Wednesday 22 July 2015

Is One Enough?

I have just downloaded Harper Lee’s 'Go Set a Watchman', which I’ll review in my next blog, but in order to prepare myself to do so, I decided to go back and reread To Kill a Mockingbird. I also watched the movie. It's a great story and I enjoyed it both on screen and in the book, though I suspect the manuscript might have been given another edit by today’s editors. I felt there was quite a bit of extraneous detail which slowed the story a little for me. It’s years since I originally read it and I’m probably more critical now, and I do read with one part of my brain analysing the writing style and trying to learn from it. I wonder how modern readers would react to it if it was published today. I’m guessing most of you authors will have read it and I would love to know what you thought.

However, I’m even more fascinated by Harper Lee’s story and so have done a little research about her as a person, and as a writer. Nelle Harper Lee was born in April, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. Her father was a lawyer who served in the Alabama state legislature from 1926 to 1938. As a child, Lee was a tomboy and enjoyed the friendship of her schoolmate, Truman Capote, who would also become a writer. For most of her life, Lee’s mother suffered from mental illness, rarely leaving the house. It is believed she might have had bi-polar disorder. After graduating from high school in Monroeville, Lee enrolled at the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery (1944-45), and then pursued a law degree at the University of Alabama (1945-50). While there, she wrote for several student publications and spent a year as editor of the campus humor magazine, "Ramma-Jamma". Though she did not complete the law degree, she studied for a summer in Oxford, England, before moving to New York in 1950, where she worked as a reservation clerk with Eastern Air Lines and BOAC.

Lee continued as a reservation clerk until the late 50s, when she devoted herself to writing. She lived a frugal life, traveling between her cold-water-only apartment in New York to her family home in Alabama to care for her father. After writing several long stories, Harper Lee located an agent in November 1956. The following month, she received a gift of a year's wages with a note: "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas."  Within a year, she had a first draft. Working with J. B. Lippincott & Co. editor, Tay Hohoff, she completed To Kill a Mockingbird in the summer of 1959. (It's not hard to see how her early life influenced the story). Published July 11, 1960, the novel was an immediate bestseller and won great critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. It remains a bestseller with more than 30 million copies in print. In 1999, it was voted "Best Novel of the Century" in a poll by the Library Journal. Ms Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature in 2007. After completing To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee accompanied her friend, Capote, to Kansas, to assist him in researching his bestselling book, In Cold Blood. Since publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee has granted very few requests for interviews or public appearances.

Her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, was released this month, but the build up to it has been big news for a few months. When I think about the excitement around this novel, it raises some questions for me. Why did she not write again after so much success? Why do some writers, some books, get so much attention even after such a long break? I think To Kill a Mockingbird is a great story and I’m looking forward to reading Go Set a Watchman, but why is it a best seller before it even hits the bookshops? Perhaps I ought to keep it to myself but I don’t think I’m the only reader who fails to finish reading some books by authors who have won prizes, even sold millions? Case in point; I’ve tried reading Tim Winton’s books and find I usually give up after a few chapters. I’m not engaged, nor captivated by the writing style, which suggests I am probably a philistine when it comes to literary fiction, but I do find myself concluding that once a person has a success in writing, or begins by being a celebrity, they can write pretty much anything at all and will sell millions. It will be very interesting to hear about reactions to Go Set a Watchman.

Does all this discourage me as a writer? No. Does it make me want to continue to learn more about the art of writing? Yes. Does it make me question why I write? Yes.
Are we writers because we cannot stop writing? Because we keep dreaming of the day our novels will win prizes, sell millions, make us a celebrity? Because the satisfaction of completing a writing project is so great? Because some people, perhaps only a few, enjoy our stories, and encourage us to go on writing. Because we believe that some people – again perhaps only a few – will be inspired or challenged by our stories? Or perhaps our writing is not about us at all, but about what God wants to do through our writing when He calls us to follow His lead.

I didn’t start writing until I was in my fifties. I had no illusions about being world famous. I was just thrilled to have the experience of writing something I felt passionate about, completing the project and seeing it in print. I felt that God had not so much called me to write as invited me to use something I loved to reach out to others and hopefully draw them to thinking about their relationship with Him. It was a bonus to have readers who enjoyed my stories and were challenged by them. So I’ve continued to write, enjoyed the journey, been grateful to those who’ve helped; editors, publisher, readers. I can’t imagine having stopped after one, and would love to know why Harper Lee did. Does anyone know or have theories? Writing is a fascinating art, and the journeys, motivations and ambitions of writers equally interesting. I wonder if Harper Lee’s story provokes some reflection for you.  

Carol Preston   

Carol writes historical novels based on her family ancestry in Australia from the First Fleet. They include the Turning the Tide series; Mary’s Guardian, Charlotte’s Angel, Tangled Secrets and Truly Free. Her earlier novels Suzannah’s Gold and Rebecca’s Dream have been re-released by EBP. Her new novel, Next of Kin, was released by Rhiza Press in May this year. You can see more about Carol and her novels on her website.


  1. Such good questions, Carol, both about why we write and about why Harper Lee wrote--or didn't write! Like you, as you know, I didn't start writing until into my fifties, so each book was a wonderful gift to me and each person who enjoyed those books was such a blessing. Re your question about Harper Lee though, while of course I don't know why she didn't write more (or maybe she did and it hasn't surfaced?), perhaps the thought of failure after the immediate, raging success of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' was too much of a hurdle for her? What if her next book failed? Perhaps now, as she is so much older, that thought doesn't worry her so much? I hold my breath a bit for her re 'Go Set A Watchman' though, since I think it was originally conceived back around the same time as 'To Kill A Mockingbird'--and, as you point out, times have changed.

  2. My guess: if an author writes a highly autobiographical novel, she may feel she has "delivered her baby'' then, and feel little motivation to write another. This would apply if it were the first or tenth novel. Well - guessing! I loved To Kill A Mockingbird, felt it succeeded in taking me into her world.

  3. Thanks for a thoughtful post Carol. I enjoyed reading the historical detail of Harper Lee's life. Like you I have quite a few books inside me, so I can't imagine stopping at one (well, I've already got 4 manuscripts close to or beyond first draft stage, and have plots and ideas for many more). I love writing and hope that what I write can inspire others in their search and/or journey with God. I doubt though that we ever write for just one reason.

    As to why Harper Lee only wrote two books, hard to speculate though I've read that she was an intensely private person. Perhaps if she hadn't received so much acclaim for To Kill a Mocking Bird she might have gone on to write more. Perhaps, she wrote the story burning inside of her, and felt no need to write more. (My understanding is that To Set A Watchman was the first book she wrote.) Certainly TKMB was timely and influential - not just in garnering fame and fortune, but in inspiring the conscience of a nation. And that little book continues to make young people think - that in itself is a wonderful achievement.

    1. Interesting speculation about why she might have not written more. Perhaps she'll say more to the public when reviews start coming in about Go Set a Watchman. I hope so. I find writer's own stories as fascinating as the stories they write.

  4. Hi Carol - fascinating discussion. Like many of us I have fond memories of reading To Kill a Mockingbird (at school for me) and I've try to read one of the classics I haven't read each year. Interesting that I couldn't get too excited about Catcher in the Rye but could appreciate why it made such a statement in the 50s when it was released. Yes, Holden Caulfield was an interesting character but his perspective on the world all seemed a bit ho hum 60 years later. But I really loved Gatsby.

    As Jeanette says To Set a Watchman was her first novel and apparently her editor knocked it back and said write another using some of the characters which turned out to Mockingbird.

    Looking forward to your review.

  5. Hi Carol,
    I'll be interested in reading your review of GSAW. I loved TKAM, but for several reasons, I don't know if I want to read the new one. (Rather than listing my reasons on this comment, I wrote a blog post about it on The Vince Review, for anyone who might want discuss this more).
    I remember reading somewhere that Harper Lee thought it would be best not to get GSAW out on the market because she considered it pretty rough, compared to TKAM, and decided there was nothing in it which wasn't expressed even better in TKAM. If this is true, it may make the feedback surrounding the new release even more polarised. If she truly felt that she expressed the depth of her heart without the need to follow up with future novels just to kowtow to public demand and further her career as a writer, then I admire her very much.

    1. Interesting perspective Paula. I've just begun Go Set a Watchman, so not sure what I think yet about whether it adds anything to what she might have said to the world.

  6. Some time ago, before news about this book hit the air waves, I read somewhere, that Harper Lee had said, in writing To Kill A Mocking Bird she had said all she wanted to say.

    I also remember reading Elizabeth Gilbert's comment that it was hard to get motivated after writing Eat Pray Love because she knew she would never write another book that would be as successful. Nevertheless she would keep writing because she is a writer.

    I find it interesting reading about different authors writing journeys - thanks for the post, Carol.

  7. Carol, fascinating post! I'm also looking forward to reading your review :)


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