SO IT GOES
Part I of a Look at the Legacy of Revolutionary Writer KURT VONNEGUT /
A Spotlite on Revolutionary Biographer CHARLES J. SHIELDS
By Tyler Malone
When I first read Slaughterhouse-Five in high school it was not on the syllabus of one of my classes, but rather at the behest of a friend. She gave me photocopies of the pages upon which Vonnegut had explained the Tralfamadorian view of time (using the memorable image of a stretch of the Rocky Mountains) and had written what would become his most iconic phrase: “So it goes.”
This friend told me if those pages didn’t make me want to read the whole book then I didn’t have to. Of course, she knew full well that it would pique my interest. She even correctly assumed that Vonnegut would quickly become my favorite author. What she didn’t know was that the book would also plant within me a seed that, as it grew over time, sent me down the path of pursuing literature and writing as both a passion and a career.
As the years passed, through college and after, other pillars of literature took over Vonnegut’s place as my alltime favorite, but for a while, up until his death, I would call him “my favorite living author.” I was devastated when he died. So it goes. I actually ended up dating a girl I met the night I found out about his death because we were both sick over it, which seemed like a reasonable enough foundation for a relationship at the time. It wasn’t, and it didn’t work out. So it goes.
After Vonnegut, it was David Markson who became my next “favorite living author.” I decided I should try to contact Markson while he was still alive, forever kicking myself for never thinking to try and contact Vonnegut until it was too late. I did contact Markson, and he wrote me back both times I wrote him. After Markson’s death last year, I started a blog called Reading Markson Reading about the writer and the marginalia in his personal library. It was this blog that put me in touch with the wonderful writer Charles J. Shields. Shields at the time was still writing his biography of Vonnegut, and he kindly offered the letters Markson had written him regarding Vonnegut in his research for the biography. I’ve posted some of those letters, and will post more in future.
Shields has now released the biography And So It Goes–the first biography of Vonnegut–and it paints a beautiful yet melancholic picture of the writer, a writer whose gallows humor kept us all laughing and questioning, even in the face of tragedy, war, death and destruction. So it goes.
I spoke with the revolutionary biographer Charles J. Shields about his revolutionary writer-subject Vonnegut, the new biography, and the art of biography itself.
Tyler Malone: How would you define the role of the biographer?
Charles J. Shields: Let me tell you an anecdote. I was at the National Press Club for their annual book fair, and a teenager came over to my table. “Big book!” she said admiringly. “Is it sort of an homage to Vonnegut?” I explained to her that it’s a biographer’s job to interpret a life—to find patterns and meaning so that readers can decide for themselves what the written-about life was like: Successful? Sad? Incomplete? An “homage” suggests what used to called a hagiography, and those are no longer respected.
TM: Your first biography (for adults) took on Harper Lee, your second took on Kurt Vonnegut. What drew you to these two writers? What connects these writers? Is there a connection?
CJS: Both are writers who were embraced by my generation soon after they became popular in the ’60s. I find that by writing about authors who influenced my world, I understand myself a bit better, too. A second connection—and this has to do with marketability—neither Harper Lee nor Kurt Vonnegut have been the subjects of a biography before. If you can be first on the scene with a good book about someone, you’re bound to get some attention.
TM: Yes, one interesting thing about these two writers is that they’re two of the most well-known literary writers in 20th Century American fiction, and had both commercial and critical success, and yet for some reason neither had biographies written of them until you wrote yours (which I find surprising in both cases). Is that one thing that draws you to certain subjects? The fact of there being some mystery to it? That it’s a story that hasn’t been told countless times before?
CJS: I prefer doing original research. Before writing for adults, I wrote 20 short biographies and histories for young people. With the exception of a biography of Amy Tan, all the other subjects had been written about before. That makes me feel like a compiler. There’s more literary detective work in being the first one to write about someone. All the evidence is based on letters, interviews, old photographs, and clues in the person’s work. There’s an element of pursuit and hitting on fresh motives and reasons. I’m not right all the time about what I conclude, of course, but it’s important to contribute new insights, new ideas, new interpretations to culture. That’s a big part of what why I write about the authors of my times.
TM: How did you first get involved in writing Vonnegut’s biography?
CJS: Well, to go back to the very beginning, I was in college in 1969 and was eligible for the draft. Slaughterhouse-Five hit, and Vonnegut became, in our imagination, someone who was telling the truth about hypocrisies and folly. I never forgot his impact. After I finished the Lee biography, I was casting around for someone similar—a post-WWII author, American, very mainstream. I thought about Joseph Heller, someone else who didn’t have a biography. But his growing up in a Jewish neighborhood on Coney Island was too far from my experience. I was worried about hitting a false note. So next came Vonnegut: like me, a Midwesterner, a veteran like my father, and both men were journalists. So when I wrote to Vonnegut I explained the commonalities between us and said (rather bluntly), “I’m the guy for the job.” He wrote back, “OK.”
TM: Vonnegut died while you were writing the book. So it goes. What is your most memorable moment with him before he passed away?
CJS: One of the last things I asked him was, “Do you believe in God?” I don’t know why I brought it up. I suppose it was on my mind for some reason. He looked thoughtful and said, “I don’t know—but who couldn’t?” Shortly after I left, he took his little dog on a walk, tripped over the leash going down the stairs outside, and fell hard on the sidewalk. He went into a coma from which he never recovered.
TM: How did your perceptions of Vonnegut change during the researching phase of this book?
CJS: I honestly had no preconceptions about him. I’m not impressed by celebrity. I expected an elderly man, which he was, of course. What I did not expect was a man who was still pained by childhood memories. During our first, long face-to-face conversation, he made it clear that he resented his parents, and particularly his elder brother, the well-known atmospheric scientist, Bernard Vonnegut. I was surprised that a man his age, who had been writing and publishing for 50 years, was as angry as a teenager. As I say in the biography, however, I feel sure that his emotional state contributed to his appeal with young people.
TM: How would you say his years in the war changed him as a person and a writer?
CJS: Imagine this: a young, upper-middle class man, who was accustomed to having servants and a cook, finds himself a starving private in the army, a prisoner-of-war responsible for retrieving the floating bodies of women and children in flooded basements who had died, suffocated from a bombardment so intense that people on the street were hurled skyward in the resulting firestorm. Vonnegut saw the apocalypse and was haunted by it for the rest of his life.
TM: You and I first spoke because of Reading Markson Reading, and you kindly offered scans of Markson’s correspondence with you for the blog. Vonnegut considered Markson one of his finest contemporaries. In Timequake, Vonnegut wrote of Markson’s Reader’s Block: “I said David shouldn’t thank Fate for letting him write such a good book in a time when large numbers of people could no longer be wowed by a novel, no matter how excellent.” Who were some of Vonnegut’s other favorite writers? Both predecessors and contemporaries?
CJS: Vonnegut admired Celine (a veteran of World War I) a great deal (although he was disgusted by his anti-Semitism). The energy and chaos in Slaughterhouse-Five borrows from Celine’s contempt for the conventions of storytelling. Vonnegut was also an admirer of Ambrose Bierce. Bierce, like Vonnegut, witnessed a great deal of violence during the Civil War and infused his fiction with a similar kind of despair and bitterness. But Vonnegut still dared to be optimistic about humanity; Bierce found human beings laughable and absurd.
TM: What is your favorite Vonnegut book?
CJS: I admire Slaughterhouse-Five for its daring, its “nonstructure structure.” The most touching, though, is God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
TM: I would imagine that Vonnegut and Lee are probably two of your favorite novelists? Who are some of your other favorite novelists?
CJS: I’m rather conventional: Dickens, Defoe, Stevenson, Ray Bradbury, William Golding. My taste is rather unsophisticated.
TM: Is there something about novelists that attracts you to their life-story? Would you consider writing a biography on a non-writer? And have you ever considered being a novelist yourself? Or do you think you’ll stick to the world of non-fiction?
CJS: Let me put it this way: if I had the choice of doing a biography of any of the ancient gods, I would chose Hephaestus, the god of fire, especially the blacksmith’s fire, the patron of all craftsmen. The act of making something fascinates me, and since I’m a writer, how another writer goes about his or her art and craft is my favorite subject. Like most writers, I think about fiction, but I’m beginning to think that fiction is a young person’s game because most of it is about becoming someone. I don’t think I could write about a husband, a careerist, a young professor, and so on. That’s old news to me.
TM: Do you have a next person you’re interested in researching and writing about now that And So It Goes is out? And if so, can you tell us who?
CJS: I considered several people, both men, both reclusive authors, but after five years of working on Vonnegut, it’s hard to begin a new project.
[Please check out Part II of my look at the legacy of Kurt Vonnegut here.]
Charles J. Shields is a writer and biographer. His new book And So It Goes is a biography of author Kurt Vonnegut.
Charles J. Shields interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Michael Bailey / Additional Photography by Patrick McMullan
Design by Marie Havens
Charles J. Shields, Photography by Michael Bailey / Courtesy of Charles J. Shields
Kurt Vonnegut, The Paris Review Foundation Presents Fall Revel Honoring William Styron, Cipriani Toy, NYC, November 10, 2004, Photography by Patrick McMullan for Patrick McMullan.com