Culture Q&A: Michael Shelden, Indiana Authors Award Winner
When was your fascination with history initially sparked and why?
Even as a kid, I liked the past because it seemed so strange to know that people wore much different clothing, that they drove primitive cars (or didn’t drive cars at all), or that they lived in three-story buildings and not in skyscrapers. I think you can study all the odd things about people a lot better at a distance. Even if you study WWI, it teaches you a lot about the way the world is today, 100 years later. I like that idea of studying today by looking at yesterday.
Your most recent biography (Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill) is an account of Churchill’s younger years. Why were you intrigued by this period in his life?
We know the guy who really didn’t become world famous until he was 65—the guy who had lost his hair, who had gotten a little fat, and who had settled into his personality. But where did that guy come from? People in their 20s and 30s always interest me because they’re either doing something spectacularly right or spectacularly wrong. And he did both. He was so interesting that he could succeed in a spectacular fashion, but also fail in the same way.
The Guardian praised Young Titan for its novel-esque style. Is this something that you do intentionally with your biographies?
I think with almost every book I’ve written, somebody says, “It reads like a novel,” and I always like to hear that because it means that I’m using facts in the way that a novelist uses invented things. What novelists do that readers like is set scenes. They put you in a place, and they let you look around and get a sense of what the weather’s like, what the furniture looks like, what the light coming through the window looks like. They give you a sense of how people interact and what they say to each other. If you think in pictures, history should actually always read like a novel because it’s there waiting for people to appreciate it like a story. I think people (especially professional historians) forget that the word “history” has the word “story” in it.
What’s one question you’d ask Churchill if he were still alive today?
Why were you so rarely afraid? I think if you talk to people about their lives, what comes out is how often we’re afraid—we’re afraid we can’t pay a bill, we’re afraid somebody will say yes when we want them to say no or vice versa. In many cases, I think we’re very timid creatures, and he was somebody who (for better or for worse) was always forthright and courageous, and I wonder how you do that.