The Fiftieth Anniversary of To Kill A Mockingbird: An Interview with Harper Lee's Biographer, Charles J. Shields
July 29, 2010
Since the release of To Kill A Mockingbird fifty years ago, Harper Lee has acquired a very distinct group of readers: the young, the old, and everyone in between.
At the same time, Harper Lee has avoided contact with media outlets at all costs. In fact, the last time Lee spoke publicly about Scout and Atticus it was 1964 and Lyndon B. Johnson was president.
I recently had the chance to talk to Charles J. Shields about Harper Lee, the staying power of the work, and his 2006 biography: Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.
What drew you towards Harper Lee? It seems like it would be a daunting task to handle such an elusive subject.
As a professional writer— I write fulltime— half of my mind is creative, and the other side is financial. The creative side asks, “Is this subject so interesting that I could stay with it for years, perhaps months, even when the going gets really tough?” The financial side asks, “And when I finish this book, who will buy it?” Because asking people to put down $29.95 for a book is risky, both for the reader and the writer.
Harper Lee wrote a novel that has so far, sold about 30 million copies. I figured if I could get one in a thousand of those readers to buy my book, I’d have a bestseller. And that’s what happened.
Okay, here we are fifty years after To Kill A Mockingbird was published and people name their kids Scout and Harper, they call their weirdo neighbors Boo Radley, and you’ve got people wearing Atticus t-shirts. How has the book been able to sustain its currency within American pop culture?
Issues and controversies change over the years, but tolerance as a virtue doesn’t. When TKAM was published, the Civil Rights movement was growing. In the 1970s, feminism was a big part of the national discussion. Today, we face a clash of cultures. But at heart, the topic is still tolerance.
When the book was published? Did anyone anticipate it would be a success?
No. Miss Lee’s editor hoped it would break even with 2,500 copies sold.
Did Harper Lee think it would be successful? Did Capote?
Lee was just proud to have published a book after working on it for 10 years. Truman was glad to be the character Dill (he loved attention).
Which has spread the book’s sphere of influence more, middle-school curriculums or the Gregory Peck film?
Schools. The film, while moving, omits a great deal and is rather clunky in places. I don’t anyone imagines Dill to be like the actor who played him. And Calpurnia seems to have practically no emotions.
Harper Lee has earned the reputation of being a recluse’s recluse: no second novel and little if any contact with the media. Would you say that her need for privacy has reached Salingerian levels?
Miss Lee is visible all over Monroeville! She goes to church, she has coffee at Hardee’s, she goes to Dave’s Catfish Cabin for the Sunday lunch special. She’s not a recluse— she doesn’t want to be a celebrity.
Is the book securely fastened into the canon of American literature? Where do you put it among other classic works?
Authors don’t want to be likened to other authors. They want to be original, so I don’t want to mention titles that TKAM is “like.” It’s a classic coming-of-age story set in the rural South of the early 20th century. And it engages our heart, so it will endure.
July 11th marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird. The Modern Classics Book Club will discuss To Kill A Mockingbird at the South Independence Branch on September 16th at 7 p.m.
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