The Mockingbird at Fifty
The Songwriter sometimes calls me “The Harper Lee of Country Music”. He’s kidding, of course. The reference originates from a song we once wrote together. I had burst into the front door one autumn afternoon bubbling over from a sight I had seen on the way to my favourite nursery. Intending to write a short story about the experience, I told him all about it over dinner. “Story!?”, he said, eyes gleaming. “That’s a song, not a story! We have to write that!”.
And so we did, and I soon discovered during that day long writing session that we work in entirely different ways. I am always impressed that each morning, rain or shine, he can be found heading out along the stone pathway that winds through our back garden - Apple at his heels, coffee mug in hand - to his studio where he will write the morning away. For someone like myself, who merrily skips along until the muse conks me over the head, this is a tremendous example of discipline. Our diverging methods of working crashed into each other like bumper cars as we wrote that song, with the day even including, if I remember correctly, a threat to lock me in the room until we were finished. I do remember, more than once, gazing longingly at the door. Songwriting, I discovered, is hard. A good idea is necessary, but then it all has to rhyme, and be set to music, for goodness sakes. Although we both loved our finished product, and it was recorded by a bonafide country music legend - a fact The Songwriter considered a bit incredible (“She only wrote one song in her whole life and it got recorded? I can’t believe it!”) - I vowed to never write another.
And that is where any comparisons between me and Harper Lee come screeching to a halt. Harper Lee wrote one book, To Kill A Mockingbird, and that was it. Only one book and never another. But oh, what a book it was.
I should think it is always the chief desire of any good writer to fashion their words into a hieroglyphic net for truth, and to arrange those words on the page in such a way that that truth can never escape, but is destined to remain between those covers forever, clear and undeniable. This is certainly the accomplishment of To Kill A Mockingbird - truth on every page, truth so shining it is recognized in over 40 languages, with the book selling over 30 million copies. This July 11th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, with literary celebrations scheduled all over the world. Articles are being written, old photographs reprinted, the wonderful movie version played again and again on television. Just don’t ask Harper Lee how she feels about it all. She won’t tell you.
Many have speculated as to why Ms. Lee never wrote another book. Notoriously private, she isn’t talking. Perhaps she is rightfully wary of fame, having observed its ill effects on her good friend, writer Truman Capote. She doesn’t grant interviews, she’s never been on Oprah. She has been known, as it’s widely reported, to respond to any request for an interview with a resounding, “Not just no, but Hell No”. Consequently, we don’t know what she eats for breakfast, who she votes for, or what she thinks about the new Twilight movie. God Bless Her. For did she not put everything we need to know between the covers of that book? Did she not tell us about justice and love, show us the grim results of ignorance and fear? Did she not give us the template for parenthood, for friendship, for integrity? Show us the face of hate, and the value of community? Lord knows, I could go on and on, for it’s all in there.
There is a restaurant here in town that we frequent. On the wall hangs a framed book cover of To Kill A Mockingbird, with a handwritten note of appreciation from Harper Lee. I often stand there gazing at it whilst waiting for my table, saying a silent thank you to the lady I shall never meet.
Harper Lee is 84 now. For fifty years, people have been reading her amazing words.
Read the book.
Read it again.
There will never be another like it.
Painting by Mark Sandlin