Reclusive author talks to Mail on Sunday for 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, but reporter had to promise not to mention her Pulitzer-winning novel
Along with Thomas Pynchon and the late JD Salinger, Harper Lee is one of the world’s most famous literary recluses. But the author of To Kill a Mockingbird has been tempted out of her self-imposed isolation – by none other than the Mail on Sunday.
Admittedly, Lee – who is now 84 and lives in sheltered housing in her childhood home of Monroeville, Alabama – gave away very little to the reporter, who had to promise not to mention her Pulitzer prize-winning story of racism in the American south, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Thanking the journalist for a box of chocolates, Lee – “dressed in a clean but faded T-shirt and loosely fitting gingham slacks” – said she was “most kind”. “We’re just going to feed the ducks, but call me the next time you are here,” said the author. “We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it.”
To Kill a Mockingbird, which follows the trial of a black man accused of raping a white girl, was first published on 11 July 1960. Named best novel of the 20th century by American librarians, it has sold more than 30m copies around the world and has been translated into more than 40 languages, according to its publisher.
The Mail on Sunday reported that although Lee has been invited to a celebration weekend marking To Kill a Mockingbird’s 50th next month, she will be spending the anniversary in her apartment. The last time Lee spoke to the press was in 2006, when she granted a brief interview to a New York Times reporter at an awards ceremony for a high-school essay contest on the subject of To Kill a Mockingbird.
“They always see new things in it,” Lee said of the students. “And the way they relate it to their lives now is really quite incredible.” Before that, the last time she spoke at length publicly was in 1964 when she told the author Roy Newquist that she “never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird”. “It was like being hit over the head and knocked cold,” Lee said. “I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”
Lee is said to handwrite every interview request she refuses. The author told the New York Times in 2006 that if she were to send out a form response, it would say “Hell, no”.