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One Read: "Furious Hours" frames the price of Harper Lee's success – Columbia Daily Tribune

Editor’s note: Each Sunday in September, Daniel Boone Regional Library’s Ida Fogle will investigate a theme or angle of Casey Cep’s “Furious Hours,” the choice for this year’s community-wide One Read program. Mild spoilers may be included. 
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was an immediate bestseller upon its publication in 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and within two years was adapted into a hit movie.
A decade later, the book’s author confided to a friend: “Harper Lee thrives, but at the expense of Nelle.” 
Nelle Harper Lee went by her first name with family and friends. Reading Casey Cep’s book, “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee,” I got the impression that Lee liked to keep the two personas separate.
To be Nelle was to remain herself, the tomboy from Alabama, living in the modest Manhattan apartment she’d made home, and associating with old friends. Meanwhile, identifying as Harper Lee was a job — one she wasn’t always keen to do. 
Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, near her close friend Truman Capote. Both eventually moved to New York to pursue writing, but Capote’s career blossomed earlier. He accumulated publishing credits and awards while Lee was working as an airline ticket agent, living on peanut butter sandwiches and struggling to pay rent.
Perhaps she would have done that work several more years if not for her friends, Michael and Joy Brown. They recommended her to literary agents Annie Laurie Williams and Maurice Crain. More significantly, for Christmas one year, the Browns presented Lee with a sizable check along with a note saying, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please.” 
In turn, she presented them with a list of ideas for her first six novels, wasting no time producing the first. Then the world waited for her second book. And waited. And speculated about what was taking so long.
One factor was the pressure to create something as remarkable on her second attempt as she had with her debut. She’d set the bar almost impossibly high for herself. 
Lee sometimes claimed she couldn’t afford to write anymore because her taxes were so high. With a novel that sold half a million copies in its first year, the sale of foreign rights in nine countries, and money rolling in from a movie, she’d catapulted several income brackets. No matter how much she earned from any subsequent work, it seems unlikely her tax burden would result in penury. But handling the sudden riches and fame was no doubt overwhelming.
She fielded constant requests to give talks, sign books and provide autographs. Answering fan mail became a major occupation. She took care to write back to every schoolchild who contacted her, but otherwise avoided the spotlight as much as possible. The Browns had given her time off from selling airline tickets, but nobody could provide her leave from being Harper Lee. 
This remained true 17 years later when she decided to investigate the case of Willie Maxwell for a true crime volume she planned to title “The Reverend.” When she attempted to interview residents of Alexander City, where the mysterious deaths of Maxwell’s relatives took place, she was often met with requests for money, pitches for different book ideas or queries about what actors would star in the movie version of her book. 
I’m sure it’s hard to construct a work of nonfiction when your sources appear overly interested in cashing in on your wealth and fame. This might be one reason Cep found success in finishing what Lee couldn’t.
Of course, Cep also had the advantage of not starting from scratch. She was able to build on what her predecessor had already done, but without all the same burdens and expectations. Which is not to say she had an easy task. The world is full of people writing books that will never be finished. I’ll let our 2021 One Read author have the final words on this topic:
 “Nothing writes itself. Left to its own devices, the world will never transform into words, and no matter how many pages of notes and interviews and documents a reporting trip generates, the one that matters most always starts out blank.”
One Read discussions and programs are ongoing, including a virtual visit from author Casey Cep scheduled for Tuesday, September 30. Visit for more information.


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