Saturday, 26 July 2014

Harper Lee and the difficulties of writing

Harper Lee has been in the news lately regarding her opposition to Marja Mills' biography of her, recently published by Penguin. As we all know, Harper Lee only wrote one novel, To Kill a Mocking Bird; a modern classic, a book so excellent and popular that if any author is entitled to rest on her laurels and never write another word, that author is Harper Lee.

But there was a terrible downside to the fame, plaudits and riches the novel (and film version with Gregory Peck) brought her. How she must have been plagued by crass well-meaning enquiries as to what she was writing now, and why didn't she write another book, and hey, this is a good idea, why not write a sequel about what Scout did next? No wonder she spent the next fifty years as a recluse, refusing even to mention The Book.

Kill Zone had a recent post quoting J. T. Ellison: "It's the whole getting started thing for me. I forget how to write a book. The first ten thousand words are like digging fossils from rocks." I agree - I don't even want to talk about the WIP until it's at least two thirds finished.

One of my favourite quotes is from Lynne Truss: 

People are only being nice, when they ask. To the enquirer, 'How's the novel?' is like saying 'How's your Mum?' - friendly, concerned, non-judgemental. But unfortunately this simple question, when filtered through the cornered-animal mentality of the weary novelist, is transformed into the sort of sneering insinuation that makes homicide justifiable. 

'It was peculiar,' friends say to one another, when I pop out of the room. 'All I said was "How's the novel?" and look, she bit my hand.'


  1. People ask, and I guess it is nice of them. They probably think it's better than asking, 'How's the arthritis,' or. How's the dandruff.'
    The problem is that there's almost no good answer. I'm sure no one really want to know. Great, sounds cocky and invites 'when,s it coming out?' I tend to say 'Oh, you know, still at it.'

  2. That's a good answer - must remember it.

    I always wonder why hairdressers ask about your holidays. Hearing about another person's holiday, unless it happens to be somewhere you've been, is usually pretty boring.

  3. But then there's that tiny window when you can say, 'Just published my latest,' hand them a card with all the details on it and say, 'So kind of you to ask.' A rare moment - hope revives and sheer jump-for-joy follows if a sale results.

  4. PollyAnna, you are so right. Must work harder so those rare moments happen more often.

  5. LOL

    I meet up with an old school friend perhaps once a year. He knows that I'm a scientist and I know that he's a filthy rich accountant. He always asks "Have you solved it yet?" to which I reply "Still homing in".
    I always ask " Have you made any money lately?" to which he generally roars with laughter and buys the next round!

  6. Another good answer, still homing in. Makes me picture you as very nearly there, wherever 'there' is.

  7. Note to self: Don't ask Lexi about her next book unless you're wearing gardening gloves. Or steel gauntlets.

  8. FH, I thought today what it's like. My flat has a burgeoning population of cellar spiders, and I can't put them out of the window like other spiders because they don't live outside. They all look exactly the same, but come in a wide range of sizes.

    There's one who lives above my sponge in the corner of the bath, called Tiny. He's the sixth cellar spider to move in there (obviously this is prime real estate in spider terms for some reason) and I've given up moving them from there to the communal hall. Tiny and I coexist. He has a small scruffy web in which he sits, hopefully. And this evening I thought, as I said, "Catch anything today, Tiny?" that that was the equivalent of asking a writer how the novel's going.

    I shall be more tactful in future.