Sometimes I think Miss Nelle Harper Lee got it right. She certainly got it right the first time when she wrote the perfect novel. She never wrote another one. Her friends and her publisher were exasperated by her refusal to write another book. But her fear that to write another one might take away from the perfection and beauty of To Kill a Mockingbird, especially if it weren’t quite up to snuff, makes perfect sense to me. I’ve often been disappointed by sophomore books by acclaimed first novelists. At best, they were average; at worst, they should have been burned before reaching the publisher. I’m someone who, upon finding a delicious page-turner, eagerly awaits the second and subsequent attempts. Or when I find an established author, will read everything of theirs that I can lay my hands on. It’s very disappointing when the next one falls flat, or fails to hold my interest for not even a paragraph.
Then there are authors who don’t really come into their own until their second or third novel. In this case, I’m thinking of Pat Conroy whose wonderful novel The Prince of Tides is number two on my list. It was actually his fifth novel and, in my opinion, by far his best to date. Anyone who has read Mr. Conroy’s beautiful prose knows that all his works are semi-autobiographical in nature. Sometimes when one has emotional wounds that run deeply, one book can’t contain it all. Writing is an exploration of and, hopefully, a balm for those hurts.
John Grisham is one of the most prolific and successful modern writers, and I confess, I’ve been a huge fan. His first novel was actually A Time to Kill. He shopped it around for a couple of years, getting turned down at all the major publishing houses, before it was picked up by a small publisher and only 5,000 copies were released. All the while he was working on his second novel, The Firm, and with that one, he landed a contract with Doubleday. After it debuted and was such a smashing success, Doubleday bought the rights to his first novel. The rest is history.
We will never know if Harper Lee had another brilliant novel in her, but we can all be thankful that she knew there was the one.
Excerpts from To Kill a Mockingbird:
Miss Maudie Atkinson to Scout: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Atticus to Scout: “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
Excerpts from The Prince of Tides:
The best first sentence(s) ever: “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”
“I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my family’s table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders…..
“When I was ten I killed a bald eagle for pleasure, for the singularity of the act, despite the divine, exhilarating beauty of its solitary flights over schools of whiting. It was the only thing I had ever killed that I had never seen before. After my father beat me for breaking the law and for killing the last eagle in Colleton County, he made me build a fire, dress the bird, and eat its flesh as tears rolled down my face. Then he turned me in to Sheriff Benson, who locked me in a cell for over an hour. My father took the feathers and made a crude Indian headdress for me to wear to school. He believed in the expiation of sin. I wore the headdress for weeks, until it began to disintegrate feather by feather. Those feathers trailed me in the hallways of the school as though I were a molting, discredited angel.
‘Never kill anything that’s rare,’ my father said.
‘I’m lucky I didn’t kill an elephant,’ I replied.
‘You’d have had a mighty square meal if you had,’ he answered.”