I recently wrote about my love for Sarah Dessen, but long before Sarah, another Southern writer came into my life, changing the way I saw literature and writing forever. Her name was Nelle Harper Lee, although back then I only knew her as Harper Lee. It was sophomore year of high school, I think, and we had to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve had many editions of the book since then, but in my mind, it will forever be that paperback edition with the light purple cover and the knot in the tree.
To put it bluntly, I wanted to be Scout. Scrappy, smart, and a little too wise for her own good, she may have been one of the first literary characters that made a real, lasting impression on me. The story was like none other I had ever read. Atticus, standing up for what is right, explaining what courage really is, and why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. Much, much later, when I read that Truman Capote was the inspiration for Dill and Nelle saw herself as Boo, rather than Scout, as I had always thought, the book opened up for me in even more ways, constantly surprising and delighting me.
I read an ARC (advanced review copy) of The Mockingbird Next Door, and even as I read it, was surprised that Nelle had finally let someone in to her secluded life. From everything I had read, she had been overwhelmed by the unexpected fame of writing Mockingbird, and that fame was not what she was after: she simply wanted to write. And yet the public was relentless with its demands, so she stopped. And hid away, just like Boo.
When the letter that Nelle Harper sent out regarding the publication of the perhaps-unauthorized biography was first made public online, someone in the publicity department had somehow managed to overlook the fact that Nelle’s mailing address was printed on her letterhead. In fact, I had to look at the screen multiple times, making sure I wasn’t seeing things wrong, because for an author who had famously guarded her privacy all these years, I was pretty sure she wouldn’t be too thrilled to know that her PO Box number was now on the internet.
But I will admit – I took down the address. I don’t have it anymore, because I wrote it down on the envelope I mailed to her. I figured this was my only chance to tell her how much her writing had guided and influenced me over the years, and how she as a person is someone I admire. I apologized for bothering her, and kept the letter short and sweet. In a moment of literary fangirl weakness, I shared with her that if I ever have a daughter, I plan to name her Harper Grace. I’ve wanted to name my child Harper since reading Mockingbird, and after reading certain biographical anecdotes about the author, I feel even more strongly about it. I’m sure she’s received thousands upon thousands of such letters, but I had to send it. The next day, when I looked on the website that had printed her letter, the address was missing.
I know she likely won’t read it, nor will it ever be read to her. But I hold out hope, and one day in the future, perhaps I will sit down with my daughter and say, “You know, the craziest thing happened – I wrote a letter once to one of my favorite authors. Let me tell you how you got your name…”