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Thoughts Of To Kill A Mockingbird Author Harper Lee

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It was with surprise, pleasure, and delight that I read this morning that Lee is writing
an item
for O: The Oprah Magazine. For the magazine's July summer reading issue, Lee wrote a letter about growing up a reader in a rural town in Alabama during the Depression. 

I have been thinking a lot lately about Harper Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the best novels and movies of the 20th century. Lee, 80, won the Pulitzer Prize for her book. She has a new article coming out shortly, her first published item in more than 10 years.

Lee stopped giving interviews more than 40 years ago. This makes one wonder what is on her mind these days, let alone the questions about whether she is ever going to have another book published.

Lee has been in the news lately because of an unauthorized biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields. The book tries to shed light into who Lee was when she wrote the book and who she is now.

My interest in Lee increased earlier today as I watched a documentary about Gregory Peck who played the lead character in the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird. The documentary is an extra on the DVD. Peck says that role was one of his favorites.

I was watching because I am planning a series of reviews of movies involving Harper Lee and Truman Capote. They are linked in that she helped him write In Cold Blood, but both she and Capote deny he helped her write To Kill A Mockingbird.

While I would be more excited to hear she is writing a new book, fresh words from this wise, brilliant writer will have to suffice.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Nancy

    Lee has always been a sort of disappointment to me: such a terrific first novel, and then – pffft! – nothing. I’m sure she was even more of a disappointment to her friends & neighbors who collected a considerable sum of money for her to live on while writing her supposed 2nd book so many years ago, which of course she never produced. Hard to tell if she blew everything she had in her tremendous first Opus, or whether she just clammed up from perversity or shyness or what. Surely she owes them some apology or explanation, which she may have tendered, but I feel like she owes me – the reading public who adore her book – one, too, in a way, for having raised expectations only to find out there is no more. I feel like there are so many people, fictional as well as ‘real’, who have deserved far better from her than they got. I’ve always wanted to know more about the people in the town, what happened to them (even if it was just that they died at the age of X from Y causes, & were buried at the Methodist church, etc.), who married whom & divorced same, who their kids were, where they went to school, did any of the Cunninghams make it out of Old Sarum, did any of the Ewells ever make it out of their socioeconomic level, what happened to the black people? I would have like to have gotten to know some of them better, so to speak, follow their vicissitudes; wonder if any of them ever made it into congress, or whatever?

    Well, well. It’s just a real pity Harper Lee never was able to put out the sheer volume of writing that, say, Michner did. I would have loved that.

  • Scott Butki

    I think she’s more intriguing precisely because she never had a second novel published.

    That’s what makes this new biography sort of interesting – on the one hand she’s made it clear she doesn’t want her privacy invaded and doesn’t feel she needs to explain herself.

    On the other hand readers expect an explanation, especially after such a great first book.

    So where is that line drawn?

    She supposedly wrote a second book but didn’t like it.

    Can you imagine trying to write a followup to to that debut? I can’t.

  • Scott Butki

    Garrison Keillor’s review of the biography fills in some gaps about what Lee’s been up to.

  • Nancy

    Can’t get into the review w/out being a member of the NYTimes Online. Sorry.

    She writes a bombshell book, readers support her with wild enthusiasm, a movie is made out of it, people subscribe to a fund to set her up to work on more, she never produces another paragraph, and she feels she owes nothing to no one? I don’t know: maybe the movie people screwed her over? Maybe the town making her & her book into a sort of local revenue source with re-enactments, etc. is a sore point – altho in both areas, her copyright should be ensure nothing is done without her permission. The arrogance of that stance, tho, smacks a good deal of her cousin Truman, doesn’t it?

    I don’t know how I’d do if I’d produced something like TKAM & was then expected to follow it up. But by doing nothing except withdrawing into a shell it would seem she at least betrayed her own gift & potential; if you don’t exercise something, you lose it, after all.

  • Scott Butki

    I can email you the story if you let me know how I can do that.

    The impression I get is that she has done some writing – just nothing that she wanted published.

    I had not heard before about any fund for her.

  • Nancy

    At some point after the publication of the novel, Lee’s friends & (from what I understand) pretty much the whole town & “that part of Alabama” raised a substantial sum to provide living expenses for her while she studied and worked on her next novel. At what stage after publication this was, I don’t know. Whether she refused the money, took the money & never produced, or what, I also don’t know. It comes from a commentary attached to the end of my edition of the novel. I’ll try to remember to get the name tonight.

    I can’t think how to get you my email address w/out giving it out to the whole net, which I don’t want to do. If anyone else out there knows how, I’d appreciate the instructions. Thanks.

  • Scott Butki

    Go to my myspace page here and you can send me a message that way.

    Interesting about the money.I’m sure that’s addressed in the biography but I haven’t read it yet. I do know Gregory Peck ramains in contact and in good terms with Harper because that’s in the documentary I mention above. In fact they named Peck’s grandson after her.

  • Nancy

    Wikipedia for “Harper Lee” also repeats the story of the funds, altho their entry implies it was the gift of one couple of friends & not quite a few people.

    Reading what little is known about her on the various bios available, she seems to be a real underachiever, with the exception of her novel: she went to law school, dropped out but studied for a year at Oxford – and then worked as a BOAC receptionist, not even as a clerk or paralegal in a legal office, another possible example of not using what you already have, so to speak. Of course, this was back in the days when women went to school primarily to earn an Mrs., not an MS, but she couldn’t have been a fool, ’cause Capote didn’t seem to be the type to tolerate fools gladly, even as “secretaries” which is how he designated her input/help into “In Cold Blood”.

    If TKAM is a self-portrait in any degree, her adult personality certainly doesn’t seem to go with that of the spunky, intellectually ravenous Scout, that’s for sure. I can certainly understand the rumors, in view of her seeming personality & behavior before & since the novel, that Capote actually wrote the novel, not her. The more I read, the more she comes across as somewhat of an insecure pill.

  • Brad Blake

    I just responded to a different reviewer suggesting that the finest ever pairing of fantastic book and fantastic movie is To Kill a Mockingbird. The mere fact that Harper Lee gave us this one wonderfully American gift of a book, and the subsequent movie that is my personal favorite all time, is more than enough for me. As you suggest, who could follow up such a first novel anyway? Whatever came after would probably be a letdown.
    If you are familiar with Lee Mavers and the music group The La’s, they made one amazing album in 1991, and he’s never been able to follow it up. I think sometimes people just have their one great shining moment, and find it impossible to duplicate…part perfectionism, part simple mental block.

  • Nancy

    That’s entirely possible. After all, as Scott says, it’s kind of hard to follow up a 1st novel that turns into a best-seller, movie, and Pulitzer Prize.

  • http://clatch.blogspot.com/ A.L. Harper

    Interesting piece. I have never really been a fan of Mockingbird.

  • Scott Butki

    Nan\Nancy, check your email.

  • http://www.mayablog.com maya stephani

    I agree with you when you say that “To kill a mockingbird” is one of the best novels – and movies – of the 20th century. The fact that Lee never wrote a second book makes her even more interesting. She obviously has great talent and a sensitivity that goes beyond brilliant storytelling.Did she put everything she had in one great novel and suddenly felt emptied out or even intimidated by what she had produced? Or could she only trust herself to that particular narrative style that could not be duplicated beyond TKAM? Maybe she moved on to something else once she had fulfilled her dream…I don’t think it’s a pity or that she wasted anything. I think that her book has this magical effect and wonder if it would have been the same if she had diluted it into an abundant but nevertheless different bibliography.I will probably read the biography, maybe it will bring some answers.

  • Scott Butki

    Thanks for the comments, Maya. I’ll probably end up
    reding the review too at some point, especially if
    an audio version comes out since I seem to spend
    more time on the road than looking at books lately.