If ever there were a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma -- to borrow from Winston Churchill's famous quote -- it's Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. I've often said I'd rather write one memorable book -- and one memorable character like Scout Finch -- than a hundred that all run together. And that's exactly what Ms. Lee did. Wrote one incredibly memorable, Pulitzer prize-winning book, which has sold millions of copies worldwide, and has never been out of print since its 1960 release. Wow.
What writer among us wouldn't give her shift bar to achieve what she achieved? And yet, the world is left with the mystery that is Harper Lee. What stories have remained inside Nelle Harper Lee all these years, just waiting to be birthed? Could it really be there wasn't another great novel in her? Many great novels, in fact? Is it that she couldn't find another story as important as this one? Might other great Harper Lee novels have diminished the impact Mockingbird has made on the world for five decades now? Could it be that the bar was set so high with her first novel, that Ms. Lee brushed off her hands, said, "Well done!" and walked away, never to look back again?
Or was there a fear that she might never clear that bar again?
Her cousin, Richard Williams, has quoted her as saying, "When you have a hit like that, you can't go anywhere but down." My research tells me she worked many years on a second novel -- how I would love to see it! -- but never finished it, and certainly never sought publication of it. She lived a reclusive life, never granting interviews, never seeking the accolades her exquisite success would have afforded her.
So is that it? Was Harper Lee foiled by fear? No one, it seems, was more surprised than she by the enormous impact made by her debut novel: "I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement . . . I hoped for a little . . . but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."
Sort of hoped someone would like it? I'd say she got her wish. Unfortunately, Harper Lee's retiring personality wasn't wired for the kind of fame Mockingbird brought her. But I can't help think Ms. Lee cheated the world -- and maybe herself most of all -- by not having tried to clear the bar again. I secretly hope that when her time on earth is through, that the world will be surprised and gifted with a plethora of unpublished works, an inheritance of the richest kind, from one of the world's greatest literary figures.
As for myself, there's a lot I fear about this writing life. I fear the next story I attempt might be aborted. I fear a lot of what I have to do to promote what I've published so far. But then I hear, Fear not . . . Don't be afraid . . . And I rememer I'm not alone as I try to live out the call.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. What do you fear? Any other examples of an author who quit with one incredible work?