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6 May 2011

To kill a literary career

Why has Harper Lee only published one book?

By Clare Conway

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.

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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“.