Mockingbird’s mother surfaces at last

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Harper Lee had one good book in her, but it’s sold millions. To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 30 million copies since it was first published in 1963. The book still sells a million a year, taught at all levels of school and beloved by fans so ardent that Harper calls them “Birdies.”

Despite working on another novel for years after her only finished book, Lee never published another novel. Magazine articles she wrote seemed forced in the years afterward, according to her biographer Charles J. Shields. It was as if she was funny and honest when she was certain nobody was reading her, Shields said on The Bob Edwards Show this morning on XM Radio. Edwards interviewed him on the release of Shields’ book Mockingbird, a Portrait of Harper Lee.

Then there was a second novel attempt, according to what Shields was able to sleuth out in Alabama. But that manuscript “was stolen, according to her sister. It seems an excuse on a level with ‘the dog ate it,’ ” he quipped during the interview.

Lee is a notorious recluse, appearing just once a year at the Alabama state capitol to congratulate the winner of the To Kill a Mockingbird essay contest. Now she’s bringing her prose back to the magazine pages with an essay about reading habits, scheduled for Oprah’s magazine this summer.

Lee has referenced her memoirs several times in correspondence. Her biographer said he hopes she has at least that book left in her, since she’s a dedicated letter writer. Seeing her friend Truman Capote descend into drugs and disillusion after publishing In Cold Blood spooked her, apparently. Be careful of being published. It can change your writing, if the mother of “Mockingbird” is any measure.

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