When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, I thought it was a great novel with a wonderful story and characters, people who stayed with me through the years. But to an Indian reader, Harper Lee, the author, was an unknown name and the fact that she never wrote another novel after Mockingbird allowed her to slide deeper into the shadows. But in her own country it was a different story. The book sold phenomenally, it was made into a movie with Gregory Peck (too suave, too charming to be Atticus, I thought) and Lee became a celebrity.
After which her life took a different turn. Instead of enjoying her fame, she became a recluse, steadfastly refusing all interviews and later moving back to her hometown, Monroeville. If she occasionally featured in the news, it was for the litigation she indulged in — against a man who cheated her of her copyright, against the town museum, which sold Mockingbird artefacts, against a journalist who insinuated herself into her and her sister Alice’s life, then wrote a book about her, a book Lee immediately repudiated as being unauthorised.
Now Lee is back in the news — and this time for a new book, Go Set a Watchman, which is a kind of sequel to Mockingbird, yet was written earlier. The story goes that her agent (or publisher?), when given this draft, suggested she rewrite it, concentrating on the main character’s childhood. Which she did — the book becoming Mockingbird. For the media, the news of the miraculous finding of a long-lost novel is almost like the answer to a prayer. Yet the fact that Lee is 88 and has had a stroke, that she cannot see or hear well, that she is alone after her sister Alice’s death, living in an assisted-living home and not allowed by her lawyer to meet anyone, has raised questions and created a raging controversy. Is Lee being exploited by others? Does the publication of this novel have her approval?
As a writer, I am intrigued by the miraculous recovery of a “long-lost novel” by her lawyer. How does an author lose a novel? Your writing is the most important thing in your life and you can bet that the story of an author walking out of a burning house with only his manuscript is a true one. Had Lee put the novel away as being only the rejected draft of Mockingbird, something she never thought of publishing? What is even more troubling for me as a writer is her statement (quoted by her lawyer), that she is “humbled and amazed” that her book is being published after so many years. Humbled? No author worth her salt would speak of being humbled by publication. And this particular publication is no favour to the author. Mockingbird sold over 40 million copies; this one has an initial print order of two million, it is a bestseller months before publication. This is big business, it is all about money.
Equally intriguing is the fact that Lee never wrote anything after Mockingbird. “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing”, said J.D. Salinger, that other great recluse of American literature. Few authors would agree. A writer writes to be published. And Salinger himself did write after Catcher in the Rye. Lee wrote nothing. She helped her childhood friend, Truman Capote (the Dill of Mockingbird), to research for his book, In Cold Blood (for which he gave her no credit), she tried to write a novel, then non-fiction — nothing worked.
Does the success of a first novel make it hard for the author to write a second one? Or is it part of the enigma of creativity, that one never knows why it begins and why it stops? Do some writers have only that one novel in them? Lee herself is quoted as saying that she had said what she wanted to say and there was nothing left. Whatever the reason, for a writer to stop writing is a tragedy. It is interesting to remember that Lee once spoke of wanting to be a “Jane Austen of South Alabama”. But Austen wrote in complete anonymity, she lived the ordinary private life of an English gentlewoman of the time. And therefore, perhaps, she could write without “the impediment of fame” — Virginia Woolf’s words.
The stories of Capote and Lee, two friends who wanted to become writers, spell out the price that has to be paid for fame. Both Capote, who embraced fame with both arms, and Lee, who shunned it, became its victims in different ways. One can only hope that Lee’s story has a happy ending of some kind, that the new (?) book will be appreciated and that Lee will know the good news.
The writer is a novelist, whose most recent book is ‘Shadow Play’
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