I want to recommend a fine book for anyone to read, but an especially important book for people who are or who want to be writers.
Mockingbird, by Charles J. Shields, is a portrait of Nelle Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.
It is an engrossing description of one of America’s most famous authors, including her grandparents, her parents (her father was the model for Atticus; her mother was emotionally unbalanced), her family (two sisters, and a brother who served as the model for Jem), her growing-up environment in Monroeville, Alabama, and her neighbors (including the very young Truman Capote, who became Dill; an elderly woman who became Mrs. DuBose; and a persecuted man in a dysfunctional family three doors down from her house who became Boo Radley), and her later life.
Shields does an excellent job of describing Nelle’s schooling, up to and including an almost finished law degree, and then her years of working jobs in New York City as she spends her free time as a writer. Under the tutelage and grace of a good editor and good friends, she worked full-time on To Kill a Mockingbird for a year, submitted it, was accepted, and while the proof was being created, took a month to serve as a “research assistant” to Truman Capote as he began his five-year stint in writing In Cold Blood. Shields takes the reader on the full journey of her friendship with Capote and its eventual demise.
After Nelle wins the Pulitzer Prize, and after the movie comes out, there are a few years when she accommodates being famous, and then resolves to shun public life. She lives either in Monroeville with her sister (who remained a practicing lawyer into her nineties) or in a modest brownstone in New York City, and even though she completes the manuscript of a second novel, it is stolen and she never finds the desire to start over. To Kill a Mockingbird would be her only book until an earlier book manuscript, Go Set a Watchman, is discovered and printed after her death.
It's fascinating to read about someone who is very gifted and yet so internally ordinary. She never relinquished who she was to fame and stayed faithful to being a small-town Alabama girl.
The most interesting part to me was how she was able to create such a powerful story out of the circle of her young life (which was, more or less, only an area around her house that was not much more than two blocks long and a block wide), and to turn her authentic childhood acquaintances into famous literary characters – Atticus, Scout, Dill, and, of course, Boo Radley. These were real people that she grew up with and she rendered them with few embellishments.
Her work is an example to us all in both writing her book and in boldly living her extraordinary life. I encourage you to find the book and spend some time with it.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.