I think the greatest sin of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is the feeling of doubt that it gave me.
Before Go Set a Watchman, I naively thought I knew Harper Lee. Many of us believed that. There was such a beautiful personal quality to To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout and Atticus were not fictional, they were real, and we assumed that real people hid behind their smiles and hugs. Harper was Scout and, of course, her father was the noble and great Atticus.
They were friends and I visited with them often, in both film and book. Before Go Set a Watchman, I would watch the movie once a year, crying in the same two places each time (when Scout is told to stand for her father as he is passing and when she sees Boo in the corner). And I have read the book more times than I care to mention. A part of me still dreams of the first time that I will read it to my kids.
There was a moment in the 2000s, that I shared the same literary agent as Harper Lee. And I would beg (beg!) the agent for news on Harper. I imagined, if I played my cards right, there could be a friendship there. It would begin with a call, that slight southern warmth in her voice. “I was told you wanted to speak with me?”
Awkward at first and then the talk would grow. I would laugh at her sarcastic wit. And I would do a little dance the first time I was able to get her to laugh.
Of course, that call never happened, and my agent at the time just allowed my daydreams to take place.
But, like I said, that all changed with Go Set a Watchman.
Setting aside all the conspiracy theories around the book, and the fact it was really never meant for publication and probably shouldn’t have been (I spoke about it on WKAR’s Current State here as part of my review), it threw cold water on what I held for most of my life to be true.
I didn’t know Harper Lee. I really never did.
And her father, chances are, was probably more like the Atticus in Go Set a Watchman, not the Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird. That was the manuscript that didn’t go through a massive editing. That was more probably her voice and her vision… And her truth.
I’ve tried for as long as I can remember to understand the choices Harper Lee made in her life. Why she abandoned her success, hiding away in her small town. There were always rumblings about books (like one that was a true story about a murder, maybe taking inspiration from her friend Capote). But why run away from a career so many of us writers dream about?
Is it, like implied by others, that no one wants to follow a book like To Kill a Mockingbird? The idea of disappointing her audience was too much for her to handle?
That always seemed to me like a weak excuse. Not every writer hits it out of the ball park with every book. It’s unhealthy for any artist to worry about the reviews and returns before a story is finished. And really if you are writing for success, you are writing for the wrong reasons. A storyteller should tell stories for the joy of telling stories.
Again, damn it, I’m speaking like I knew her.
She is a puzzle that I’m always trying to put together. I can point to a half-dozen books that tried to figure her out. I even reviewed one on the radio as well (this disappointing book here). They would each give some aspect of her personality, genius or lucky, but really none of it we can say is true. Because that is what Harper Lee wanted.
This is all what Harper Lee wanted.
She didn’t want to be interviewed on Oprah. She didn’t want to give speeches or readings. And even when you go back to the interviews from the 60s, you have to wonder how much of what she is saying is true even then. For she didn’t sound like a writer about to abandon a career. She sounded like all of it was just one step and more was to follow.
So what happened? What happened?
That mystery will always remain now.
The sad truth is, on this day when we learn the news of her passing, that the only thing I can do is keep to the facts.
1. Harper Lee died.
2. She wrote an amazing novel and one really bad one.
3. She lived exactly the life she wanted to.
4. I never knew her… but I still wish I did.
My latest novel Permanent Spring Showers was just published by 5 Prince Books. You can find out more about my novel as well as my other books (including A Jane Austen Daydream and My Problem With Doors) and grab a copy via my author page on Amazon.com here.