Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Harper Lee Won't Talk to You. What Do You Do Now?

The biographer James McGrath Morris has started a new monthly on-line newsletter, and his September issue is a gem.

In it, Charles J. Shields describes walking to meet various publishers to discuss his just-submitted proposal for a biography of Harper Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

“My agent Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Management sent my book proposal to about a dozen publishers,” Shieeds recounted in The Biographer’s Craft. “We were excited when several editors said they'd like to meet me and discuss the idea. I remember we were walking down Seventh Avenue in Manhattan when Jeff's cell phone rang.

I could tell right away by his expression that something was wrong.

Someone--a mole in publishing (though I prefer to think of the person as a wart)--had copied my entire proposal and sent it by Fedex to Lee. As Jeff and I were blithely meeting with editors, she was already feeling grateful that some thoughtful soul had tipped her off, and by God she wasn't going to cooperate with me. Or, as she so often responds to requests from journalists, "Hell, no!" In fact, she had started calling friends and asking them not to speak to me. I was thunderstruck and Jeff, in his endearing way, began to worry (he wouldn't feel right if he wasn't worried about something) that the whole project was blowing up.

What I had planned to do before we were double-crossed was this: first, I would get a reputable publisher for the book, and then I would contact Lee. I would tell her that accuracy and fairness were my biggest concerns. I would explain that I wanted to work with her, and would even send her the completed manuscript for corrections. Keep in mind that this is chancy. Whenever you write a biography of a living person and permit him or her to read the manuscript, you run the risk of having it filleted. Result: a hagiography, to use an old-fashioned word, a biography that treats its subject with undue reverence because all the juicy parts have been removed. Still, I thought a biography of the mysterious Harper Lee, author of one of the most popular books of the twentieth century was worth the chance.

I never got the opportunity to work with her. She cut me dead. Never heard from her, only from her sister, Alice Lee, a lady in her nineties, who said imperiously that she was not pleased that I was writing about her sister."

Fortunately, Shields was tenacious, as his book, Mockingbird, was widely admired and won all sorts of awards.

The issue also contains an interview with Janet Malcom, who just wrote a biography of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, focusing on their years under Nazi occupation.


Anonymous said...

Harper Lee does speak, and often. She just doesn't want other people making money off of her.

There are several videos of her speaking on youtube under the user name "Harperleespeaks."

Charles J. Shields said...

Making money off Miss Lee... hmmm, would that include Gregory Peck who got a percentage of the movie? How about scriptwriter Horton Foote? And then, of course, there's HarperCollins, which realizes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in profit without Miss Lee having to change one word of her novel. Oh, and don't forget her agent who gets a fat 15% for turning down requests for interviews with her. And lest we forget, there's the Methodist Church. Miss Lee gives ten percent of her income to keep those vestments and pews looking spiffy.