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An Interview with Amazon
Charles Shields is a writer who writes about writers. He previously penned a bestselling biography of Harper Lee, and now he's written the definitive portrait of Kurt Vonnegut, chronicling Vonnegut's slow and often difficult path to the upper ranks of American literature.
It's not always a pretty portrait. "Kurt wanted to be a writer from the time he was a teenager," Shields told me. But after serving in the military, getting married and having kids, he faced a dreary life behind a desk "which is not the kind of artistic one that he thought he'd have."
Yet the truth about writers is just that: they don't often live the exciting, public lifestyles of a Hemmingway or a Mailer. Most toil in solitary exclusion. It's a desk job in an office of one. It's sedentary, quiet, and often dull. Still, Shields is fascinated by the process of writing, and by the power and reach of the written word, which he discovered at age 15 upon earning a byline for his first high school newspaper story. "That was a magical moment for me," he said.
Shields has worked since to grow and change, to learn from others. That desire led him to study other writers and eventually to become a biographer, joining a group he admiringly refers to as "snoops" and "gossips." (Shields is co-founder of Biographers International Organization.)
When he learned Vonnegut was miffed that no one had tried to write his biography, Shields reached out. He was rebuffed, persisted, and finally received a postcard on which Vonnegut had sketched a self-portrait, smoking a cigarette. The card contained two letters: "OK."
Shields began working with Vonnegut in 2006. A year later, after a two-hour interview session at Vonnegut's Manhattan brownstone, Shields left, returning the next day to learn from the housekeeper that Vonnegut was in a coma. He had gotten tangled in his dog's leash and fell off his front steps, hitting his head. He died a month later at age 84.
"It's too trite to say that it was a shock," Shields said. "I felt a kind of… I felt sort of separate from myself for a little bit. Because I had invested a lot in this, and I had come to like him. And now suddenly, after dubbing me his biographer, he was gone."
Shields’s biography was saved by the discovery of 1,500 letters to or from Vonnegut, which had been presumed lost. "So, going on my interviews with him, and all of these long, intimate letters that he wrote, I was able to construct what I felt was a very authentic, personal portrait of this man as writer, father, struggling freelancer, suddenly famous man, divorced parent, divorced husband, over the course of more than fifty years," Shields said.
"An incisive, gossipy page-turner of a biography." –Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"An engaging, surprising and empathetic page-turner"— Deirdre Donahue, USA Today
"The first truly exacting look into the life of a man who has fascinated so many."—Esquire Magazine
"Engaging and well paced, the book fills in the reality behind Vonnegut’s work"—Christen Aragoni, The American Prospect
"This first authorized biography probes both Vonnegut’s creative struggles and family life, detailing his transition from ‘the bowery of the book world’ to counterculture icon. Shields delivers a vivid recreation of Vonnegut’s ghastly WWII experiences as a POW during the Dresden firebombing that became the basis for Slaughterhouse-Five. . . . Tragedies and triumphs are contrasted throughout, along with an adroit literary analysis that highlights obscure or overlooked influences on Vonnegut. . . . With access to more than 1,500 letters, Shields conducted hundreds of interviews to produce this engrossing, definitive biography."—PW, Starred Review
"This book fills a much-needed gap, since very little seems to be known about the late Kurt Vonnegut, despite his immense popularity over almost five decades. Shields did a thorough job, interviewing Vonnegut and his friends and family, and examining many letters. Vonnegut was one of the most influential authors of the late twentieth century, and this biography is essential reading."—Anis Shivani, Huffington Post
"Provide[s] a definitive and disturbing account of the late author, whose ambition and talent transformed him from an obscure science fiction writer to a countercultural icon."—Steve Almond, The Boston Globe
"[A] thorough and excellent new biography." – Tim Gebhart, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
"The richest portrait of Vonnegut to date."—Craig Fehrman, Indianapolis Monthly
"[A] balanced, well-researched study of a flawed yet powerfully imaginative artist."—Ariel Gonzalez, Miami Herald Tribune
"A triumphant biography: scrupulously researched and powerfully written, compassionate, clear-eyed and compelling. Charles J. Shields manages a rare feat: offering a lucid assessment of Kurt Vonnegut's literary life alongside the moving tale of an American original and a misunderstood hero. From his harrowing survival of the Dresden firebombing through forty years of culture clashes and domestic battles, here is the Vonnegut we all thought we knew and the man we never got to see, a writer of searing wit and wisdom, of driving ambition, and perhaps most of all, of aching loneliness."—Jess Walker, author of The Financial Lives of the Poets and Citizen Vince
"Vonnegut's life was a fascinating tragicomedy worthy of his best novels, and I can hardly imagine a better teller of that tale than Shields. A superbly researched and above all very entertaining biography."—Blake Bailey, author of Cheever: A Life
"And So It Goes will entrance lovers of Kurt Vonnegut's fiction. With the blessing of Vonnegut himself and help from scores of Vonnegut's friends, relations, and acquaintances, Charles J. Shields gives us a distinguished, fearless, page-turner of a biography.—Carol Sklenicka, author of Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life
"Vonnegut once said that he kept losing and regaining his equilibrium, and Shields dexterously captures the ups and downs of Vonnegut’s life and work in this definitive biography."—Henry L. Carrigan, Bookpage
In the current book, biographer and author seemed genuinely to like each other in the brief period they worked together.
In this painstakingly researched and loving biography of Kurt Vonnegut, Charles J. Shields paints a rich and balanced portrait of a very complicated author.
Sure, that can be thought of as a failing too, but it does not seem like the conscious hypocrisy it is portrayed as in this book.
As a lifetime fan of the author's fiction, it reveals that KV was actually writing autobiographical material to a large degree. This IS a must read for all writers.Published 6 months ago by Nickle Nip
I've enjoyed his books over the years and had read good reviews of this biography, and I have to agree that it's a pleasure to read. Read morePublished 7 months ago by Robert Stoner
This was bought as a Christmas gift for my son. He is an avid reader and put this on his Christmas list. He said he thoroughly enjoyed it.Published 8 months ago by Alicia
Great book about one of my favorite authors anything related to Kurt is a good read. Keem em coming pleasePublished 9 months ago by Deb
Nicely detailed look at Vonnegut, named after the philosophical phrase throughout his landmark novel, "Slaughterhouse 5". Read morePublished 10 months ago by David Milkes
Exhaustively researched, and written with great empathy and psychological insight, this book was almost impossible to put down until I reached the end.Published 11 months ago by Nancy R Hiller
I have enjoyed his quirky novels over the years. This biography is a welcome addition to the Vonnegut oeuvre. Read morePublished 16 months ago by Keith Bickerstaffe
This biography benefits from the fact that it is a big fish in a small pond; not many Vonnegut biographies exist and certainly none of them is as extensive (as in length, not in... Read morePublished 16 months ago by Jordan Stalker
Could not put it down. Growing up in the NY area, I knew of this fellow but wanted to know more. This book is so well written that even if you don't know or care to know... Read morePublished 18 months ago by XanaduCal