Charles J. Shields (BA, English, '75; MA, History, '79) is the author of 20 nonfiction books for young readers, and biographies of Harper Lee, John Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, and Lorraine Hansberry. He recently retired after a successful 25 year career as a writer where he combined his interest in literature with the research skills he gained as a historian. His favorite part of the job? The solitude and research. 

What was your first job after college?

I taught at a rural school west of Champaign. The students were from farm families and I learned about that kind of life. There was no school, for instance, during the farm implement show. Also, I couldn’t keep students after school for bad behavior because they had chores to do. A different rhythm to life than what I was used to. I taught at that school for three years.

What is your current career? And what do you like best about your work?

I’m retired after twenty-five years of writing fulltime. After leaving a career in teaching and administration, I published twenty nonfiction books for young people. My first trade book for adults, "Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee" (Holt 2006), became a New York Times bestseller, a Literary Guild Selection, and a Book-of-the-Month Club Alternate. The young adult version, "I Am Scout" (Owl, 2008) was chosen an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year, and a Junior Literary Guild Selection. In 2011, I published "And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life" (Holt), a New York Times and Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of the Year. My most recent biography, and the last one, is "Lorraine Hansberry: The Story Behind ‘A Raisin in the Sun’" (Holt, 2022).

What I liked best about writing was the solitude. Second, in my field, literary biography, there’s lots of fun—for me, anyway— in reading correspondence, locating people who knew the subject, and trying to make connections between an author’s works and their worldview.

How has your education at the University of Illinois informed your career?

Whenever I debate whether to footnote something, I hear the late Robert L. Carringer of the English department intone, “Footnote anything that is controversial or someone else’s thought.” And when I’m tempted to wax lyrical in a description, I imagine Charles C. Stewart, historian, looking troubled and saying, “Now those sentences are— eh, a bit… subjective, don’t you think?” And for sheer practice at writing regularly and clearly, I’m grateful I had the opportunity to write film reviews and features for the Daily Illini.

What does a typical workday look like for you? Also, what is an example of the most interesting aspect of your job?

As soon as I made the break to writing, I treated it as just another job. I got up very early, saw my wife off to work (she was an elementary school principal in Chicago) and then I sat down in front of my computer by 8 am. I worked until lunch, after which I stayed at my desk until around 5 pm and it was time to get dinner started from my wife. At the beginning, I wrote encyclopedia articles and test prep booklets, because those projects fit my background. Then I turned entirely to the education market and wrote several biographies and histories for young adults every year, in addition to contributing to textbooks. When I began the Harper Lee biography, I cleared my desk of all other commitments and concentrated solely on researching and writing the book.

One of the most memorable moments in the research— which is what I enjoy doing the most— occurred at the New York Public Library. I was examining the papers of Lee’s agent, who keep a card file of submissions. A series of cards about Lee revealed that "To Kill a Mockingbird" was heavily revised from a draft titled "Go Set a Watchman." For years I told audiences that there was a second book by Harper Lee, and it would be found. It was, of course, and "Go Set a Watchman" was published.

I’ve also enjoyed traveling to meet people for interviews. I’ve sat with an elderly playwright in Harlem and discussed the Red Scare of the 1950s. I’ve listened to a famous literary agent of the 1960s tell stories about his clients. And I’ve seen the way life ended for a number of midcentury American authors whose best work was long behind them, and they knew they had lived long enough to see their work forgotten.

What advice do you have for students hoping to work in your field?

It’s much, much easier to break into popular literary and historical writing now than it was a generation ago. Start by freelancing articles to online publications— the Smithsonian, Archeology magazine, or American History magazine. Once you’ve built-up a list of clients, you’ll be juggling assignments. Also, the internet has made finding work so much easier, too. I used to spend hours in the public library looking for magazines and publishers who might consider my work. It’s a golden age for fulltime writing.

Please describe your proudest achievement.

I will pass along what a friend of mine in teaching said: “You’ve done what every English teacher has wanted to do.” Making a living as a writer is uncommon, and I remind myself of that.