35 Days to 35: Harper Lee Prints Again


“Stand up, Jean Louise. Your father’s passin’.”

Atticus Finch is number one on my list of perfect fictional fathers. When I wrote the script for The Hepburn Girls, I wasn’t sure how to write an older, male, father figure for the main character, Katherine. He needed to be someone who dispensed wisdom with a firm, yet kind demeanor. Even though they aren’t related by blood, he effectively has a heavy hand in raising her, and shaping her future. I just wasn’t sure how to approach it until…Atticus. I just thought to myself, “How would Atticus handle this situation? ” That was the foundation that I built an entire character on.

Today, news was released that Harper Lee, Atticus’ creator, and author of To Kill a Mockingbird is finally, finally publishing her second book. Really her first book. According to reports, she wrote Go, Set a Watchman first, with a grown up Scout and older Atticus.  During flashbacks in the novel, her publisher was enchanted by the young version of Scout, and encouraged Lee to write a prequel.

For reasons we don’t yet, or won’t ever, know, they published To Kill a Mockingbird instead, and it became the novel all of America has either read or seen in movie form.

After the raging success that was that book/film, Harper Lee, comparing herself more to Boo Radley than Scout Finch, retreated from the limelight, and hermited herself away. According to my faint memory of the documentary, Hey Boo, she worked on another novel (not the one being released soon) off and on for several years, but never published it. The best reason given by various sources in the documentary (not Lee herself, as she shunned interviews) was that she was terrified of failure. She was petrified of not being able to live up to the behemoth success that was To Kill a Mockingbird.

What can you do when you’ve written the quintessential American novel? She felt that anything she could produce would be inferior, or heavily criticized, and it’s easy to understand her trepidation.

Until today. Today, we all rejoice that she has changed her mind and decided to share another potential monumental success with the rest of the world.

Or has she?

After doing some research, I discovered that there are many people who feel Harper Lee may not even realize what’s being done on her behalf. For years, Lee was fiercely protected by her older sister Alice, who features heavily in the documentary, and who finally decided to retire from her own law practice at 100.

Let’s just take a moment to salute Alice Lee for that kind of awesomeness, please. 100. She retired at 100.

Alice was the go-between for most interviews, and handled all of Harper’s affairs. Until her death (at 102) earlier this year. Now, three months later, a manuscript is ‘discovered’ and is being published.

How does Harper feel about all this? We just can’t know for sure, since she never grants interviews, and possibly, is no longer capable of giving them. In 2007, she suffered a stroke that left her nearly blind, and so deaf, she couldn’t ‘hear thunder.’ She now lives in assisted living facility where, according to more hearsay, at 88, she is approaching full senility.

The quote she allegedly released with the news today reads, “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. (referring to writing the ‘prequel’ to Go Set a Watchman) I hadn’t realized it (the original book) had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

Hmmmm. While the elderly suffering from senility can have moments of clarity, this seems a bit too convenient.

Other articles question whether ‘dear friend’ Tonja Carter isn’t behind this whole affair, as she has reportedly been known to have Harper, who has a reputation for signing what trusted advisors put in front of her, sign letters that Carter has written purporting to be Harper Lee.

Another incident had Harper signing away her copyright for To Kill a Mockingbird to another lawyer and ‘trusted’ advisor. This was later reversed and settled out of court.

What is the truth? Sadly, I don’t think we’ll ever know. Will I read the book? Oh, most definitely. I’d love to see she envisioned the older Atticus, and if he’s anything like what I thought he would be.

What can I learn from this? Be specific about my wishes. If I have a manuscript I never, ever want published, burn it, or put it in a vault with specific instructions that it is never, ever to be published. But I think it should be. I think all works of art should be. Will it be as good as To Kill a Mockingbird? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it will be better.

I think she should have published it fifty years ago. It makes me sad that something that brought so many people joy made her so scared. If she was able to do it once, I think she could have done it again.

The Guinness Book of World Records lists Agatha Christie as the best selling novelist of all time. She famously hated the limelight too. Her book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd redefined the way mysteries were written. Did she stop after that? No. She kept writing.

And Then There Were None is ranked as the best selling mystery of all time, and one of the best selling novels ever. Did she stop after that? Nah.

She wrote the worlds longest running play, The Mousetrap and looked up from her typewriter long enough to smile before she kept right on, writing on.

She published 84 works. She wrote some great books, and some absolutely terrible books, but she kept writing. At her death, they found notebooks full of plot ideas, and snippets of dialogue for future novels.

I really wish Harper Lee could have had the privilege to write some terrible books, and kept going.





Right at 35 days before my 35th birthday, Rachael and I found out that a book we wrote about our experience making our first film “No Lost Cause,” was being returned to us by the publisher after a year of waiting for it to be printed. Instead of wallowing in our collective misery, I committed to blogging every day while I searched for ways to overcome this perceived rejection and obstacle to our goal. I currently also have about three other projects brewing at the same time, and write about the progress of each of them. This is part of that series.

Read the first entry here: https://ashleyraymerbrown.com/2015/01/23/35-days-to-35-dealing-with-rejection/

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