Interview with UMW's New Assistant Director of Great Lives
With the new academic year comes a noted addition to the University of Mary Washington’s faculty. Charles J. Shields, the new associate director of the Great Lives series, is a renowned journalist, teacher and biographer, whose current project is the biography of the late author Kurt Vonnegut.
He recently took time out of his schedule to answer some of the Bullet’s questions regarding his new position, the biography and UMW.
What made you decide to want the position of associate director of the Great Lives series?
I was a Great Lives speaker last spring, presenting about the life of Harper Lee with stories taken from my book, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. A friend of mine, James McGrath Morris, author of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power had also presented here earlier, and told me, “You’ll love it. They really roll out the red carpet.”
And it was true! From beginning to end, being a guest of the Great Lives program was the most memorable experience I’ve had as an author. And that’s saying a lot because I’ve given talks all over the country to more than 100 audiences. Also, about 400 people attended my talk, which is an exceptionally large audience for an author.
Then at the conference of Biographers International Organization (BIO) last May at the National Press Club in Washington, I had a chance to talk with Great Lives director William Crawley, and Torre Meringolo, vice president for advancement and university relations. Professor Crawley mentioned that since his former co-director, Carter Hudgins, would be more involved with historic preservation work in Charleston, he needed an associate. It was an ideal opportunity for me because I like books, students and ideas.
What kind of responsibilities does the associate director have?
Well, the job keeps expanding because more and more possibilities keep presenting themselves! Fundamentally, I work with professor Crawley on choosing and inviting speakers. But we’re brainstorming how to grow the program.
What kind of speakers are you going to try to get?
We’re going to have presentations about inventors, a scientist, the founder of the Girl Scouts, Anne Frank in the first graphic biography of her life and Madam C. J. Walker, an entrepreneur who was first in the field producing cosmetics for black women, among others. We’re appealing to young people, and longtime supporters in the community too, of course. Great Lives has a exceptional reputation and people have high expectations.
Is there going to be any kind of theme to your lectures, such as a historical or literary focus?
The theme is “what makes a great life”?
Are you going to try and institute any major changes to the program?
I have three goals: to increase the visibility of the course in biography taught by Dr. Crawley; to make Great Lives a greater part of the educational experience for UMW students; and ultimately, to bring Great Lives to national prominence.
As far as we know, no one else has written a biography about Kurt Vonnegut. How did you get the job? What was it like writing on such a famed author?
You’re right— there’s never been a complete biography of Kurt Vonnegut. I approached Vonnegut by writing him, telling him a bit about myself, and saying what I wanted: which was to write a biography of him. At first he said no. But the second time I wrote him, he said yes.
Kurt was a haunted man, as if he had truly seen a ghost, and I attribute that to his mother’s suicide when he was home on leave during World War II on Mother’s Day, 1944, and as a result of his experiences in Dresden as a POW. He witnessed the firebombing of one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, which left more than 35,000 people dead. For weeks, he waded through dark, flooded basements retrieving bodies and stacking them in the streets on grills made of railroad ties to be burned— entire families.
I could never get Kurt to laugh. He enjoyed friendship, but he seemed to be thinking about something that preoccupied him. His dilemma was existential: he wasn’t sure of the purpose of life, or as he put it in his first novel, Player Piano, “What are people for?
You have a twitter and a blog; do you feel these social networking sites have helped you as an author?
I was skeptical at first about the value of social networking, because on Facebook people kept circulating pictures of cats and babies. But then I realized that I didn’t have to post pictures of cats and babies. I can post whatever I want. So there’s no reason why social networking can’t be just an extension of who you are, and what you’re interested in. Over the past six months, I taught myself WordPress, and iMovie. I blog once a week; I made a book trailer; I tweet; and I have a web site that will go live after the book comes out.
You see, publishers are no longer sending authors out on book tours. Instead they put their marketing into Internet efforts. To be part of the worldwide conversation about books and ideas, as an author, you have to jump into the digital ocean.
Finally, what have been your first impressions of the UMW campus and community?
For years, I’ve been hearing educator friends of mine say, “I want to teach at a small college.” Then they’d describe a place with bright students, engaged instructors, high standards, and a lovely setting.
I found it! It’s the University of Mary Washington.
Shield’s latest biography, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life, will be released in November. He can be found on twitter at twitter.com/charlesjshields.