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'I Have Said What I Wanted To Say, And I Will Not Say It Again'

22/02/2016 1:25 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is a bona fide masterpiece. Quite apart from its enduring themes of racial and social injustice, it has a knockout first-person narrative voice, spot-on dialogue and some of the most loveable characters in the literary canon.

It's also full of wry humour and poignancy, not to mention such killer lines as: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Clearly Harper Lee was an extraordinarily talented writer, and Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye evokes exactly what I feel whenever I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, namely: "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him [or 'her' in this case] up on the phone whenever you felt like it."

But there's the rub. While Harper Lee was thrilled so many people loved her book, she didn't want to be best friends with her readers -- or the journalists and others who wanted a piece of her -- and she certainly didn't want them calling her up.

There are all sorts of writers in this world -- reclusive introverts who'd give Boo Radley a run for his money; easygoing types who are fine doing whatever publicity is necessary to let people know about their book, and raving extroverts who lap up any attention they can get and are total naturals with the media. It takes all sorts.

Harper Lee found the public's overwhelming response to To Kill a Mockingbird frightening. She shunned fame and tried to live out of the limelight. And in the years after the astonishing success of To Kill a Mockingbird she began work on several manuscripts, but ultimately told an interviewer: "I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again."

I think she was right -- many authors only have one good book in them, and some would be better to stop there. Yet these days no sooner has a first book performed well than the author is being pressured by his or her publisher to churn out a book a year.

Regardless of the whys and wherefores of the decision to publish Go Set a Watchman -- and it does worry me that Harper Lee may have been taken advantage of -- it's an incredibly fascinating historical document. As well as providing an insight into Harper Lee's beliefs and her dismay at what she saw as Atticus's (and her father's?) racism, it's exciting in the way it demonstrates how the very best editorial relationships can work.

Tay Hohoff, the 'small, wiry editorial veteran' assigned to work with Lee on Go Set a Watchman said "the spark of the true writer flashed in every line" of the manuscript but it was "more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel".

Hohoff encouraged Lee to write in the first-person voice of Scout as a child and provided her with guidance and support throughout the two and a half years it took to turn the rough diamond that was Go Set a Watchman into the vivid masterpiece that is To Kill a Mockingbird. Hohoff also protected Lee from the considerable pressure placed on her to write another book.

So vale Harper Lee, and thanks for the gem that is To Kill a Mockingbird. You were a brilliant writer and, by all accounts, a very fine person. Millions will continue to find inspiration in your work.

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