense to you? Or is that factually correct?' And I'll tell him if it is or not?

NUVO: Churchill styles himself as a Byronic Romantic during his early years. I can see how the book would have appealed to Downton Abbey viewers.

Shelden: Exactly. It's the same period of time that the early Downton series covered. It's the same social set. Churchill's grandfather was a duke, so he's very comfortable in that aristocratic world.

I do think it's odd — I never stop thinking about this — that some guy in Indiana is describing these largely alien worlds to Americans. When I was in my 30s was when I wrote that first book about British life. When I submitted it, I had only been to England a couple of times, but the publisher said that their early readers of the book thought it was written by an English person. Since then, I've probably been to England 50 or 60 times and spent whole summers there, so now I obviously feel a lot more comfortable. But it was a kind of act of imagination; you're trying to conjure a world in your head, and you can do that largely from reading. That's why people can still write westerns, can't they? Or science fiction. You create a world that feels real, but for you it may never have existed or it may only exist vaguely.

I feel especially grateful for this award because, up until this point, I think most of the writers they've honored have been fiction writers, or at least creative non-fiction writers who write memoirs or autobiography. So to have someone who's essentially writing history to be honored with that group is, I think, very nice. I think they understand that history — certainly of the kind that I try to write — involves the imagination. It's not that you're making up anything, but you're trying to give life to a world that's dead. Whether you're writing about Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in 1802 or Churchill in England in 1912, you still have to use your imagination in order to understand that world and piece it together for a reader so that it comes to life.

NUVO: Do you think you have any advantages as an outsider writing about England? Maybe you wouldn't take some things for granted that a native would?

Shelden: That's a great question because, a few years back, I would have said it really helped to be an outsider and that I couldn't write as well about Indiana because I was too close to it. But now — and it's a strange thing — I feel like an outsider everywhere I go! Laughs. I look at everything with a sort of detachment that I think is very good for writers.

I was interviewed recently by a magazine in Bloomington called Bloom, and they were putting together a piece on the most well-known writers from Southern Indiana. They asked me what I thought was good about working in Indiana. And I said, 'I can be left alone and do my work in peace and quiet.' I think the answer you're supposed to give is people are so supportive and I have lots of writer friends I can talk to. But I said, 'That may be the case; I'm just not interested.'

I think a writer should be as alone as possible; that's how you get the writing done. Writing is not a team sport; it's a very lonely and individual activity. In order to have the best thing possible for a writer — a distinctive voice — you need to be left alone because that distinctive voice comes from being alone enough to understand what it is you sound like when your style is in play.

Now I feel that the kind of imaginative world I've been talking about can exist anywhere I am, so that if I want to write about Western Massachusetts in the 1850s when Melville was there writing Moby Dick — I've been to Western Massachusetts a lot and I know the area well, but it's still more of an imaginative construct in my head.

And I know Indiana well now, but I think I could write about it as though I've never lived here, and in order to do that, you have to pretend. For example, if you were writing about Indianapolis, you'd have to pretend that Indianapolis is as much a work of the imagination as it is a real place you could wander around in. Here's the advantage of that: Once you make a place more a piece of your imagination than anything else, you can command it. It's yours, and when you feel something is yours, you can move it around, embellish it a bit, doing all the things that any writer needs to do. But when you feel that that world out there is in someone else's hands, it's hard to write about it.

NUVO: Do you ever feel hemmed in by the facts when writing about that kind of imaginary world? Do you ever want to write fiction?

Shelden: Well, let me give you an example. At the end of my book on Churchill, he's been thrown out of the government. He looked like he was going to be a success, but he fails in a spectacular fashion. He had the failures of the war blamed on him. If you were writing that as fiction, if this were a character, you have him go off by himself and maybe commit suicide. Or get on a boat and disappear somewhere. Or maybe become a spy for the other side. You would almost never be tempted to do what he actually did, which is put on the uniform of an ordinary officer and go off and fight in the trenches, where death is almost certain. The life span of those guys was pretty short.

If I wrote that as a creative writer, people would think that was impossible and melodramatic. So for me the twists that reality take are much more interesting than the twists in fiction. In fact, now, when I read a lot of fiction, I just say to myself, 'But this is made up!' And I didn't use to do that. I kind of feel cheated. For example, even with Moby Dick, the actual fiction doesn't interest me as much as the life of Melville that went into writing it. When people are just making things up, I now wonder why you would do that when life has stories that are so compelling and people that are so interesting.

It is a fact that up until, I'd say, 20 or 30 years ago, you couldn't get people to you their stories as well as they'd tell them to you today. In other words people are much more open about their lives; we're all on Oprah and Ellen now. If you can find a group of people who are open enough and have a story they can tell, that's your book, instead of watching those people from a distance and pretending you can understand their lives and make it all up.

NUVO: It can be difficult for any writer to synthesize a lot of information — whether writing an obituary or book-length biography — and boil it down to a engaging, accurate narrative. Any advice on how to process all that info?

Shelden: Pretend you're Alfred Hitchcock. Here's what he did: When he had a film in mind, he would sketch it out in his head as a series of scenes. Of course, now we know that in Hollywood as a storybook, where you create a series of scenes almost as a graphic novel, and you visualize each scene so completely that for Hitchcock anyway, it was almost as if he had made the movie. It was pretty easy for him to then take the camera and go out and shoot scenes because he had so intensely imagined those scenes ahead of time.

When you want to write a book, especially, it's important to do it almost as though it's a storybook with set scenes in your head that you want to bring to life. I don't think it's important to sketch them out very clearly, either physically or in your head, but I think it's important to have an image.

For example, my Twain book, which is about the last years of his life, begins with this image of him wearing a dark overcoat and a bowler hat, smoking a cigar, walking up the steps of the fairly new Library of Congress, to go inside and appear at a committee meeting of Congress where wanted to he protest about the lack of copyright protection. And when he gets in the room — it's a cold day in December — he just knocks everyone in the room over, almost physically, when he pulls off his black hat and dark overcoat and stands there with his white hair and white suit.

For those sober times when everybody dressed in black, especially in winter, it was as though he had brought with him a whole set of fireworks. He was a showman and that particular day he proved it. People have thought that trademark suit of his — the white suit — was something he had worn for years in his career, but in fact that was the first day when he debuted the outfit. He wore it only in the last three years of his life, and yet he made it so famous that we can't think of Mark Twain without it.

I wanted to tell the story of those last three years because they were very dramatic, and what a great way to begin it, to put the reader right beside Twain as he was walking up those steps into the committee meeting. I even have the various senators sitting at the table, the stenographer's writing down the notes. I was able to get a great sense of the atmosphere — and then he stands up, takes off that coat, and people actually gasp and fall back in their chairs. If you can keep that up, if you can tell a story through a series of compelling scenes, each one so completely visualized that you think you're there, that's the way to do it.

[page]NUVO: There was quite a hullabaloo surrounding your Graham Greene biography? What do you think of it 20 years later? And why were people so upset? Was it that you were attacking sacred cows? [Here's the New York Times review: “For all the cosmetic changes, Graham Greene: The Enemy Within remains a calculated act of malice. It is difficult to murder a corpse but Michael Shelden does his best. Whence this animus? Mr. Shelden, previously the biographer of George Orwell, pleads honest outrage at his subject's moral failings. Yet permeating the whole thing is the whine of the spoiled child denied free run of the playroom. The nasty old estate wouldn't give him access to its papers. Most of Greene's friends spurned Mr. Shelden.”]

Shelden: Yeah, that's it. And Greene loved to do that; he loved to attack sacred cows. Mark Twain actually said, 'I never attack things that are sacred except to other people.' I've always had that mischievous streak in me that likes to be slightly subversive. I wrote Orwell's biography and I get probably more questions every week about Orwell than anything else. When the NSA scandal broke, I was interviewed about surveillance and Snowden. To my mind, the most prophetic statement in any book of the last 100 years is Orwell's statement in 1984: “Big Brother is watching you.”

I'm fascinated by Orwell's willingness to challenge the status quo, his willingness to attack people on both the left and the right, his true independence. I was was very much under his influence when I wrote Graham Greene because I had just finished the Orwell biography. Orwell had attacked Greene while both were obviously still alive. Greene didn't like it, but I thought if Orwell could do that, I could do that, little knowing that so many people had their own reputations and their own careers staked out on Greene. They weren't going to be too thrilled if I came along and said things about him that, in my opinion, made him look more interesting but, in their opinion, made him look simply bad.

I enjoyed writing that book; it was only the aftermath I didn't enjoy. People don't attack what you say; they attack you. I kind of got a preview of what it's like to be a politician. It doesn't matter what you think. Your enemies are just going to attack you. They won't really engage with you on the facts; they'll come after you as an individual. That's true on the right and the left. I hadn't seen it happen in literature; I didn't think the stakes were high enough for that. But I think people wanted to say that they didn't approve of what I had shown, so the best way to show that was to say, 'Shelden must have an axe to grind.' They said everything under the sun.

I think it's kind of good for you because I think it's important for writers to get used to being called names. You're always going to get people, especially now on Amazon and all of these book review sites, who can log on and say anything they want about you. You're fair game. I think that's not a bad thing; it's just that you have to develop a thick skin because people will attack you if they think that your point of view damages their point of view. And I believe that it's important to have competing points of view.

NUVO: I'm looking at an exchange from The New York Review of Books where you defend what you said about Greene's anti-Semitic writings — and David Lodge, who had negatively reviewed the book, doesn't so much engage with you on the facts of the situation as say that you've taken everything out of context. [Here's Lodge: “I don’t have the time at my disposal to comb through the fiction of the 1930s to match Mr. Shelden’s gathering of allegedly anti-Semitic quotations from Greene’s work, but in any case merely listing such phrases torn from their context proves nothing.”]

Shelden: David Lodge is a nice guy. I've met him once and there's no personal thing between us, but he had written very early on in his career a book about Greene, and I think he was compelled to stand up and defend Greene, especially from a religious standpoint. Here's the guy at the worst possible time in history ridiculing Jews. At a time when Jews were desperate to get out of Europe and take refuge in places like the United States and England, here's this guy making fun of him. I thought that was awful, but I thought that was typical for Greene. He was a creatively malicious person, and there are lots of writers who are not very nice people, who do bad things, but are still good writers. Greene was one of those characters.

You can't sweep that under the carpet, you can't pretend that didn't happen, though Greene, after the war, when it was clear what had happened to the Jews, that they had suffered enormous persecution, removed those references or doctored them in his books. I think you have to say that; you have to say this is what he did. There was no debate over whether he had done it or not; he did it. The thing that David Lodge could do is what you see in politics — spin it. As I say, 20 years ago, since I'm not really a political person, it was my introduction to politics. The spinning, the attacking of character: all these things went on during that episode. It was mystifying to me; I hadn't been used to that, but now I see it in politics all the time obviously.

NUVO: Is Indiana State a good home base for your work?

Shelden: Being a tenured professor is a great job. If you're a tenured full professor, you should hang on to that. And if you're a tenured full professor at a university where people allow you to do pretty much the writing that you want to do — nobody dictates to me anything about writing — that's wonderful. Let me write and I'll be happy. The students that we have at Indiana State are not much different from the students I've taught at IU or anywhere else.

When you're teaching undergraduate students, which I tend to do, they're all pretty wonderful people. I think college students today get a bad rap. They've made a big effort to be in the part of society that wants to go on and get a better education. They're not there to take up your time, to be a problem in any way. They're there to learn and it's great to work with people who want to learn at any level.

It's great to balance a life where you can have engagement with people and discuss ideas and then you can go off on your own and write. It's terrific. It's spared me having to do what writers in other times have had to do, what Melville had to do, which is worry about how to make the next payment if this book or that book doesn't sell enough copies.

NUVO: Anything you'd like to say about the Indiana Authors Awards?

Shelden: It's a terrific thing because it makes it possible for Indiana writers to get recognition in a very, very public way. They reach out to papers like yours, to magazines, and they really try to publicize books and writers. It's the public library in Indianapolis, along with the Glick Foundation, that are doing this — and it's a great thing that they are. I've said recently that books need advocates. Books are an endangered species right now. By that I mean books that you can hold in your hands and read the old-fashioned way, which I still prefer. They're an endangered species and need protection and encouragement.

NUVO: What do you get out of reading a biography?

Shelden: Life is not that much different for any of us, and whether you're the head of a government, business or household, you still have the same challenges. You've got to recover from setbacks, to make up your mind to take a large risk and see it through, to have dedication, determination, all the great character traits. And when you read a great biography, you get a great sense of how people use their characters to see them through the challenges that all of us face in life. I find that endlessly interesting.

To me, biography is the greatest form of history; somebody said that before, and I still like my history to come to me as biography. When, by the way, people say someone like Shelden would think the great man theory of history still pertains — I'd say, tell me why it doesn't? Tell me how the world would have been different if Churchill hadn't been in it and you'll see how important he was. Individuals do make a difference, and I think it's only a kind of sterile, academic frame of mind that would pretend that individuals don't make a difference.

Every one of us knows, in our own lives, how sometimes we've been fortunate to make a difference, but more common is that someone's made a difference in our lives. One person who stands up, like an Orwell, and who says this is wrong and does it very bravely and very courageously — that matters and it has to matter. And if it doesn't matter, I don't know what we're doing here.

Yes, with a kind of supercilious tone, people can say, 'Well, we know the Great Man theory is long obsolete.” And to that I just say, 'Bullshit.' That's just absurd. How are things shaped if individuals aren't shaping them? And if those individuals don't matter, if we're all kind of interchangeable, then what the hell are we doing here? I think ordinary people feel that very much. It's only when you can pontificate in a theoretical way that you can persuade yourself that individuals aren't crucial.

NUVO: And that “great man” theory isn't synonymous with totalitarianism or fascism.

Shelden: You don't want a cult of personality, but Orwell's solution of that is to say that the individual has to be independent, even independent of your own followers. Orwell once said that liberty is nothing if it doesn't mean the right to tell people what they don't want to hear. You would think that that was obvious, but I think for many people freedom of speech means you're free to say as much as they'll tolerate. And his point of view is that it's aggressively antagonistic, that your freedom to speak is a freedom to speak against and not for. If you take that attitude, you see how powerful the individual is because often it's that lonely voice that chooses to speak out when everyone else is silent.