where the writers are
Writers on American Masters

I wonder how many people caught the two American Masters programs on PBS recently about two southern women, each of whom only wrote one book:  Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee.  In my locale, they were shown back-to-back for two and a half hours total.  Not only were biographers interviewed, as would be expected, but a good variety of novelists, including Scot Turow and Richard Russo. 

I had many thoughts about these women who stopped at one success.  I read GONE WITH THE WIND in high school, for a book report.  A student who chooses a 1037-page book for a book report is, well, a nerd, I guess, but I really was swept up in this book.  When I got to college, my English 1A TA said that she'd never assign that book because of its politics, which caused me to re-think it.  So it was a surprise to learn that in the last decade of her life, Mictchell was secretly sponsoring scholarships for African American medical students.  We think of an author as having certain views, based on what they've written, but authors are living people and they change, just as everyone does.

The Harper Lee story was also interesting, for quite different reasons.  Apparently TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was orignally more like a set of linked short stories and was turned down by ten publishers.  At its final home, an editor worked with Lee for two years to turn the book into what it became.  Those days are surely gone!  And yet, the editor got nothing for his or her (don't even know the name!) efforts but a presumably modest salary whereas Lee earned enough off that book to live for the rest of her life.  In fact, the point was made that if the book had been less successful, she might have written another.  I wonder, though.  Some people, however gifted, only have one book in them -- that's the truth, although it isn't congenial with the expectations of the publishing world.  Lee was interviewed in 1964 and said she was working on another novel, which never materialized.  Maybe she, too, was caught up in the expectations of publishers and the public.