To kill a literary career

Why has Harper Lee only published one book?

On every list of once-productive authors, Harper Lee appears, if not at the top, then at least muscling for the first few places. Her acclaimed 1960 debut To Kill a Mockingbird won a Pulitzer Prize and became a classic in its own right. But 51 years on, no second novel has followed, and the only thing more notorious than Lee's refusal to write again is her decision to abstain from interviews. So when news came in the Guardian last week that a journalist would attempt to speak on her behalf, with what her lawyers insist is "an unauthorised" biography (though the journalist contests that description), the press were eager to unearth Lee's secrets and to hear why a second book never materialised.

Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee is written by Marja Mills, a journalist with "direct access to Harper and Alice Lee" according to the book's press release, which comes with the promise that it will reveal "why Harper Lee chose to never write another novel". Mills had dug around the subject before for the Chicago Tribune in 2002, and had spoken to the author's sister, Alice: "I don't think any first-time writer could be prepared for [the response to the novel]," she said. "When you have hit the pinnacle, how would you feel about writing more? Would you feel like you're competing with yourself?"

Lee's increasing reluctance to write appears to coincide with her withdrawal from the gaze of the media. The last she spoke of a second novel was in 1964 for the Chicago American: "I hope to goodness every novel I do improves," she said. Soon afterwards she stopped accepting interview requests. Her unwillingness to engage the media reminds us of J D Salinger, another curiously reclusive author who, like Lee, achieved phenomenal success with a debut novel. His was Catcher in the Rye, which sold 65 million copies worldwide and was translated officially into 30 languages (I bought a copy in Spanish, too, though my grasp of the language outdid my fleeting enthusiasm). And though his success was followed by a smattering of short stories for magazines and three novellas, he never published another full novel.

Salinger declined every interview for the last three decades of his life and most before then, though in 1974 in a truce with the New York Times he went some way to explaining why he wouldn't publish anything more, calling it "a terrible invasion of my privacy" which marred his enjoyment of writing. "I write just for myself and my own pleasure," he declared, and reports suggest this was true. The Mirror claimed last year that Salinger had 15 novels "hidden in his safe", making a posthumous career a tantalising possibility.

It's not known whether Lee has any hidden works of her own, though it seems unlikely. From her earlier 2002 interviews, Mills builds an image of a woman conscious of the weight of her reputation and loathe to sully it -- perhaps she couldn't bring herself to offer up a literary comparison. Of course there's an alternative, as Lee's friend Rev Thomas Lane Butts put to Mills when recounting a conversation with the author. He said Lee simply never wrote again because she said all she needed to: "I've already made my statement in To Kill a Mockingbird".

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Who Should We Let In? pulls the rug from beneath its viewers' complacent feet

A gold star for Ian Hislop's BBC2 immigration documentary.

People talk about context as if it’s a straightforward matter: a thing to be conjured with a click of the fingers. But taking the long view, the better to put contemporary stuff into perspective, is a difficult business, on television as in print.

It’s not that viewers don’t want a history lesson: sometimes they absolutely do. Rather, it’s that it is harder than it seems to connect yesterday and today convincingly. The past, whatever some of our historical novelists might like to believe, really is another country.

The Britain of Who Should We Let In? Ian Hislop on the First Great Immigration Row (22 June, 9pm) certainly seemed to me to be another country, its empire still intact, its class system a suffocating prison. But if we’re talking context, well, here it was; deployed quite brilliantly so as to pull the rug from beneath its viewers’ complacent feet.

I’ve seen few things on television this year more disgusting than Katie Hopkins praising a 1906 account of the so-called Yellow Peril as it manifested itself in Liverpool’s Chinese community. “It’s so contemporary,” she said, smilingly relishing the racial slurs and slanders of an Edwardian hack journalist whose accusations, later exposed by an alarmed Liverpool City Council as complete fabrications, mostly had to do with opium. No wonder that the ever-equanimous Hislop looked, just for a nanosecond, as if he might be about to throw up. I was pretty close to being sick myself.

Hislop’s tale, deftly told, began in Victorian times, when Britain maintained an open-door policy, a welcome that was born both of pride (why wouldn’t foreigners want to come to such a fabulous place?) and of moral leadership (a Times leader of 1853 spoke of “the asylum of nations”).

But then . . . ah yes, here come the politicians, as reliably opportunist as ever. I give you Sir William Evans-Gordon, the Conservative MP for Stepney, who made it his mission to point out to his constituents, and the rest of Britain, that Jews were not to be trusted; and his fellow Tory Mancherjee Bhow­nagree who, despite being Indian-born, insisted loudly to anyone who would listen that immigration ought to be controlled in Bethnal Green North-East, his own seat, as well as everywhere else.

Hislop drew a clear line from the resentment whipped up by this pair in the early 1900s to the attitudes of politicians on both sides in the 21st century (“It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration,” as a flyer distributed by one of his interviewees, Sayeeda Warsi, once put it). Yet he also reminded us that it doesn’t have to be this way. In 1914, after the outbreak of the First World War, Britain warmly received a quarter of a million Belgian refugees.

Yes, a few of their hosts eventually began to grumble about their house guests: “garlic, blah, won’t even open a window, blah”. But in the main, the arrangement worked perfectly well until the end of the war, when, incidentally, most of these Belgians returned home to feast on their stinky food in peace.

As Hislop put it in a final, rather daring speech to camera, perhaps we should treat the arguments about immigration the same way we seem to regard immigrants themselves: with extreme scepticism and not a little ruthlessness.

The Keepers is a Netflix documentary series about the brutal murder of a Catholic nun, Sister Catherine Cesnik, in 1969. It’s a mystery, an attempt to discover who killed this beloved Baltimore Catholic high-school teacher. Leading the investigation are our unlikely heroines Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Fitzgerald Schaub, former students of Sister Cathy’s who have become, late in life, a pair of Nancy Drews. It is also, like Making a Murderer before it, a damning indictment of a certain kind of white, male power.

But what makes it special – akin to a richly imagined novel – is the way it portrays a particular society at a particular time. How unnerving it is to see grainy photographs of smiling young women with backcombed hair and groovy jeans, and to know that while others were thinking of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, their world continued to be ruled by priests and rosary beards. If I had a Kitemark, this one, haunting and highly addictive, would be stamped with it, pronto.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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