Historian, biographer and Indiana State University professor Michael Shelden says he's “grateful” to have been awarded the Indiana Authors Award's top prize — the National Author award, given to a “writer with Indiana ties, whose work is known and read throughout the country” — because it demonstrates that a jury that has typically given the award to fiction writers “understands that history, and certainly the kind of history that I'm trying to write, involves the imagination.”
For Shelden, who's written biographies of Orwell, Graham Greene, Mark Twain and, most recently, Winston Churchill (2013's Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill), it's important for a historian to have the almost novelistic skill to conjure a world using letters, diaries, interviews and the other archival materials extant.
It's why an Oklahoma-born and Indiana-based writer can write about British culture as convincingly as any native. According to Shelden, early readers of one of his first books, about the British literary critic Cyril Connolly and the '40s journal Horizon, were convinced that the author must have been a fellow Brit.
Shelden, who's working on a book about Herman Melville and Moby Dick, will attend the open-to-the-public Indiana Author Fair Oct. 25 at the Central Library, then accept his award at the sold-out award dinner that night. His book about Churchill's coming-of-age, filled with at least five marriage proposals and plenty of romance, is now in development as a miniseries by Carnival Films, the producers of Downton Abbey.
NUVO: I'm looking at a review of Young Titan in The Guardian that's a little supercilious, if you will, that questions why an American is writing about Churchill. One characteristic phrase is “perhaps more people still go for the 'great man'” theory in America. Do you often get that sort of reaction from British readers?
Michael Shelden: “Slightly supercilious” is a good way to put it. The origin of that word is “raised eyebrow,” and I think that's what they're doing; they're raising an eyebrow that an American would dare to write about iconic English or British figures.
What many of them know — and sometimes they go easier on me for it — is that I worked for the Daily Telegraph in London for 15 years. I was their North American features correspondent, so I wrote to deadline — and sometimes the deadlines were pretty close — in British English. I did this for 15 years, traveling all around the country. I probably did 200 feature interviews, face to face. We never did anything over the phone; we always went and spent a day if we could.
In those days, the mid to late '90s and early 2000's, the newspaper business had not yet collapsed and they had money to throw around. It was great fun because you could go and interview just about anyone you wanted to. But the thing is I then had to file 1800 words in pretty flawless British English in order to meet deadline because nobody at the paper in London had time to sit around correcting an American's bad British English.
The Telegraph was at that time probably the most read English-language newspaper in Europe. It had circulation all over Europe. Once I picked up the paper in Rome; another time I wrote a story in Madrid, and the next day, there was the paper in front of my hotel door. It had a lot of reach.
One of the editors at The Telegraph Magazine — which, like The New York Times Magazine, is a glossy that goes inside the paper — was Emma Soames, who is Churchill's granddaughter. I worked for her for a little while, and liked her very much, and met a lot of people all over British cultural life. It looks strange that there's this guy in the Midwest writing about all of these people, but that's only because I had this second life in the '90s and early 2000's, afterwards and during which you get pretty used to understanding how things work over there.
So some of them — and some have actually been friends — have taken their shots at me in reviews. But most people have been pretty good to me and said nice things. You get a little bit of both, but I've survived, and I think I've done a pretty good job with it.
NUVO: How'd you come to live that “second life” over in the U.K.? Was it after you wrote your first book about British literary culture? [Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of Horizon, published in 1989, tells the story of literary critic Connolly and the influential journal Horizon, which he edited from 1939 to 1949. From the Library Journal review: “The London-based literary review Horizon introduced a brilliant and eclectic group of European and American writers to war-torn Britain. The review owed its success largely to Cyril Connolly, gifted essayist and well-known bon vivant, under whose imaginative editorship Horizon published works by Auden, Sartre, Orwell, Dylan Thomas, and many others.]
Shelden: Yeah, that didn't do much over here, but it was big hit over there. It got enormous review coverage; there must have been 40 different reviews of it in just about every magazine and newspaper at the time. They love that subject of World War II when it intersects with literary life, and I decided to write about that based on a magazine that was big at that time and the people who wrote for it. It got so much attention that the then-editor of The Telegraph — a man now knighted named Sir Max Hastings — invited me to write for the paper, doing reviews and interviews.
They were always year-to-year contracts, but that was how I wanted it because I had a job teaching as well. I could do most of it in the summers and on weekends. Therefore, for a long time I really had two jobs, and I enjoyed for a change being the kind of professor who actually does what he teaches. I was writing for publication every week, almost. Academic life being what it is, instead of embracing that kind of thing, they frown on it. They don't like you to go out and actually do what you teach because that isn't theoretical enough for them; it's too practical and they don't like practical things.
So I was always rubbing against the grain with that work, but I loved doing it and I learned a lot. When you have to churn out copy under a great deal of pressure for a million or two million readers every week, that'll get you over any kind of writer's block or any other problems you have with writing because if you fail one of those deadlines, you're finished.
It was really quite tense at times, but you learn to sit down with your notes and write up the piece, to get it done and have some time to spare so that nobody goes into a panic. That was the best training I ever got as a writer; it was a kind of second graduate school for me. I already had a PhD, but you know how school is. School was kind of make-believe for me, but writing for a paper like The Telegraph was the real thing.
NUVO: And you remained just as productive after leaving The Telegraph.
Shelden: I suspended writing books while I was with The Telegraph, and when that was winding down, I went straight back to writing books. I've written two large ones since that time and I'm working on a third now. I went right back into it, but for me the biographies are just really long interviews. If the person's dead, instead of actually sitting down with them what you try to do is go back and get enough material — letters, diaries, interviews that were published in the old days — and pull that together and try to recreate a sense of being on the scene with a person and watching them do, in the case of Churchill or Twain, watch them do the things that made them famous.
NUVO: What are you working on now?
Shelden: It's on Herman Melville and Moby Dick, a kind of dramatic history of how it came into being.
NUVO: And why Melville?
Shelden: Laughs. None of the stuff I do makes any sense! I should probably never take on any of these books. Why should an American in the Midwest be writing about Churchill? Melville's much more familiar to me, and so was Twain, of course, than Orwell or Churchill. But lives are still lives. They still have patterns that are fairly similar; people go through the same ordeals.
A writer's life is very familiar to me; how writers choose certain subjects, why they're attracted to certain things. The story of Melville writing a book that just fails utterly, that destroyed his life and destroyed his career — I think it's fascinating that someone would create a masterpiece and, yet, the world would take 70 years to find that out.