Harper Lee – letting her work speak for her

It was only a matter of time before I got to an author, wasn’t it? And Harper Lee is close to my heart for two reasons. The obvious one is To Kill a Mockingbird. It constantly appears on lists of ‘books you should read before you die,’ and rightly so. If you haven’t read it, do, and then argue with me whether Atticus Finch was the greatest fictional hero of all time. Its themes – race, injustice and class – are still relevant and it has a warmth and compassion rare in books that touch on such important issues.

As an aside, although I don’t approve of joke reviews on Amazon when it brings down a book’s overall ratings, this is genuinely funny:


As another aside, even a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird gets genuine one star reviews. Something for all fellow writers to bear in mind: reading is a subjective experience; you can’t hope to please everyone!

But back to the point. The other reason I admire Harper Lee is that by writing this book, she exposed a great deal of herself and her early life: a brave thing for a naturally shy woman to do. She did a few interviews at the time of the book’s release and then she stepped out of the limelight forever. She’s constantly on lists of famous recluses but I don’t see her that way. As an author who finds the whole business of self-promotion excruciating, I can understand why she’d want to live her life outside the glare of public scrutiny and to enjoy the simple pleasures of an ordinary life. When honoured at an award ceremony a few years ago, she said, ‘Well, it’s better to be silent than a fool.’ Then she sat down again.

But Nelle Harper Lee was no shrinking violet. Born in 1926, her early life in Alabama was difficult; her mother suffered from violent mood swings and, according to friends, once tried to drown Harper in the bath. It turned her into an aggressive child who was handy with her fists. Tougher than all the girls, she protected her best friend, Truman Capote, who was considered a sissy by the other boys. But her father was apparently the inspiration for Atticus Finch, so life couldn’t be all bad. And she had that all-important factor: an inspiration English teacher.

She studied law but dropped out to pursue her writing dream. It was tough at first, but friends gave her the best Christmas present ever: enough money to live on for a year so she could devote all her time to the project. If any of my friends happen to win the lottery this year, that was a hint. And what a project it was! To Kill a Mockingbird was and instant success and Harper remains the only author to win Pulitzer Prize with her first and only published novel. It’s been translated into nearly 50 languages and turned into an Oscar-winning film

And she never published another novel. Apparently she started one but never finished it. Instead, she helped Truman Capote research his master work, In Cold Blood. Specifically, she carried out a lot of interviews on his behalf: she was warm and more approachable than the flamboyant Capote. He dedicated the book to her when it was published in 1964.

I admire her low profile and normal life, as well as the fact that she’s not in the least materialistic: whatever she does with the millions she earns from her books, she keeps quiet about it. She let her work speak for her.


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