There are few things as intriguing as creators with limited outputs. Creating one brilliant work and leaving it at that can be frustrating to fans, who hold out hope for more brilliance, possibly brilliance that eclipses the original work. It’s why we’re so obsessed with JD Salinger, who left behind such a limited canon.
But Salinger seems like Stephen King compared to Harper Lee, who wrote one book and one book only. And it was a doozy. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the great American novels, and it spawned one of the great American films. The story of small town prejudice battled by sheer decency resonates today as completely as it did in 1960 - maybe even moreso, in an age when we have come to accept guilty before proven innocent as a precept of our system.
Known in her home town of Monroeville (Alabama, not where the zombies are) as Miss Nelle, Lee used to spend half her year in New York City where she would ride the bus and dressed in a style described as “like a bag woman.” And that’s a descriptor from a good friend of hers, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts (Butts. LOL). A good friend who spills some beans about Miss Nelle to The Daily Telegraph.
“She’s in an assisted-living facility,” Dr Butts says. “She’s 95 per cent blind, profoundly deaf, bound to a wheelchair. Her short-term memory is completely shot, and poor in general. She knows who I am. Every couple of weeks or so I load her up in my car and we, as she says, ‘escape’ for the day.”
So why did she just write the one book and leave it at that? Having sold 30 million copies she certainly didn’t NEED to write anything else ever again, but what was the real reason? Butts (LOL) thinks he knows.
“She once said to me when we were up late one night, sharing a bottle of scotch: ‘You ever wonder why I never wrote anything else?’ And I said, ‘Well, along with a million other people, yes’.
“I espoused two or three ideas. I said maybe you didn’t want to compete with yourself. She said, ‘Bullshit. Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again’. “