On February 19, just shy of her 90th birthday Nelle Harper Lee died. If you are unfamiliar with her life, I can summarize it by saying she is the author’s equivalent of someone who won the lottery. Or more accurately, the $35 million dollar lottery, because at the time of her death, that is what she was worth.
Ms. Lee grew up in a small Alabama town in the 1920’s and 30’s. Her father practiced law in the segregated South where he actually defended a black man accused of murder, who was later hanged. Her chatting, slightly strange childhood friend, Truman Persons, who later would become Truman Capote, was Dill in her book. And, the lazy summer days they spent together would become the backdrop of her story.
Ms. Lee wrote her book To Kill a Mockingbird between 1956 and 1957 after a friend paid Lee a year of her salary to stop working and write. She took another three years revising the book, rewriting portions, and editing. She edited out an entire second book that her lawyer, finding the pages 55 years later, would seek to publish and succeed, over the concerns of her friends and family.
In 1960, Harper Lee published her fictional book set at a time when a child’s innocence collided with the harsh world of discrimination and injustice. She wrote about what she knew. She wrote about the people she loved. And she took the time to polish it to perfection.
In 1961, she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and in 1962 the screen play of her book won an Academy Award. She had won all the prizes a writer could dream and then she was done.
Although she attempted to write other works, she never published again and I respect her for that (yes, I am ignoring Go Set a Watchman). Thirty three years after the first printing of To Kill a Mockingbird, Ms. Lee was asked to write an introduction to her book (this is the version I have). In part, her introduction reads: “I am still alive, although very quiet. Introductions inhibit pleasure… Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without a preamble. Harper Lee.”
If Nelle Lee were writing in this blog, I think she would say:
Write about what you know
Write from the heart
Don’t lower your standards but know when you reach them
And…. Edit, Edit, Edit.