FACETIME- Flying blind: Tracking the elusive Harper Lee
In preparation for writing the unauthorized biography of literary icon Harper Lee, Greene County resident Charles J. Shields put together a comprehensive book proposal. He included a lengthy list of people he wanted to interview, which his agent sent to various publishing houses.
"Someone," Shields says, "took it upon themselves to send the list to Miss Lee. This is a person who hasn't granted an interview since 1965. So she countered by contacting everyone on my list and asking them not to talk to me. They would say, 'You know Miss Lee's not happy about your doing this book, so I can't talk to you.'"
Then why press on?
"I thought there was a story of the South in the 1930s that needs to be told," he says.
Shields is not the only person interested in the life of Miss Nelle Harper Lee. Her character was central to the recent Oscar-nominated film Capote. And her lone book, To Kill a Mockingbird, has had an amazing run. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, 74 percent of high schools make it required reading. Shields says it's surpassed only by the Bible on the all-time best-seller list. And yet, until Shields came along, there'd never been a biography of its author.
Shields persevered by finding new people to interview and new ways to crack the circle of silence around the 80-year-old Lee. He found a 1945 edition of the University of Mississippi yearbook on eBay that let him quash the myth that Lee wouldn't have deigned to join a sorority (Chi Omega was her choice). And gave him a slew of new people to contact.
Shields, 54, came to Central Virginia with his wife, Guadalupe, four years ago to work for the Core Knowledge Foundation. And while he was able to complete his first book, The College Guide for Parents (1985, The College Board), back while still teaching high school English, he quit his job at the Foundation after only 18 months to give Lee his full attention.
His research ended up scotching several rumors about Harper Lee: that she graduated from law school, that she's descended from Robert E. Lee– even that she was long since dead. He even explored her still-mysterious sexuality, and yet, when he submitted an advance copy to Lee, he received– not directly but via his publisher– just a single request: that he remove the address of her New York apartment building which he had included merely to provide evidence of her simple way of life.
"It wasn't to expose her," Shields says of the biography, entitled Mockingbird. "I tried to weave a mosaic of her life and the creative effort that went into her book."
Reviews are mixed: the Denver Post calls Mockingbird "captivating" while the Baltimore Sun brands it "vacant." So far, the harshest words weren't directed at Shields. In the May 29 New Yorker, Thomas Mallon blasts To Kill as "clumsy," Lee's voice as "wildly unstable," and even Scout, the beloved tomboy narrator (probably based on young Lee herself) as a "highly constructed doll."
And while 30 million book-buyers seem to have voted at the cash register, even Shields is not a universal fan. As the chair of a high school English department in suburban Chicago, he once recommended against teaching To Kill to his largely African-American student body.
"I don't think Tom Robinson is doing black kids any favors," says Shields. "He runs away and gets shot."
Charles J. Shields.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO