Showing posts with label Harper Lee. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Harper Lee. Show all posts

28 February 2016

Harper Lee and Alabama


by Dale C. Andrews
Sign in front of the Harper Lee Museum, Monroeville, Alabama 
(From FiveThirtyEight; attributed to Andrea Mabry, AP)
Fleetingly we will skirt Georgia before our southerly run continues down the State of Alabama, through Birmingham, and then just east of Monroeville, where Harper Lee still resides.
                         Me                                                                      SleuthSayers
                         January 31, 2016
You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. 
Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.
                                                                 Harper Lee 
                                                                 To Kill a Mockingbird 

       One month ago I drove south through the State of Alabama, and as always I thought of Harper Lee when we passed just east of Monroeville, her Alabama refuge for most of her life and the model for the Alabama town of Maycomb, in which To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman take place. It was while I was in Alabama last year that it was announced that Go Set a Watchman, a book that took most of us completely by surprise, would be published. And now this year, during our annual month in Alabama, Harper Lee has passed.  Tomorrow we leave.  But again this year I have spent a lot of time here thinking about Harper Lee, her two books, and what they teach us about Alabama.

       Harper Lee rarely gave interviews. But in one of the few that she did give she had this to say back in 1964:
I would like . . . to do one thing, and I’ve never spoken much about it because it’s such a personal thing. I would like to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world.
All told Harper Lee left us only two novels -- To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. Publication of the latter volume was the catalyst for a lot of criticism. That criticism, both literary and ad hominem, is familiar to most readers and need not be regurgitated here. But I would argue (in fact, I have argued) that the two volumes, comprising virtually all of Harper Lee’s literary output, tell us a lot about Harper Lee’s Alabama, and much of what she tells us remains true today. 

       For most of my life I never set foot in Alabama. But in each of the last five years my wife and I have spent the month of February in the State, hunkered down in a rented condominium in Gulf Shores overlooking the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. We first made this trip at the urging of my wife’s sisters, who had already discovered Gulf Shores, which is convenient to their Midwest homes. They were hardly alone in this discovery -- the stretch of South Alabama has become a flocking ground for so-called “snowbirds,” since it offers a very reasonable retreat from the weather extremes that roll across the nation several hundred miles to the north. This small strip of Alabama shoreline is not as warm as Florida, but is more reasonably priced, enticing us northerners to trade a few degrees of warmth for several dollars of savings. 

       So, what’s not to like?  Well, there is that little problem of history and its imprints.

       The United States has a large footprint, and its many regions have spawned many sub cultures, some of which tend to divide us. So I will admit that when my wife and I first considered re-locating here for the month of February I approached the possibility with a significant degree of historical trepidation. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, which certainly is not the liberal bastion of my present home in Washington, D.C. But even in St. Louis, in the 1950s and 1960s of my childhood, Alabama was a place we looked at uncomprehendingly and, well, a bit aghast. From afar we watched the civil rights marches and riots on our television news.  We watched George Wallace’s defiant confrontation with Federal marshals as he attempted to block the doorway to the registrar’s office on the steps of the University of Alabama. 

       All of this had an effect. It was easy -- very easy -- to conclude that while we were far from perfect, these angry folks digging in their heels against racial equality were still uncomfortably different from us. We couldn't figure them out and, indeed, we really did not want to.  My father, I remember, vowed never to set foot in the state. Mississippi either. But today we are talking Alabama. 

      All of this was pretty deeply ingrained in me that first time, five years ago, that I drove south to Alabama. But just as life presents many faces, so, too, does Alabama. Driving south down Interstate 65 the occasional Confederate flag flying by the side of the highway was, in each case, both a confirmation of what I already expected and also off-putting. In contrast, the people we encountered were uniformly charming, gracious and inviting. Alabama’s stories, like all of ours, are complex.

       Here are two. 

       On our first trip to Gulf Shores I wandered into a liquor store on West Beach Boulevard to purchase some scotch. There were no large bottles of Dewars, my favorite brand, on display and I asked the manager if he had any in the back. Shaking his head he apologized, telling me that their stock was a bit low since February was still off season. Then, smiling, he told me to just pick up two smaller bottles and he would knock a few bucks off. Wow, I thought. Never had that happen before. When I brought the two bottles up to checkout the manager pulled a bottle of single malt scotch from under the counter. “This is my favorite,” he said. He then produced two glasses, poured a finger in each, and handed one to me. I picked up the proffered glass and, at 10:30 in the morning we sipped scotch together and talked about the weather and good places to purchase seafood. When I finally got back to the car my wife, waiting patiently inside, asked where I had been for such a long time. “Drinking scotch with my new best friend,” I replied. 

       But then there is this:  On that same trip one evening we went to dinner at DeSoto’s Seafood Kitchen, a Gulf Shores restaurant popular for its southern charm and local fare. As we ate our dinner we became aware of a woman seated at a nearby table.  Indeed, she couldn't be ignored.  In a voice loud enough to make clear that her words were intended to reach beyond her immediate dinner party we (and many others) heard the following harangue:  “Things have gotten so bad,” she hectored, for all to hear, “that in Washington they went and passed a secret Constitutional amendment making it legal for a black man from Kenya to be president.” 

       Each of these stories is Alabama. 

       For years now I have enjoyed the warmth of the sun and of the people here in Gulf Shores. Everyone is uniformly friendly. Smiles abound. But just as Sherlock Holmes famously observed in the context of the dog that did not bark in the night, we need to pay attention to what is present and also to what may be absent.  I never noticed this at first, but it eventually struck me that in all of the restaurants, supermarkets, pharmacies, fish markets, liquor stores and souvenir shops that I have visited in and around Gulf Shores over the years all of the employees that I recall encountering have been Caucasian. Just like in that Sherlock Holmes story, when you recognize the absence, well, it can tell you a lot.  And that is yet another Alabama story.

       As noted at the outset of this piece, Harper Lee was subjected to a good deal of criticism last year when Go Tell a Watchman was published. Many critics could not abide the contrasting portrayals of Atticus Finch that Lee’s two books offered up. How can we square the paragon of Mockingbird with the segregationist of Watchman? Like Alabama, the answer to that question is complex. 

     The two Harper Lee passages at the top of this piece illustrate the dual, and at times conflicting perspectives that the author brought to her life view and to her writing. She balanced the competing tasks of understanding those around her while at the same time judging those characters, and herself, by her own conscience. While some have been critical of Watchman, and its portrayal of Atticus, it seems to me that we need both books to understand Harper Lee and her complicated verdict on Alabama.

       It is Mockingbird that allows us to understand the conscience of Atticus, what Harper Lee identified as “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule.” But it is Watchman that reminds us that for all of this Atticus was still a son of Alabama. As Harper Lee explained, you cannot understand anyone, even Atticus, “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Climbing into that skin is Watchman. Abiding by your own conscience is To Kill a Mockingbird. Both are Atticus and both are Alabama. Harper Lee could understand, and love without condoning.

       In the wake of Harper Lee's death the statistical website FiveThirtyEight posted an article this week summarizing the historical demographics of Harper Lee’s town, Monroeville.  The article concluded that little there has really changed over the years.  The 1930s, when Mockingbird was set, appears to be not all that different from the the 1960s, when the novel was published, and not all that different from today. I have never visited Monroeville.  But this sure sounds like Alabama. History leaves footprints, and they sometimes wash away very slowly. 

       Just after the prophet Isaiah uttered the words “go set a watchman” he continued with these: “Let him declare what he seeth.” That is what Harper Lee did when she wrote about Alabama.  And that is what she said she would do in that 1964 interview.

06 September 2015

Atticus?


by Dale C. Andrews
 "But that's another story." 
                       Rudyard Kipling 
                       Soldiers Three, The Story of the Gadsbys, 
                             In Black and White (1888)
"[T]his very minute, a political philosophy foreign to it is being pressed on the South, and the South's not ready for it . . . ."
                        Harper Lee
                        Go Set a Watchman (2015)
"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed."
                        Opinion of the Court in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)
                        per Justice Kennedy

       Last January as I drove south to Gulf Shores, Alabama, intent on leap-frogging February in Washington, D.C., I passed within scant miles of Monroeville, Alabama. And as I did so my mind wandered to Harper Lee, living there still in the town that was the model for Maycomb, Alabama, the setting in which her classic To Kill a Mockingbird is framed. And as we always do at that point in our drive, my wife and I reflected (as have many others) on the fact that for more than fifty years this Pulitzer Prize winning classic stood as the sole literary contribution of Harper Lee.

     How strange it was, then, several days later, to hear that there would be another; that a second volume, Go Set a Watchman, existed and would be published in July.
   
       News of Harper Lee’s second book set off a firestorm that would have been hard for anyone to ignore. Article after article questioned whether Lee, 88 years old, suffering the after effects of a stroke and confined to an assisted living facility, could have credibly made the decision to publish Go Set a Watchman after steadfastly asserting for over 50 years that there would never be another book. Predictably, since publication this summer, Go Set a Watchman has held the pole position on all of the bestseller lists. But, if anything, the debate surrounding the book has only increased. 

       Amidst all of this controversy it is interesting, however, to take a step back; to set aside the speculations concerning the book’s origin, Harper Lee’s present circumstances, and her earlier views as to whether it should be published, and instead examine the book itself and its place as a companion piece to To Kill a Mockingbird

       Many of those who dismiss Go Set a Watchman argue that the book is nothing more than a first and very rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.  I suspect that at least some of those critics have not in fact read Watchman. Whatever its other shortcomings may be, it is hardly a rough draft.  The book revolves around the characters we know from Mockingbird -- met, again, 20 years later -- but is a completely different story. In fact, one of the strangest aspects of Watchman is that it is not a first draft of Mockingbird -- the book presents as a sequel although it was in fact written before To Kill a Mockingbird. The characters in each either appear or are referenced in the other, and with one exception that I could find, the events in each book are entirely consistent with the events in the other. (I will leave it to readers to find that sole inconsistency, which could have been remedied by editing one paragraph in Watchman. A separate mystery is why that edit was not made.) 

The Monroeville, Alabama court house
       Stand back, then, and think how unlikely this is. From all reports Watchman was a rejected manuscript. Lee was, in effect, told that parts of the book were good, that the setting had promise, but that she needed to go back to the drawing board. All writers -- certainly all of us here at SleuthSayers, I suspect -- have received such advice. A “netherland” sort of letter, half way between acceptance and rejection. Invariably what the writer does in response to such a letter is to rip apart the story or novel, re-think the premise, keep what is usable and substitute new approaches for what is not. And equally invariably the final story or novel, if and when ultimately published, bears a resemblance to the first work that is no more, nor less, than that between a true first and second draft of the same story. 

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch
       But that is not what Harper Lee did with Go Set a Watchman. Instead she set the first book aside, in its entirety, and fashioned a new narrative focusing on the same characters twenty years earlier. So positioned, Watchman becomes not the introduction of Scout and Atticus, but rather a reunion; a look at what happened to each.  And this fact forms the backbone for much of the published criticism of Go Set a Watchman: in the view of some the paragon that was Atticus Finch in Mockingbird is irreconcilable with the Atticus of Watchman, who in some respects displays feet of clay. 

       So: is this a legitimate complaint? Is the character of Atticus in Mockingbird so different from his portrayal in Watchman as to be unrecognizable as well as disappointing? I don't believe that this question can be answered solely by comparing the texts of each volume. Rather, it requires a recognition of the historical context of 1936 Alabama, where Mockingbird is set, and the Alabama of 1956, where we find 72 year old Atticus struggling with the then-recent decision of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, which once and for all overturned the previous standard of “separate but equal” in favor of constitutionally mandated desegregation. 

       One of the easiest ways to gauge a fictional character’s believability is to ask ourselves, as readers, whether we know someone who, in like circumstances, would behave the same way. And specifically (in the context of Atticus) is the 1936 paragon of racial sensitivity portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird a believable early version of the 1956 Atticus, who displays some trepidations concerning the effects of the then accelerating march of desegregation brought on by the Supreme Court’s decision? My answer to this is a somewhat sad “yes.” 

       Most of the time social change and awakening moves at glacial speed, requiring slowly evolving adjustments in standards. Other times, for whatever reason, the speed of change can accelerate like a bonfire, however, plowing through existing societal mores and leaving new ones in the furrows. And at times the catalyst for such accelerating change can be a Supreme Court decision, such as Brown v. Board of Education, that overnight alters the rules for all.  For some, including Atticus, those times may present their own difficulties.

       The challenge that faced Atticus is one that history often serves up.  The most recent example of such an accelerating societal change is the wave of growing public acceptance for gay marriage in our country. According to the Gallup organization, in 1996 27 percent believed there should be a constitutional recognition of the rights of gay couples to marry.  By last spring the number favoring such unions was 60 percent -- an astoundingly fast social turnabout. And, like the cry for civil rights reform in the 1950s, this issue gained a catalyst this summer when the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges found a constitutional right for all to marry.

       To many (and count me in) the Supreme Court’s decision recognizing a constitutional foundation for the right of gays to marry was overdue and welcome. And, like its decision fifty years earlier in Brown v. Board of Education, the Court's gay rights decision required immediate changes in a context where matters were previously evolving at a more languid pace.  Most of us rode that accelerating wave of social change with pleasure. Certainly I did -- I’ll be helping to officiate at my son Colin’s wedding to his fiance Kyle next week. But for others the rapid evolution in public opinion, and the catalyst of the Supreme Court's recognition of a constitutional right, proved to be a challenge.

     Other historical examples of the reticence of some to accept social change abound. And, for me (as was also the case for Scout), some of these examples hit pretty close to home.  My maternal grandmother, a gentle and intelligent woman, in the 1950s would not eat in a restaurant if food had been prepared by a black person. My mother -- a liberal bordering on socialist -- by contrast would have none of this, and her social views (just like those of Scout) evolved rapidly as she distanced herself from the views of her mother.  But not so her younger sister, my aunt, who for the rest of her life embraced the bigoted views of her mother when it came to restaurants. 


        The fact that some come up short when confronted with social evolution is not limited to racial matters and the civil rights movement.  It is (sadly) true as a general matter that other forms of bigotry can be equally difficult for some to shed, particularly in a hurry.  History is replete with examples of religious intolerance, and again, these examples were not unfamiliar in my own family. My maternal grandfather, my mother’s father, spent much of 1960 asserting to anyone who would listen that if John F. Kennedy won the presidency the Pope would become the true president of the United States. I remember these harangues, and can attest that he did not mean this figuratively. He meant it literally. He viewed the entire campaign by John F. Kennedy as an orchestrated conspiracy by the Catholic church. 

       These folks, my grandparents, who otherwise displayed admirable traits, were caught with their own feet of clay when the world around them started to move at a speed to which they could no longer readily adjust. They had never contemplated that they would have to face a changed world. Not unlike the virtuous Atticus of 1936 -- the Atticus we know and love from Mockingbird -- who found himself hard pressed to adjust to the changes facing the south in 1956 after the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education decreed that separate really was not equal.   Even the Atticus who captivated us with his 1936 defense of a black man unjustly accused in Mockingbird could not bring himself in 1956 to support voting rights and open schools in Watchman.  

       So before dismissing as inconsistent these disappointing aspects of the Atticus in Watchman, readers should perhaps be guided by the admonition of British novelist L. P. Hartley: "the past is a foreign country." It is difficult to imagine or remember 1956 from the vantage point of 2015. Things move at a different pace in different times.   Is the 1956 Atticus disappointing?  Clearly, yes.  But is he inconsistent with the Atticus of Mockingbird?  A harder question.

       Sociologists Emile Durkheim and Robert K. Merton each analyzed the effect of rapid social change -- situations where cultural goals become out of sync with social structure.  Those circumstances, they concluded, can result in a condition they labeled “anomie,” a state of normlessness. The term encompasses social instability that results when the established order of things begins to topple.   Anomie is, almost certainly, a good description of what my grandfather experienced when confronted with the reality of a Catholic president.  It is also what a shrinking minority experience when confronting the Supreme Court's recent gay rights decision.  That must have been how it felt to some in Monroeville, Alabama in 1956, views carried forward in Harper Lee’s depiction of Maycomb.  And this is certainly consistent with the reactions of some in Alabama to the gay rights decision.

       The Washington Post reported the following in "The Fix" on September 3 concerning how far Alabama may go to side-step the Court's decision:
Right now, Alabama is busy charting new territory in the effort to resist legal same-sex marriage. This month, a state legislative committee voted for a measure that, should it reach and pass the full state Senate, could eliminate [all] state-issued marriage licenses.
George Wallace blocking the door at the
University of Alabama (AP Photo)
       Alabama's reactions to the civil rights movement, and now the gay rights decision, is also consistent with Merton's refinement to anomie, specifically, his notion of “strain theory” -- for purposes relevant here, the observable phenomenon that there are times when the requirements of society -- particularly new and unfamiliar requirements -- cannot easily be reconciled with existing social structure.

       More specifically, the issue facing Atticus was what to do with a Supreme Court decision overturning what had been an established "separate but equal" guidepost embedded in the social structure of his south.   Atticus's resistance to change in these circumstances, his choice of comfortable and long-standing local social structure over newly-imposed national cultural norms, is disappointing, but it is consistent with the reactions of others in like circumstances. As noted in Perspective on Deviance and Social Control, with “[t]he country . . . undergoing enormous changes as the civil rights movement took hold” the societal effect was predictable. “With norms and expectations unclear for a large segment of society, anomie theory leads us to expect high rates of deviance.”  And that is what our old friend Atticus did.  Unable to reconcile an end to "separate but equal" with the structural requirements of his community he deviated -- he chose the latter.  He rejected the change that society had to undergo, the enlightened path we all needed to follow, and instead chose resistance.

       All of this, then, is is far from saying that Atticus's response, as depicted by Harper Lee, was correct or even admirable.  In fact, his reaction to the Supreme Court's decision, as a moral as well as a legal matter, is deplorable.  So, too, the reaction of that Kentucky clerk -- who this week argued that her religious beliefs insulated her from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples notwithstanding the Supreme Court's prior decision that there is a constitutional right for all to marry. Her response, the response of those legislators in Alabama who cry not me; not in my community, and the response of Atticus, are all infuriating and wrong.  That is the point that Scout makes when she confronts her father in Watchman.  And that is the point that Harper Lee makes as she tells her story.

       Viewing all of this from today’s vantage point, where the justice and inevitability of the Supreme Court's decision overruling "separate but equal" is apparent, we can be taken aback by Atticus’s reticence to ride the wave, to embrace the immediate need for change.  I am still taken aback by my grandmother's inability to shed her racial intolerance, and by my grandfather's inability to overcome his religious intolerance of Catholics.  And as I approach my younger son Colin’s impending wedding to Kyle, his soul mate of the last five years, I am similarly taken aback by those, such as the legislators in Alabama and that Kentucky clerk, who attempt to repudiate the Supreme Court's decision finding a constitutional right of all to marry.  

       A lot of this is about family.  And that is what To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman are also about.  Atticus was drawn from Harper Lee's own father, and doubtless she made the character real by importing the good as well as the flawed.  At the simplest level Mockingbird focuses on the good, and Messenger tries to comprehend the flawed.  I hope, and I would bet, that Harper Lee believes that the good in Atticus, evident in both books, is likely more than sufficient to ensure that (unlike my mother's sister and that Kentucky clerk) eventually he would have found himself standing with the rest of us.  That is actually a fairly low bar to clear -- recall that before his death even George Wallace eventually decried his earlier impassioned support for segregation.

       So, is the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman a believable fictional character? Does his conflict with his daughter concerning the changes wrought in the 1950s ring true? And is his portrayal in the context of 1956 Alabama understandable and consistent with the 1938 Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird? It seems to me the answer to each of those questions is “yes.”

       A disappointed “yes,” but still a “yes.”

03 March 2015

Her Terrible Beauty


by David Dean

The title of this piece just happens to be the title of my latest story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  This is not a coincidence.  I am utilizing my God-given right to promote my work in lieu of the huge monthly check I would normally receive from our generous paymaster, Leigh Lundin.  But I will not just promote, but educate as well, sprinkling tidbits of information throughout that cannot possibly be found on the internet.  For instance: Saint Patrick's Day is two weeks from today.


Yes, only a few hundred million of us woke up knowing this today.  What the devil does it have to do with my latest groundbreaking literary effort?  Very little, actually, but since this auspicious occasion just happens to be coming up, I thought I'd smoothly weave it in.  Just watch my handiwork.

My story takes place in antebellum Alabama, circa 1831, within the diocese of Mobile and concerns a brother and sister, murders and miracles, duels and deceptions.  It ends with a hanging.  St. Patrick has nothing to do with any of it.  Yet, if you go to Mobile, as I have, and visit the magnificent Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception you will discover a small, unique statue of him situated to the right of the altar.  If you look up, and you should, you will find a ceiling exquisitely rendered in gold leaf patterns of alternating fleur-de-lis and shamrocks, heraldic symbols of both France and Ireland.  Mobile, like most of the Gulf Coast, was originally colonized by the French and, in fact, it was here that the first Mardi Gras was celebrated in North America; not in New Orleans.  This was in 1703--another fun fact.  It is celebrated in Mobile to this day. 

How did St. Patrick sneak into this decidedly French environment, you may ask?  The answer lies with all the Irish priests and bishops entombed in the vault beneath the Cathedral.  In those days, the Irish were mighty and prodigious evangelizers of the Catholic faith and were forever charging into the breach.  It appears that they charged into the Mobile colony.  The French and the Irish have a long relationship actually, as both have found themselves squared off repeatedly with their mutual enemy, the English.  One happy result of this alliance was Hennessey Cognac; another the breathtaking ceiling of the Cathedral.  More fun facts as promised.

My protagonist opens the story with a request for one of these priests (French or Irish, it doesn't matter).  He wishes to prepare himself for his impending exit from this perplexing world of ours.  A rider is sent to Mobile to fetch one.  Thus begins our tale of madness and murder.  It's in the March/April issue along with many fine tales by such notables as Doug Allyn, Dave Zeltserman, S.J. Rozan, Loren D. Estleman, Marilyn Todd, and more!  I hope that you will get a copy of this issue, and that if you do, you find your visit to L.A. (Lower Alabama) interesting.

P.S. During my time here the news broke of Harper Lee's impending book release.  This was big down here as Monroeville, a nearby community, is both Ms. Lee's home and the setting for "To Kill A Mockingbird."

P.P.S. Oh yes, almost forgot, our fellow SleuthSayer, Dale Andrews, vacations yearly in nearby Gulf Shores, Alabama--a final fun fact.

22 February 2015

Songs of the South


by Dale C. Andrews
Please not yet. Those are the three eternal words. Please not yet.
                                                John D. MacDonald
                                                A Deadly Shade of Gold

       As usual the month of February finds me on the gulf shore of Alabama, making a good on a promise my wife and I made to ourselves back when we were still in the work-a-day world: once we retired February would never again find us in Washington, D.C. So we have again traveled south to a rental on the shore. Not the tropics, but also not the frozen east coast of the past several weeks.

Harper Lee
     Alabama is a sort of exciting place for anyone interested in literature to find themselves this February. Only a few weeks ago, and a scant 100 miles north, Harper Lee, the now 88 year old author of the American Classic To Kill a Mockingbird announced to a stunned world that, after 55 years of literary silence, this summer a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning story of Scout, Atticus and the travails of small town life in Alabama will be published.

       Whether we should feel some trepidation as we await the return of Atticus and Scout in the long-withheld Go Set a Watchman has already been the subject of numerous articles. Far be it from me to add another. But aside from such speculations concerning the ultimate merit of the Mockingbird sequel, an interesting sidelight to the pending publication of Harper Lee’s second novel is the reaction of the reading public, which had become resigned to Lee’s oft-articulated position that she would never publish a second work. This had been both accepted and hard to get over -- we had fallen in love with Mockingbird -- and Lee’s resolve to leave it at that had left us feeling a bit like a child allowed but one toy. The anticipation has been overwhelming with the possibility of another now on the horizon. 

Arthur Conan Doyle
       A writer’s decision to not follow up on a popular book, or to end a popular series of books, often invites a public outcry. Famously, Arthur Conan Doyle found himself unable, in the face of such clamor, to leave Sherlock Holmes sprawled at the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls. Doyle (and now Lee) ultimately bent, in some degree, to the clamor. Doyle took up the pen again, and Lee's attorney discovered that previous manuscript. And just yesterday Arthur Conan Doyle had his own last laugh -- a similarly "lost" Sherlock Holmes story was discovered in an attic after lying there unnoticed for the past 111 years.

       But what happens when the series ends for reasons beyond the author’s ability to remedy; when the author is gone but nothing is left behind?  Since, as noted, I am gazing out toward the Gulf as I type, what could be more natural than to allow my gaze to linger off toward the east, where 17 miles away Florida beckons? And what is more “Florida” than John D. MacDonald and his iconic literary sidekick Travis McGee?

John D. MacDonald
       Okay, okay. I know there what you may be thinking. Does he intend to offer up as a premise a column that lumps Harper Lee -- a Pulitzer Prize winning (and beloved) artist -- with John D. MacDonald, the erstwhile paperback king who wrote almost 80 books over the course of a career that began in pulp fiction?  In a word:  Yep. But I'm not the only one who places MacDonald on a pretty high pedestal.  Back in 2003 Jonathan Yardley, literary critic for the Washington Post, went back to re-read MacDonald and came away incredulous, concluding that the body of work revealed the author as "one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction -- not crime fiction; fiction, period."  Yardley went on to explain:
This man whom I'd snobbishly dismissed as a paperback writer turned out to be a novelist of the highest professionalism and a social critic armed with vigorous opinions stingingly expressed. His prose had energy, wit and bite, his plots were humdingers, his characters talked like real people, and his knowledge of the contemporary world was -- no other word will do -- breathtaking.
       This is not the first time that I have offered up thoughts on MacDonald and McGee in this space. Unlike Harper Lee, who wrote but one book (now, two), John D. MacDonald (like Doyle) was prolific. He wrote almost 80 works of fiction and nonfiction, and 21 McGee novels before his sudden death in 1986. But he still left us hanging.  In the last of the Travis McGee series, The Lonely Silver Rain, McGee is confronted with several revelations (no further spoilers here!) but then, given MacDonald’s demise two years later, McGee’s fans are ultimately left to ponder where these revelations might have led.

       Like Harper Lee, whose sequel to Mockingbird was known by some friends to have existed, at least at one time, MacDonald, too, was rumored to have a final Travis McGee novel under lock and key.  I remember reading as much in a 1975 interview with MacDonald, and Stephen King has stated that before MacDonald's death he had discussed with King the backbone of what would be the final McGee adventure.  But all rumors of that final work, usually conjectured to bear the title A Black Border for McGee, were apparently baseless. MacDonald’s heirs have asserted that no such work exists, and have steadfastly refused all requests by other authors -- most notably one from Stephen King -- to continue (and properly end) the series. One caveat, here:  there is a little-known novel, The Black Squall, by Lori Stone, which sneaks around the heirs' prohibition by offering a final adventure clearly addressing what might have happened to Travis McGee and his friend Meyer, but doing so without ever using their actual names. But other than that, barring a Harper Lee, or Arthur Conan Doyle-like denouement -- a final work miraculously discovered -- that is it for McGee.

       So aside from The Black Squall (which, I admit, I have not read) the many fans of Travis McGee have had to look elsewhere over the last thirty years for a fix. And that has sparked a bit of a literary cottage industry among authors seeking to re-capture, and then offer to the reading public, the essence of McGee. 

       So, pause with me here. What, at base, is the Travis McGee formula?  What do readers look for in a Travis McGee novel?  The series evolved over time, but viewed in its entirety it seems to me MacDonald's McGee adventures are comprised of the following base elements: 

The Busted Flush, as imagined
       First, the series is centered around an “off the grid” protagonist with an off-beat lifestyle and home. McGee is a self-described beach bum who occasionally comes out of his “installment” retirement to take cases as a “salvage consultant,” working for 50 percent of the value of the property recovered. He lives in his 52 foot cabin cruiser, The Busted Flush, won in a poker game. His detached and unburdened lifestyle, and his luxury to observe the world around him as an objective critic, captures the reader. He narrates his own stories with spot-on observations and critiques of the world in which we live. We, as readers, nod in agreement and become wannabes. 

       Second, there is the “best friend” buddy who provides an intellectual counterpoint, someone with whom the protagonist can spar during the course of the narrative. This companion must be colorful in his own right, intelligent, and equally detached, but must in some respects stand in independent contrast to the protagonist. McGee’s “buddy” is Meyer, an erstwhile economist, who lives on his nearby book-packed ship, initially The John Maynard Keynes, later (after The Keynes fails to survive an adventure) The Thorstein Veblen. 

     Third, the stories, at their heart, focus on the strengths, and the largely man-made weaknesses, of the state of Florida. Even when they do not take place there, each Travis McGee adventure displays a love of the natural Florida ecosystems, a disgruntled horror as to what is happening to them, and a matching disdain for those who are “developing” the state out of existence. A kind word is never said about a double wide, a condominium, a jet ski or a Hawaiian shirt.  As Florida author Carl Hiassen has written: "Most readers loved MacDonald's work because he told a rip-roaring yarn. I loved it because he was the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise, and breath-grabbing beauty." 

       Fourth, the adventures must be well written.  MacDonald often criticized what he viewed as "hack" writing, and his own works set a high bar with his clean and spare prose, his eye for detail, and his ear for dialog.  

       With these elements in mind, for those craving a Florida fix, or, more specifically, a Travis McGee fix, there are at least two series that work pretty hard to deliver: The Doc Ford series written by Randy Lee White, and the Thorn series written by James W. Hall. 

       Doc Ford, a retired NSA agent and marine biologist, has been the hero of 21 mysteries written by Randy Lee White, with a 22nd, Cuba Straits, due out this March. The similarities to the McGee stories are striking. Ford is decidedly “off the grid,” living in a stilt house above the water on the gulf coast of Florida and ostensibly making his living by peddling marine specimens to collectors and scientists. His best friend and sidekick (like Meyer, always referred to by a single name) is Tomlinson, a frequently stoned philosopher who lives nearby on a Morgan sailboat (also, in a direct nod to MacDonald, named The Thorstein Veblen).  And the Doc Ford stories invariably contain impassioned takes on the delicate Florida eco structure and the angry rants of a frustrated environmentalist protagonist as he witnesses what is happening to it. 

       Another take on the formula is James W. Hall’s series, featuring the loner Thorn. Thorn is also an environmentally-aware protagonist who lives in a Florida shack built above the water and makes his living tying fishing lures. He is an orphan and a maverick, and is usually aided by his (again, one-name) sidekick Sugarman, a Florida policeman (and, eventually, ex-policeman) who serves as Thorn's verbal sparring partner as they fight various injustices, including the abuses rendered to the Floridian land and sea. 

       Each of these series has its faithful followers, and each is well written. Randy Wayne White has authored over fifty books, fiction and non-fiction, under his own name and several aliases. James W. Hall is both a novelist and an accomplished poet. The reader expects well written prose from these gentlemen and the authors deliver. But having read most of White’s series and the first third of Hall’s, there is still something missing for a reader, such as myself, in search of Travis McGee. Maybe it is the fact that Doc Ford, and (I suspect) Randy Wayne White, at least for me, is a little too right wing for a steady diet. Maybe it’s the fact that entirely too many of the characters in Hall’s series end up dying, and in gratuitous ways unnecessary to the logical progression of the story. 

       But lets face it: criticism is easy. And, by the same token, concocting a riveting tale and telling the tale as well as MacDonald, by contrast, is hard.  It takes a real hand to pull off a Florida series that can be read as a steady diet.  I can’t even do that with Carl Hiaasen's novels. When I have read a few I feel the need to come up for air.  These books, and other Florida capers, are fine as far as they go, but they still pale when compared to the works of John D. MacDonald, in the words of Stephen King “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.” 

The last Travis McGee novel
        It looks like those of us who wondered what ever happened to Scout and Atticus will get our answer this summer, fifty five years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. And now we also have a new Sherlock Holmes story, thanks to that lost Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript.  MacDonald’s fans, of course, arguably have little to grouse about by contrast. The available MacDonald library is far greater than Harper Lee's two books, and McGee, on his own, weighs in with 21 installments. But, still, that has not stopped fans from wishing, and from searching out and then gobbling up similar Florida adventures.    

       For fans of these authors it is not so much how many books were written as it is facing the prospect that there will be no more.  It is that prospect that leaves us overjoyed at the unexpected promise of Go Set a Watchman or that final Sherlock Holmes story, and despairing over the fact that McGee's tale is apparently done.  The response of many of us to the fact that it is all over is a rift on McDonald’s three eternal words:

       “Please, not yet.”

09 February 2015

Harper Lee and Me


By Fran Rizer
Okay, the picture on the left is not current.  It's my very first author photo used by Berkley Prime Crime in 2007.  It's even my natural hair color which is rare because I began experimenting with solutions to get away from being red-haired when I took the city bus downtown and bought my first package of hair dye from Silver's Dime Store at age ten.

Between then and my current "platinum blonde," a product of age and getting tired of touch-ups every few weeks, I've had brunette, auburn,
strawberry blonde, honey blonde, platinum blonde and even a pinkish mauve.  No, I wasn't ahead of the times.  That pink was a big mistake--the result of attempting an at-home color job.

What's the point of telling you all this?  Or to be blunt about it, what the heck does anyone care how many countless times I've changed my hair color?  I'm trying to show you that I've always embraced change.  That is until I signed the contract to release Kudzu River.

My readers were accustomed to the cozyesque Callie Parrish mysteries, and I feared I would offend some of them with Kudzu River, but it was a story I'd felt compelled to tell for years.  It was also a story that Bella Rosa Books, my most recent publisher, would not print because they only publish "family-friendly" writing.  When Odyssey South Publishing, a new southern company, accepted it, I grabbed the chance regardless of the reactions I might receive, but I feared those reactions..



The above quote from Harper Lee sums up what I felt I'd need when Kudzu River was released. I was positive that my usual readers would not like its grittiness and those who liked Kudzu would all be a different population from Callie's fans.  

Speaking of Harper Lee (and who isn't this week?) it ticks me off that this woman, who wrote a classic of our times and has had her one and only book required reading for students for years, has taken more than her share of flak through those years.  Regularly, some critic claimed that Lee's friend Truman Capote must have written To Kill a Mockingbird because anyone who writes that well would have written another one.  Now, "another one" is being released in July.  Reports are that though this book takes place from Scout's pov twenty years later than Mockingbird, it was written first.  The commentator stated that readers will probably be disappointed because Lee had not yet developed her skills when this was written.  I wanted to reach into NPR through my car radio and snatch that man right into the seat beside me so I could demand to know if he's read the coming release.  I'm sure this book will be a smashing success financially, but I don't know how Lee could need the money with the royalties she must receive every year from all those students having to buy Mockingbird. However,  if the coming book is "bad," why, at age eighty-eight, would she want it published? 

This is purely speculation, but perhaps Harper Lee is like so many of us writers less successful than she.  Maybe she just wants to see her first born in print.  Or, thinking like the mystery writer I am at heart, could it be that the manuscript has not been lost all these years as news reports claim?  Did Harper Lee not want this published but was manipulated into it at her advanced age?  I'm hoping to see an interview with her.  If any of you have seen a recent interview with Ms. Lee, please send me a link.

Back to my first born, Kudzu River was begun before the first Callie Parrish mystery, and it has gone through three name changes.  Teacher, Teacher became Red Flag which is now Kudzu River. An established writer who has been on the N Y Times Best Seller list told me years ago (when Teacher Teacher received its first rejection) that nobody's first book sells.  Just count it as "practice."  Instead of shoving it into a drawer and forgetting about it, I've spent years "practicing" on this book.

So far, Kudzu River has four reviews on Amazon, and I love and appreciate every one of them, but here are two from FaceBook that were posted with their full names.  I repeat these because they are from regular Callie readers:

From  Brenda:  Fran Rizer . . . My book review of Kudzu River . . . loved it.  It was my kind of book.  Mystery, murder, and love all entwined together.  I couldn't put it down.  You need to write a Book II.

From Watson:  Just finished reading Fran Rizer's Kudzu River  Can books keep you on the edge of your seat?  This one did==all the way through.  I've read a lot of books--probably thousands.  This is one of the best.

The reviews on Amazon are longer.  I invite you to check them out at Fran Rizer, Kudzu River, Amazon.com.  Also, if you're not familiar with kudzu, check out Youtube, Phil Ruff, "Kudzu video."  He tells all about kudzu in a song that he has authorized us to use in the trailer for Kudzu River.

Until we meet again, take care of . . . you.

Continuing to embrace change, my next book is horror, and I'm currently writing a children's book.




  





18 February 2013

Fast Times


By Fran Rizer



In my youth (a hundred years ago), no young lady wanted to be labeled as "fast," and I wasn't.  Yet, looking back, I did seem to always be in a hurry.  I started school a year ahead, finished high school in three years and my first college degree in three years, which put me in a high school classroom teaching senior English at age nineteen.  The older I grow, the more I realize how truly little I knew back then.

For my newest "baby" to be delivered around October since it's a Christmas story, it needs to be completed by June.  This didn't scare me because books two and three were written and edited in six months each, but it did start me thinking about how long people spend writing a book.



Margaret Mitchell
Margaret Mitchell spent from 1926 to 1934 writing Gone With the Wind, working steadily except for brief periods of discouragement in 1927 and 1934.  Harper Lee devoted three years to producing To Kill a Mockingbird.  More recently, Heidi Durrow says she worked on The Girl Who Fell from the Sky for thirteen years.

Anthony Burgess
What's the other extreme?  Who are the writers who claim to have churned out best sellers in very little writing time? 





Anthony Burgess said that A Clockwork Orange was "knocked off for money in three weeks."  But more impressive than that is the backstory.

In 1959, Burgess was told that he had an inoperable brain turmor and would be dead within a year.  Hoping to provide for his wife after his death, Burgess wrote five novels in the next twelve months. A Clockwork Orange was published in 1962.  Burgess lived another thirty years (died in 1993) and left more than thirty novels.

Mickey Spillane wrote his best seller I the Jury in nine days.  It sold seven million copies in three years.

It's said that The Running Man  took Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) only three nights.  There are some claims though that a lot of it was lifted from previous manucripts King wrote.
Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac's actual writing time for On the Road  is touted to have been three weeks, but he'd spent seven years traveling the USA and making notes.  Another interesting fact about On the Road is that Kerouac wrote it on a 119-foot long scroll of paper so that he didn't have to keep inserting sheets into his typewriter.  The scroll  has been exhibited in museums and libraries around the world.

On the end of the scroll is a note in Kerouac's handwriting.  He states that a cocker spaniel ate the last lines, so no one knows the original final words.  That sounds an awful lot like some Colonel Parker business to me, and if you believe it's the gospel truth, please let me know because I've got a bridge for sale in New York, and I'll give you a real deal on it!

Until we meet again, take care of . .  .you!