“Monday 11th December 1995
Didn’t go to school today. I felt awful. Really bad period pains. Read To Kill A Mockingbird. It is so brilliant! And so sad! I want to give Boo Radley a big cuddle! What a lovely book!”
And that’s all I wrote.
It pains me now, far more than my girl bits pained me on that day of self-piteous bunking, to read what an ineloquent wang I was after I had just devoured what quickly became, and has stayed, my favourite book. How brief and moronic and exclamation-mark-y I was about the book that has stayed with me the longest, so vividly – the book I clasp tightly to my chest if a friend plucks it from my shelves, the book I have recommended hundreds of time with a deep sigh and an imploring hand on a customer’s arm throughout my years as a bookseller. Would it become my favourite if I had only just read it now as a thirty-four year old woman? Possibly not. But the time that we choose and read our books is sometimes just as important as the books themselves, and when are our sensibilities more porous than when we are teenagers; dawdling in the brink-land; becoming the people we will be?
How funny that as I wrote my diary that night, after chomping up all those lovely words in a single day with a luxurious voracity that makes me envious of my fifteen year old self, I simply had no words. Harper Lee had already said all the ones I wanted to. I just wrote the basics for my own posterity and went to sleep. But the book was now inside me.
1995 was also the year the Boo Radleys had their hit song Wake Up Boo, which was one of the most iconic songs of my teens. I still bellow along to it when I hear it playing, even now.
Was that song the reason I bought the book? That I let it sit on the pile of books I kept by the side of my bed to be plucked out and read by soft peach light until Mum knocked on the door and reminded me I had school in the morning? I don’t remember that being the link, but perhaps it was how I found it. Maybe that’s how thousands of us found it.
I’ve been fascinated with Harper Lee ever since. How could someone who had written such a book – that had never been out of print, that elicits such a strong emotional reaction in so many people – not have written another book? It seemed like lunacy, as bizarre to me then with nascent dreams of writing as now, with a very real ambition for writing to be my life. It seemed so mysterious; as shadowlike as Boo, as silence-full as the Radley house. Why were there no more words, Harper?
As I grew older, and I found myself reading Harper Lee’s childhood friend and inspiration for her character Dill – Truman Capote – I became even more intrigued. Here were these two writers, friends from childhood summers in Alabama, casually hanging out being brilliant together. What are the chances? Harper Lee never spoke out, agreed to no interviews post 1964, and there were scant attempts to biographise her. She hid. Like Boo. There were even delicious whispers that she hadn’t written To Kill A Mockingbird at all – that the preening literary giant Capote had written it and in an uncharacteristic sashay away from his own ego, credited her; that it was all a massive literary hoax.
Now to hear that Harper Lee’s original novel – Go Set A Watchman – has been found in a ‘safe location’, that Harper Lee has given her elusive consent to it being published, and that we could be holding one in our hands by the end of July, is an amazing firecracker in my heart. But they are mixed feelings. How uncanny is it that only three months after her sister and staunch protector’s death an old manuscript is found and readily sanctioned for publication by a publicity-shy (and seemingly writing-shy) Lee? How is she being ‘handled’ now at the feebler end of her wits? How on earth will the world be satisfied by a sequel to a book more popular than the bible? What is Harper Lee – now 88, blind, deaf and wheelchair-bound – setting herself up for?
I hope, because I love her, that at this stage in her life it won’t be like making her – making Boo – dance out in a light she is not conditioned for.