Last year, freelance writer and editor Katherine Don published Real Courage, a young adult biography of Harper Lee, the intensely private author of To Kill a Mockingbird. In this post, she discusses the joys and challenges of researching the much admired, much sought-after writer’s life.
“On Writing an Unauthorized Biography”
When Morgan Reynolds asked me to write a YA biography of Harper Lee, I did some quick research before accepting the gig and discovered that she was a literary enigma of sorts: a woman who wrote a book, won the Pulitzer Prize, and then stepped away from public life and never wrote a book again. How was I supposed to write a biography of a woman who stopped giving interviews in 1964? But then I realized the flip side. Fantastic! From a research perspective, I couldn’t think of anything easier.
This turned out to not be the case. Researching a biography with so little source material is its own kind of challenge. When there’s so little available, any curious researcher will treat the breadcrumbs that are out there like little cryptograms that might provide some previously unrecognized insight. And so I found myself scrutinizing the transcript of a speech that Harper Lee gave in 1983 as if it were a map to the Staff of Ra. Herein is the key to her soul! But, in the end, it was just a speech.
After Mockingbird was published in 1960, Harper Lee published precisely three essays (two in 1961, one in 1965), gave one speech (the previously mentioned one in 1983), and published a short letter to Oprah Winfrey in O, The Oprah Magazine in 2006. That’s it.
The impulse of writers and journalists has been to travel to Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown where she lived most of her adult life (she also had an apartment in New York), and essentially stalk her. Marja Mills, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, moved into a house next door to Lee and her sister Alice in 2004. Her subsequent effort to write a book about Lee was delayed for years as Harper Lee denied having authorized Mills to write a biography. This coming July, Mills’ book will be published by Penguin Press, but it won’t be a biography of Lee; it will be a “memoir” of Mills’ experience with her.
The most fruitful effort to date to reconstruct the life of Harper Lee was the research of Charles Shields for his 2006 unauthorized biography, A Portrait of Harper Lee. Shields put on his journalist hat and uncovered new information by interviewing Lee’s grammar school, high school, and university classmates. He also combed the letters of past Lee friends and acquaintances for correspondence with Lee. Unfortunately, letters from Lee were conspicuously absent from Truman Capote’s papers.
Shields’ book had so much raw information to present that it didn’t focus as much on deciphering Lee’s personality. For my own book, I hoped to emerge with some sort of new insight, and so I perused the academic scholarship on To Kill A Mockingbird, hoping the book would reveal the woman behind it. Several academic writers have focused on Lee’s ambiguous sexuality and the portrayal of gender in Mockingbird, which is certainly interesting, but difficult to write about in the complete absence of Lee’s own insight on the topic—she has never spoken about her sexuality or the conspicuous absence of romantic ties in her life.
For me, the most interesting aspect of Lee was her love for the South and for small-town life. This is something that rarely gets discussed because Mockingbird is often seen as a critique of the South. But in truth, Lee is somewhat of a Luddite (and I mean that in a positive way) with a romantic notion for older, simpler ways of life. In order to explore that, I needed to delve into the historical context of Alabama in the 1930s, when Lee grew up and when Mockingbird takes place, and also the ’60s, when Mockingbird was published. This was a perfect research angle because historical context is so important for a YA book geared toward junior high and high school students.
And so much of my research ended up being about historical topics such as the decline of the agricultural economy during the Great Depression and the events that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Weaving the historical topics with Lee’s life allowed the history to come alive and allowed Lee to be a moving, breathing person in context.