Furious Hours, Harper Lee, and Loneliness
This past month, I finished the book Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and The Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep. The book breaks down into three parts: The Reverend, The Lawyer, and The Writer. In the first section, we learn about Reverend Willie Maxwell, who pocketed a ton of insurance money in small town Alabama while his family members kept conveniently dying under suspicious circumstances. His lawyer, Tom Radney, successfully defended Maxwell, keeping him out of jail. But then, when a vigilante shot Maxwell at point blank range in front of 300 witnesses, Radney chose to defend Maxwell's killer, too. The trial drew big crowds from all over the area with reporters and writers showing up to cover the story. Included among those reporters and writers, Harper Lee came from nearby Monroeville, thinking she might be able to use the trial as source material for her next book.
The last section just might be the best case for why To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee's only book (No, I do not really count Go Set a Watchman, even though I'm glad I own it). Overall, I enjoyed Furious Hours. I found myself getting frustrated at the book's pace during the first section. I liked the second section about Tom Radney, but I wanted to know more about the lawyer’s motives for both of his clients, and I wanted to know more about the Maxwell cases and not just the Burns case. But the last third of the book was interesting, compelling, and sad.
I’m huge To Kill a Mockingbird fan. It’s probably my favorite book. It’s the book that made me think about becoming an English teacher. It’s the book that showed me structure and style and how to weave theme and symbolism into a story without losing the plot. I reread To Kill a Mockingbird every few years; it’s an old friend.
Because of my love for her book, Harper Lee has always intrigued me. She grew up in a small Southern town like I did, annoyed (yet fascinated) by her fellow townspeople. I love how she captured dialogue and small town culture without explaining it. I’ve read biographies about her life, watched documentaries, read and defended Go Set a Watchman. I scoff at people who claimed she only had one book in her. I get downright defensive when people claim that Truman Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird for her (AS…IF!). I love Harper Lee. And the section about her in Furious Hours made me so sad for her.
Harper Lee was lonely. She moved to New York City before finishing her college degree, and she spent most of her time at a day job at an airline. Then, her dear friends gave her the most unbelievable Christmas gift — they gave her enough money to quit her job and just focus on writing for a year.
So, she wrote a book — Go Set a Watchman. And when she took it to an editor, the editor saw potential in Harper Lee and encouraged her to stick to the childhood stories. Harper Lee listened. She and her editor worked for 10 more months or so, and then Lee ended up with To Kill a Mockingbird. And she won the Pulitzer.
After that, Harper Lee went to Kansas to help her friend Truman Capote do research for what would become In Cold Blood. And then, we never hear from Harper Lee again. She had ideas for other books. She wanted to say more things about the South, and she talked about other book possibilities in her letters to friends. What happened?
Harper Lee was lonely. She wrote a beautiful book with the help of her editor, but when she attempted other books, she kept trying to do so alone. And she attempted those other books while walking through the grief of losing her mother, her father, her brother, and her agent. Grief can be such a life sucker.
We tend to memorialize authors as saints. We think that the living, breathing person whose brain created the stories we love also models all of the things that our books show. We want our authors to be just as courageous and tolerant as the characters they create. We want true life to be structured and simple and good. But real life is a lot messier.
I wish Harper Lee had written more books, but more than that, I wish she had a writing community.
Do you know that it’s, like, really hard to write a book? And I don’t know if you’ve ever read the acknowledgements sections at the backs of books like I have, but writing a book takes a ton of people. We think of writers creating beautiful prose out of their heads just from their brains to their fingertips. But it doesn’t work like that.
Good writing takes a lot of work, and it takes a community of people around you to support that work, encourage you when the doubt comes, and feed you when you forget to eat. Good writing takes good editing. It takes tough love and hard truths. And because she didn’t have a group of writerly friends, Harper Lee could never get past the doubts and uncertainties that every author faces.
What can I learn from this? Well, first, I can know that I don’t have to do everything alone. Collaborating might be scary, but it’s also healthy. Finding a team of people to support my work is just as important as finding an audience to read it. And lastly, ignoring grief or powering through grief or shoving grief to the side doesn’t help. Sitting and wrestling with grief is vital to reaching a place where my work can be its best.
Do you need a writing community — a cheerleader to encourage you? an editor to help shape your narrative? a fellow writing pal for brainstorming sessions? The world can be lonely. Consider this your invitation to reach out. I’m a decent writer, but I’m a terrific friend. If you need one, hit me up.