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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories