Questions for Harper Lee on the “Forgotten” Novel and More

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

Just about all of us who put words together for profit or enjoyment (I’m in both camps, but The PRDude blog falls in the latter category, unless of course, there are sponsors out there) probably have contemplated, if not completed, drafting the next “great American novel.”

However “great” is defined.

hlee

Ms. Lee: Me and much of the world have inquiring minds. Can you share a few moments in the near future?

Author Harper Lee accomplished that feat way back in 1960 with the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel set in a small Alabama community in the 1930s.

It was her first and only novel, or so the world thought. And, it won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961.

You might have read “Mockingbird” — I did in 7th grade — and know the plot, and the fact the story was later made into a pretty good film. So, I won’t tread back.

Last week, you also probably read that Ms. Lee — who reportedly has not published any long fiction since “Mockingbird” and likes her privacy — had a sequel laying around somewhere. That work, “Go Set a Watchman,” will be published this July.  Apparently, Ms. Lee didn’t remember that the novel “survived” the decades since her master work became a beloved literary sensation.

This development prompted this fellow writer (please don’t ever refer to me as a “wordsmith” as I find it silly, demeaning, and an insult to real smiths) to pose some questions:

1. Does Ms. Lee, a superb storyteller, observer of pivotal moments in the past century and someone with an obvious command and love of the language, have other non-published forgotten manuscripts besides “Watchman?” Perhaps there’s a worn manila folder stuffed into a dusty cabinet somewhere that’s holding another Harper Lee literary treasure.

2. Are the rights for “Watchman” already being  negotiated to be made into a film? Hey, a cinematic sequel — as well as a prequel — has been done successfully before, especially those involving Jedi knights, Hobbits and Bruce Willis.

3.  And, why has Ms. Lee not been compelled to share thoughts on the beauty and ugliness that shaped our modern world? After all, she divided her time between New York City and her home town of Monroeville.  Surely both places offered the potential for inspiration. Plus, writers … well, write.

Not sure if Ms. Lee and her publisher have secured public relations counsel, but I’d gladly offer my services if called upon.  Full disclosure: I’ve never developed a strategic communications plan for a novel, but I have some experience writing fiction.

In fact, I published “installments” of a short story, “Snapdragons in November,” in this space way back in 2010.  The links below will provide access.

Rest assured: If I earn a Pulitzer for “Snapdragons,” it will not be decades until you hear from me again.

Snapdragons in November, Part IV

What’s a sure sign of spring?  The start of the baseball season.

Today is opening day for Major League Baseball and my beloved Chicago Cubs are already taking it on the chin in Atlanta.   As any baseball fan knows, the Cubs have had their share of public relations nightmares, due in large part to a century and a year drought in winning the World Series.  Ah, but maybe this year.

Regardless, despite the absence of winning the big one, inept play on the field, boneheaded front office decisions and some purported curse caused by a goat, the Cubs remain one of the best brands in all sports.  Sold out crowds at Wrigley Field and lucrative TV contracts attest to that.   Hey, I’d take a public relations job with the Cubs, if for the sake of getting into the ballpark to see a game now and then.

But, for you loyal readers, enough talk of the Cubs.  Here’s the fourth and final installment in my work of fiction, “Snapdragons in November.” Thanks to all who’ve read it; I’d welcome any comments.

The door opened and he could smell the cleansing rain for a moment. A couple, mid-twenties, somewhat reserved and looking slightly rumpled in their torn dark denims and faded leather jackets, took seats to his right. They studied the food menu – burgers, sandwiches and wings, mainly — for what was a long time and scanned the chalkboard that listed the dozens of beers available. He tried to listen to their conversation and heard the guy offer thoughts as why the pale ale was a better choice than the kolsch. The girl, almost pretty in a gaunt way, listened intently.  For some reason, he liked these two. They probably are artists, or want to be artists, but have to work at some crap retail job to afford a one-bedroom flat in one of the buildings that line this once working-class neighborhood on the upswing.  They had conviction, even in ordering a beer and food from a bar menu.

He wanted to talk to them, and find out more about their lives and what brought them together and to Wellington’s on that early Sunday evening in late fall.  He wondered: What will their conversation be about a year, five years from now? Will they find a common bond built upon something so everyday like what kind of beer to drink?  He sort of envied them. Together, life was unfolding and could take any direction they pursued.

Finishing his fifth Metropolitan, he gestured to Sam for a check. “Hey good lookin’. What’s the damage today?” he asked. “It’s time I started dinner. Otherwise I might get to like this place and stay here all night.”

“Don’t wear out your welcome,” she said. “You could walk out of here for sixteen.”

“I always knew you were a cheap date,” he said, leaving a $20 bill and some singles on the bar. “When’s your swan song shift?”

“Oh, you mean when’s my last shift here?”
“Uh huh.”

“Next Sunday.”

“Well, I’ll plan on being here and plan on being thirsty.”

“It’ll be a little emotional, you know?  I’ve been in Chicago for four years, and I’ve been here three years. Tried to make it work here, but I’ve got to put down new roots where I think they’ll have a better chance to grow. Sometimes, you gotta take that first new step.”

“And, I’m ready to step out and navigate my way home. Goodbye for now, California girl. You ain’t seen the last of me,” he said, pushing open the heavy door.

Damn the rain, he thought, walking at a deliberate pace home. Like the old lady said, it washes the bad crap away.  So what if he got wet.  So what if he stayed at Wellington’s longer than he planned.  So what if dinner would be ready a little later.  So what.

He knew she was not home when he unlocked the back door.  The lights were off and the shades were not drawn. The house was dark inside save for the yellow glow from the street lights. It looked warm, welcoming.  And there, on the kitchen counter, were the snapdragons.  She neatly pruned away the nearly dead leaves and blossoms to create a small beautiful monument to the end of a long, long season.  Little bursts of color in a vase against the black counter top.

There was no note, but he knew where she went, off to buy her milk and probably lots more stuff they didn’t need.  Her unpredictable spirit.  That’s part of what defined her, part of what made him fall in love those seemingly simple years and years ago.  There was goodness in her soul, and perhaps he was too inflexible to recognize this.  Perhaps he had better reap whatever good things – big and small – he could gather.

Keeping his wet jacket on, he went back outside in the rain to wait for her to return. He would inspect every car that drove up their street, toward the home they built together, and hope the next car would be her’s. He would rush to help her carry the groceries they didn’t need. He didn’t care how long he had to stand in the rain.

The End

Snapdragons in November, Part III

Wishing all a Happy Easter.  Had a wonderful Easter with the family. The weather was decidedly late May, rather than early April.   Wonder who does public relations for the Easter Bunny?

And, the story continues:

“Hey, dude! I take it you’re thirsty. What can I get you?” Sam, as she was called, asked. Big, blond and buxom, she was closer to his age, so he felt a kinship. Plus, she would listen to his problems, laugh at his stories and slip him a free pint for every three or so he bought.

“What’s my best option?”

“We have this new Metropolitan on tap for four bucks. It’s a pilsner. From Colorado. Otherwise, I can give you two bucks off any 22-ounce bomber in the can.”

“You know my drinking habits by now. If I want to drink beer out of a can, I’ll buy a six pack and sit on my back porch. One Metropolitan, please. And, this time make sure you give me an honest pour, okay? None of that two inches of foam pour crap.”“Okay, wise ass.  Menu?  Or are you cooking tonight?”

“Cooking. Just need beer.”

“Is this game okay, or do you want something else?”

“I don’t care. The Bears’ game is over. They lost. Again.”

He took a sip of the Metropolitan and felt better.  Almost like being cured of some illness. She would come with him sometimes, to Wellingtons.  Ask for a Manhattan or some drink the bartender could not make very well.  Then she’d complain that it wasn’t up to standards. Nothing seemed to be up to her standards anymore. He remembered how the simple things would please her, like standing, hand-in-hand beneath the flowering pear tree and laughing when they were softly pelted by falling petals. That was not too many years ago. That was before their simple lives became complicated by things neither of them could explain.  Some mystery without an answer. Now, now they often acted like children: Arguing over who got to watch the big TV and who got stuck watching TV in the basement. Even when they were together, it felt like they were alone, like semi-polite strangers.

“Hey, deep thinker. Are you ready for round two?” Samantha asked.

“You know my philosophy: One beer is like kissing your sister,” he said. “And I ain’t got no sister.  And, even if I did, I would still want another beer.”

“Well, you know you won’t have me to abuse too much longer,” she said while serving his fresh pint. “I’m moving back to San Diego. Can’t handle another winter here.”

“No shit!,” he said. “Then who’s going to take my abuse on Sunday afternoons?  Will the boss bring back Heather?”
“Ha. Heather? She’s gone back to school. Not sure, but I’ll make sure to put a warning sign out about you.”

“Never thought you cared.  No, really, why would you want to go back to San Diego?  It’s always the same weather there. Nothing ever dies there. It’s always the same. You’ll go nuts.”

“Wrong, man. San Diego gets rain sometimes, like now, in the fall. And you don’t have to shovel that. And, my mom needs me. You know, we didn’t get along so well. With her depression, and all. That’s one reason why I came here. Got to start rebuilding, start finding a way to make things work. I owe her that much, you know. Rather do it someplace where doesn’t snow.  Hey, speaking of rain. It’s starting to rain now.”

The old lady was right. Mild, sporadic rain spattered the sidewalk and cars outside, a sort of crazy backbeat to the indie rock music that filled the bar. He swung his chair toward the window and watched as the rain and darkening sky created a little bit of tranquility, right there on a corner two short blocks from an eight-lane expressway. Why couldn’t everyone find this kind of therapy?  Just divorce yourself from all the bullshit thrown before you and find small comforts.  A few good pints of beer, banter with strangers, the view of a rain-soaked street through the barroom window – these had value to him. Why couldn’t she find some purpose in the common things that pleased him?

The door opened and he could smell the cleansing rain for a moment. A couple, mid-twenties, somewhat reserved and looking slightly rumpled in their torn dark denims and faded leather jackets, took seats to his right. They studied the food menu – burgers, sandwiches and wings, mainly — for what was a long time and scanned the chalkboard that listed the dozens of beers available. He tried to listen to their conversation and heard the guy offer thoughts as why the pale ale was a better choice than the kolsch. The girl, almost pretty in a gaunt way, listened intently.  For some reason, he liked these two. They probably are artists, or want to be artists, but have to work at some crap retail job to afford a one-bedroom flat in one of the buildings that line this once working-class neighborhood on the upswing.  They had conviction, even in ordering a beer and food from a bar menu.

He wanted to talk to them, and find out more about their lives and what brought them together and to Wellington’s on that early Sunday evening in late fall.  He wondered: What will their conversation be about a year, five years from now? Will they find a common bond built upon something so everyday like what kind of beer to drink?  He sort of envied them. Together, life was unfolding and could take any direction they pursued.

Snapdragons in November, Part II

Hello:

I see this effort to promote my fiction as “public relations for myself.” The story continues:

She was petite and frail, but still had purpose and determination in her grey eyes. Baby, a friendly, matted little grey mutt with a consistent limp, was Catherine’s companion. Her children would visit, she said, only because they had to. Baby filled the void in a life that once was filled with people who counted on her. They were alike, woman and dog.  Better times had passed, yet they accepted each day for what it delivered, and did so with quiet dignity.  He couldn’t fathom what would happen if one of them were no longer around.

“Hello,” she said. “Baby, behave.”

“Oh, she’s fine,” he said, petting the dog as she rushed to greet him.
“Did you get your gutters cleaned?” she asked, having seen him negotiating the extension ladder earlier.

“No, I was just caulking a little around one of the windows. I’ll wait until next week before I take care of the gutters. There’s a few more leaves on that big tree on the corner. Some will find my gutters, I’m sure.”

“You’re always working.”
“Keeps me young,” he said, wanting to keep the conversation short.

“Oh, you’re young. You’re young. It’s no fun when you get to my age. Medicare. Waited 30 minutes and the doctor sees me for five minutes. It costs me nothing.  But Baby. Ten minutes at the vet costs me $120! With medicine.”

“Well, I’ll let you and Baby get on with your walk before it gets too dark. She looks like she wants some exercise.”

“She needs to do her business.  She hasn’t been doing her business.”

“Yeah, that’s gotta be tough. Well, I’ll let you continue. Goodbye girl.”

“Hey, do you think it’s going to rain tonight? I heard on the news that it was going to rain.”
“Uh, I don’t know. It is starting to get cloudy out to the west.”

“I think it’s going to rain. Rain is good, you know. Rain washes away all the bad stuff in the air. Everyplace. I like it when it rains.”

“Me too. Well, I’ve got to keep moving. Bye. Bye Baby. Don’t get caught in the rain.”

He turned and watched Catherine and the small, grey dog as they drifted away – measured step by step — in the fading, dying light of that gloriously dismal weekend afternoon.  They defined each other, he thought. They gave each other purpose.

At Wellingtons, the mood was relatively subdued, even with the blaring music by bands he never heard of. He looked for his seat: the seat by the window, and he felt relieved it was unoccupied. Wellingtons was built to be a tavern. It had permanence and it survived the slow, cruel bedlam that drove taverns, bakeries and shops in other parts of the city to surrender the character and idiosyncrasies that defined them. The bar, known as Hanka’s when they bought their modest two-flat a few years before prices soared, was housed in a stone corner building with an apartment above and a few in the back. The back bar was solid oak and featured ornate carved columns made by true craftsmen, Europeans who came here generations before for opportunity and to escape bad conditions, like his grandparents did.  The pride and permanence of their work was preserved for a new generation; but he wondered if the current patrons appreciated the role places like this played in the neighborhood.  At least the new owners, young guys who were smart enough to recognize and seize an opportunity, kept the heart of the place – the beautiful oak bar – intact.  Their changes were generally cosmetic. Across from the bar, a bank of Lava lights and wall of bad art replaced the faded, old metal signs promoting beer brands no longer brewed.

The modest room now was mostly populated by kids a few years beyond legal who escaped small town boredom or the sameness of their suburban split levels. Like him, they found little to like in the more antiseptic taverns and clubs further east, where pounding gentrification took a foothold years and years ago. He liked most of the kids, with their spiky, colored hair, piercings and skinny arms resplendent with blue and red tats. Sometimes he would try engaging them with an anecdote, sometimes he stared at himself in the mirror on the bar back, sometimes he stared out the window across the street at the flowering pear tree, ablaze in color for a few days in May, now stark against the darkening sky.

Gone were the regulars like Butch, Harry, Armando and Joey, tradesmen, bus drivers and retirees who rented the same bar stools day after day to escape for a few hours from the direction life took them.  They stopped coming because the room lost what brought them there in the first place. It evolved, but they refused to. He “inherited” Butch’s window stool because he felt he deserved it. And, it gave him the opportunity to witness the outside, its beauty and its ugliness, unfolding. Sliding into his perch, he flagged down Samantha.

Snapdragons in November, Part 1

Friends and followers:

My two jobs — seeking a new position in public relations and taking on project assignments — have prevented me from devoting a lot of time to the blog.  Only three posts in March (albeit some good ones).  I will return to the subject of this blog soon.

Until then, I kindly ask that you accept — and read — the following original work of fiction.  I will “serialize” this in three or four installments.  Here’s the first.  It’s called “Snapdragons in November,” and it’s, well, fiction.  So I totally made this up.

Snapdragons in November

“What are you doing?” she shouted with measured defiance from the back porch.  “There’s nothing left. It’s all worthless stuff; they’re dead.  Just leave them in the ground and come inside.”

He didn’t turn to reply, as he would have in years past.  Why bother.  The back door slammed shut.  Very definitive.  Very expected.  He kept wasting time with what remained of his perennials, annuals and prairie grasses grown in the thin strips of earth between the fence designed to keep people out and the lawn no one walked on. Pulling and weeding brought satisfaction, especially when there was something left to save, something that still had a little value.

The second weekend of that November was mild, unlike most the other shorter-and-shorter days of autumn in Chicago. November days teased those who grasped for more and more days of shirtsleeve weather, often ushering in the damp, the raw, the waning afternoons of warmth and clear skies.  He relished these days and their maddening potential for temperature swings and schizophrenic precipitation.

Let them bask in their endless pursuit of summer and sun, he thought. That’s why we have jackets and hats and umbrellas.  Bring on the end of the growing season, when nature paints everything monochromatic – all dull browns and grays. Carpets of clouds make even shadows hard to notice, and the dead wet leaves look like they’ve surrendered without a fight.  No beauty to most; raw, silent and serene to him.  The months between harvest and planting gave time to savor and reflect.  There was too little of those ordinary welcomed pursuits when the world is made easy and accessible through a flat screen monitor.

A few perennials in the east flower bed had specks of color left.  Most still stood tall, as they did at their height in July, yet they were brittle and could be snapped in half without much effort.  The snapdragons he planted, they fought a better fight.  She would snip a few during the season, using a paring knife, not the garden shears he bought and hung in the neat row under the porch with the rest of his tools.  The little buds, pastels in purple, orange and yellow, would fill out the small vases she’d set on the toilet tank and on the night stand.  Now, in November, the snapdragons weren’t worthy.

Snapdragons don’t offer a bouquet.  But they give little bursts of color all the time, he maintained.

With shears in hand, he clipped the few remaining stems, making a neat angled cut in order to let the plant take in more water and live longer.  She had locked the back door, so he had to use his key to get in.

“I thought you were going to the bar,” she said as a sort of apology for locking him out.

“Soon,” he said.  “Soon.  Would you like to join me?”

“Will it be smoky in there,” she asked?

“Well,” he said, hoping she’d take the hint and not go, “Yeah, it’ll be smoky if there are people there who smoke.  Samantha will be behind the bar.  She smokes.  It’ll be smoky, yea.”

“You go,” she said.  “I’ve got things to sew.”

“I’ll be back in a while, maybe an hour and a half.  I bought some salmon at the store on Milwaukee Avenue.  We’ll have that, a salad and some roasted potatoes.  Is that okay?”
”Yes.  Fine.  What else did you get at your Milwaukee Avenue store?”

“You know.  Stuff for salads for the week, my ham and turkey for lunches.  The usual stuff I buy.”

“Did you get any milk?’
”No.  I thought you didn’t like their milk.”

“But we’re low on milk!”

“I’m leaving.  Here are some flowers to replace the old ones.  Do what you want with them.”

“Can you go to Whole Foods and get my organic milk?”

Yeah, right, he thought ignoring her question, closing the door. Get in a car and drive two miles at the busiest time of the day for fuckin’ milk.

The sidewalk was empty, save for litter and a few dead leaves, as he headed a block north toward Wellington’s Bar. The last rays of a football Sunday peaked between bare limbs from the honey locust and linden trees people planted in the ‘70s after the elm trees died. He felt alive and walked with purpose, even if the desired result was solace through beer among strangers. Then Catherine and Baby crept from the gangway next to the old house where they lived, for what had to be a long time.