Harper Lee biographer overcomes 'cold trail'

Thursday, February 22, 2007
Author Charles Shields discussed the investigative work used to report his book "Mockingbird," a biography of Harper Lee, at the Central High School library Wednesday. (Kit Doyle)

It is possible to write a biography of a subject who won't be interviewed and encourages all of her friends and family to do the same. Charles Shields' biography of Harper Lee, the often reclusive author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," sidesteps just this problem.

Shields was the guest speaker Wednesday night at Central High School for the sixth annual United We Read celebration. He spoke to about 40 people in the school's library about the often difficult process of writing his latest book, titled "Mockingbird."

He said his research, which took five years and included 600 interviews, was like following "a pretty cold trail."

"I went on my own faith that if I kept going, I'd eventually have enough for a full-length adult novel," he said.

But it wasn't easy. Four years before the book was complete, a prospective publisher photocopied Shields' 95-page manuscript and sent it to the 81-year-old Lee.

She was not happy.

"She set about calling people I had contacted and told them not to talk to me and not to send pictures," he said. "She made it much harder for me by trying to head me off at the pass."

Shields has since heard Lee has instructed friends not to read the book and refuses to appear at any events where he is present.

Despite the rebuff, Shields was charmed by his subject. Lee, he said, has all the same traits of her famous protagonist, Scout Finch.

"She was that precocious, outspoken, nonconformist little girl. And I can tell you at 81 years old, she hasn't changed a wit," he said.

Shields was inspired to write the biography thanks to the students he taught years ago as a high school English teacher. His students always wanted to know more about Lee, but he couldn't answer their questions. The resources he consulted disagreed on many biographical details and were incorrect in other areas.

"All the encyclopedias agree that she is a direct descendant of Robert E. Lee, which of course she's not," he said.

Shields sifted through long-forgotten documents at the Columbia University Library in New York and contacted Lee's living contemporaries through unorthodox methods like the Web site classmates.com and the University of Alabama Alumni directory.

In the end he uncovered many new facts about Lee, who never wrote a follow-up novel to her first and has not granted a media interview since 1964.

For instance, he was able to identify the benefactor who in 1957 paid for Lee to take the year off work and finish her novel. Shields also meticulously tracks Lee's contribution to "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote's 1966 "nonfiction novel." Lee, he said, never received due credit from her childhood friend Capote and it led to their estrangement.

"He acted as if she just came along for the ride," Shields said of the reporting the two did in a small Kansas town.

Many present at Wednesday's event had copies of the "Mockingbird" signed by the author. "I love this book, I've read it three times," said Donna Smithey of McClure, Ill. Smithey first read "To Kill a Mockingbird" in junior high and was fascinated by Lee because "she's a mystery."

Central High School librarian Julia Jorgensen hopes the event inspires others to write. "Everyone was just enthralled with his speech and the commitment he made and how he brought the book to life," she said.

Shields will speak to students at Central High School four times today. The speeches are open to the public and will take place in the library at 8:30 a.m., 9:20 a.m., 10:10 a.m. and 12:40 p.m.


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