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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Yes, Novelists Pull From Life.

July 11 marked the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird's release. In honor of that amazing book, I offer a two-part series about the book's impact on me as a writer. (See part two August 12th).

I read an altogether fascinating book entitled Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields. It's a book about the life of novelist Harper Lee. Though, granted, it's frustrating that Shields has no first-hand interaction with his subject, I learned a lot about what went on behind the scenes of my favorite novel.

Here's what surprised me. Nelle Harper Lee wrote a novel based very closely on her life growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. I knew, of course, that Dill was Truman Capote, that Atticus was a prototype of her father, A. C. Lee. But so many other details correspond to the story as well: A character that looked and acted like Nelle's distant, most-likely manic-depressive mother. A poor recluse boy-turned-to-man who was essentially held hostage by his obsessive father (Boo, anyone?). A trial about two black men accused of murder. The similarities are staggering.

And all these years, I felt it wrong to base things so closely to a novelist's life. I don't know why I've thought that. Perhaps I've felt that to truly create a fictional world, one must completely make one up. I suppose that's why it makes sense to me why I am in awe of sci-fi or fantasy writers. They completely make worlds up! Tolkien created his own languages! Now that's creativity.

All my life I've had this deep longing to create things that no one else had created. I couldn't bear writing a story someone else had written. I've been suspicious of all the Joseph Campbell mythic structures. I wanted to do something new. Something never done before. I know now that there is nothing new under the sun. But I also know that what a novelist does is bring herself/himself into the story in a vulnerable, naked way.

It all makes sense now, thanks to Nelle Harper Lee. When Building the Christian Family You Never Had (a non-fiction book released in 2006) came out, I felt naked. Frightened a bit. In that book, I shared the story of my upbringing. Oddly, though, two months later Watching the Tree Limbs came out, and I felt more naked. More exposed. More afraid. Although I had exposed myself through the words of the pioneer parenting book, I felt my soul and heart lived on the pages of my novel.

I used to feel a little annoyed when folks would ask me if I'm Maranatha. I'd say no, of course. Because I want to create something utterly new. But the truth is, Maranatha is a part of me, as I am a part of her. And it comforts me that Miss Lee spilled herself onto the pages of her book; that in a very real sense, she was Scout, telling the story of mockingbirds in the South.

Maranatha is my mockingbird. I've made her breathe and sing and dance. My soul has enlivened hers. What a deep encouragement it is to me that Harper Lee wrote was familiar to her. That her pen ignited the familiar, bringing words to mythic truths on the pages of one of the most influential books of the 20th century.


  1. Dear Mary,

    Thank you for the kind remarks regarding my biography of Harper Lee. I'm especially pleased, however, that her experiences changed your thinking about fiction and autobiography.

    The truth is, stories and novels don't fall like apples into our lap, perfect and ripe. Being a fiction writer is more like being a tailor: taking your "bolt" of experiences and then cut away excess to reveal a pattern-- any pattern you choose. But the cloth is your life. That's all the fundamental material you have to work with. If you do your job well, readers will recognize the pattern you create as one they've seen in their lives, too.


    Charles J. Shields

  2. If we're all honest, there are parts of us in all our characters, I think. And not just us, but family members, friends, etc.

    Wonderful article, Mary. And I love the way Charles equates writing to tailoring. :)

  3. Every story and character I write is to some degree, sometimes miniscule, sometimes great, autobiographical. But the essence or theme of my stories are pulled straight from my soul. I'm always leading my story to a conclusion that I had to have come to myself. It's usually the story I'm writing at the time, which helps me do that.

    Readers get a glimpse into a writer's soul that even the writer's spouse, mother, or even the writer himself might be startled to see.

  4. Charles, I'm so tickled you commented on this post. Thank you. And I love the analogy of cloth. One of the things I teach novelists is that great writing flows from a great heart. We have a responsibility to live well, to grow, to learn because our characters and stories reflect the depth of our own character.

  5. Mary I just caught your post. TKMB is special to me as my mom's family origins are also in Monroeville AL and I visited there several years ago.
    I would love to meet Harper Lee someday to talk to her about writing the story.
    Rumor has it that one of my family members was the model for Boo.

  6. What an amazing post, Mary. Plus the interaction in the comments is quite fun!

    I will stand and argue any day that "To Kill a Mockingbird" is THE Great American Novel. I've loved it since I read it and I love it still.

  7. I saw a segment on Booktv this week on Mary McDonagh Murphy's book SCOUT, ATTICUS AND BOO, and her documentary, HEY, BOO. It was pretty powerful.

    As is the thought of only writing one book, and that one book having such an impact on your time. Can it be that all of our stories are that powerful, if we could only tell them the right way?

  8. I think it is bold and brave to write so much of your story out the way Lee did (and the way you do, Mary). It seems like if you took out any one piece it just would not have been the magical novel that it was. I love Charles' words and now I am anxious to read his book.

  9. I really loved Mockingbird (by Charles Shields). Well researched. Now I want to see the Hey Boo documentary.

    How funny, Pam, about your relative...

  10. Mary,

    Thought you might want to know about this book, written by a friend of a friend, The Mockingbird Parables. It releases August 1 from Tyndale,

    Kathy Harris


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